Porsche 911 R ride

We ride along with GT boss Andreas Preuninger to see if the 911 R is the future of Porsche sportscars, or a retro diversion for a nostalgic few
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May 23, 2016
Richard Pardon
Richard Pardon(1/4)
Richard Pardon
Richard Pardon(2/4)
Richard Pardon
Richard Pardon(3/4)
Richard Pardon
Richard Pardon(4/4)

A stick, six gears and three pedals. Difficult to imagine this combination making such an impression, but it’s all anyone was talking about at the Geneva motor show. The 911 R is a car that’s been rumoured for a long time now, or at least since Porsche introduced its most hardcore GT3 model (and its subsequent RS spin-off) as PDK automatic only, with its paddle-shifted, two-pedal set-up. Given that Geneva was host to debuts including Bugatti’s long-awaited Veyron replacement, and a list of potential rivals to it, Porsche’s technically backwards step with the revealing of the 911 R is perhaps indicative of a push towards a more purist drive, more focused on feel than outright speed.

The man responsible for it, Porsche’s GT head, Andreas Preuninger, told us in Geneva: “There are so many really fast cars I get out of with complete appreciation of the technology and of how quick the thing is, but if the feel is lacking I don’t think many people will be very enthusiastic about it. So we need a car that has its own character, that is engaging to drive, no matter if it’s a 10th, or a couple of seconds slower on a track.” He stands by Porsche’s decision to take the GT3 and GT3 RS down the paddle-shifted path; after all, the GT department’s goal is to be the fastest. At the launch of the 991 GT3 in Germany’s Swabian Alb region, Preuninger faced a barrage of questioning from the press as to why the GT3 had dropped the manual transmission in favour of a PDK dual-clutch, paddle-shifted seven-speed automatic. The answer was simply: “It’s faster.” Undeniably, but he also admitted Porsche had tested a manual vehicle alongside as part of the development programme. That car became a favourite among himself and his engineering team, and it eventually formed the basis of a new standalone model, the 911 R.

Sat in an air-conditioned glass box at the Geneva motor show, Preuninger discussed how that GT3 hack developed into the 911 R. Fast as the GT3 and its RS relation are, the R spin-off isn’t chasing numbers, even if it has got the 4.0-litre 500bhp flat-six engine from the GT3 RS in the back and can reach 100kph in 3.8 seconds. Then there’s the 320kph quoted top speed, a number that Preuninger admits is very conservative, as the narrow-bodied, low-drag shape of the 911 R sees it gain speed very quickly deep into three figures. Yet for all the discussion about numbers, the conversation always returns to the assertion that the R is about something else — purity.

That’s as much about the driving experience as it is the 911 R’s silhouette. Preuninger was adamant that it would be true to the original R from the late Sixties in appearance, which meant no aerodynamic addenda. The loss of the GT3 and GT3 RS’s extensive exterior wings created headaches for the team developing the 911 R. Stability was a concern, particularly at the high speeds that the R so easily gains.

Preuninger addressed this with a combination of significant underbody aerodynamic revisions and the recalibration of the standard rear-wheel steering system. The result, he claims, is incredible, the 911 R’s agility is greater even than that of the fabled 911 GT3 RS 4.0, while stability is excellent even at the 911 R’s conservatively quoted 320kph top speed. That RS 4.0 comes up a lot while discussing the 911 R, with Preuninger saying: “If you get out of the R and get into the RS 4.0 it shows that we are five years ahead now. It doesn’t feel ancient, but the R feels better. The R is a super-balanced car.”

A week after our conversations about the model among the amassed throngs of the world’s motoring press, we’re at Weissach in Germany to experience the 911 R. Preuninger arrives and is stopped by the security staff. The 911 R is so new they want to chat about it, ignoring the various partially disguised Panameras, Caymans, Boxsters and 911s that otherwise make up the majority of the traffic. That’s hardly surprising, as the 911 R he’s in is as near to production specification as you can get, being painted in white with the red striping up, and over the bonnet and roof, and the classic Porsche script adorning its flanks. We’re lucky to get such access, though today it’ll be Preuninger alone who’s stirring that six-speed gearbox, as our seat is on the wrong side of the car — for now.

All the previous talk of the GT3 RS 4.0 is appropriate. Sitting with the engine idling behind us and the chatter from the clutch bearing, it’s a natural comparison. This car is fitted with the optional single mass flywheel, a must-have says Preuninger if you’re going to experience the 911 R at its best. It reduces the rotational mass by 5kg, speeding up the engine’s already hedonistic appetite for revs. It’ll be quieter without it, but it won’t be quite as it should be. The gearbox uses the Carrera’s casing, though only has six gears, Preuninger claiming that it’s a more natural feeling shift, with better precision and weighting as a result. Likewise, the steering, which has been tuned specifically for the R, is working in combination with that rear-wheel steer to give the R the agility that Preuninger was after.

Weight loss helps here, too; the RS panels, Perspex windows and the standard fitment of PCCB brakes all help, as does the removal of another 4.5kg of sound deadening. That all allows the characteristic flat-six noise to enter the cabin more readily, filing the void behind the lightweight carbon fibre buckets borrowed from the 918 Spyder hypercar. Like the GT3 and RS, there are no rear seats. The weight savings mean that the 911 R is the lightest 991 available, tipping the scales some 50kg less than the GT3.

The sound of that 4.0-litre engine will be familiar to anyone who’s sat in the GT3 RS, only without the ram-air induction there’s less obvious breathing. The metallic racer-edged symphony is layered with the accompanying tone of the lightweight titanium exhaust system. It sounds incredible at idle, climbing rapidly through the revs to the 8,250rpm peak, to the 8,500rpm cut off, it’s unending in its force and rousing in its sound. There’s no need to chase that redline given its flexibility, and Preuninger short shifts, changing up and down the six-speed transmission for the joy of it, the revs blipping with each downshift automatically (if you have the Sport button pressed). It’s defiantly old-school in its interaction and make-up, yet thoroughly contemporary in its performance.

It feels sensationally fast, giving credence to Preuninger’s assertion that 500bhp is enough, that the horsepower war among carmakers is an exercise in futility. He’s worked instead on the finer nuances of interaction, the precision of the six-speed’s shift quality, the speed, accuracy and feedback from the steering, and the way all the various elements combine to create a cohesive whole. It’s impossible to tell just how good it is from the passenger seat, but Preuninger says its turn-in response is better than the RS 4.0’s, likewise its high-speed stability and feel. What is obvious is how accomplished it rides; there are two modes for the PASM dampers, the standard setting being Preuninger’s choice; its clearly taut, but compliant and controlled, the R riding with a composure that’s remarkable given its obvious focus.

“A car is a sum of a lot of technical and mechanical components, and it should feel as such. And this has got a little bit lost in the industry, maybe, that is my personal opinion. We are standing at a crossroads, we need a new niche, we need to make a new feel, I would say we are addressing the racers with the GT3 models, but we have those purists, and they have turned to the classic market, they don’t buy a modern car. And that’s why the R came about,” admits Preuninger.

The result, as far is possible to tell without actually driving it, is remarkable, a car that from a technical and evolutionary viewpoint is a leap backwards. Yet, you only need to look at the clamour for people to buy one of the 991 examples that are due to be built to understand there’s a sizeable audience for such a car. We’ll know if they’re right to be so excited conclusively when we get to sit on the correct side of the car ourselves, but watching and talking to the man who created the R driving it on roads it was developed on hasn’t dampened our desire for the old-school thrills the 911 R promises. Not one bit; it’s reinforced them, and some.

Separated at birth

The idea for the 911 R came about during the 911 GT3’s development process. So is it merely a limp-wristed version thereof or something rather more special?

1 Featuring the narrow body of the GT3, as opposed to the 911 Turbo-derived body of the GT3 RS, the R is slimmer hipped. That allows it its greater top speed, as does loss of the GT3 and GT3 RS’s more extreme aerodynamic addenda, lessening drag at high speed.

2 The 911 R borrows the GT3 RS’s channelled magnesium roof, Perspex windows and lightweight bonnet. Like the GT3 and GT3 RS, it’s offered with the free option to remove the air conditioning and radio. Do so and the kerb weight is quoted at 1,370kg, some 50kg less than the GT3 RS.

3 Some of that weight loss can be attributed to the addition of the manual transmission. Unlike all other manual 991s the 911 R is a six-speed unit. It’s a bespoke gearbox built using the Carrera’s casing. The GT3 and GT3 RS are presently only offered with a PDK seven-speed paddle-shifted automatic.

4 The 911 R shares its 4.0-litre naturally aspirated flat-six engine with the GT3 RS. Without the wider hips and punctured air inlets in the rear wings it breathes differently, though, the R not getting the benefit of a ram-air effect that increases the GT3 RS’s quoted 500bhp output at high speed. It doesn’t need to work so hard pushing the R though the air in the first place, though, hence its greater top speed overall.

5 Other weight savings in the 911 R include the standard fitment of lightweight carbon fibre bucket seats from the 918 Spyder, the loss of an additional 4.5kg of sound deadening and features like the single mass flywheel, if optioned. Andreas Preuninger says it’s crucial to the character of the car, improving the engine response markedly.

6 Without the extensive aerodynamic package of either the GT3 or GT3 RS Porsche’s GT department managed to achieve the necessary high-speed stability required by extensively revising the air flow under the car. There’s a diffuser under the engine, which, in combination with the 911 R specific rear-wheel steering calibration, allows the R its stability and agility.

7 Porsche hasn’t quoted a Nürburgring lap time for the 911 R, nor is it likely to. It might be a GT department-developed car, but it was conceived as the ultimate road-going 911, not a ‘track rat’ as Preuninger describes the GT3 and GT3 RS models. It’ll be a limited series model, too, with just 991 examples being built, which sadly might mean many of them aren’t likely to get driven as intended…

Engine:4.0-litre six-cyl

Transmission:Six-speed manual, RWD

Power:500bhp @ 8,250rpm

0-100kph:3.8 seconds

0-160kph:7.7 seconds

Top speed:323kph

Height:1,276mm

Wheelbase:2,457mm

Length:4,532mm

Width:1,850mm

Front track:1,551mm

Rear track:1,555mm

Unladen weight:DIN 1,370kg

Size with tyres F:9Jx20 245/35 ZR20

Size with tyres R:12Kx20 305/30 ZR20

Engine:4.0-litre six-cyl

Transmission:Seven-speed auto, RWD

Power:500bhp @ 8,250rpm

0-100kph:3.3 seconds

0-160kph:7.1 seconds

Top speed:310kph

Fuel cons:12.7L/100km

Wheelbase:2,456mm

Length:4,545mm

Width:1,880mm

Front track:1,590mm

Rear track:1,560mm

Unladen weight:DIN 1,420kg

Size with tyres F:9.5Jx20 265/35 ZR20

Size with tyres R:12.5Jx21 325/30 ZR21