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.
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.
Even an ultra-supercar like the Pagani Zonda F still weighs 2,750 pounds, and the Lotus Elise has grown to over 1,500 pounds, so at 1,115, the Caterham Superlight R500 really is what the script says on its bodywork.
With 263 hp to propel that weight (1,137 with the sequential gearbox option), the R500’s power-to-weight ratio approximates that of the mighty Bugatti Veyron. Of course, other factors like gearing, aerodynamics and rev limits come into play, so although the little Caterham rockets to 62 mph in 2.95 seconds, it runs out of steam at 150 mph, well short of the Bugatti’s v-max.
However, on a racetrack, especially a tight one, the nearly four times heavier Bugatti would be out of its depth. Here, and on challenging country roads, the Caterham is in its element.
Getting into this rocket-powered rollerskate is an art in itself. You climb in over the sideavoiding the exhaust pipes if the car has just been drivenstep on the seat and then slide down into the seat. It feels like strapping the car on rather than getting into it.
Even someone of average size will find the Caterham’s cockpit a tight fit. Once in place, you hold the small steering wheel with both elbows bent, and one spilling out over the side. And if you have a passenger, you had better be on good terms as you will share the drive experience in very close proximity.
A significant option on the Superlight R500 is the sequential gearshift, which makes a huge amount of sense if you are intent on track attack times. Not only will this help you to shave your lap times, it will also ensure that you never misshift and buzz the motor.
From the first corner, your senses tell you that the Caterham operates with a different set of physical rules from other cars. For starters, it is so much narrower that you can take much straighter lines through bends, allowing you to carry more relative speed.
The steering is brilliant in terms of feel and feedback, communicating exactly what’s going on at the front wheels. I had fears that the small steering wheel and 1.93:1 ratio rack would make the car twitchy, but because the chassis is set up perfectly, it feels all-of-a-piece and totally secure in slow and fast bends alike.
The last Caterham I drove on a track was shod with normal road tires, and as it had far more handling than grip, I ended up drifting it through all the bends. The Avon CR500 track-day tires on 6- and 8x13 alloys, plus the R500’s lower weight and uprated suspension, put it into a completely different league, and it took me a couple of laps to find out just where the higher levels of mechanical grip ran out.
Although the other cars are light by roadgoing standards, you always feel you are managing understeer, oversteer and weight transfer in them. In contrast, the Caterham simply goes where you point it, and is by far the most accurate weapon here when it comes to clipping an apex within an inch of where you want to go, each time, every time.
The sequential gearshift totally keeps with the immediacy of the car’s character. You still have to use the clutch for each shift, but with no across-the-gate movements, speed and accuracy of ratio change is fast, precise and consistent.
Perhaps the only disappointing aspect is the rather flat soundtrack of its 2.0-liter Cosworth Ford Duratec four-cylinder. While it delivers a healthy 263 hp at 8500 rpm and 177 lb-ft of torque at 7200 rpm, it is best described as effective rather than charismatic.
But even the lack of aural brilliance won’t stop you from coming back from a few hot laps in the R500 with a grin on your face as broad as the proverbial Cheshire cat.
Being open-top, the Caterham brings you that much closer to the elements. This alfresco exposure, compact size, low weight and responsive control collectively delivers a visceral experience that makes the other cars feel a level or two removed from the proceedings. You really know you’re alive when you drive this car.
Of the three, the Ferrari is the one that’s not road legal. A former UK Challenge Series car, it can now only be used as a rich man’s toy for track-days.
Because of the way the series rules were framed, its engine is effectively the same as the road car’s, its 4.3-liter quad-cam V8 producing 483 hp at 8500 rpm, with 343 lb-ft of torque at 5250 rpm.
Like all race derivatives of road cars, the F430 Challenge has had its weight reduced to 2,700 pounds by a cockpit strip, so there are no carpets or soundproofing. The interior is furnished with a full roll cage, snug racing seats, five-point harnesses and a detachable steering wheel. The analog instruments are replaced by a digital display.
With no manettino, or start button, on the race steering wheel, the car is set in Race mode only, with traction control and stability systems permanently disengaged, and only ABS and ASR left active. The E-differential is replaced with a mechanical limited-slip differential, and the coilover suspension has much stiffer race springs and dampers.
Getting in and out of the Challenge car is your first baptism of fire. Clearing the cage’s sidebars involves putting both feet on the seat, holding on to the top bar and climbing in. Once in, you find that the already-compact cabin is made even more so by the cage. Your race helmet is almost permanently in contact with it. I decided to retain the resultant marks on my helmet as badges of honor.
With less weight to pull, the V8 revs up a fraction faster than in the road car, and the lack of soundproofing gives you the full dose of soundtrack right behind your head. Revving to redline involves the whole gamut of sounds from the baritone low end to the primal scream of the flat-plane crank V8 in full battle cry. The six-speed paddle-operated gearbox shifts ratios in 180ms, which is pretty much instantaneously. It also blips the throttle perfectly on downshifts.
However, the over-square V8 motor does its best work over 4000 rpm, and I had to use Second gear to obtain convincing acceleration out of the two slowest corners at Ascari, where the other cars were happy in Third.
A very low car in standard form, made lower by its race suspension setup, the F430 Challenge initially feels more like a racing car than the more upright GT3 RS.
Like the Porsche, the F430 Challenge is very sensitive to the state of its tires. When they are on their way out, the stiff front end understeers noticeably in tighter bends, the mechanical limited-slip differential that replaces the E-diff of the road car, contributing to this.
However, when the tires are doing their job and the suspension is properly dialed, the Ferrari’s handling is a thing of beauty. Unlike the F360 Challenge, which was very snappy at the limit, the F430 Challenge lets go progressively, and trail braking to rotate the tail into a bend holds no peril.
The F430’s underbody aero is a treat, more so with the lower Challenge car, which better utilizes the ground effect to keep it anchored in fast bends. In fact, in medium and fast bends, the understeer in the slower turns due to the worn slicks was counterbalanced to some extent by the aero.
The F430 Challenge driving experience is best described as intense. The pure racer of the group, it bombards your senses with furious sounds and sensations from the moment you pull out of the pit lane. Doing a 10-lap race in this car would be both incredible and emotionally draining.
Dialogue Between Driver And Car Bores Straight Into Your Synapses.
Derived from a design that hails from the 1960s, the Caterham Superlight R500 has a level of purity and tactility that is so evenly embedded in its DNA, it’s hard to see how it could be further improved. Its balance of strengths is spot-on in all respects, and as a pure, fun car, it is unsurpassed, even in this exalted company. The only downside to the least expensive car in this comparison is that fact that it is impractical as daily transport.
As a race car, the F430 Challenge is impressive, but as a track-day car, it will cost more to run than the equivalent Porsche Carrera Cup or Supercup car. In practice, owners have found the high-revving V8 to be very reliable if looked after properly; it’s other bits of the car that are high maintenance. If used on high-grip tracks, the Ferrari seems to knock out its tires and wheel bearings very quickly.
The engineers at Weissach have found the Holy Grail with the GT3 RS. In this context, that means the perfect balance between engine and chassis coupled to the build quality and practical nature of a Porsche, coupled to a not-unreasonable price tag and good residual values.
The RS is the car that truly delivers the best of both worlds, and even retains enough comfort to be used as a daily driver. This is a car I would happily drive off into the sunset with, and like all true greats, I’m sure it will still feel good when I revisit it a few years down the line.