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.
Diving back inside, laminated carbon highlights are as present as magnesium touches. The entire console structure is of carbon fiber and gets fused directly to the floor of the monocoque. All knobs and switches on the console are of magnesium. Both seats have carbon-fiber shells coated in a pleasing Kevlar fabric and weigh 6.2 lb less each than the seats in the 911 GT3. There is no automation for the seats either, which shaves off another 9 lb from the total. As Hlscher put it, "The 'combat version' without satellite navigation, CD player or air conditioning weighs 1,380 kg (3,043 lb). With all those added-and most are getting them-it's 1,440 kilos (3,175 lb)." To compare, the GT2 hits 3,175 lb and the Enzo 3010 at their lightest. The soon-to-launch SLR McLaren weighs in at 3,900 lb and the Lamborghini Murcilago 3,638 lb.
Comparing the Carrera GT with Enzo in dimensions, overall length reads 181.6 in. (CGT) versus 185.1 in. (Enzo) and width 75.6 (CGT) versus 80.1 (Enzo). Carrera GT's track widths hit 63.5 in. in front, 62.5 in back, with Enzo at 65.4/65. Finally, their wheelbases come in at 107.5 in. (CGT) and 104.3 (Enzo), creating a significant difference between them in length:wheelbase ratios. Both interiors possess sufficient driver room in all dimensions for anyone falling within the 90th percentile physically.
Looking head-on at the Carrera GT, the three major front air intakes provide engine cooling, while the two sub-intakes either end of the big central opening direct air to cool the front ceramic brakes. Looking at it from the side, the intake behind the left door cools the condenser for the a/c, that behind the right door chilling the gearbox oil. The upper parts of both of these side vents steers air through the air filters for engine induction. Hazard lights on the red and silver cars were flashing red here, while on the black car they flashed a fitting yellow.
The time had come to launch the muthah. I've experienced testy racing clutches for 25 or so years, and the mechanism on the Carrera GT is one of the testiest in recent memory. Perfecting one's launch technique is one of the great sources of pride and enjoyment on such a car. All the same, I asked Porsche Racing engineer Kussmaul why a spring to ease pedal leverage and throw had not been designed in. He told me, "We discussed this a lot, but such a spring in this case would have added one kg (2.2 lb). So, it's not there." I got the GT to get going at several rev counts, but the best way-especially if you want to look cool in front of pedestrians and you're not in a hurry-is to give it no gas and just ease out the clutch. On the other hand, if you find yourself on a huge 2-mile-long airstrip, tester Rhrl suggests, "Anywhere around 3500 rpm, traction control off and then just find the proper release timing on the clutch is the best way for speed runs with minimal wheelspin."
A word on the clutch. It's a world-first ceramic unit concocted by Porsche's racing engineers and created by the same company in Germany (SGL) responsible for the Porsche ceramic composite brakes. The actual material for the brakes of randomly packed fibers was tried, but had only a 7000-rpm average failure threshold. The new material of intricately interwoven sheets creates a threshold of 20,000 rpm, more than sufficient to handle the engine's 8400-rpm redline. Three major benefits of this technology are the dramatically low weight of the two-plate unit, its remarkable 6.65-in. diameter that allows the dry-sump engine to rest at the lowest possible center of gravity within the chassis and its longer service life compared to a conventional clutch. The simple upshot of all this is a smooth and short-throw shifting action through the six-speed manual lever comfortably placed just right of the steering wheel.
Why no Audi DSG (Direct Shift Gearbox) style dual-clutch sequential with shift paddles? After all, it was Porsche that came up with this technology some years ago. Again the engineers state that this would raise both the weight and center of gravity, so all 1,500 Carrera GTs to be built will have the six-speed manual as you see here. There is no talk of any sort of automatic transmission and no all-wheel-drive plans. Thank the car gods.
I first took to public roads for a 60-mile loop. You do have to be aware of the 3.75-in. ground clearance in front and 4.3 in. in back, but that's not much different than on the GT2 or GT3. Just goofing around, I put the tranny in sixth gear at about 30 mph and 1000 rpm, then punched it. Within 3 sec. and without any hiccups, the Carrera GT was winding up all that power and spitting me out like a boiled potato. Stated 0-to-62-mph acceleration (0 to 100 km/h) is 3.9 sec. I'd be surprised if one of us during a full-on test didn't find a 3.5-sec. 0-to-60-mph run possible. The run from 0 to 124 mph (200 km/h) is again conservatively listed at 9.9 sec. The engine feels best during hard acceleration when keeping shift points around 7600 rpm.
The big square-shouldered Michelins and assisted steering exhibit no signs of tramlining. Feeling and feedback through the steering wheel and column (both taken from the 911) are, dare I say, perfect. Best in the world as I know it. Response to input, given the long wheelbase, wide tracks, low center of gravity, 42/58 weight distribution and racing-style stainless-steel pushrod suspension front and rear (dampers by Sachs, springs by H&R), is exhilarating without being go-kart-ish. Just a tick better, I dare also say, than on the Enzo.
Drag coefficient due to all of the needed downforce is a fairly production-supercar normal 0.396. With the roof panels off and tucked away under the hood, wind buffeting is actually very acceptable at higher speeds. What is noticeable is the healthy wind noise coming off of the A-pillars and side-view mirrors. The electro-hydraulic rear spoiler raises 6.3 in. in 5 sec. once you exceed 75 mph and will drop back down under normal use once you're averaging below 50 mph. If the system sensors determine that you're in race mode and the large exhaust silencer located directly beneath the spoiler is glowing-hot and expanding, the wing will stay up at all speeds until things cool down. The added stability created by this spoiler is impressive-30% more impressive, according to Porsche engineers.
Back at base camp, the roof panels went on and there was a true speedometer hooked up in the passenger foot well to prepare for the speed runs on Runway #1. With 1.8 miles of the 2-mile concrete slab at our disposal, off I went for four attempts. All 604 horses come your way at a whopping 8000 rpm and almost all of the 435 lb-ft of torque is available between 4500 and 8000 rpm. Top speed on the Carrera GT is listed as 205 mph. The fastest I managed was 202 mph and I craved the added mile of Runway #2, but it was off limits. Walter Rhrl walked up to me and said we really needed that greater length to reach 205 mph. That I shouldn't feel bad. I told him I was actually surprised how easily the final 30 mph came given the distance limitation. Braking from the 15-in. ceramic composite discs was equally quick and just as grindy and fade-free as the Brembos on the Enzo.
Then we went to a shorter third runway for slaloming between several cones set about 100 ft apart. Entering the slalom and holding 75 mph with the Bosch traction control on, the adhesion, lack of roll and that perfect steering made it all incredibly do-able. And, as with the power-assisted steering, the traction control strikes an excellent (read: non-intrusive) balance between helping you and letting you have a good time. Porsche has unofficially seen a lateral acceleration figure of 1.2 gs and I don't doubt it. Again, Rhrl: "Back when we started testing in April 2002 on the Nrburgring, at over 250 km/h (155 mph) the car was extremely nervous during steering input. Working with Michelin and adjusting the suspension setup has solved all of that." He eventually managed the 14.17-mile lap in close to 7 min. and 30 sec.
As if to demonstrate these all-important points, Rhrl takes me for a furiously fun ride around several of the abandoned hangars and utility roads that used to be thoroughfares for transporting nuclear missiles between silos. This projectile in his hands is a phenomenon. First, with traction control on, he takes everything at the absolute limit to show how accomplished this Bosch system really is. Then, with traction control off, we do the circuit again and the tire smoke and sound are right out of Starsky and Hutch, but the metered controllability of the Carrera GT-particularly when driven by its ace pilot-is inspiring. As we slide to a stop, I ask him immediately: "Which way do you prefer?" He grins back at me, "For the absolute best timing, probably the first way. For the best time, definitely the second."
For one day, remotest eastern Germany was the spiciest and most hopping place in the world. The new Leipzig factory-also in the former East Germany-is building all Carrera GTs. For now, the promise is two cars completed per day through November 2004. After that, the average will bump up to 2.7 per. Why? Carbon-fiber components supplier ATR finishes its 399-unit Ferrari Enzo contract at that point and will then be able to dedicate all its efforts to the Carrera GT. There are no factory racing plans for the car and no formal customer programs for privateers. Over 1,000 of the 1,500 planned Carrera GTs have been spoken for with half of that total coming to North America. Placing your order now will ensure mid-2005 delivery.
Find the money.