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Porsche 911 GT3 and Ferrari 458 Speciale Take Road Trip to Le Mans!

Ever since the Ferrari 458 Speciale launched, it has been pitted against the 991-generaiton Porsche 911 GT3 on a number of occasions. Most recently, Evo Magazine brought the two together for an epic road trip to Le Mans and while …

Porsche 911 GT3 and Ferrari 458 Speciale Take Road Trip to Le Mans!



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Porsche 911 GT3 With iPE Exhaust is Heavenly!

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Porsche 911 GT3 With iPE Exhaust is Heavenly!


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Watch – evo’s ultimate road trip to Le Mans with a Porsche 911 GT3 and Ferrari 458 Speciale

evo plotted a historical course to the Le Mans 24 Hours in the road-going siblings of cars that do battle at the Circuit de la Sarthe

Part 1: the cars


As the wide, low and insectile LMP1 cars fight for outright victory at Le Mans, it can sometimes be easy to forget the connection between these machines and the performance cars that we drive on the road. But the likes of the Audi R18 e-tron quattro, Porsche 919 Hybrid and their predecessors act as rolling test-beds for all kinds of technology that we can benefit from. ABS, traction control systems, fuel management, twin-clutch gearboxes, tyre compounds – all are, or were, developed and tested to some degree on the Circuit de la Sarthe.

The cars we’re guiding across northern France to the 2015 race – the Porsche 911 GT3 and Ferrari 458 Speciale – rank amongst the ultimate road-going models to benefit from such race-bred tech. The PDK gearbox in the GT3, for example, can trace its bloodline back to the PDK transmission that appeared on a Porsche 962 at Le Mans way back in 1988. Both the road cars, meanwhile, wear Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres. Direct descendents from the company’s racing activities at Le Mans, they feature a twin-compound construction – the outer section made from a ‘high molecular chain’ elastomer to maximise grip in corners, the inner section using a more rigid elastomer that promises more precise steering.

Of course, you don’t need a supercar to use Cup 2 tyres, or to experience a dual-clutch gearbox, but there’s another reason why we chose this particular pairing: the 911 GT3 and 458 Speciale are donor cars for the 911 RSR and 458 Italia GTE that compete in the ‘Grand Touring Endurance’ (GTE) category at the Le Mans 24 Hours, continuing a generations-old rivalry between the two marques.

The appeal of the GTE class is simple, if a little fanciful: drive the 260 miles across France to Le Mans in your stripped-out sports car, cheer on its racing cousins for 24 hours, then drive home again. But for the profoundly disappointing fact that these cars are very much borrowed, that’s just what we’re doing this weekend. 

With the Speciale’s almost unbearably serrated exhaust bark pinging off the GT3’s upright windscreen an hour or so from Le Mans, it occurs to me just how much these two road racers have in common. Their naturally aspirated engines both rev to 9000rpm, crashing over the final 1000 revs with such force and intensity that you fight the urge to shift up early. Those shifts bang in as quickly as you can flex the fingers on your right hand in both cars. Furthermore, both have face-bending carbon-ceramic brakes and chuck out unnecessary luxuries to save weight. Even more significantly for this magazine, however, is that both have been crowned evo Car of the Year winners. They’ll rank alongside the all-time performance car greats for generations.

Trading the 911’s upright bucket seat for the 458’s firmly stuffed sports seat, it’s clear that there are also significant differences between these cars. Whereas the Porsche’s steering returns a very calm, almost languid rate of response at the front axle, the Ferrari’s helm is electrifying in the way it adjusts the car’s trajectory. It’s tricky to arrive at a preference between the two, but after a few miles in each car you soon reach the slightly paradoxical conclusion that both systems are near-perfect. 

While the GT3 retains some semblance of day-to-day usability, the Speciale clearly sets out its stall as a high days and holidays machine. Not for the screaming Ferrari the needless distraction of a stereo or satellite navigation – on the final dash towards Le Mans, this ‘Giallo Modena’ 458 feels all the more dramatic for it.

But both cars are nothing less than spectacular to drive. As we eventually pull up to the circuit entrance, drawing open mouths and longing stares from onlookers, it dawns on me that I’ll probably never travel to Le Mans in a more enthralling brace of cars.

In forthcoming weeks both cars will be superseded – the GT3 by an even more focused GT3 RS and the Speciale by the blown 488 GTB. This round is probably best judged as a dead heat, but Porsche and Ferrari will continue their most romantic of rivalries for years to come, both on the road and at Le Mans.

>Page 2 of evo’s ultimate road trip to Le Mans – The journey

Part 2: the journey

by Hunter Skipworth

There aren’t many cars I can think of that would cause more of a disturbance than a Ferrari 458 Speciale during its cold-start warm-up procedure. Luckily, I don’t like my neighbours, so the pain of a 4.30am start for our journey to Le Mans is offset with the delightful bark of that 4.5-litre V8 beating the dawn chorus at its own game. And annoying those killjoys in Flat 2a.

Photographer Aston Parrott and I fill every spare area of space in the Ferrari with the usual accoutrements for a weekend away in a field: squishy overnight bags, wallets, sunglasses, driving licences. Unfortunately Aston didn’t get the ‘pack light’ memo and will be cuddling his camera bag for the next 360 miles.

The sun is barely up when we arrive at Folkestone to meet road test editor Dan Prosser in the GT3. And we’re not the only ones making an early start – the Le Mans road-trippers are gathering. The M20 en route was neatly peppered with a fine selection of automotive iconology mixing it with liveried caravans. Cameraphone-wielding passengers didn’t know which way to focus. This already feels a special journey and we haven’t left the UK yet.

An hour later, more than £350,000-worth of supercars safely unloaded from the Chunnel, fuel tanks brimmed with 98-octane and cockpits topped-up with Haribo, we turn south-west out of Calais and head towards Rouen. If there wasn’t a grid of some of the fastest race cars in the world waiting for us we’d have hugged the coast of northern France and enjoyed the sweeping route nationales and sleepy villages. But we’ve a plan, kind of, and it means getting to Rouen tout suite.

Endless miles on an autoroute provide very little opportunity for any meaningful testing. This time does, however, allow for numerous games of ‘which car sounds the best on a fly-by’. Having swapped from the GT3, Prosser rockets past in the Speciale. The noise and ferocity are insane. The GT3 isn’t exactly quiet, but the Ferrari is nuts

Rouen, the bottleneck of any journey to Le Mans, has more to offer than horrendous traffic, and once away from the bridges, underpasses and traffic lights, we head to the old Grand Prix circuit – the Circuit de Rouen-les-Essarts. Situated south-west of the city, it opened as a street track in 1950, measuring 3.2 miles. Evolving over the years in both configuration and length, it finally closed in 1994, but during the ’50s and ’60s it hosted five French Grands Prix, with the 1962 event being the scene of Porsche’s only Formula 1 victory.

Today the track’s route is purely public road. The old cobbled hairpin is still evident, as is the blood-curdlingly fast downhill start-finish straight, with high banking on one side that once had a grandstand perched atop it, and an opening opposite leading to the pits and paddock. There’s little else to remind you of this once great venue, one many called France’s greatest.

Retracing the old lap is straightforward, and after a couple of tours we stop for cake and for Dan and accompanying evo contributor Adam Towler to consider just how fast this circuit was and what it would have been like for Jackie Oliver, Dan Gurney, Jochen Rindt and Denny Hulme to race flat-out here – often in the rain. It’s tricky for us mere mortals to comprehend. When you’re planning your trip to Le Mans next year, factor in a detour to this sacred venue and try to get your own head around it.

The days of red-line runs from Rouen to Alençon and on to Le Mans are long gone, but the journey to the most famous motor race in the world needn’t be a soulless jog along the new autoroute. A Speciale and GT3 certainly help make any drive unique, but following the old road to Le Mans feels like a rite of passage no matter what car you are in. The D438 and D338 crest and dip their way through the French countryside, and it’s when you’re absorbed in the scenery and the intoxicating sights and sounds of thoroughbred supercars that you realise the 4.30am alarm call is well worth it.

>Page 3 of evo’s ultimate road trip to Le Mans – The history

Part 3: the history

by Adam Towler

When the Ferrari 166 MM of Luigi Chinetti and Peter Mitchell-Thomson won the first post-war Le Mans 24 Hours in 1949, it was also the emergent Maranello firm’s first major motorsport success. Le Mans helped put Ferrari on the map, and ‘Il Commendatore’ was well aware of its significance.

A second victory followed in 1954, a third in 1958. Then, in 1960, ‘the Ferrari years’ began, with six wins on the trot. Such was Enzo Ferrari’s preoccupation with the race, his over-stretched engineers prioritised the development of sportscars over F1 machines, much to the chagrin of the team’s drivers, which included John Surtees.

It was Ford money and cross-Atlantic co-operation that finally broke Ferrari’s vice-like grip, but not without a struggle. Ferrari, humiliated in 1966, counter-attacked strongly in 1967, seizing the Daytona 24 Hours and pushing Ford all the way at Le Mans.

Back in 1951, not long after Ferrari’s first victory, Ferry Porsche had accepted an invitation to enter a car in the Le Mans 24 Hours for the first time. In a pivotal moment for the tiny company, the meek 356 captured a class win and served notice that the Porsche marque could punch substantially above its weight. 

This efficient use of limited horsepower characterised Porsche’s early efforts at Le Mans. While Ford and Ferrari were slogging it out, it was the lithe 2-litre Porsches that snapped at their rear wheels on the Mulsanne Straight. By 1969, a 3-litre 908 was fighting John Wyer’s Gulf GT40s to the flag in a tantalising near miss.

It all came to a head in 1970. That year’s race, captured in spirit by the Steve McQueen movie Le Mans, saw 11 Ferrari 512s square up to seven Porsche 917s. The fastest and most glamorous racing cars in the world converged on Le Mans in a battle not just for victory and championship points, but also a struggle for prestige between the old guard and the heir apparent.

In the end it was carnage. Not long after the start the deluge began, and the leading cars crashed or expired in succession. One incident claimed four factory 512s alone. An unfancied 917 entry eventually won, and after 19 years Porsche had finally conquered Le Mans. Ferrari elected to gain experience with its new 3-litre 312 PB prototype in the 1971 championship, given it was the final year the 5-litre cars would be eligible, but knew it wouldn’t have the endurance to be a contender over 24 hours. It was left to privateers to uphold Ferrari’s honour with an updated 512 ‘M’, but Porsche scored another emphatic victory in any case.

That would be the last time the two marques clashed for outright honours. Ferrari skipped Le Mans in 1972, but did contend long-tail 312 PBs in 1973, though they had to give the best to Matra. That was the end of the factory team in sportscar racing, and ever since the marque has only fielded an in-house squad for F1.

After the financial madness of the 5-litre years, Porsche regrouped in the early 1970s via separation from Porsche and Piëch family influence. The works team had their first serious crack at Le Mans again in 1974, a year after Ferrari’s exit, with the 911 Turbo RSR; they’d win with the 936 in 1976. Over the course of the next 22 years Porsche collected an astounding 14 outright victories, demolishing Ferrari’s once-thought unsurpassable record. The final victory (until 2015) arrived in 1998 with the GT1-98, and then, too, Porsche was gone from the top level at Le Mans: a V10 contender was canned and turned into the Carrera GT supercar, with money directed instead towards a certain SUV.

Porsche debuted the 996 GT3 R in 1999, and 911-based racers and Ferrari ‘baby’ V8-based cars have spent the past 15 years battling in the GT class at Le Mans with factory and privateer representatives. Each has had its period of dominance, the pendulum swinging back and forth through successive generations of machinery. Now, in 2015, Porsche once again claims the biggest prize. With the revival of sportscar racing and Le Mans in particular, how long can Maranello afford to ignore its old adversary?
evo staff

6 Aug 2015

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