Porsche’s GT3 has come a long way since its inception in 1999. Total 911 gathers the very first example for a road and track test alongside its latest and greatest incarnation. Written by Ben Barry. Photography by Porsche.
996.1 GT3 v 991.2 GT3 RS
Two decades separate Porsche’s first 911 GT3 iteration from its latest. How do they compare on both road and track?
When we introduced the first GT3 in 1999, it had 360bhp, barely. If someone would’ve told us in ten years there’d be a 4.0 with 500bhp, I would have said, ‘Yeah, come on…’, but technology goes on and on.” That was Porsche GT boss Andreas Preuninger, when we interviewed him at the Geneva Motor Show, 2015, at the 991.1 GT3 RS’s unveiling.
Today we’re experiencing that leap first hand with a drive in the first 996.1 GT3 and a comparison with its most recent and extreme descendant, the 991.2 GT3 RS, at Sonoma racetrack near San Francisco.
The two cars share much in concept and philosophy but as Preuninger reflected, technology goes on and on. Engine output might have barely risen in the last ten years, since the 997 4.0 GT3 RS to which he was referring at Geneva, but the GT3 RS is wider, faster and stickier, and it’s lavished with cutting-edge technology that makes it more competent in every measurable regard. This, however, doesn’t make the 996.1 GT3 an anachronism in comparison; of its time, perhaps, but only in the most positive sense.
“As the start of the GT3 bloodline it currently feels somewhat overlooked, but it remains a sensationally interactive drive”
The GT3 story begins with the development of the GT3 Cup for the Pirelli Supercup championship, which supported the F1 calendar from 1998. Only 30 race cars were made, but Porsche also had an eye on the new N-GT racing class, which came into force on 1 March 2000. Alexander Klein, boss of the Porsche Museum, who’s flown to meet the Porsche Museum car we’re driving, says around 1,200 road-going examples were required to meet the rules.
Development of those road cars was entrusted to motorsport stalwart Roland Kussmaul – the 996 being the only GT3 not conceived under Preuninger, though Kussmaul’s successor was already working in a different department at Porsche. The cars were produced in two waves: 1,350 examples of the ‘A’ cars for homologation purposes, with a ‘ZYS’ chassis code, and then 536 units of the ‘B’ cars, coded ‘Z01’.
We’re driving a very late ‘B’ car, complete with the electric mirrors, upgraded interior trim and thicker carpets that help differentiate these cars. Parked in the Sonoma pits, our Arctic silver test car looks barely any different from my own stock 996.1 Carrera, inside or out – option a Carrera with the GT3’s standard Aerokit, same-style wheels, three-spoke steering wheel and rare carbon fibre-backed leather Sports seats and only spotters would tell the two apart.
“It’s questionable if supercars listing for much more money and with significantly more power are more exciting to drive than a GT3 RS”
Under the skin is where the GT3 really makes it count. Then as now, the GT3 used the beefiest 911 bodyshell, but because all 996.1-generation 911 bodyshells are equally wide, it’s hard to decode that the GT3 uses the reinforced four-wheel-drive Carrera 4 bodyshell. The suspension is lowered 30mm with revised geometry, there’s a limited-slip differential and four-piston Brembo brakes. Inside, the rear seats are gone to save 8kg, lightweight bucket seats shed a further 20kg, sound deadening is removed, and though this car gets the stereo and air-con, both were no-cost options.
The biggest difference between Carrera and GT3 variants is the powertrain: the water-cooled M96/79 3.6-litre engine isn’t an evolution of the Carrera’s, but of the Mezger engine derived from the GT1 Le Mans racer. It features titanium con-rods and an uprated crank to withstand the higher engine speed of 7,800rpm. It churns out 360bhp and 370Nm, up 60bhp and 20Nm on the Carrera, and a more durable motor it is too.
Despite the ‘diet’, weight actually rose versus the Carrera by around 30kg, presumably a chunk more with the no-cost options added back in, but the results spoke for themselves: Walter Röhrl lapped the Nurburgring in 7min 56.33sec – 40sec faster than a Carrera! – and when Porsche evolved the recipe to create the GT3 R for Le Mans, it finished 13th overall on its debut in 1999 and won the LM-GT class, then repeated the trick six more times in succession.
Today, the 996 GT3 remains a fabulous drive. It might be closer in character to the Carrera 2 on which it’s based than later models, but it’s the perfect riposte to anyone who thinks Porsche sold out with water-cooling, and dismisses the 996 as the worst of the bunch – it feels old-school analogue, mechanical and intimate, but also with the easy comfort and strikingly compact dimensions to instantly quell jangling nerves.
This car is built to Comfort specification (not Clubsport, which included Nomex buckets, singlemass flywheel, rollcage and fire extinguisher) with those few extra creature comforts and optional leather bucket seats with deep support but also a welcome squish of comfort. Quite possibly, this is the sweet spot.
Turn the key and the Mezger engine sounds more bag of spanners than precision-engineered masterpiece, but it brims with no-bull industrial authenticity. This thing sounds serious.
While there’s the obvious benefit of 20 per cent more power than a Carrera (I’m with Preuninger that while it’s clearly faster it doesn’t feel that much stronger, perhaps a combination of extra weight and slightly ambitious factory figures), it’s the extra stretch at the top end that’s truly breathtaking, a bandwidth that still gives a full-bore, rev-limit chasing GT3 an intensity to tighten your grip on the steering wheel and spike your pulse.
The gearshift is shorter and tighter than a Carrera, and there’s none of the sticky baulking when fluids are cold. Like the engine, the gearbox is, in fact, a completely different unit, a stronger G96/90 ’box derived from the 993 GT2. With perfectly spaced and weighted pedals, it’s second nature to flick up and down the ratios, blipping and heeling and toeing to indulge the experience.
Thread together the first few corners and already the GT3 feels subtly tauter and more focused than a Carrera, like every nut’s been given an extra half turn. The steering has a similarly exquisite feel and lightness of touch, but there’s a shade more weight and definition, especially around the dead ahead. That weight builds beautifully as you wind on lock, dancing gently in your hands as the suspension loads, letting you know just how much harder you can lean on the GT3’s feathery front end.
The brakes too have significantly more bite and a firmer feel to the pedal, and the lower, stiffer GT3 corners flatter and feeds back more communication. Yet for all the GT3’s extra focus, it stops far short of feeling much harsher or rowdier than a Carrera – the suspension retains sophistication to absorb bumps on the road and keep the tyres in touch with the surface, and besides, a regular Carrera already suffers pretty dreadful tyre roar.
Significantly, the first GT3 – in the days before first-generation Cup 2 tyres bit like guard dogs in the dry but didn’t work in the wet – is also less obsessed with extracting every last ounce of grip from the road surface than post-996 models. Those cars are sensational in their own right and a logical progression, but as a result this progenitor of the line feels a lighter, more fluid machine with a distinct personality all of its own. Tip-toe beyond its limits and it’s just you and a limited-slip diff, steering wheel, throttle and brake pedal to sort it all out. ABS is the only driver aid.
When I park back in the pit garage I gush to Klein that I’m smitten. The closest in spirit is not a post- 996 GT3, but the original Cayman GT4. As with all Porsches there was gentle evolution, if not a seamless handover: the facelift 996 didn’t arrive until 2003, bringing a little more of everything, and then the addition of the RS suffix to GT3, for an even more focused variant that set the template for the GT3 RS we’re driving today: thinner glass, stiffer suspension, and a gnarlier attitude that traded some of the earliest GT3’s sweetness for something altogether harder.
The 997 put a greater gulf between GT3 and Carrera variants, but the closely related 997 marked the gradual roll-out of very Porsche-like evolutions until another giant leap with the 991 GT3: for all that the 991 stayed true to GT3 principles, it felt at the time it was all-change, including an extra 100mm in the wheelbase, electric steering and rear-wheel steering, a replacement for the fabled Mezger engine and a dual-clutch gearbox for the first time.
And then I find myself at a Geneva round-table interview with Andreas Preuninger five years ago, listening to him detail the changes for the then upcoming 991.1 GT3 RS: the wider Turbo bodyshell versus the GT3’s mid-size Carrera 4 ’shell, the 21-inch rear wheels from the 918 that forced changes not only to the body in white, but also the production line, downforce of 350kg at 186mph (double a 991 GT3, more than double the 997 GT3 RS 4.0), a different crankshaft with ‘Star Trek steel’ like the 919 Le Mans racer, plus different con-rods, pistons, camshafts and lubrication system, the carbon-fibre bonnet and the expense of a magnesium roof that saved 1kg.
Despite having only 400cc more displacement from its naturally aspirated flat six, the 991.1 GT3 RS made 493bhp, or 133bhp more than the first 996, and – really the bigger achievement – despite it being almost 400mm longer, 270mm wider and with monstrous wheels and tyres, the weight increased by only 70kg.
At that point, the GT3 RS had run 7min 20sec at the Nurburgring. “Everybody who’s been in a car with a pro knows this is really, really fast,” said Preuninger. “We could make a 7min 15sec car, it would be relatively easy, but then it would be a dog on the street.” I drove that first car from the Midlands to Monaco to retrace the 911’s first motorsport entry in the 1965 Monte Carlo rally, and it was beguilingly supple as well as also being unbelievably focused, fast and enthralling.
Which brings us to the latest 991.2 GT3 RS, a car in which Kévin Estre smashed the first 991’s ’Ring time with a 6min 56.4sec, though that car was wearing optional Cup 2 R tyres. A subtly different if more aggressive aero package increases downforce by up to 8 per cent, power rises 20bhp to 513bhp and the redline increases from the 991.1’s 8,800rpm to an incendiary 9,000rpm and, the biggest difference, spring rates double at the front and increase 50 per cent at the rear.
The 991 dwarfs the 996.1 GT3 it’s parked next to at Sonoma, and rather than blending in with a Carrera, you could probably park it on a Le Mans grid with barely a double-take. Inside, it clearly feels like a much bigger, more intimidating car, but still the basics established with the 996 remain, particularly the low-set bucket seat and the perfect placement of pedals and steering wheel.
With the Motorsport focus of an Alcantara steering wheel and lightweight door pulls, carbonbacked seats lifted from the 918 hypercar and a half cage, it’s perhaps surprising to find luxurious touches like leather and aluminium trim, touchscreen infotainment and standard air-con. When I quizzed Preuninger on why bother saving so much weight only to add it back, he was quite clear he wanted satnav to get to the track, to listen to rock music on the way there, and to have air-con rather than boiling to death as he tried to better his last lap time – still that ease of use that’s defined each and every GT3 bubbles to the surface.
With such drastically increased spring rates, there is a tougher ride to contend with than that 991.1, and the 991 feels much bulkier than a 996, but Preuninger has not turned the RS into a dog – it’s still impressively useable on the street and the payback is poise, grip and control like you wouldn’t believe. The amount of speed this nose-light 911 can hold into and through the apex without breaking sweat is just incredible, partly thanks to the body control and minimal body roll, but also the broad shouldered Cup 2 tyres that so effectively glue themselves to the surface. And when you need to bring it all under control, you get a similarly firm pedal feel and feedback as the 996 GT3, but the stopping power from (optional) carbon-ceramic brakes that’s another level entirely.
Yet for all the downforce and mechanical grip there’s still nuance to this driving experience. Feelsome, quick and relatively light steering weights up progressively from the first millimetre off-centre, quickly building confidence because it paints such a clear picture of the available grip. There’s also some playful adjustability to this chassis too, which might come as a surprise given the higher limits – carry a shade too much speed into a corner and lift the throttle and you can play with that beautiful limbo period as the GT3 RS smears just a fraction into understeer, then gently pivots around its middle, before you power out on just a fraction of opposite lock as the 4.0-litre squashes those huge 325-section rear tyres into the surface.
The instant response and linearity of the naturally aspirated engine encourages you to play with that balance too, allowing you to precisely add and subtract power without suddenly whacking in a load of torque. It’s a sensational motor, tractable from low down but ripping through the mid-range with even more energy than the previous RS, then scorching to 9,000rpm with a fierce metallic blare that fills the cabin and almost entirely dominates the experience. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more intense, the PDK transmission spits in the next ratio with just the right mix of fury and mechanical punch and the whole process simply repeats.
It’s questionable if supercars listing for much more money and with significantly more power are more exciting to drive than a GT3 RS, and they’re often no quicker around a circuit. No wonder the market has retrospectively placed them in the same league, while more powerful rivals including the McLaren 570S are already yours for the price of a 911 Carrera. It’s just a shame that this puts the GT3 RS out of reach for most of us, and encourages those with the funds to tuck them away.
The 996.1 GT3 is a different story. As the start of the GT3 bloodline it currently feels somewhat overlooked, but it remains a sensationally interactive drive and you can currently pick one up for a shade under £50K and only rarely more than £70K.
Not exactly cheap, no, but ten years from now we’ll probably all wonder why we didn’t make the stretch while we still could. And perhaps even Andreas Preuninger wouldn’t believe where Porsche will have taken the GT3 RS by then…
BELOW 991.2 GT3 RS is a quantum leap over the 996 GT3 in its management of airflow
BELOW The 536 ‘B’ series cars (vin code Z01) had comfort-oriented features available including electric mirrors, electric lid openers, upgraded interior trim, and thicker carpets