From the September 1998 Issue of Road & Track
TURN SIGNALS? CHECK. Power mirrors? Check. Power-assisted steering, brakes and ABS? Check, check, check.
Cupholder? Need you ask?
Once upon a time, the phrase "racing improves the breed" meant exactly that. Amidst the dust kick-up of hard-knuckled race weekends, technologies were sometimes uncovered that just might be useful on the drive home.
Things like aerodynamic downforce, wider tires and disc brakes were sweated out, made to work, by guys with thin lines of grease beneath their bitten fingernails in the hectic pits of Le Mans, Monaco, and Indianapolis. So what's all this production-car accessory fluff doing on a real racing car, a Porsche 911 GT1, campaigned by Pompano Beach, Florida's highly successful Champion Racing team?
Power mirrors? A cupholder? Why, these are Option Box items for families with soccer balls rattling in the trunks.
Well, not anymore.
Welcome to the era of the two-way street in racing-car design. Increasingly, ideas are circulating both ways, back and forth between the worlds of creature-comfort production cars and no-nonsense racing hardware. And old-hand Porsche knows well that little features like power assisted steering can make for a faster endurance racer.
"To be competitive in a long-distance race," explained our driver of the day, Steve Millen, after sampling the GT1 on a few exploratory laps around Central Florida's Moroso Park Race way, "it is very important to not only have reliability in the mechanical components, but in the driver too.
"After all, the advantage of an aerodynamic or mechanical tweak that gains you 0.1 second per lap isn't of much use if the driver is losing 0.5 sec. late in the race because the car causes strain or is uncomfortable."
While Porsche's new higher-tech, purebred racer, the GT1-98 (which just won Le Mans), has eclipsed this car on the world sports-car racing stage, the machine you're looking at is still worth some lengthy automotive meditation. At the risk of provoking hostile letters (or e-mails, or negative telepathic energy), I'll even argue that it's the ultimate cross-pollination between road and track.
Follow me here: Under the rules it's been built to, Champion's GT1 is based upon a saleable road-legal ver sion, literally engineering-in a road- car/race-car connection that you don't have to scratch too deep to expose. Admittedly, Porsche's million-dollar road-going GT1s roll on the fringe of what's sane to drive on public highways. But aiming a GT1 from, say, Stuttgart through the Alps to Monaco, isn't a completely nutty idea (as it would be in an FI, CART or IRL car—even if it were legal). Last September, Paul Frere drove one of the early road versions and concluded, "Driveability is probably the most astonishing feature...the engine is a model of tractability, readily pulling away from 900 rpm (about 25 mph) in 6th without protest."
Compared to the car Paul drove, Champion's racer is termed an Evo (evolution) version, carrying aerodynamically updated bodywork, meaning a Boxster/new 911 (996) look to its headlights and nose, and a resculpted tail. In person, it strikes you as considerably more compact and tense than photos suggest.
Beneath its rippling sweeps of white-painted carbon-fiber-and-Kevlar bodywork is an oddball blend of old and new 911 vital organs; many of them virtually off-the-shelf street car components, things you might nonchalantly order at a Porsche parts counter. For instance, the aforementioned electric mirrors and steering rack are essentially production components; the transaxle is a strengthened version of the 996's (although flipped around what with the GT1's engine being installed ahead of the rear axle). The flat-6 engine's fundamentals hail from the 996 as well (albeit in more oversquare, higher-revving, 3.2-liter form), meaning it's water-cooled with four valves per cylinder (although the heads bear significant resemblance to those of a 935 racer's). And in anticipation of the 996 Turbo, it's twin-turbocharged (with air-to-air intercoolers) and capable of twisting out maybe 750 bhp (at least briefly), although 600 or so is what's commonly asked of it in its North American GT racing forays.
While its drivetrain comes from the 996, much of the GT1's chassis is cribbed from the old 911 (the 993)— including the steel structure forward of the driver, and the carbon-reinforced A-pillars that frame a 993 Speedster's windshield glass. Stand back and trace the car's silhouette, and you'll feel the tiny muscles around your eyes slightly tense at the incongruence of a 996's nose blending into a 993's roof and then to its wind-tunnel-dictated after body. Visually, the car's forward half is like a 911 mini-history lesson. A hybrid offspring of two generations of Porsche parents.
Some of the GT1's embrace of production parts is levelheaded, Porsche practicality. For instance, employment of the stock-based forward structure allowed Stuttgart to detour the messy business of crash certifying a whole new chassis. Likewise, the turbocharging hardware is traceable to the old 935 (why reinvent the wheel—or in this case, the impeller?). Yet elsewhere, where it really matters, state-of-the-art reigns—most notably in the TAG electronic engine-management system and multi-piston Brembo carbon-on-carbon brakes (with ABS).
For an on-track comparison, the Champion team brought along a candy-store-red, stock 996 (easy to do if you're the country's largest Porsche dealer, as Champion is). Millen slid into its leather driver's seat, clicked the door closed and whistled off for several laps of Moroso. Pulling in, the 911 smoothly braked to a stop and was switched off. So how similar are the two cars to drive?
"Not very much, to be honest," Steve replied with a sheepish grin, nonchalantly climbing out of the production car. Surprisingly, Millen felt the GT1 was actually easier to drive than the stock 911, despite hitting 165 mph on the back straight. My notepad loosened in my fingers; that crashing sound you hear is a street/track premise collapsing like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
Actually, it's a good lesson in how the influence of firmer spring and shock rates, solid bushings and, most important, serious aerodynamics and racing tires (Michelins, in this case) virtually erases the personality parallels you'd expect from cars emerging from a common gene pool.
All right, then, how different are they?
Moroso's a pleasant, sinuous road course.But it's also an unusual place— partly for its notorious lake (where two drivers have perished), partly for its setting, notably the peacocks that like to parade the grounds. Interesting. But what I found more interesting were the drag strip and skidpad.
Steve settles into the GT1 and stares down the drag strip for a moment. The car's key (an ordinary 911 piece) is inserted in its customary, left-of-the-steering-wheel ignition switch.
The whole rear of the car erupts in a frenetic, taut noise that doesn't settle down. Air hisses into the overhead scoop to feed the intercoolers and turbos, the block vibrates with the action of hundreds of quick mechanical tasks performed inside. The exhaust pants hoarsely.
Then, fluidly, the GT1 suddenly snakes away, painting parallel black tire streaks toward the horizon and posting a 0-60 time of 3.4 sec., the quarter mile in 10.9 sec. at nearly 140 mph. With half the horsepower and one-sixth more weight, the stock 911 can manage 60 mph in 5 sec. (or a little less). Under braking from 60 mph, the Champion car clipped 36 ft. off the production car's distances (that's 27 percent shorter). Around the skid pad, it's race car, 1.07g; road car, 0.91g (although obviously, at higher speeds, the difference would dramatically grow because of the effect of aerodynamic downforce).
But it's the car's ease at going fast around the course that most impresses Millen: "Some race cars, you have to constantly fight; this has none of that. It has a nice, broad powerband; initially I was using lower gears, but now I'm staying in the higher ones because it pulls so strongly from 4000 rpm right to redline (7600 RPM)."
And like a good racing car, it's highly sensitive to adjustment. After the mechanics raise the front suspension 3 mm to better clear a small bump on the front straight, Millen immediately notices the altered handling. "Before, it was understeering mid-corner to exit, which was quite nice. Now it's understeering even as you go in." And the ABS? "At first it seemed a little odd. But after experimenting a bit, I found I could get into the corner a little too deep and the ABS would bail me out without flat- spotting the tires." While Steve lapped, I noticed a few stopwatches being clicked. A nice compliment.
Soon, though, the stopwatches may cease recording the lap times of readable race cars the likes of the mighty GT1.
And that's a shame, because the Porsche is a genuine throwback to the likes of Bugatti's Type 35s and Ferrari's GTOs. Machines that were amongst the world's fastest racing cars—yet were not delicate pieces of racing china that needed to be placed carefully back on the shelf when the race was over. The Champion GT1 could, when its racing career ends, live another life (and enrich ours) by being converted for road use, crossing that barrier that separates us from the increasingly abstract world of racing—a realm we are layer by layer more insulated from by catch fencing and made-for-TV racing specials. With Le Mans relaxing its requirement that manufacturers build batches of roadworthy versions of its racing entrants, sadly, it's a type we may not see again.