The scorched main straight at Willow Springs is, for once, dotted with shallow puddles, and the new Porsche 911 GT3 RS kicks up a thin haze of water as it howls over the starting line. It’s been freezing cold and pouring rain in the desert for most of the day, but the clouds finally burned off an hour ago, and the wind whipping across the track quickly dried the surface. Pools of water on the straight are steaming in the sun, and professional driver Randy Pobst reports the track is almost perfect for lap times.
McLaren flew out two engineers and a racing driver from the U.K. for this showdown; they take it seriously, and so far it’s paying off. The 600LT—a 2019 Automobile All-Star—has already blitzed the Porsche in wet conditions due to some clever tire strategy. Can it hold the advantage now that both cars are on their ultimate track-focused rubber, the Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R and Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2R, respectively?
This is the culmination of four days of filming for “Head 2 Head” (check it out on MotorTrend OnDemand). Although it shouldn’t matter what lap time a professional race car driver can wring out of these machines around a racetrack, well, it really does. You or I may have no hope of ever matching that time, but if you just dropped more than $200,000 on a track-day hero, you would probably like to know it’s quicker than the other track-day heroes available at a similar price, right? One thing’s for sure: It matters to the McLaren guys. We’ve already dynoed these cars and discovered the 600LT has more than an additional 100 hp at the wheels than the Porsche. We weighed them, too. Another victory for the carbon-fiber wedge: It’s nearly 150 pounds lighter.
You might not expect us to say this, but this is good news. We wanted to load the dice against Porsche for once. The company has a habit of winning, you see. The same is true of magazine tests, but the sheer attrition of a video shoot only heightens the strengths Porsche so often demonstrates. This is the showdown where a Porsche might finally lose.
So why do Porsches in general—and 911s in particular—always perform so strongly? It’s a math thing. Video simply takes a lot longer to capture than stills. That means more seat time (great for us) and more time ripping up the same piece of closed road at maximum attack, hauling on the brakes, turning around, and doing it all over again. Endurance is almost as important as the absolute peaks of performance. Porsche is pretty good at endurance.
It’s the same at the track. We need to get the times first and foremost, but illustrating that on video means completing dozens more laps, emergency stops, and, obviously, getting the time-honored sideways shots in the bag. It’s punishing for the cars, sometimes wincingly so. I’m not proud to say it, but sometimes cars are returned with noisy brakes and we’re left feeling thoroughly jaded. Porsches? They barely seem to notice. Consistent, confidence-inspiring, and tough as nails. The more time you spend beating up on them, the more you appreciate just how special they are.
Before we started this matchup, here’s what we knew: As equipped, the 600LT costs $309,310, and McLaren claims its 3.8-liter twin-turbo V-8 produces 592 hp and 457 lb-ft of torque. The test team had already weighed the 600LT, and it came in at 3,101 pounds. The latest GT3 RS is barely on the same page. Our car came with the Weissach package, carbon-ceramic brakes, gorgeous Lava Orange paint, and a sticker price of $225,940. However, its 4.0-liter naturally aspirated flat-six trades raw power for precision, revs, and a noise to die for. Porsche claims it makes 513 hp at 8,250 rpm and 346 lb-ft at 6,000 rpm. We measured it at 3,245 pounds. For the record, it should be noted we weigh our cars with a full tank of gas; this GT3 RS has the huge optional 23.7-gallon tank.
On the linked dyno at K&N Engineering’s brilliant facility in Riverside, California, the gap widens. Watching a car on a dyno is an amazing experience: The anticipation as it’s strapped down, the frustration of the calibration runs, and then the excitement when the throttle is opened, the rear squats, and the tethers take the full force of the engine trying to lift the car from the rollers. There’s mild disappointment when the GT3 RS makes “only” 430 hp at the wheels. That’s about on the money, but you always imagine a bit of press-car tweakery or some plain old-fashioned sandbagging by the manufacturers. Fortunately, the conspiracy theorists get their moment with the 600LT. On the rollers, this thing is wild. It’s loud, and although it lacks the music of the Porsche, the engine’s sheer fury is something to behold. Flames burst from the top-exit exhausts, and the dyno graph shows a curve that maxes out at 530 hp at the rear wheels: a cool 100-hp advantage.
So, an easy win for McLaren? Let’s not be too hasty. Our road testing course drapes across Palomar Mountain in San Diego County, and up here the Porsche is something close to magical. The engine and PDK gearbox are sublime, and the sheer accuracy they display carries through every dynamic facet of the car: The steering is responsive and communicates with delicious detail. The brakes are astonishingly powerful, and the chassis stability means you can trail brake into turns with no fear of the rear snapping around; once the nose is pointed in, you can get on the power so early. The rear engine location may be an anachronism, but the traction its location affords is unique and almost spookily effective. Weak spots? None. But most impressive of all is how every element in the GT3 RS armory melds into a whole so cohesive that it feels utterly intuitive to drive.
The McLaren is wildly different and wildly exciting. The mid-engine environment feels so much more exotic. You feel like you’re sitting at the tip of an arrow, and the way the 600LT accelerates seems inertia free. It’s astounding. The hydraulic steering is special, too. Perhaps it lacks the Porsche’s dizzying response (the German car also has rear-wheel steering, remember), but the feedback is raw and unfiltered; when you feel the front tires load up and the surface gently kicking back into your palms, the picture painted is both gloriously vivid and satisfyingly gritty. The 600LT draws you deep into the driving experience and the space you’re howling through at an almost disorientating speed.
You’re busier at the wheel of the McLaren. Turn into a corner on the brakes, and you’ll feel the tail slip wide; ask too much of the front mid-corner, and it’ll push into understeer. Such is the torque of the twin-turbo engine that the rear tires can spool up into wheelspin in a heartbeat. The fantastic ESC Dynamic mode takes the sharpest edges off of this behavior, but should you choose to run without assistance, the 600LT is physical, demanding, and a huge amount of fun. It’s almost too close to call between these two simply exceptional cars.
We arrive at the track with the Porsche maybe a nose in front. Back on the pit wall, the McLaren guys look nervous. Their 600LT has just recorded a lap time of 1 minute, 24.71 seconds. It’s a good time, the 11th best Pobst has ever achieved on the big track at Willow Springs. It’s not quite good enough to appear out of reach, though. Nerves are jangling.
The serrated howl of the GT3 RS flat-six is chopped up by the buffeting wind as we watch the fast-moving Lava Orange dot jink into the fearsomely fast Turn 8 and then run out wide onto the front straight out of 9. Can the Porsche’s superior downforce and unbelievable traction overcome the massive power disadvantage? The slumped shoulders of the McLaren team tell the story: The GT3 RS lays down a 1:23.67. It’s the fifth fastest time we’ve done here and just a tenth slower than the 887-hp Porsche 918 Spyder. With the latest GT3 RS, Porsche has again exceeded our already lofty expectations—maybe even more so than usual.
2019 McLaren 600LT Specifications
|PRICE||$242,500/$309,310 (base/as tested)|
|ENGINE||3.8L twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8/592 hp @ 7,500 rpm, 457 lb-ft @ 5,500-6,500 rpm|
|TRANSMISSION||7-speed dual-clutch automatic|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 2-passenger, mid-engine, RWD coupe|
||15/23 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||181.3 x 82.5 x 47.0 in|
|0–60 MPH||2.8 sec|
|TOP SPEED||193 mph|
2019 Porsche 911 GT3 RS Specifications
|PRICE||$188,550/$225,940 (base/as tested)|
|ENGINE||4.0L DOHC 24-valve flat-6/513 hp @ 8,250 rpm, 346 lb-ft @ 6,000 rpm|
|TRANSMISSION||7-speed dual-clutch automatic|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 2-passenger, rear-engine, RWD coupe|
||15/19 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||179.4 x 77.9 x 51.1 in|
|0–60 MPH||3.0 sec|
|TOP SPEED||193 mph|