With increasing restrictions on public roads, more car enthusiasts have been signing up for track-days where they can extend their cars in relative safety. The choice of dedicated track-day machines is expanding all the time, and thinly disguised road-legal track machines from the Radical and KTM X-Bow to the Gumpert Apollo offer hard-core track junkies a true race car experience at different price points.
However, not everyone wants a second or third car that’s totally impractical for normal road use, so we lined up three seriously quick road cars at the Ascari Race Resort to see just how close they come to giving you a race car experience.
The Porsche 911 GT3 RS is a genuine, practical supercar, while the Caterham Superlight R500, with its supercar-like power-to-weight ratio, is a minimalist machine whose basic design has been honed to a fine point over decades of development from the original Lotus Seven.
Then we threw a wild card into the mix in the form of a Ferrari F430 Challenge, the race version of the F430 road car. As this has just been made obsolete by the ’11 Ferrari Italia Challenge, there will be a few F430 Challenge cars floating around looking for homes.
Wealthy enthusiasts often find ex-race cars like the F430 Challenge, a Porsche Carrera Cup or GT3 RSR appealing as track-day cars. Unlike our three road-legal machines however, these have to be transported to and from the circuit on a trailer.
Porsche 911 GT3 RS
While the second-generation GT3 that debuted in 2009 stood out for its power, torque, chassis dynamics and all-around competence, it left me emotionally unmoved. On reflection, I realized that while its dynamic excellence impressed at an empirical level, this car lacked the je ne sais quoi that would make me want to put one in my garage.
The GT3 RS, on the other hand, has all the missing ingredients and more. Not only does it take the strengths of the GT3 to the next level, it throws a large measure of the subjective excitement I sought into the mix as well. Its ability to engage its driver with the finite tactile, aural and seat-of-the-pants inputs that seem hidden behind a thin veil in the normal GT3 is nothing short of spellbinding.
With a single-mass flywheel, more aggressive ignition timing, and a raft of changes to the suspension, like wider tracks and wider bodywork, the RS is as different from the GT3 as the RSR 2.8 was from its Carrera RS 2.7 sibling in 1973. The resulting heightened level of dialogue between car and driver bores straight into your synapses, bypassing rational thought to establish the instinctive emotional connection that makes the difference between a good sports car and a great one. It fully justifies use of the hackneyed phrase the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. There is real synergy at work here.
The RS feels more communicative and alive than any other current production 911, even approaching the realm of the Carrera GT in areas like throttle response, and the way that power bursts from its motor rather than merely developing with engine speed.
The irony is that despite its greater front and rear track widths, it feels more nimble and agile than the GT3, and responds more deftly to inputs at the helm. The 40-pound weight reduction over its sibling is significant (but not that significant at 3,000 pounds overall). But when you consider that unlike some rivals, Porsche measures weight with all fluids and half a tank of fuel on board, then it is light by new car standards.
On track, I could not help but think how much the RS reminded me of a very well sorted race car, sans the discomfort. Zero to 62 mph takes 4 seconds and the top speed is 192 mph. But while this is important, it is secondary to the car’s response and handling on both road and track.
Every time I drive a GT3 Cup car, that feeling of heightened and much more urgent response in the throttle, steering and engine note, and the crisper and more tactile feedback from all the controls is immediately apparent. It is like being wired directly to the soul of the car.
The same is true of the GT3 RS, albeit at a more civilized level. Using hi-fi amplifier analogy, the non-linear character of some volume controls means that you have to turn the knob beyond a certain point before the sound really blossoms.
The RS has an immediacy that feels like the big dial has been turned up a couple of clicks to the point where the soundstage opens up and everything snaps into focus. The result is revelatory.
Boasting 444 hp at 7600 rpm and 370 lb-ft of torque at 6750 rpm, the blueprinted 3.8-liter flat-six revs much faster and with far more vigor than the GT3’s. The power literally explodes from the motor rather than merely building, and carries on right to the cutout, underpinned by that spine-tingling exhaust note. It is an experience that gets you going even in normal driving, when you cannot exploit the chassis and aero, the other two areas of big improvement.
Here, the GT3 RS turned in crisply to the slower corners, exhibiting the pointy and grippy front end I remembered. It also felt tremendously stable in the faster bends, where you could feel the aero working to your advantage. With nearly double the downforce at speed of the previous year’s RS, its ability in high-speed bends is a big eye opener.
The second-generation GT3 RS generates 370 pounds of total downforce at 186 mph, nearly 70 percent more than the previous model. This makes a huge difference to high-speed stability, both in a straight line and when cornering, especially in long sweepers. That extra stability and the relatively benign chassis gives you a much bigger confidence window in fast bends.
After a couple of fast laps, it’s apparent that the Michelin Cup-shod Porsche has better traction out of slow bends than the Ferrari on slicks, and interestingly, although it is a road car, the GT3 RS is ultimately not much slower on track than the high-maintenance F430 Challenge racer. It delivers much of the thrills with none of the pain.