Musings on the Past

20 years of the Porsche 911 GT3: The car that started a craze

Welcome to the year of our Lord 2019, where Jaguar can sell you a stripped out four-door sedan with two race-harness equipped front seats and a massive roll cage in place of its rear seats with the headlining boast of lapping the Nordschleife quicker than a Ferrari Enzo. Truly it is a time to be alive.

If Jaguar’s XE SV Project 8 is a little over the top for your tastes, don’t worry, in this day and age track day specials come in all shapes and price points. Want hot hatch that is a Nürburgring lap record holder that costs close to a brand new 911? Renault has you covered. Want the wind to shear off your receding hairline in a blaze of 300kph glory? Ferrari, McLaren, and Lamborghini are more than happy to sell you topless versions of their track-honed specials – that is if you have been a good boy

As audacious as it sounds, there is nothing new with carmakers rolling out specialty metal with a penchant for the track. Ever since we first worked out the concept of a chariot, we have been racing through hippodromes, streets, and over the front lawn of retirees throughout civilised history.

What’s different now is that track specials are no longer considered a “specialty” off-shoot but a fixed feature in a company’s product line-up. If we are to single out the potential patient zero of this trend, one needs to look no further than the Porsche 911 GT3, which incidentally, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.

For Porschephiles or anybody with a modicum of knowledge about Stuttgart’s finest arse-engined creations, the 911 GT3 was by no means Porsche’s – or even the 911’s – first track-bred dark horse. Porsche has been cranking out road-going racing 911s since Ferry Porsche decided to put his 29-year old nephew in charge of research and development, some bloke by the name of Ferdinand Karl Piëch. 

A year later Piëch created the 1967 Porsche 911 R, the lightest 911 model Porsche has ever built, with the sole purpose of smashing the competition in GT racing. While never homologated, the 911 R’s capability in mounting a challenge towards its fellow Porsche prototype racers inspired the company to greenlight the 1973 911 Carrera RS 2.7, which was homologated for racing and went onto become the Holy Grail of Porsche enthusiasts.

In many ways, the hardcore models that followed after the first RS were built for homologation purposes of components or whole cars. The 996-generation 911 GT3 was no different, though this time around, instead of being built in Porsche’s Motorsports Department in Weissach, the GT3 shared the same production line as its 911 cousins in Zuffenhausen. 

When the 911 GT3 first came out in 1999, it was the anti-thesis of the range-topping 911 Turbo, which was by then turning into an Autobahn-crushing grand tourer rather than being the judicator of Darwinian justice its 930-generation progenitor was. Instead, Porsche aimed the GT3 at well-heeled enthusiasts who want the ultimate track-day toy, and what they delivered didn’t disappoint. 

Rear-wheel drive, motorsports-inspired naturally-aspirated engine, lightened, and dynamically sharper, the first 911 GT3 had all the right ingredients that filtered down from the ethos of Piëch’s 911 R. A Nürburgring lap time of under eight minutes – thanks to the help of its development driver Walter Röhrl no less – added to the new model’s prestige, and might have been the opening salvo in what would become a decades-long title chase between manufacturers at the famed circuit.

Where the 996-generation 911 GT3 differs from its predecessors was that it didn’t just stop at the 1999 model. Keeping in line with Porsche’s planned three to four-year mid-lifecycle updates, a facelifted 996 911 GT3 was unveiled in 2003, with power upped from 265kW to 280kW and carbon-ceramic brakes made available as an option.

Porsche also revived the RS badge in that same year for an even more unadulterated version of the GT3, the GT3 RS. It was clear that the GT3 had become a staple of Porsche’s stable, eventually usurping the 911 Turbo as the 911’s most celebrated road-going variant.

More than just offer a new halo for the affluent track-going enthusiasts to pine after, the original 1999 911 GT3 was among the first example of a lightened and hardened track-oriented variant that capped off a model line-up, and it wasn’t long for other carmakers to have their take on the concept.

In the same year of the updated 996-generation 911 GT3’s introduction in 2004, Ferrari released their first non-homologated and factory-built track-focused model, the 360 Challenge Stradale. BMW released the M3 CSL a year later, also followed the GT3’s mantra of more power, less weight, and billed as the ultimate iteration of its series.

Before the advent of the GT3, it was a given that the flagship performance model would be blessed with more speed, more features, and more luxuries. It has always been assumed that wealthy customers, who were more accustomed to the finer things in life, would baulk at the idea of paying more for something that offered a “less is more” approach, even if the success of Porsche’s pre-2000s limited-series RS models indicated otherwise. 

The GT3 demonstrated that there was a sizeable market for such cars beyond the odd “gentleman racer”. Nowadays it has become a given that every motoring publication would speculate on what the “Challenge Stradale” version of Ferrari’s new F8 Tributo would be like, or what the M Division has in store for the “CSL” treatment of the next M3. Not to mention that every discussion of every upcoming 911 will inadvertently steer towards its GT3 variants.

Though greatly underappreciated, largely due to its relation to the malaised 996-generation 911, it is worth noting that the original 1999 GT3 is considered by many as one of the finest 911s in its 56-year history. Furthermore, two successive generations of both GT3 and GT3 RS variants that had triumphed over concerns about encroaching “luxuries” and “aids” such as dual-clutch transmissions and rear-wheel steering have proven the success of the GT3 formula.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the GT3 was just what Porsche
had set off in the world of performance cars. Prioritising driver interaction and track capability over speed and power, the GT3 was the perfect tonic to wean the public’s mind off the late-1980s speed wars and steal the thunder of the early-2000s horsepower wars. Even if the GT3 set a precedent that paved the way for a stripped-out track sedan or a 911-priced hatchback, all things considered, the world of 2019 is all the richer for it.

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