x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Porsche's new GT3 is altered perfection

Without a manual gearbox, Porsche's GT3 is quicker than ever but the experience just isn't the same.

Photo courtesy Porsche
Photo courtesy Porsche

Andreas Preuninger, Porsche's general manager for GT Cars, insists that we try the local beverages, enjoying their purity and lack of additives. A small company in Germany's Schwabian Alb region creates the products for a small, dedicated audience, and Preuninger is clearly a fan, as it's not the first time that Porsche has brought us here.

The previous occasion was the launch of its 997-generation Mk2 GT3. Few cars invoke such emotional response as the Porsche 911, and adding GT3 to its rump only enhances that. It has been around for 14 years now, and Preuninger has been involved with every single GT3, along with its even more focused RS derivatives. Unashamedly derived from the racetrack, the GT3 has become emblematic of Porsche's racing activities, its existence itself owing a great deal to the homologation rules that dictate what a manufacturer can bring along to compete in at the weekend.

So the GT3's specification has always read not too dissimilar to a racing car's. Any additional weight is stripped out, the GT3 losing its rear seats, featuring thinner carpets and less soundproofing. The interior is always optionally offered (for free) with a bolt-in half-roll cage, six-point harness seatbelts, a fire extinguisher and engine kill switch. The quest for weight savings even saw Porsche offer the GT3 without air conditioning or a stereo (these were offered as a free option, with all but the most weight-obsessive buyers choosing them).

Visually, the GT3 has always benefited from aerodynamic enhancements that produce significant downforce, the jutting front splitter and large rear wing, GT3 signatures. It also traditionally runs the narrow body specification in the 911 range. The RS models go even further, with slightly differing track widths, even lighter body panels and glass, along with a more austere interior with pull straps replacing door handles inside. Although engine outputs for the early GT3 RS models were quoted as the same as their non-RS relations, revisions increased engine responsiveness, while the drop in weight also improved performance.

The relationship between the GT3 and racing has always been clear-cut. The GT3 has, until this new 991-based model, come equipped with a version of Porsche's Mezger flat-six engine, mated to a six-speed manual transmission. Its lineage can be traced through Porsche's highest level racing activities and the Le Mans-winning 911 GT1 cars.

In 3.6L guise between 1999 and 2001, the GT3 produced 360 horsepower, which, combined with the weight reductions, allowed it to accelerate to 100 kilometres per hour in just 4.5 seconds. That has improved as the car has developed through its 14 years, the 3.6L developing 385hp in the 996 Mk2 GT3 and RS, 415hp in the 997-based GT3 and GT3 RS, jumping by 20hp thanks, in no small part, to a 200cc increase in capacity to 3.8L for the Mk2 997 GT3 and a further 15hp for its RS derivative. The Mezger unit, so revered in Porsche circles, finally reached its zenith of development in the limited run GT3 RS 4.0, with a jump again in capacity to 4.0L and an output of 500hp.

With each and every iteration, the GT3 has adopted increasing levels of technology, Porsche's active suspension management arriving with the 997 GT3, and traction and stability control also creeping into the range. So too has a sports exhaust, to liberate more noise. Though, at its core, the GT3 has remained true to its lighter weight mantra, allied to a free-revving, naturally aspirated Mezger engine with a six-speed manual transmission.

In doing so, the GT3 has become a poster car for those people who love to drive. Porsche itself admits that some 80 per cent of owners will enjoy their GT3 on the track. So much so, its Nürburgring lap time, along with its weight and output, are the most important numbers associated with it - its hard-core, purist focus is relatively unique, as sports cars become increasingly automated and more remote.

That remains true today. Porsche might have committed heresy when it announced that the new GT3 would no longer run that Mezger unit out back, nor would it be available with any transmission other than a seven-speed, paddle-shifted PDK automatic gearbox. But it's faster. Significantly so, if you look at that lap time, a 7-minute-25-second circuit being some 15 seconds ahead of its 997 predecessor (ignoring the rare, one-of-600 RS 4.0 models). It'll reach 100kph in 3.5 seconds, and a maximum of 315kph, too.

Add increased complexity, and weight, from a rear-wheel steering system and the need for the GT3 to run the same electromechanical hardware as its 991 relations, and the GT3 is undoubtedly taking something of a new approach to its quest for speed.

Preuninger is unapologetic when he says: "The 'add lightness' philosophy to make a car faster, especially the past three GT3 generations, just does not apply anymore." He says that systems that add extra speed do so by over-compensating for the weight penalty they bring. Not that Porsche has thrown the idea of reduction of mass away, with the new model tipping the scales at 1,430 kilograms (including fluids), which is still a relative featherweight. The engine itself is more than 20kg lighter in the new car, which counters the additional weight that the adoption of the PDK automatic transmission brings.

Achieving the performance and weight losses, the GT3 has undergone the same processes as all those before it. The engine, a development of the standard Carrera series cars now, has been radically overhauled to produce not just its 475hp output, but its ability to rev at a stratospheric 9,000rpm. All that remains of the original engine is the crankcase, a few ancillaries and the bolts holding the head on. The 3.8L unit's specification includes dry-sump lubrication, direct petrol injection with 200-bar pressure under full load (compared with a standard Carrera's 120 bar) and VarioCam valve timing. The obsessive level of detail even includes an oil separator between the sump and crank to reduce internal friction losses because of oil splashing. This, among many other incremental and detailed revisions, allows the 3.8L engine to surpass its Mezger unit in revs, output, speed and weight.

If you needed any convincing that the new engine is a suitable replacement for its predecessor, wringing it out to its 9,000rpm redline will do it. As the revs rise, it seems to get ever-faster, the final few degrees of sweep on the rev counter's needle backed up with a sound that's pure race car in its mechanical intensity. The speed that comes with that sound is incredible, the engine feeling like it could keep going for several thousand revs more, such is the powerful delivery in its final few revolutions. It's what happens next that's perhaps the most controversial addition to the GT3's new technological arsenal. Pull the right paddle, and the PDK transmission selects the next ratio instantaneously, allowing the chase for the redline to start all over again.

Assuming, that is, that you've got the space to do so. Run it up to its maximum in the first two gears, and you'll comfortably be breaking the law in all but the most speed-enlightened countries. The ferocity of the GT3's performance means that you really do need a track to properly exploit it. On the road, it's easier than ever, that PDK transmission, shifting with a precision and speed that should be adopted across the entire Porsche PDK range, playing a large part in that. The steering too, the same electromechanical system of its Carrera relations (albeit mated to more focused GT3-specific suspension settings), is the very best of its type, possessed with immense accuracy, speed, weighting and, crucially, feel. That steering is unquestionably aided by the rear-wheel steering system, which at speeds of up to 80kph turns in the opposite direction to effectively shorten the wheelbase and increase agility. It changes to the same direction above 80kph to add stability and virtually lengthen the wheelbase.

An electronic differential, allied to Porsche's always supportive, yet unobtrusive, stability and traction systems, allows even those possessed of skills some distance away from the people who race the GT3's relatives at weekends to enjoy its massive performance. Switch all those stability and traction systems off, wholly or partially, and the GT3, as ever, can be driven like a hooligan, exiting corners with almost any angle of power oversteer you dare.

The brakes remain among the very best for feel and fade-free performance, helping make the GT3 an exceptional car to drive. Yet for all its ability, which is unsurpassed at its (relatively) low price point, the changes to the GT3 have somewhat shifted its appeal. Always a car coveted by those who wanted the purest, most intense driving experience, the GT3's move to an automatic gearbox has changed its character. Porsche's focus on pure speed, rather than purity, has fundamentally altered the car. Preuninger himself says: "Purism and performance are no longer inextricably linked, but turn more into opposites," adding: "At Porsche we all love to shift gears manually, but what we love even more is being the fastest."

It's difficult to argue with that sentiment, and, given the GT3's links to racing, the PDK transmission is unquestionably relevant - when was the last time you saw a racing car with a clutch and gated, manual shifter? Yet for all that, and the GT3's incredible performance, the new car's move away from what made it so distinct, so appealing in a world where all its rivals come with automated transmissions, made it a very special car indeed. It remains so, but the GT3 also comes with the weight of history. And, like Preuninger's favourite Schwabian beverages, sometimes a simple, pure recipe is best left alone, regardless of what everyone else around it is doing.

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