Driving Porsche's new 911 GT3 for the first time on a track I'd never seen before might have been nerve-wracking. However, even with a three-time winner of the 24 Heures du Mans sitting next to me and eyeing my every move, I enjoyed lap after lap of pursang sports car fun.
The GT3 is so accomplished that it transformed my fists of ham and feet of clay into sharply hewn components of a precision machine. With Hurley Haywood along to provide insight and instruction (and a few fast laps of his own to show how it was really done), my day at Virginia International Raceway was an ideal introduction to Porsche's fastest naturally aspirated street car.
Porsche uses the GT3's 3.6-liter six to homologate the engines it develops for racing, so it is beneficiary of a mouthwatering menu of technology. It's all about getting weight out of the reciprocating components and making it breathe better. A total of 7.7 lb was removed from the engine, which turns so smoothly that no vibration dampers are needed on the crank, saving about 5 lb more. The intake and exhaust cams were tuned to a sharper edge, and a new tappet design contributes to more rapid valve opening and higher valve lift, essential components of a deep-lunged engine. Version ME 7.8 of Porsche's engine management system ensures efficient, clean running.
The 380 bhp grabs the asphalt through the rear wheels only-gloriously unimpeded by any sort of traction control (ABS is the only electronic aid of any sort). Bigger brakes and wheels than in the 911 Turbo, improved aerodynamics, adjustable ride-height suspension, Michelin's newest generation of Pilot Sport rubber and the best power-to-weight ratio in the line help the GT3 perform like the best-balanced athlete ever to rise from the 911 gene pool. It has only two seats, and the air conditioning can be left out to save further weight, but at 3,043 lb (compare to a 2003 C2 at 2,959 lb, a C4 at 3,267 lb or a GT2 at 3,168 lb), it still is more street car than race car.
But what streetable performance! The $99,900 car is said to blast from 0 to 60 mph in 4.3 sec., 0 to 124 mph in 14.3 sec. and reach a top speed of 190, and I wasn't even halfway to the 8200-rpm redline when I became a believer. A full 80% of maximum power is seen by 2000 rpm, while the 280 lb-ft of torque peaks at 5000 rpm.
As the Club Sport seat welcomed me into its well-bolstered arms, once again I marveled at the 911's perfect seating position. The GT3's only gearbox is a six-speed manual transmission, blessed with delightfully short and precise shift throws, revised synchro rings (out of steel instead of brass) and splash oil lubrication and external fluid cooling (similar to Porsche racing practice). The track layout was ideal for exploring the car's strengths-which are many but begin with the new, optional ceramic composite brakes. They're 50% lighter than the standard system, reducing unsprung weight by almost 40 lb. The cross-drilled, inner vented ceramic rotors are immune to corrosion, are virtually fade-free and their hardness means an extended service life. On that day at the track, they were simply awesome, especially when setting up for the acute, second-gear right-hander just after the long, 150-mph front straight. It took a couple of laps to for me to "get" it; at first I was stabbing them much too hard and too early, but soon I learned how deep they could take me into a corner with smooth and steady application of the pedal.
And getting through the corners was a study in control due to the stiffer suspension settings and an asymmetric-control limited-slip differential that ranges from 40% lock at the start to 60% once the car is underway. Running gear is comprised of 8.5x18s in front with 235/40s and 11x18s in the rear with 295/30s. The new Michelin Pilot Sport tires that come standard on the GT3 have a unique dual-compound tread design, the outer half for cornering and traction and the inner half for wet handling and high-speed durability. It wasn't long before their predictable grip allowed me to throttle steer with glee through the tight bends.
After the lapping was over, my passenger, winner of more endurance classics than any other driver, said simply, "Good job." Whether this was just his way of saying "Thank you for not crashing the car" or not, matters little. Those two words from Hurley were the perfect end to an exhilarating day in the GT3.