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."