Club 700

Ex­plor­ing Our Gilded Age of Power in Three of the World’s Best Su­per­cars

Automobile - - Contents - By Zach Bow­man

It used to be the ex­clu­sive do­main of race cars and in­sane hand-built ma­chines with blow­ers tow­er­ing above the hood. But VIP ac­cess to an ex­clu­sive club where

700 horse­power is the price of ad­mis­sion has re­cently been granted to pro­duc­tion cars like the Chevro­let Corvette ZR1, McLaren 720S, and Porsche 911 GT2 RS. We un­leash these high-horse he­roes to find out what they’re all about.

NNASHVILLE IS NO stranger to spec­ta­cle, a place that serves as a mecca to rhine­stone-gilt pop-coun­try singers and out­laws alike. The town, and its neon-laced Broad­way District in par­tic­u­lar, has seen ev­ery­thing but this: three of the most pow­er­ful pro­duc­tion cars for sale to­day, all in a tidy row.

There’s nearly three-quar­ters of a mil­lion dol­lars’ worth of car­bon fiber and forced in­duc­tion be­tween us, bet­ter than 2,100 horse­power split among the three. The Broad­way crowd couldn’t get enough of them, tak­ing photos and video, cheer­ing and beg­ging for any one of us to be delin­quent enough to snap a throt­tle open and let our mir­a­cle en­gines shriek above the blar­ing honky-tonks. When we in­evitably obliged, all eyes for two blocks were on us, the cheers nearly as loud as the drums and gui­tars spilling from ev­ery open bar. Be­hold the mad, re­al­ity-dis­tort­ing power of these three go­liaths of au­to­mo­tive en­gi­neer­ing: the Porsche 911 GT2 RS, Chevro­let Corvette ZR1, and McLaren 720S.

These are the stan­dard bear­ers for the new fron­tier of per­for­mance. There are more ma­chines sur­pass­ing 700 horse­power for sale to­day than ever be­fore, even now, as elec­tri­fi­ca­tion and reg­u­la­tion con­spire to snuff out pis­ton-driven au­to­mo­biles al­to­gether. But a hand­ful of man­u­fac­tur­ers are com­mit­ted to press­ing the in­ter­nal com­bus­tion engine re­lent­lessly for­ward in a heroic and dumb and per­fectly hu­man ges­ture. None of these ma­chines will give your mind the half sec­ond it takes to send a curse to your lips. Each has a way of con­sum­ing men­tal band­width and as­phalt in equal pro­por­tion, gath­er­ing them un­til you’re forced to choose be­tween re­mem­ber­ing to breathe or brake. That’s what hap­pens when there’s 700 or more horse­power teth­ered to your big toe, when the bolt to 60 mph takes less than 3 sec­onds, and when 150 mph snaps past in a blink.

We spent three days in these cars. Three days rip­ping around the gor­geous and twist­ing as­phalt south of Nashville, hunt­ing out per­fect, lonely two-lane apexes and ragged ridge sides try­ing to wrap our minds around these ma­chines. At times they didn’t seem real, but rather a fan­tasy dreamt of across decades, an un­re­al­is­tic vi­sion of per­for­mance not long ago re­served for true rac­ing sports cars. Per­for­mance lev­els and ex­pe­ri­ences that for most of the au­to­mo­bile’s his­tory were off lim­its to all but of­fi­cially li­censed pro­fes­sional race driv­ers, those tal­ented men and women who were at times left grasp­ing for ways to ex­plain to the rest of us just what true speed is all about.

To that end we stopped at the Na­tional Corvette Mu­seum’s Mo­tor­sports Park (MSP) in Bowl­ing Green, Ken­tucky. It’s not a track that for­gives trans­gres­sions. The full course shoves 23 turns into 3.15 miles, the as­phalt a rip­pling rib­bon that works its way up and over the rolling coun­try­side. Blind crests and close bar­ri­ers mean a mis­take might cost you more than some body pan­els. But where else can you get to know the up­per ca­pa­bil­i­ties of cars like these? Their lim­its are so far be­yond the bounds of pub­lic-road le­gal­ity that to ex­plore even some small frac­tion of them re­quires the free­dom only an open track pro­vides.

Ta­lent re­mains part of the equa­tion too, and it’s why we asked our pro driver, Andy Pil­grim, to join us. Con­ve­niently, Pil­grim lives in Bowl­ing Green and spends plenty of time at the NCM track in his role there as a busi­ness de­vel­op­ment con­sul­tant. If any­one could show us the quick­est way around the place, he could.

THE GT2 RS IS THE SHARPEST

POINT OF THE MODEL’S HIS­TORY, THE NO­TION OF A 911 DRAWN OUT TO ITS

WILDEST FULFILLMENT.

It was 80 de­grees at 8 a.m., the mid­sum­mer hu­mid­ity a heavy ex­hale on our skin. Aes­thet­i­cally, the cars could not be more dif­fer­ent. The 911 GT2 RS might be the sleeper of the bunch de­spite its wild, ex­posed car­bon-fiber wing, fender vents, and NACA ducts. The car is gor­geous, but only in the way that all 911s are. To any­one un­fa­mil­iar with the smat­ter­ing of letters and num­bers stuck to the doors and tail, it might sim­ply look like an­other Porsche. That’s a shame, be­cause as of this mo­ment, it is the sharpest point of the model’s his­tory, the no­tion of a 911 drawn out to its wildest fulfillment.

The GT2 RS is more than that blis­ter­ing engine, a mod­i­fied ver­sion of the 3.8-liter twin-turbo flat-six found in the 911 Turbo S. Larger tur­bos, more boost, a unique in­take, and new pis­tons help pro­duce 700 hp and 553 lb-ft of torque, but less ob­vi­ous tricks bor­rowed from Porsche’s mo­tor­sports arm make the car a func­tional weapon. Steel ball joints in place of the usual rub­ber sus­pen­sion bush­ings through­out, dy­namic engine mounts,

and con­trol arms robbed from the 911 GT3 RS help make all that power us­able. And mas­sive Miche­lin Sport Cup 2 R tires, es­sen­tially the same com­pound as the Corvette wore. The rears are 325/30-R21, the ex­act size as found on Porsche’s hyper 918 Spy­der.

If the GT2 RS ap­pears fa­mil­iar, the 720S looks and sounds like the fu­ture. Low and tidy with beau­ti­ful, or­ganic curves, it is not os­ten­ta­tious or brash in the way so many su­per­cars are. Dipped in our tester’s dark blue paint, it reeks in­stead of quiet com­pe­tence, an im­pres­sion that’s only un­der­scored by its 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 with 710 hp and 568 lb-ft, num­bers that help give it the best power-to-weight ra­tio of the three. It is a ma­chine that has noth­ing to prove— un­til it’s time to prove it.

The ZR1 is a shout by com­par­i­son, its tall, vented hood hid­ing a 6.2-liter su­per­charged V-8 good for 755 hp and 715 lb-ft. In this group of ham­mers, this is the sledge. And with its wild, ca­nard-laden fas­cia and tow­er­ing rear wing, it wants ev­ery­one within a city block to know it. It needs the power. At 3,560 pounds, the ZR1 weighs 319 pounds more than the Porsche and is heav­ier than the McLaren by 432. The fact it is here at all is a marvel. Chevro­let has made a habit of punch­ing above its weight with the Corvette, but this car takes that Amer­i­can no­tion to a new plane. As equipped, it costs less than half of ei­ther of its more svelte ri­vals.

As we watched from the flag tower, Pil­grim lit the Chevy’s fuse, the V-8 snap­ping at the sky like glory as he ran out the half-mile straight. By Turn 10, the car’s haz­ard lights were flash­ing. It wasn’t un­til he re­turned to the pits that we fig­ured out why. The re­peated, abrupt change in lat­eral g force was enough to trick the car’s OnS­tar sys­tem into think­ing Pil­grim had col­lided with some­thing. He spent the lap yelling over the scream­ing ex­haust, try­ing to con­vince the nice lady on the other end of the line that he was just fine, all while on his way to a lap of 2:08.77. The time was still ex­cep­tion­ally fast con­sid­er­ing the am­bi­ent tem­per­a­ture was now in the 90s, and it landed the ZR1 smack be­tween the GT2 RS and 720S. Pil­grim had, weeks be­fore, set MSP’s of­fi­cial pro­duc­tion car track record of 2:05.59 in a dif­fer­ent ZR1; he put the time dif­fer­ence on this run down to see­ing lower speeds on the straights, most likely due to the tem­per­a­ture be­ing 35 de­grees hot­ter, and this test car’s au­to­matic trans­mis­sion not al­ways giv­ing him the lower gears he wanted. (He set the lap record in a man­ual-gearbox car.)

The Porsche recorded the fastest time, an im­pres­sive 2:05.92, just more than 0.3 sec­ond off the lap record. The GT2 RS’ power was seem­ingly un­af­fected by the bru­tally hot con­di­tions, thanks in part to its sys­tem that sprays the in­ter­cool­ers with cool­ing wa­ter.

On this day, the McLaren set the slow­est lap of the three, for sev­eral rea­sons. First, Pil­grim only had a chance to do one timed lap, 2:12.06, be­fore a thun­der cell rolled over the hori­zon, the only thing more pow­er­ful for miles. Ad­di­tion­ally, in the 720S Pil­grim felt a lack of aero­dy­namic down­force com­pared to both the Chevro­let and the Porsche, which are sim­i­lar to each other in terms of their down­forceto-speed ra­tio. The 720S also sports nar­rower wheels and tires, which re­sult in al­most 20 per­cent less rub­ber on the road. Plus, this par­tic­u­lar car’s tires were the less sticky Pirelli P Zero Cor­sas, not the op­tional Pirelli Tro­feo R tire. The harder tires alone prob­a­bly gave away 2 sec­onds or so to its play­mates, es­pe­cially at a place like MSP, which fea­tures nu­mer­ous long, sweep­ing turns. Pil­grim be­lieved the 720S would run close to the ZR1’s time with the stick­ier tires; even on the Cor­sas, he would have prob­a­bly clocked a 2:10 if he’d had a chance to run a sec­ond hot lap.

The lap times, though, are ir­rel­e­vant to the fun. With the three cars claw­ing and rip­ping their way around cor­ners, it was hard to tell what was thun­der and what was a down­shift, the bark of both echo­ing off of the build­ings be­hind us.

These cars are the me­chan­i­cal deep end, and with that in mind, I belted into the ZR1. From the driver’s seat, the only in­di­ca­tion you’re in some­thing other than a stan­dard C7 Corvette is the tow­er­ing hood ris­ing up from the cowl and turn­ing the wind­shield into a thin slit. It’s like look­ing at the scenery from be­tween the folds of a ban­dana—the out­law’s view. On the track, Turn 3 opens up into a long straight, fol­lowed by an easy right, and the sight of that wide road was too much temp­ta­tion. I planted the throt­tle, the su­per­charger got busy cram­ming Ken­tucky air into those eight ea­ger cylin­ders, and the world cracked wide.

The thrust was eye-widen­ing and lun­gar­rest­ing, a brief mo­ment of trac­tion loss fol­lowed by an erup­tion. I was upon the right-han­der in a blink, pos­i­tive I’d over­cooked the thing. I tucked in any­way, and by the grace of Gen­eral Mo­tors, the car obliged. That’s the real mir­a­cle of the ZR1. It’s not some knuckle-drag­ging hot rod. It’s sim­ply more Corvette in ev­ery way. There’s more power. More grip. The mas­sive car­bon-ceramic brake ro­tors have no prob­lem bring­ing the ma­chine back to sane speeds af­ter dip­ping a toe into the car’s lu­di­crous ac­cel­er­a­tion. But there’s the sense that this is the Corvette pulled taut, all of the per­for­mance Chevy can pos­si­bly squeeze from the plat­form. This tester’s op­tional eight-speed au­to­matic trans­mis­sion de­liv­ers quick shifts, but they some­times lack the im­me­di­acy this engine de­serves, and the gearbox, as Pil­grim noted, doesn’t al­ways yield the re­quested shift, es­pe­cially when tem­per­a­tures are blaz­ing hot. Both the 720S and the GT2 RS ben­e­fit from seven-speed dual-clutch gear­boxes.

Wher­ever you might choose to un­cork these devils, the down­force lev­els—un­til rel­a­tively re­cently not some­thing sig­nif­i­cant when dis­cussing road cars—are a more im­por­tant vari­able to con­sider. The GT2 RS ar­rived in its most ag­gres­sive aero­dy­namic con­fig­u­ra­tion, the same one it used to blis­ter the Nür­bur­gring on its way to the pro­duc­tion car lap record (a lap of 6:47.3, bested just weeks ago by a Lam­borgh­ini Aven­ta­dor SVJ at 6:44.9), and at 124 mph it gen­er­ates 313 pounds of down­force. That’s more than dou­ble what the present

THESE AREN’T WILD RA­BID DOGS. THEY ARE PLAYFUL BIG CATS, HAPPY TO HAVE THEIR BEL­LIES RUBBED, BUT WITH FANGS AS LONG AS YOUR MID­DLE FIN­GER.

911 GT3 man­ages, and on a quick lay­out, it mat­ters. Like a race car, the faster the GT2 RS goes, the stick­ier it gets.

It was a strange thing to step from the Corvette to the 911. The ZR1 is fast around a track, but it re­quires a cer­tain amount of dar­ing from the gam­bling end of your lizard brain. The GT2 RS is a wicked en­abler, ef­fort­lessly quick. Swing­ing the car through NCM’s de­creas­ing-radius, of­f­cam­ber chal­lenge of Turn 6 at what I thought was the up­per limit of ad­he­sion, the Porsche strolled through with­out so much as a twitch of its wide hips. Given the lack of an engine over its front axle, the steer­ing is de­li­cious and im­me­di­ate. The brakes, also car­bon ce­ram­ics, have nearper­fect pedal feel. The power is one long, zeal­ous pull, free of the peak and twitch that earned this car’s old 930 pre­de­ces­sor its dark nick­name: Witwen­macher. Widow maker. It all com­bines to cre­ate the most con­fi­den­cein­spir­ing ma­chine of the lit­ter, whether you drive it on a pub­lic road or a closed course. Who­ever imag­ined say­ing such a thing about a 700-hp, rear-drive 911?

The only thing that could pry me from the Ger­man’s seat through­out our three days of Ken­tucky and Ten­nes­see tour­ing and rag­ing was the prom­ise of the 720S. Of all the brazenly ca­pa­ble cars on hand, the McLaren is the least ortho­dox. Its cock­pit is open and airy, and the wind­screen wraps around you like a bub­ble that sits as far to the cen­ter of the ve­hi­cle as pos­si­ble. As for the track, Pil­grim of­fered a word of ad­vice: “It doesn’t have the grip of the other two.”

Nor should it, due to the less gooey rub­ber and lower down­force. But these tires are per­fect for this car. Of the three, none ex­e­cutes the sense of speed as well as the 720S. The world wraps past the big, open wind­shield in a blur, the gasp and thrust of the engine in your ear. And it’s playful be­cause it isn’t welded to the pave­ment, slid­ing and danc­ing around its per­fect cen­ter, a gift of that mi­dengine lay­out. Turn 19 is a nail-biter, an off-cam­ber drop into what’s af­fec­tion­ately called The Sink­hole. The road sim­ply falls away. It’s a tricky bit to man­age for any car, but

the 720S made it the most hi­lar­i­ous part of the track. Sim­ply point the nose with your toe, dive down, and ride up the other side. If roller coasters were this fun, Dis­ney World would have a line all the way to Ge­or­gia.

Most as­tound­ing is how quickly the cars coaxed us into real speed. These aren’t wild hares or ra­bid dogs. They are playful big cats, happy to have their bel­lies rubbed but with fangs as long as your mid­dle fin­ger and jaws strong enough to crush your skull. It’s in­cred­i­ble. As much as purists love to rant and rail against the heed­less press of tech­nol­ogy, the mi­cro­pro­ces­sor is a god­send in these cars. Ex­quis­ite trac­tion and sta­bil­ity con­trol not only make each of them wield­able but also make them faster. There might be no bet­ter dis­play of just what can be ac­com­plished by the mar­riage of man and ma­chine.

That’s why none of us thought twice about point­ing the cars south for a run to Nashville and a day of romp­ing around the wind­ing two-lanes south of town. There, gun­ning down Natchez Trace or wind­ing our way out to­ward the small town of Franklin, Ken­tucky, the cars showed them­selves ever more im­pres­sive. Even with its buck­board spring rates, thin glass, and light­weight car­pet­ing, the GT2 RS proved ac­cept­ably civil, thanks in part to its ac­tive dampers and switch­able sport ex­haust. There are com­pro­mises to be made, for sure, start­ing with the front trunk. Porsche hides the reser­voir for the in­ter­cooler wa­ter sprayer up there, and on our hot day, there was enough con­den­sa­tion up front to soak one of our bags. Such is the price of dom­i­nance.

This trio should feel un­der­whelmed by le­gal speeds, but that’s not what we found what­so­ever. Each is a joy to spit through traf­fic or waltz up a coun­try by­way. Out there, the 720S came into its own. If it is a good and fun track car, it is a bliss­ful street car. Light and playful even at posted speed lim­its, it feels like real progress, how those of a cer­tain age hoped cars would be when they gazed to­ward 2018 from the dim hori­zon of child­hood. The car is also oc­ca­sion­ally in­fu­ri­at­ing, with cabin con­trols that seem to have been de­signed by some­one who has never seen or in­ter­acted with a hu­man form. Ba­sics like ad­just­ing a seat, tweak­ing a mir­ror, or even putting the car in park re­quire the sort of se­cret hand­shake that typ­i­cally con­spires to make you look like a dope in front of on­look­ers. But we cared less and less with each shriek, nod, thumb­sup, or blink-freez­ing gaze de­liv­ered by seem­ingly ev­ery other per­son the McLaren en­coun­tered.

The ZR1, mean­while, was made to con­sume miles. In Tour­ing mode, the ex­haust is near silent, the mag­net­i­cally con­trolled sus­pen­sion com­pli­ant enough to make ex­pan­sion joints van­ish, and the hatch so

cav­ernous as to de­vour a week’s worth of lug­gage. If there is a car more ca­pa­ble of sur­pass­ing the 200-mph mark that’s more com­fort­able, we’d very much like to meet it. And its top comes off. When the re­lent­less sun fi­nally gave way to a cool dusk, we ditched the roof panel and pointed the nose to­ward glit­ter­ing Broad­way, the per­fect coda to the in­san­ity of three days in three 700-plus-horse­power weapons, three horse­men of the horse­power apoc­a­lypse gal­lop­ing to­ward their own end times.

We washed in drunken whoops from men with ink up their arms and Jack Daniel’s in their blood. We bathed in shy smiles from young ladies in short sum­mer dresses and tall cow­boy boots. At stop­lights, peo­ple wan­dered up, want­ing to learn ev­ery­thing they could be­fore the sig­nal turned green—who makes it, how fast it goes—and want­ing to hear those en­gines sing. Ev­ery­one we met loved the cars, and why shouldn’t they? These rep­re­sent the best hu­man­ity can do, the cur­rent peak of our per­for­mance as a species. They are uni­fy­ing in the same way fa­mous ath­letes are uni­fy­ing, proof that we are ca­pa­ble of great and lu­di­crous things. Proof that logic has not yet stran­gled the bright and beau­ti­ful from us. AM

Once upon a time, cars like these were at home only on the track. Notso nowa­days.

Ex­tract­ing max­i­mum per­for­mance re­quires a max­i­mum driver, seen here get­ting ready to en­gage the af­ter­burn­ers.

Three cars, and three philoso­phies— front engine, mid engine, and rear engine— prove equally thrilling at speed.

We added wa­ter to the 911’s reser­voir as needed thenhit Broad­way and felt plenty cool our­selves.

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