2019 Porsche 911 GT3 RS meets its parents at the Isle of Man
ISLE OF MAN — A line of Porsche 911 GT3 RS cars, spanning several generations, splays out along the narrow two-lane road. The Isle of Man is damp, rain sputters against the grassy hills, and as we climb Snaefell mountain road, each car in succession is obliterated by fog. Suddenly, I’m alone in the oldest and most precious of the lot, an original 2.7 RS, feeling my way up the mountain at a snail’s pace, peering ahead at the massive RS wings swimming in and out of the mist. There’d be breaks in the weather in the day ahead, to rip the mountain air in short, delicious bursts, but first I had to get out of this fog without punting any sheep, or worse.
The original 911 2.7 RS is a screamer, or at least it was in its day. By the standards of its descendants, it’s almost sedate. And there’s no real comparison to its explosive, searingly green successor — a 2019 Porsche 911 GT3 RS with the Weissach Package, which is the main event — or at least, it would have been, with dry roads and a guy named Mark Higgins to chase around the island. But this is no place to push the limits when you can’t see 25 feet in front of your bumper. Instead, we’ll take a step back and observe the bigger picture of what it means to be an RS model, and what the future holds for the 911.
Last year, to celebrate the 1 millionth 911 produced, Porsche assembled a similar parade of important 911 models and let them loose upon Scotland’s backroads. It was one of those instantly indelible experiences, jumping from one 911 to another, backwards and forwards through time. The 911 plumped up over the years, throwing more power at the weight problem, and attempting to subtract where possible. The 1985 911 Carrera Clubsport, perhaps the ultimate mid-1980s non-turbo, pinched ounces everywhere and wore exotic, lightweight bodywork. But it was no RS.
Even though many years separated the 2.7 RS from the next car in the series — an indirect successor, the 996 GT3 RS — the defining character of the original is immediacy. Directness. The ’85 Clubsport was a wonderful car to drive, but even that car lacked the electric verve of the 2.7 RS. There’s a reason real 2.7 RSs command serious money, besides their rarity and homologation status. Hagerty puts an average 2.7 RS just a hair below $ 700,000. Having driven a flock of classic 911s in the past few months, that kind of crazy money just about makes sense. It’s an exceedingly special air-cooled 911, and it charms totally, even among the clouds at sub-thrilling speeds. No modern car is so unabashedly mechanical, and the 2.7 ticks over at idle with a lumpy thrum, and screams primally at higher RPM — a sound from another age.
It took 25 years for Porsche to revisit the ideals of the 2.7 RS. In the intervening years, some wild Porsches came out: the 930 Turbo, the 993 GT2, and some lightweight specials like the 964 Carrera RS. But it took a heretical notion to really return to form: water-cooling. The infamous 996-series showed up for the 1998 model year, with a 3.4-liter flat-six and a much-criticized, plasticky interior. It shared aesthetics and some mechanicals with the lower-rent Boxster. It was, at least at first, a questionable 911.
The first 911 GT3, introduced as a 1999 model year car, made everything right with the world. Like the 2.7 RS, it was a homologation special, infused with motorsport influences throughout. Most important, its engine was completely different from the road-going 996’s unit. Both flat-sixes, sure, but the Mezger engine fitted to the 996 GT3 was derived straight from motorsport. With a real dry sump oiling system and influences from the 959, 961, and 911 GT1 Le Mans prototype, the major concession to practicality was replacing the pure racing engine’s six individual cylinder heads with a common head for each bank. It is an angry, noisy, extremely mechanical engine. It thrums and growls like a wolverine.
And the first GT3 RS is all this, and more. Based on the GT3, but harder-edged, as befitting the “RennSport” initials. Lighter, leaner, wilder. You need to be very awake to drive an early GT3 RS on weedy roads like these. Let your attention flag for a second, and the phenomenally alive RS will decide to explore where a microscopic ridge in the pavement might take it, darting for the ditch as if it held some fascinating treasure to discover. The analogy that kept coming to mind as the rough stone walls flew by is a lightning bolt, arcing down the road, tremendously energetic, unpredictable but exhilarating.
Nothing I’ve ever driven on the road has the immediacy of that first GT3 RS. Every input is unalloyed. It’s like there’s no rubber whatsoever between you and the tires, nothing to dampen or attenuate the firehose of information flowing back and forth from you to the road. A twitch, and it’s three feet to one side. The flipside is that the car “tells” you everything. Every pebble. Every bump. It’s a deluge of information, and while the fidelity of the good information is superb, there’s a lot of noise. Literal noise, and informational noise.
Like some of the best things in life, it’s as draining as it is addictive. The first-generation GT3 RS is not a car you could drive, even slowly, for a long period of time. It takes such total concentration that you can feel the energy drain through your arms. Our 45-minute stint, about what a good lapping session at the track would be, seems to be the right interval for a go in the 996 GT3 RS — and I wasn’t even pushing the car hard, given the atrocious conditions on Snaefell.
From here on out, with each succeeding GT3 RS, the progression is one of seeming contradictions. With each generation, and there have been four, the 911 GT3 RS models added significant power and capability, and yet each one got more livable. Take the second-generation (997-series) GT3 RS. Without isolating you from the useful stuff, it filters out a lot of the extraneous feedback. It’s still an exceptionally analog car, and there’s still a superb directness to its controls, particularly its steering. In fact, for the Porsche purist, the slightly buffer 493 horsepower 997 GT3 RS 4.0 might be the perfect compromise between the 444 horsepower 3.8 cars and our contemporary 911, which is larger and less direct. The brilliance of the RS range, on display on this damp isle, is that with each successive car the team has baked in compliance — and that doesn’t just make the cars more useable, it makes them quicker. And it gives the driver less to worry about, without doing it for him or her.
But as brilliant as the second-generation cars are, they can’t do what the current 911 GT3 RS (991-series) can do. These newer cars are effortless in the best possible sense of the word. They’re explosive, too, romping forward in staccato bursts, with the sort of directness that you get from 4.0 naturally-aspirated liters of thrust. There have been two 991-series GT3 RSs, which Porschephiles refer to as the 991.1 (2016 model year) and 991.2 (introduced just now) cars. The former had 500 horsepower even, and the latter is basically a remarkable revision of that monumentally capable version. The 2019 GT3 RS, the 991.2, gets a host of serious engine parts and some additional tuning for a 20 horsepower and 7 lb-ft bump over the 2016 GT3 RS. The extra power is almost a rounding error, and the important changes are under the skin.
All that subtle detail is lost under rocket-assisted thrust at every stab of the throttle. Your mind accepts that at each turn, Andreas Preuninger’s team sweated the kind of details that don’t really register at legal speeds, but certainly make a difference on the track. The 2019 911 GT3 RS just walloped the 918 Spyder (!!!) at the Nürburgring Nordschleife by 0.6 seconds, and a full 24 seconds faster (!!!!!!!) than its immediate GT3 RS predecessor. 24 seconds is an eternity, and by any objective measure the 2019 GT3 RS isn’t that much different. Out here, stepping out to blast by a Fiat Panda or bend into a wet corner, knowledge of its track prowess is hard to hold in your mind. It’s too easy to lose yourself in the moment. Nevertheless, Preuninger’s philosophy proves out.
Where’d that 24 seconds come from? No one particular thing, but a good deal of it is the revised suspension. Preuninger told me that they were able to fit stiffer springs without destroying ride quality by softening up the front sway bar. The springs are also lighter than before, even with new helper springs and metal ball joints up front. The car that set the time was also equipped with the new Weissach Package, which is both breathtakingly expensive and also imparts some legitimate weight savings to the GT3 RS, particularly when the optional magnesium wheels are fitted. Stiffer springs and less unsprung mass, as well as a higher redline and some additional power, clearly have a powerful cumulative effect.
There’s only enough time for a short stint in each generation of the RS — just enough to get a sense of the character, the limitations, the capabilities, and how things have evolved over time. And it’s barely a taste of the TT course itself, particularly since the fog forced us onto some side roads off the course for part of the day. Coming here to show off his creations has long been a personal dream of Preuninger’s, and despite cheerful talk at breakfast that the sun might break through, the damp, impenetrable weather blanketing Snaefell clearly irked him.
His newest creation strained against the weather hemming it in, just like its creator. When it was clear enough to overtake, there were several glorious launches into the far lane, enabled by a double-tap of the PDK’s paddles and a dip into the endless revs on offer from the snarling 4.0-liter six. The GT3 RS needs room to run, but it isn’t too proud to provide lower-intensity thrills when that room isn’t available. It’s a testament to the man and his car that neither fell apart when the conditions did.
Luckily for us, this isn’t the only excursion for the GT3 RS’s debut. A small cadre of auto writers, including an Autoblog contributing editor with extensive track experience wrangling uncouth racing monsters, took a run at Nürburgring’s Grand Prix course. It likely drove Preuninger mad, but rain followed the RS cars to Germany, which carries echoes not only of our damp Isle of Man experience but also of our first experience with the 2016 GT3 RS. Back in 2015, I sampled a very purple example at Road Atlanta, which might as well have been Road Atlantis for all the standing water on the track, trying to stay on Le Mans- and Daytona-winning driver David Donahue’s tail for no reason other than it was the only way to get around the course when blinded by spray. In those extremely suboptimal conditions, the GT3 RS and its Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires were a revelation — the stability was exceptional.
After all, we know what it can do in the dry in the hands of a pro. There’s no question it’s the most track-capable naturally aspirated road-legal 911 ever built. So it’s no surprise that even a saturated Nürburgring provided a strong message about the new GT3 RS’s poise and character. Go read that review for a sense of what that was like.
Until then, the summation of the entire GT3 RS experience is easy to understand: With every incremental improvement in capability comes an attendant increase in usability, in pursuit of additional performance. You can now exploit every iota of the car’s latent potential, with less effort and more confidence. The formula’s been honed to a very high sheen. And the loveliness of the naturally-aspirated flat-six simply can’t be understated. Surely enthusiasts can differ on which 911 in the RS family has the ideal balance of characteristics, but Preuninger is perfectly clear that the only measure that matters to him is absolute performance. That the new GT3 RS is as civilized as it is a happy accident of expert tuning and a holistic attention to detail. It’s the right formula, and it always has been.