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Not too Porsche to push – Autosport

not-too-porsche

The Porsche 911 family has developed a life of its own over the last decade or so, evolving from the tail-happy, big-winged yuppiemobiles of the 1980s to the performance cars you see now. The 911 has been developed by some of the world’s best racing drivers and engineers at tracks everywhere from the streets of Macau to the banking at Daytona and the straights of Le Mans. Supercars used to be allowed to break down once in a while and handle so badly that just going shopping became an extreme sport. However, the modern cars are super fast, have refined handling and can be thrashed on a regular, even daily, basis.

Hence the Porsche Cup. Based on a near-standard road car, the first Cup cars went racing in Europe in 1993 and quickly became a success. Wheel to wheel racing in identical cars built to last – there are now seven official ‘Porsche Cup’ national series in addition to the ‘Supercup’, which follows the F1 circus. For years, drivers and teams have battled away in equal cars and developed their careers under the Porsche banner.

Porsche has designed a new 911 GT3 Cup car designated the 997 and will build over 170 of them this winter. Teams and drivers in the UK will use the cars to compete in the national series for healthy prize money and the opportunity to take home a Porsche 911 Carrera 2 road car by winning the series.

Ultimately, the 997 will make its transition to RS/RSR in order to compete against other manufacturers in GT racing; just like the car I’m currently racing for Embassy in the British and FIA International GT Series. The RSR kits give the cars more power and aerodynamic grip, while the regulatory differences permit weight and various other modifications to make the RS cars faster.

To find out if the 997 is just another number, I was sent down to Pembrey in South Wales. At first sight, the new 997 doesn’t look much different to the 996, except for a slightly extended front splitter which, apparently, balances some minor changes to the bodywork. Together, they increase overall downforce. Then, to my surprise, I was told to sit in the passenger seat so that Porsche works driver Marc Lieb (with whom I was battling in the Embassy Porsche only days before at Spa), could scare the hell out of me on the track…

As a passenger, I was able to compare the ride and weight transfer of the 997 to what I’ve become used to with the Embassy RSR, in between bouts of nausea and imagining the comparative safety of my sofa! Driving a Porsche hard is typically a very busy experience with the engine weight across the rear axle – from braking and turn in, through to the exit you have to distinguish the squirms from the slides and control them correctly to be fast. As I watched Marc flicking on the opposite lock through some of the fast corners I mistakenly assumed this was to counter the good ol’ rear roll effect.

Climbing into the car for my turn, I felt at home straight away with the cockpit layout virtually identical to the Embassy 996 RSR. The new Cup car has a six-speed sequential gearbox, replacing the old manual box which brings it up to scratch with the RSR. The car slid around a bit more than I expected on my out-lap, but once the crew adjusted the pressures the car balanced and felt surprisingly good. On the limit through Honda corner at just under 100mph, I noticed my steering inputs becoming a real blur from apex to exit. It was then that I realised Marc had been correcting for the bumps of Pembrey rather than for the car’s handling. The ever-present rear roll wasn’t there and Marc later explained the major improvement in rear stability has come from the new rear suspension pick-up points on the 997, which were developed to tackle this.

I expected the car to have a lot less grip on skinnier tyres and with less downforce than the RSR but I was really impressed by the overall feel and how much I could commit to the high-speed corners. Once everything came up to temperature the car was very predictable and quite easy to drive. The handling was sharp, stiff and responsive.

If the car was good in the corners, it was great under braking. Regular Cup drivers will be relieved to hear that ABS is not a feature of the new 997 and they will not be required to second guess what the black magic in the black box is up to. ABS can be especially frustrating when it decides to make an impression just before an apex under heavy braking – drivers will now be able to brake deeper into corner, but have to control their mistakes as well. The brakes are quite sharp, but perfectly balanced for the level of aerodynamic grip from the car and more importantly, from the tyres.

Michelin remains dominant in GT racing and the features that helped it win the GT and LMP categories at Le Mans this year, are present in the tyres used in the Cup series. The car is controllable on the limit under braking. As the wheels start locking you can ease the brake pressure and the tyres release from the lock-up quickly and without blistering.
I was told Michelin is making a few minor changes to the tyres for 2006, but the message is that it will be business as usual, with a consistent tyre that allows the drivers to slog it out.

In terms of power, the car was balanced and a lot of fun. The output of the 997 means the Porsche Cup remains the most powerful one-make GT series in Britain. According to the stats, the new 997 has 400Nm of torque at 7300 rpm, which means 10Nm more torque than last year’s car and 10Nm less than the Embassy 996 RSR. The 997 weighs in at 1140kg, which is only 40kg heavier than the RSR; so the power to weight ratio is very similar. I suspect, though, that the quoted RSR power figures are on the conservative side: it’s more of a handful to drive.

To sum up, the new car is a better handling version of its predecessor, with more power and a more driver-friendly braking system. It’s a testimony to the car that, despite having less power and being less ‘tuned’ than my Embassy RSR, it was still as much fun to drive. But why would you go and race in a series full of Porsches?

For starters, you miss the inter-brand competition that we face in the FIA and British GTs, battling with Ferraris, Moslers and TVRs – when we don’t win, we can just blame the car! Joking aside, in Cup racing everyone is in the same boat and the racing is very close, very robust and brilliant to watch. The British series takes in some of the best venues in the UK, including Brands Grand Prix course which is still mega despite the loss of Dingle Dell (why, oh why?!). The participants are also spoilt by the Porsche infrastructure, which is a godsend for entertaining sponsors and developing media relations. The series is well run and the costs are minimised by using cars which, in the case of the 997, will race for at least three years
as part of a controlled programme.

In the event that a driver or team becomes too big for the Cup pond, there’s the wider world of Porsche motorsport to get involved in. Scarily, according to www.porsche.com, that world has produced more than “23,000 racing victories in just over 50 years by Porsche factory and customer teams”, including: “Paris-Dakar Rally twice, the Makes World Championship nine times, the Daytona 24-hour race 19 times, the Sebring 12 hours 17 times and the 24-hour race at Le Mans 16 times.” Porsche GT race cars are still the pacesetters in the FIA World Series and in American Le Mans. Porsche’s new LMP2 will use some kind of futuristic alien technology and further the Stuttgart record of success at Le Mans.

Back on earth – the 997 will produce great racing next year. Successful drivers will get the chance to graduate to GT racing, catch the attention of the factory or perhaps snag a drive in one of the international races. Asia Cup Champ Matthew Marsh picked up an outing at Monaco this year while British Champ Richard Westbrook has returned to the international arena in the F1-supporting Porsche Supercup. On the flip-side, British GT champ Jonathan Cocker and F3 race winner Danny Watts have both competed in the Asia Cup. I hope to get a chance to race in the 997 and in the meantime, plan to keep the Embassy Racing Porsche at the head of the field!

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