For some, Porsche may have caused concern of late. There's been the Porsche Club of America discount gaff, the ongoing hubbub over the Cayenne SUV, slowing sales of Boxsters and 996 911s and still no GT3 RS allowed to come our way. And how many more 996 variations will happen before the 997? (There are fourteen total as you read this, thirteen in North America.)
Porsche could easily seem to be adopting a bunker stance at the Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen compound.
Quietly, however, beginning at the 4pm victory of the Porsche 911 GT1 at the 1998 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Carrera GT has progressed with no visible sense of hurry. Called Project S1 internally, the new car was to be Porsche's next factory effort for Le Mans in 2000. Then race plans were dropped, but S1 went forward as a street car in the special projects and motorsports departments at Weissach. The first prototype-by now officially named Carrera GT-was shown in 2000 at the Louvre before the Paris motor show. When the production version was at last unveiled in Geneva in March 2003, there was an odd lack of celebration. The Carrera GT felt like just another brilliant product being given the typically humble German rollout.
But then came this real rollout at summer's bittersweet end.
Landing in Berlin, I got a ride out of town toward the northeast in an A8 rapidly for about an hour and a half. Having nice, modern cars and a free market is still relatively new for Germans of the east and the order and courtesy so famous on western autobahns is also slow to catch on here. There was the occasional Wartburg or Trabant still clinging to life in the fast lane.
About one mile outside of the vast Berlin city limits, far eastern Germany looks like Siberia or the Florida panhandle with evergreen trees everywhere and a mostly Kansas-flat landscape. No landmarks and few buildings in sight. This was the Russian sector of the former East Germany and the small towns we eventually drive through once off the autobahn are drab and sad with only a few townspeople walking the streets despite the perfect sunny weather and warm temperatures.
We drive through a dog-eared village called Gros (pron. grohss) Dlln and soon turn right onto a tiny road leading through the sea of trees to a gate. Once through the gate, I could swear I heard the Russian army chorus thrumming some war anthem off in the distance. Here was a huge abandoned barracks from the 1970s, there a derelict research building. We passed the old parade grounds, drove by empty earth- and tree-camouflaged jet hangars and missile silos. Then there it was.
Runway #1 at the Gros Dlln ex-Russian base-the one we were to use for high-speed runs-is 2 miles long. Runway #2 parallels #1 and is still the longest in Europe at 2.8 miles. Russian Tu-95 bombers and MiG fighters used these runways up to and for a while after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. It's said that the Red Army retained control of Gros Dlln for about a year while everything vital was removed or burned.
We came to a stop and I snapped out of my Cold War daydreams. Before me rumbled three shimmering $440,000 Porsche Carrera GTs-one red, one black and one silver. And the engines weren't even running.
I got right down to business, slinging myself into the silver one. Ignition is, of course, to the upper left. The wake-up roar of the all-aluminum (but for titanium connecting rods) 604-bhp (SAE rating) 5.7-liter 68 V10-called M80 internally-through the twin-chamber exhaust is supreme and just below German-legal decibel limits. It's not a deep and "gravelly" American muscle-car sound, nor is it Maranello high and raspy but strikes an ecstatic medium between these.
When first seen in Paris, the engine was a 5.5-liter with 550 bhp, but then the Enzo effect, among other things, helped urge Porsche on to bore it out to a 5.7-liter good for the 604 bhp. As a result, the main radiator up front for engine cooling got bigger and potential cargo space smaller. In addition, the rear suspension is now attached directly to the subframe and the engine is not attached directly to the chassis anymore. Project leader Michael Hlscher remarked, "When the project started officially after Paris 2000, I drove both the Le Mans GT1 car and our Carrera GT prototype and realized that the noise created by having the engine bolted to the chassis motorsports-style was not a possibility." Other alterations worth mentioning are the windshield angle (now more realistically upright versus the steep rake of the show car) and the inclusion of roof panels.
Stamped into the heat-drawn magnesium coating much of the center console -a difficult process pulled off by Stolfig in Germany-is the "Carrera GT" logo. Below that is the chassis number. These three pre-production models-there are five in all-get the number "0000" and are to be kept in Stuttgart for company use. (Can I join the company, please?) The "0001" goes into the museum at Zuffenhausen. By the way, all Carrera GT buyers get additional notarized documents of authentication from Porsche.
Weight-loss was Job One, according to everyone involved with the GT: design leader Anthony Hatter, project manager Hlscher, composites specialist Oliver Stoffels and engineering guru Roland Kussmaul. Besides the carbon composite body panels and dash bathed in magnesium, the 19-in. wheels in front and 20-in. rears are forged magnesium. Not only are these wheels 25% lighter than any aluminum alternative, they weigh less than the Michelin Pilot Sport PS2s wrapped around them. In another nod to motorsports, the wheels attach to the hubs via just one center bolt, blue for the right side and red for the left to help your pit crew avoid cross-threading.
The revolutionary two-compound PS2s-265/35 ZR front, 335/30 ZR rear -were specially formulated for the GT to provide even tread wear whether ripping it up on slaloms or cruising in a straight line. Under normal use they'll give you 12,500 miles and currently run around $1,500 apiece. Under serious race conditions, chief test driver Walter Rhrl (1980 and 1982 World Rally Championship winner) has gotten 200 miles from a set. Compare this to about 30 miles from a standard set of already superior Pilot Sports on the Audi RS6- same abrasive surface, same vicious urgency, same amazing driver.
Following parameters set by Porsche engineers, ATR in Italy created all the lightweight carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic bits: body, monocoque and subframe. The whole naked chassis weighs just 220 lb and makes the Carrera GT 10% more rigid, with or without the two carbon-fiber roof panels in place, than a 911 GT2. ATR also does all composite work on the Ferrari Enzo. On agreement between Porsche and Ferrari, designer Hatter picked up a pre-production Enzo at the factory and drove it back to Germany for one week of benchmarking in April 2003. In return, Maranello got one of these "0000" Carrera GTs for the same purpose in October after I had this drive.