Adria International Raceway near Venice, Italy, is a safe but dull racetrack in the point-and-squirt idiom, with lots of tight corners connected by short straights and all the character of a spatula. Making matters worse, the two stretches along which I could theoretically keep my right foot planted long enough to liberate some endorphins have been Mickey Moused into low-speed slaloms marked with orange pylons. Oh, and to make sure that I don't go too fast, I'm ordered to parade around the track behind an instructor, no passing allowed. "And don't slow down so you can have some fun," he says in his thick German accent, "because I'll just slow down until you catch up."
A safety fascist is the last person you'd expect to be working for Porsche. Then again, the particular Porsche I'm here to sample-the 911 GT3, the latest iteration of what's arguably the world's greatest sports car-isn't likely to be found in Ralph Nader's driveway. Some relevant numbers: 415 hp, a top speed of 192 mph, and a price of $106,000, stripped. Although the car was designed to achieve racing-car performance in a street-legal package, Porsche isn't looking to set any lap records this afternoon. No, job one is to prevent any idiots-uh, that would be me and five fellow gentlemen of the press-from wrecking any of its precious pre-production cars. Hence, this intensely unsatisfying game of follow-the-leader on a glorified autocross circuit.
After ten minutes of manfully resisting the temptation to straight-line the slalom and blow past the instructor, I fall back to create a gap in traffic. Power setting on. Active suspension set to stiff. Traction control off. Mat the throttle. Hang on for dear life. Nearly 300 lb-ft of torque squashes me against the form-fitting carbon-fiber race seat. As I approach a left-hander, I relax pressure on the gas pedal to load the nose, then turn in and go hard on the throttle. The right rear tire squirms on the rumble strip, but the gargantuan, ridiculously soft Michelins-at this rate, they should last about, oh, forty-five minutes-generate insane levels of grip, and the car practically leaps off the corner.
Almost before I can register it, the upshift light flashes. Third gear, and now the 3.6-liter flat-six really starts motoring. One second, the brake markers are way off in the distance. The next, they're flashing past at a manic clip. I nail the brakes, and the pads bite into the colossal carbon-ceramic rotors-an $8840 option, by the way. The pedal pulsates as the ABS deals with the ripples in the brake zone, but the car bleeds off speed so fast that it seems to smear itself against the pavement. The exhaust barks when I blip the throttle on downshift, and the chassis rotates neatly as I trail-brake into the next corner. The whole experience is so much like a racing car that I can hardly believe the GT3 can be legally-and happily-driven on city streets. But that, of course, is the point.
The GT3 is the road-going basis of the world's most popular race car (more than 1000 have been built since 1998). That makes it the pinnacle of the Porsche production-car pyramid as well as the homologation special that justifies the existence of the GT3 racing car. The secret to its split personality is Porsche Active Suspension Management, or PASM, which allows drivers to alter the dynamic character of the car by pushing a button to modify the shock valving of the three-way adjustable Bilsteins. "You can never be happy with one setup for both the road and the racetrack," Hartmut Kristen, Porsche's director of motorsport, says from the pit wall while Walter R"hrl rockets past in a screaming yellow GT3. "With PASM, we don't have to compromise."
It's no coincidence that Porsche's motorsports honcho and a two-time World Rally Champion helped develop the GT3. Unlike the Ferrari Enzo, the Bugatti Veyron, and the Porsche Carrera GT, the GT3 isn't an exercise in corporate ego and wretched excess. Nor is it a car whose fundamentally uninspiring qualities have been overcome with heroic surgery, such as the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, the Chevrolet Cobalt SS, and various AMG Mercedes-Benzes. The GT3 is the 911 pared down to its essence. As such, it embodies the very soul of Porsche, a company that considers motorsports not merely a marketing strategy but a corporate imperative.
The first Porsche ever built won its first race a month after it was finished. The company established its bona fides during the 1950s with a series of giant-killing sports racers and burnished its image during the '70s with a string of ground-pounding, twelve-cylinder prototypes. Motor racing is so deeply rooted in the company's heritage that the 911 Carrera-the quintessential version of the quintessential Porsche-takes its name from the Spanish word for "race."
The GT3 is the spiritual descendant of the iconic 911 Carrera RS, the pared-down, pumped-up version of the 911 that served as the homologation basis for the Carrera RSR racing car. By the same token, the modern GT3 is the street version of the GT3 Cup car, which competes in international Supercup races and numerous national series. This fall, Porsche will launch an upgraded road car called the GT3 RS, and this, in turn, will be the homologation model for next year's GT3 RSR. To further confuse matters, the GT3 RSR will compete at Le Mans in the GT2 class. Don't mind the alphabet soup. Just think of the four models of GT3 as great, greater, greatest, and way out of your league.
Here in the States, most Cup cars race in Porsche club events and the IMSA-sanctioned GT3 Cup Challenge. This year's first IMSA event, a support race held before the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring, drew forty entries. (The enduro had only thirty-five.) Although the rules require all drivers to be amateurs, most cars are prepped to a professional standard, complete with gaudy graphics and trackside support. Arrive-and-drive weekends run about $25,000. If car ownership is your thing, the MSRP is $131,000, plus a $9000 spares package. Believe it or not, that's a sweetheart deal. "I couldn't build a car for that much. There's no way," says Dennis Aase, who prepared four of the cars that raced at Sebring. "Even if I started with a wrecked car, it would cost at least $175,000."
Porsche Motorsport North America president Uwe Brettel, the mastermind behind the series, sees it not as a moneymaker but as a marketing tool. "For sure, we could have made $20,000 more per car. But what for?" he says. "We are not out to make the maximum profit. We race because it's the best way to promote the road car. The link between the road car and the racing car is integral."
The first roadgoing version of the GT3 was built in 1998, but it wasn't exported to the United States. We weren't deemed worthy until 2003. At the time, the GT3 was based on the 996 platform. This, the first of the water-cooled 911s, sold well by Porsche standards. But with plenty of styling cues and mechanical components shared with the d,class, Boxster, it never got the love from Porschephiles. The more highly regarded 997 debuted for the 2005 model year, and the new GT3 is the first GT3 to be derived from it.
The GT3 starts life as a Carrera 4 body-in-white on the production-car assembly line in Zuffenhausen. The space devoted to the front axle in the four-wheel-drive model is used to hold a 23.7-gallon fuel tank, and some structural modifications are made to accommodate the new engine, transmission, and oil reservoir. Thanks to the aluminum trunk lid and doors, not to mention a host of other weight-saving measures, the GT3 weighs in at 3076 pounds.
Riding low to the ground on one-piece, nineteen-inch aluminum wheels, the GT3 oozes the bad-boy cool of a channeled custom, and what with all the ducts-for brake cooling, ram-air engine intake, and aerodynamic efficiency-it carries more scoops than an ex-hippie manning the counter at Ben & Jerry's. The adjustable rear wing, meanwhile, is big enough to turn heads at a NOPI import drag race. Porsche claims the integrated Gurney flap generates 55 pounds of downforce. The only problem is that you have to be sailing along at a speed of at least 186 mph to suck up every last ounce.
The cockpit layout is standard 911, which is to say smart, stylish, and comfortable, tastefully upgraded with Alcantara for the steering wheel, gearshift lever, and assorted interior surfaces. Air-conditioning, a CD player, and six air bags are standard; a nav system is optional. The carbon-fiber seats (and bolt-in roll cage) won't be offered in the States, but, frankly, the highly supportive standard seats make more sense for everything short of track-day shenanigans.
The ignition key is in the standard Porsche location, left of the steering column, but I realize something's up as soon as I crank it. Not only is the engine throatier than usual, but it also idles with a dragster stumble. To withstand the stresses of racing, each cylinder head is cast integrally with three cylinders, then bolted to a split crankcase housing an eight-bearing crank. Racing applications also justify dry-sump lubrication and exotic weight-saving components-titanium rods, forged pistons, sodium-filled valves, and hollow-cast camshafts.
The progressive clutch makes pulling away from stoplights a snap, and the car is docile in traffic. The ride is harsh even with the PASM set to soft, but it's by no means a deal breaker. At 4200 rpm, the engine note abruptly changes character from domesticated animal to feral beast as the butterflies open in the trick exhaust and route gases directly to the muffler. From there to the 8400-rpm redline, the GT3 just pulls and pulls and pulls and pulls. The super-short ratios of the transmission add to the racing-car sensation. The slightly notchy six-speed manual-the sequential gearbox is reserved for the race model-requires authoritative inputs, but it's perfect for high-speed work. Porsche claims a 0-to-60-mph time of 4.3 seconds and 0 to 100 mph in 8.7 seconds, and I'm a believer.
During a brief joy ride along the serpentine mountain roads outside Verona, I realize that the feel of the gearbox is symptomatic of the GT3's personality. This is a car that demands a firm hand, that goes better when it's driven harder. At five-tenths, it's just an expensive conveyance. But as you approach the limit, it hunkers down and corners with astonishing aplomb. The bliss quotient rises even higher when I punch the Sport button, which not only recalibrates the dampers to racetrack stiffness but also boosts engine output by 14 hp and 11 lb-ft of torque.
But public roads aren't the right place to wring out a car, and neither is a makeshift autocross circuit. Fortunately, I get a thrill ride on the Adria racetrack with R"hrl, who calmly slides the GT3 around hairpins, bounces over curbs, and generally has his way with the car. The big surprise is that he doesn't bother to turn off the traction control system, which folds automatic brake cifferential, automatic slip control, and engine drag control into a single unit. "The car has so much grip that it doesn't really make a difference," he claims.
Even with R"hrl at the wheel, the GT3 isn't as precise and transparent as a racing car. But it's a formidable track-day weapon out of the box. Besides PASM, the GT3 is designed to permit dozens of mechanical suspension adjustments, and gear ratios can be swapped with relative ease. "Three-quarters of our GT3 customers say they use their cars on a regular basis for track days and club events," Kristen explains.
And honestly, that's what the GT3 is built for. On the street, it lacks the visual drama and cultural cachet to justify the premium over a run-of-the-mill 911. Only on the racetrack can it express itself. And it won't be too shabby getting you there and back.