When the Porsche 911 GT3, traditionally regarded as the world’s finest driver’s car, came back for its most recent generation with electric steering and an automatic gearbox, the consensus was that the days of sports cars with true mechanical feel and interactions were behind us.
You don’t need me to blabber on how great the GT4 is – and how good the 911 R probably will be – for the reasons why, but what is interesting is the theory behind it, and how the 911 R in particular came about.
I sat down with Porsche GT boss Andreas Preuninger at the Geneva motor show yesterday. He started on a philosophical point, stating that sports cars with normally aspirated engines and manual gearboxes will be “around forever”. Real mechanical tools, in other words.
Indeed, he reckoned they could soon become commonplace in the market. “Look at the classic car market. Why do you think people are buying classics? It’s for character. It’s the true old-school motoring feeling people long for. Modern cars, as fast as they are, don’t really have character. They go fast, but you get out after driving them and lack enthusiasm.”
Preuninger said the GT3 used to satisfy both “purists and go-fasts, purists loving the way you felt something and had moments of joy driving it, and go-fasts loving the way it was the perfect track tool”.
He admitted that, with developments in technology meaning the likes of an automatic gearbox would make the GT3 faster still, Preuninger said Porsche was at a “crossroads” with the development of the last GT3 and eventually settled on making it as fast as possible.
“The racers bought it, the purists bought classics,” said Preuninger. “That’s when the R came along.”
Development started in secret in the winter of 2013. The GT division had developed mules for the 911 GT3 with both automatic and manual gearboxes and had to choose one to develop for the production car, with the automatic getting the nod.
Preuninger and his team didn’t want to see the manual version go to waste, so they took the spoiler off, added some lightweight parts, stripped out the interior, added some racing stripes and - in his words - “all loved it”. At this point, he presented it to then-Porsche boss and now VW Group boss Matthias Müller, who gave it the nod for production.
However, Porsche had no engineering capacity available at that time, so had to wait until 13 months ago to develop it, Preuninger insisting on full decision making control of the project.
One of the key parts of development was the gearbox. It was an off-the-shelf six-speed box (seven speeds aren’t necessary for this car, says Preuninger), but only the casing has carried over with all the internals new. He also recommends anyone buying the car to go for the single mass flywheel option for the best driving sensation and to really hear the gearbox doing its work: “If you don’t have the flywheel, you don’t hear the gearbox. Part of the joy is that positive sound.”
Four-wheel steering from the GT3 had to be retained, despite Preuninger‘s initial reservations, as the car simply wasn’t agile enough without it. “The agility is on a par or better than the GT4, that’s key for me,” he said. “It’s on a whole new level even next to the GT3.”
Aero and stability also proved to be a problem due to the lack of a rear wing, with the best solution being some underfloor trickery and a rear diffuser.
As for the engine, the GT3 RS’s normally aspirated 493bhp unit was considered perfect, Preuninger saying any extra power would be too much. “You only need so much. Too much power, and you start to need bigger brakes, it can have an impact,” he said.
Everything has been optimised for weight, so the car weighs just 1250kg dry, some 70kg less than the GT3.
Which all sounds rather wonderful. Preuninger sees the success of cars like the GT4 and 911 R (the production run of which has increased to 991 units from earlier plans of 600 due to strong customer feedback) as vindication of his methods and beliefs, showing that “cars with old-school-motoring feel” have a big future, and as such “there is lots of trust from the [Porsche] board in us, we’ve never got it wrong…”
Others will try and copy, he says, but none have access to the parts and technologies of his team, nor his hand-picked workforce.
We won’t see another 911 R, Preuninger determined for it to carve out legendary status and a rarity value, but he does expect a similar (probably lightly toned down) version to be offered as a regular production model from Porsche HQ in the future, most likely in the range of the next-generation 911.
Perhaps just as importantly, though, we’ll see the 911 GT3 again offered with a manual gearbox in the future. This U-turn is perhaps the biggest vindication of all that Preuninger’s beliefs and methods are being listened to.