PEOPLE OFTEN ask me: have you driven x or y? Now, if I’m quizzed about the Porsche 911 GT3 RS (991 series), I shall answer: “Yes —for all of five yards before it covered our office car park in oil.” It had to be rescued by a recovery lorry.
While the Porsche made its way back to its Reading home, I travelled to Cheshire on a Virgin train, without Jeremy Corbyn but with a young family playing snap at full volume. I’m being sponsored by The Sunday Times to race in the Caterham Supersport championship, and it seemed the perfect opportunity to establish the answer to a perennial pub debating point by travelling to each race in a different supercar. The Porsche had been my choice for the trip to Oulton Park, so the West Coast main line wasn’t the transport I’d envisaged, but a replacement GT3 RS was produced the following day. (Spoilt? Moi?)
With the 991 series GT3 RS stuck in the Porsche sick bay, it was left to its predecessor, the 997 series, to maintain Porsche’s honour in our shootout. As the 2016 motor sport season draws to a close, I’m nearing the end of my journey through the rarefied world of the supercar. My quest to find the racing driver’s ideal road car has taken in BMW, McLaren, Mercedes-AMG and Audi, but if there’s one manufacturer synonymous with the bond between road and racetrack, it’s Porsche.
The 911 has won thousands of races in its various guises, and the GT3 RS versions are developed as stooges for the racing cars. In many ways the 997 GT3 RS, built in 2006-11, is even more extreme than the 991. It has a plastic rear window, a manual gearbox and a storage tray where the hi-fi and air-conditioning ought to be (although both were no-cost options). There’s a roll cage in place of rear seats and a pair of front buckets so deep you need the physique of a snake to feel comfortable. The low nose makes speed humps a source of terror.
It’s a hair-shirted car, so you might wonder why used examples of the 997 GT3 RS are on sale for around £200,000— 80 grand more than they cost new. The answer is to be found almost as soon as you turn the key (remember those?). This GT3 is a two-fingered salute to everyone who claims Porsche has become an SUV brand. It is as pure a statement of what Porsche would like to represent as anything in its history.
“The GT3 is a two-fingered salute to everyone who claims Porsche has become an SUV brand”
Oulton Park is, in my humble opinion, the finest circuit in the UK. Quick, scenic and borderline dangerous, it has a bit of everything. It’s also in a beautiful part of the world, if you avoid the aberration that is Crewe (sorry, Bentley).
Away from the confines of a city, the 997 GT3 RS is more stirring than any of the other supercars I’ve driven this year. It’s not the fastest — it has a mere 444bhp and tops out at 193mph — but it is the most thrilling.
Everything feels immediate. The manual gearbox is short of throw and heavy. The steering, bereft of electrical assistance, is delicious. The noise – free of turbocharging – is mechanical, real and glorious. In the dry, at least, the car has immense reserves of grip, but it never feels remote. Every journey is an experience, even at 20mph.
When asked what’s the best car I’ve driven, I normally say the 4-litre 997 series 911 GT3 RS. That car was a special version of this RS, and while it would still be my choice, this standard car runs it close. It’s also close in philosophy and design to the limited-edition 911 R, the inflated values of which are beginning to make the £200,000 997 GT3 RS look a bargain.
Porsche has since sent me an email explaining what went wrong with the 991 GT3 RS: the oil pump developed a leak, possibly after receiving a knock on its way to my office. This is the company’s best guess, as an oil pump leak is something it says it has not encountered before, even in hard-worked cars at its Experience Centres around the world.
Whatever the cause, Porsche has promised me another go in the car. The comparison with the 997 series will be revealing. The 991 will be faster, but will it be better?
Let’s be honest about it: this season has not gone well. While I’ve had the pace to run at the front, I’ve been beset by gremlins. Oulton Park was no better. A freak issue with a relay switch (an electrical gizmo that activates the fuel pump) caused me to break down in qualifying. I’d completed only one warm-up lap and was surprised to line up 19th out of 32 on the grid.
The car was fixed, and I had got myself into about 12th place when the problem resurfaced in a different form. I retired again and watched the race with the marshals. These orange-suited heroes and heroines do a great job and don’t even get paid, but they won’t mind me saying it’s no fun standing with them when you’re supposed to be driving.
A DNF (did not finish) in race one meant starting at the back for race two. After a decent start, I picked my way through the field to 16th. On a circuit where I always go well, it’s wasn’t what I expected or hoped for, but to use the old cliché, this is motor racing. Maybe I should take up darts.