Porsche 911 GT1 - The Great White Wail

05 March 2018
Author: Peter Robinson

The man from Porsche has just handed me the key to his two million dollar, 400kW GT1 with these words: "I know, you want a sunset photograph, bring it back at 9.00, 9.30pm ... "

And given me a new definition of trust. This is not to be two carefully orchestrated and frenetic laps of Porsche's Weissach test track in a car primarily designed to win the Le Mans 24-hour sports car race. Porsche calls the GT1 a road car, knowing it's about as road car as an SR-71 Blackbird is an executive jet, and has now committed us to the autobahns and lanes around Stuttgart.

Last year, Porsche's invitation to drive the race version of the GT1 was posted two days before the event and, Italian mails being Italian mails, arrived the day after. Haven't they heard of the fax in Zuffenhausen? Then, just days before my original date with the road car, that too was cancelled.

"There is a mechanical defect on the car," spat out the fax. One victory. Still, I began to think it was all a plot designed to keep Wheels away from the GT1.

Then another date, which reduced my next assignation with the GT1 to half the original time, four hours. And now the amiable Gerhard Heid, project leader for Porsche's most expensive road car ever, is handing over the winged monster as if it were a Daihatsu Centro.

But, (in this business, you soon learn there's always a but when a supercars involved) there is a slight problem with the engine. We think it's down 11 Ok W between 5500 and 7000rpm. It only happened this morning, probably a software problem with the turbo boost." When it was being driven by the 1960 Le Mans winner turned journalist, Paul Frere.

We agree to bring the car back early in the evening for a check, but Heid says we can take it out again tonight, and the following morning. I'm sure any attempt to hide my surprise is futile.

Porsche's GT1 is not a McLaren F1, or even a Ferrari F50, but something different again. The rules for European GT racing say there must be a road car from which the race car is derived, though only one road car needs to be built and registered and that's apparently the route Nissan is following with the TWR-designed R390.

Porsche happily admits the GT1 is a racing car first, not a road car like the McLaren. But in order to stay within the rules it has, like all the others, bent them to suit its own demands. Ever heard of a mid-engined, water-cooled, 911?

Well, you have now.

To get the maximum aerodynamic efficiency and handling, the dohc 24v flat-six sits right behind the cockpit bulkhead, rather than hanging out beyond the axle line, and the long tail slopes down over the rear-mounted six-speed gearbox.

The front suspension is double wishbones though the bulkhead, including the tiny (given the fuel consumption) 73 litre fuel tank, floorpan and even the dashboard and headlights, are production 911. The Kevlar and carbon-fibre body wears a massive rear wing and incorporates a deep tail spoiler that's integrated into the spectacularly flattened, mutated 911-like body. Further evidence of its racing heritage comes via the spanner that's required to undo two nuts and allow the rear engine hood, complete with a built-in 150-litre bin that serves as the boot, to be pulled back and then opened, hinged from the tail.

When Porsche unveiled the GT1 race car, about 25 people wanted to buy a road version. But after Porsche told them it would only have around 225kW, they lost interest. When Weissach said it would be about 400kW, the cheques were in the mail. Suitably encouraged, Porsche now says it will build 30 road versions, priced at DM1.5 million (A$2m by the time you pay duty and tax in Australia) and has 10 firm deposits for a model with a mere six months warranty.

The first couple of road cars and the GT1 we drove look like the current 911, though from September an evolutionary model goes on sale with Boxster/new 911 headlights and taillights, and a more slippery body with wider doors that are flush with the front fenders. Air-con becomes an option and today's fixed door windows will be electrically operated.

It's only when you've crawled over a padded bar that's part of the full rollcage, dropped into the deep RS 911 bucket seat and checked the mirrors that the realisation there is no interior mirror - because there's no rear window - sinks home. Instead, two huge oval mirrors on each front guard supply the only rearward view. To feed the intercooler, a huge air vent above the windscreen runs back through the roof, dividing the cabin at head height. On the road the mirrors work surprisingly well, but reversing is blind and frightening.

Fire up the engine - no throttle, required, just tum the key - and you immediately discover the intercooler funnel works in two directions.

Various whistles, rattles, whirring and whining of gears, sucking induction and exhaust blare all come from above, not behind. It's strangely remote, as if speakers in the ceiling are blasting out a recording of a racing engine. The level and variety of noises induces wonderment every time the engine starts.

The instruments are pure 911 apart from the addition of an add-on water temperature gauge where the radio normally goes, but the driving position isn't remotely like the production car. The seat slides back yet you still sit vertically, close to the three-spoke, non-airbag wheel: elbows bent, knees up like a rally-car. It's obvious this car's principal purpose is long-haul racing.

A tall baton-like gearlever is just two inches from the steering wheel and connected by a thick, exposed rod to the strengthened, still synchromesh, gearbox. It clunks into first with a short, mechanical action. The clutch, the brakes and even the power-assisted steering have the same taut precision, as if there are no bushes, linkages or hydraulics between the driver and any dynamic component. The carbon-fibre doors are almost weightless, but slam closed with the same solid, well-engineered feel as a normal 911.

Given that this engine is turbocharged and produces maximum torque of 600Nm at 4250rpm and peak power of 400kW at 7000rpm, I didn't expect it to idle at 900rpm, nor to be as easy to engage. The clutch shudders as it takes up, but the GT1 trickles forward, happy to amble through the villages surrounding Weissach at the heavily policed 50km/h speed limit.

Offboost, the engine feels flat and unresponsive, real power only begins to build from 3500rpm. By 4500rpm, the engine clatters like a machine gun, thrusting the GT1 ahead.

At 5500rpm, just as you expect it to really launch forward, the power levels off, but not the noise which is loud enough to drown out thought, let alone any conversation. This is easily the most deafening road car I've ever driven. Later we measure the sound under full throttle. The resulting 103dBA is loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage.

Stab the clutch, snap the gearlever again, and it's still possible to play Steve McQueen. Just don't ask how Porsche will get the GT1 through the European noise standards.

Today, however, it's obviously down at least 100kW and lacks the awesome thrust of the McLaren. Even so, we timed it across the quarter mile in 13.1sec.

Fast by most standards, if not those of a potential Le Mans winner, and nothing like the 11.6sec electronically recorded by Germany's leading motoring magazine.

These figures, accepted by Porsche as accurate, show that the F1 has a slight lead to 160km/h (7.1sec for the GT1 versus 6.3sec for the McLaren) and even to 200km/h (10.5sec against 9.4sec).

Then the Macca begins to increase its advantage, hauling on to 250km/h in just 14.7sec while the GT1 takes 17.4sec.

Porsche has limited the top speed of the road car to a mere 310km/h, though it's capable of 325km/h and today struggles to top 275km/h. Fuel consumption? Thought you'd never ask. In a day's blasting, we averaged 23.4litres per 100km, or 12.1mpg. With a 73 litre tank, that's touring range of less than 200km.

We return to Weissach in the middle of a thunder storm for Heid to confirm that it is indeed a software problem with a temperature sensor that has shut down boost from 5500rpm to the 7500rpm cut-out. We can go out again, in the rain, and tomorrow morning an engineer will attempt to correct the problem before we get another chance.

So how is this road thunder to drive? On dry, uneven roads, the steering is incredibly direct with just 1.9 turns. It's therefore nervous, the GT1 darting and bobbing around uncomfortably. It's too sensitive to apply normal corrections; better to relax and let the car find its own course, steering wheel jiggling in constant agitation. Sensitive becomes tricky in the wet: the GT1 acquaplanes, slides and slithers on the gumball Pirelli P Zero road tyres. Initially, any oncoming traffic raises the heart rate. The GT1 feels as if it needs all the width of the narrow country lanes.

Despite a turning circle of Queen Mary proportions, further experience reduces this perception and slowly the GT1 begins to feel agile, turning thought into movement. Once the roads dry out, grip is restored and the adhesion levels are enormous, way beyond the normal boundaries of road driving.  The GT1 is planted on the surface and you need the room and safety of a skidpan, combined with brutal power applications, to get the tail to snap out.

Anyway, the GT1's natural (road) habitat isn't twisty mountain roads – they remain the preserve of the Boxster – but long, straight autobahns where its power and stability would allow it to crush distance, if it weren't for the need to stop every hour to refuel.

The brakes, huge perforated and vented 14.9in Brembos with eight pistons at the front and four at the rear, pull the GT1 up from 100km/h in 2.55 seconds. They are so powerful - the best brakes I've ever tried - that it's hard to imagine them ever triggering the anti-lock.

We linger in front of a Stuttgart casino for photographs, get the sunset shot during a break in the rain and return the GT1 in the dark at close to 10:00pm. The next morning the wizards of Weissach have found some but not all the missing horses.

It's quicker, if still not as overwhelmingly powerful as it should be. We run it hard on the autobahn where it stays locked the road, a white Teutonic bullet that draws crowds wherever it stops, proving that even the environmentally correct Germans love a home-grown exotic.

The GT1 was bred for the Mulsanne Straight. Anywhere else, except maybe the NT, it is a compromise, still a pure racing car in feel, behaviour - and sound.

 

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