“Are you available to head over to Leipzig next weekend?”, the voice on the other end of the phone had asked. Ever the optimist, despite not fully understanding where Leipzig was, or even what I’d be required to do there, I immediately said yes in a Jim Carrey-esque fit of positivity. All I knew of Leipzig at the time was that it used to be part of the USSR, and that Porsche had a manufacturing plant and an excellent race circuit there. I’d gambled on the latter being the reason I was on the phone.
As the conversation continued, it transpired that the very next weekend I’d be on a plane heading to East Germany to attend a two-day-long course at Porsche’s famous Sport Driving School. Fantastic, I thought – any opportunity to check out a new circuit gets me excited. But then came the kicker – I’d be borrowing a 991 GT3 to do it. Once again, it seems as though throwing caution to the wind has paid off.
The school was inaugurated 40 years ago in response to the introduction of the 930 Turbo, which, as most of you are no doubt aware, was also unofficially dubbed ‘The Widowmaker’. With customers turning their notoriously snap-oversteer prone beauties into crumpled messes seemingly at any available opportunity, Porsche began offering tutelage in exactly how to pedal the rear-engined, laggy-boosting machine without destroying it. From there, the school has expanded rapidly, and these days offers different courses in nine countries around the globe, including ice driving in Finland’s brutal winter enviroment.
While I was more than happy to be checking out a new city and of course Porsche’s operation at Leipzig, it was the car that I was most excited about; two whole days spent out on a world-class track with one of my all-time favourite (modern) machines. As much as I enjoyed looking at the Carrera GT I spotted above, the GT3 is, to me, a true screaming expression of raw, visceral motoring, and I’d be experiencing it without any limitations, in its natural environment.
In the week leading up to my time in Leipzig, I’d already accepted that I’d have to ‘suffer’ through some theory lessons in a classroom and some basic cone work out on the track. That was all fine with me as long as I was allowed some time alone with the GT3 on an open track – something that was promised come Sunday afternoon. I figured I’d already had enough driving experience and knew what I was doing. It would soon become evident that I was way off base, but I’ll get to that soon.
Upon my arrival at the huge, sprawling Porsche facility at Leipzig early on Saturday morning, I was greated by the sight of dozens, maybe even hundreds, of Porsches filling every available spot. Some were rentals, while others were privately owned machines of every type brought by students. I knew ‘my’ GT3 was sitting out there somewhere, but it was time to sign my life away (there are of course consequences should you do something dumb behind the wheel of a US$130,000 machine), and meet the instructors, Germans Benny and Nico.
As you could imagine, I struggled to concentrate through the induction session held high up above the track in the building known as the Diamond. As interesting as it was, like a kid waking up the morning before Christmas, I wanted to run back downstairs and find my ‘present’. After a quick Q&A, the session ended and I excitedly punched the lift button like I was 10 years old again playing an arcade game down at the local fish and chip shop.
And then there it was – one of my dream cars, poking it’s angry face out from amongst its more placid peers. The GT3 is that one kid in class that always got removed from the room for disrupting others. It’s still a 911, but it’s got some anger issues and a tendency to run wild.
The changes to the bodywork are subtle enough, but they make a big difference when you sit a GT3 and a C2S side by side. It’s the extra vents and aggressive front aero…
The beautiful child-bearing hips and purposeful big rear wing; it all helps to shed the GT3 of any sense of class Porsche’s long-running 911 platform might have, and I for one, couldn’t be happier.
This particular machine had clearly been run-in the right way, and looked as though it had spent the majority of its hours smashing out laps on Leipzig’s FIA-certified circuit, just as I was about to do. Its body was speckled with melted rubber…
And the factory-option half cage screamed ‘it’s time to hoon’. It would be rude of me not to oblige…A Rude Awakening
As soon as I hit the start button and the monster 475hp dry-sumped 3.8-litre motor roared into life, I was in heaven… Even if I was still just sitting in a car park. There’s nothing quite like the raspy growl of a highly-strung naturally aspirated flat six.
We were split into our groups and directed out on to the circuit – ours was a multicultural bunch made up of drivers from the US, Argentina, Bahrain, Sweden, the UK and of course New Zealand. As I had predicted, the day started out with some cone work.
I’ve had a little experience with Porsches in the past, but really only had a good proper hoon in two – a 996 GT3, and a 997 Carrera S. I’d always been slightly nervous with the 911 platform, simply due to the folklore that surrounds these machines and their rear engine configuration. I mentioned this to our instructors early in the morning, and they had two things to say in response. Firstly, the 911 platform has been so extensively developed over the last half a century that those classic stories – usually involving a 930 – no longer apply, and secondly, the configuration offers unique advantages that can be harnessed with practice and used to the driver’s advantage.
Slaloms came first, and then some serious testing of the huge brakes on the GT3. It doesn’t really look like it in the photo, but that’s a shot of my eyeballs about to pop out of their sockets, springing forth from my head like a pair of horrific paddle balls. It was at this point that I began to suspect I wasn’t quite the ace driver I had made myself out to be. It took multiple 100-0 tests, some with a swerve to avoid an obstacle, to get quick enough and forceful enough on the brake pedal.
From there, the day descended into one big cold-hard dose of reality as we moved from the braking tests on to high speed understeer-induced loss of control and subsequent recovery, choosing the perfect race line, braking points – everything one might need to be able to drive fast, safely.
Though I felt like I ‘had this’ at the start of every section, each time I would be eating my words as I realised that there was much more I had to learn, or should I say, re-learn. As it turns out, seeing red and attacking everything at 100 per cent is not always the best policy. As patient and thoroughly professional as the instructors were, I could tell what the guys were thinking behind behind the cheery smiles, probably because I would have been thinking much the same. ‘There’s always one expert’.
There was one light at the end of the tunnel however; I’d been looking forward to hitting the purpose-built skid pan all day, and finally, in the afternoon, we were able to check it out. If there’s one thing I’m a big fan of and felt of I was capable of, it’s skidding a car. Surely, this would be my time to shine!
As Nico explained the concept and art of oversteer to the group, I’m sure my face was probably blank and read something like ‘Yeah, yeah, I know what I’m doing, let’s go slide some Porsches!’.
Nope. I’ve done a fair amount of drifting in the past, but always in front-engine, rear-drive vehicles – mostly in my old 1UZ-turbo-powered JZX90. While the preferred method for that car was mash the gas and swing off the wheel like a mad man thanks to its long wheel base, big lock, and lazy switch speed – the 911 wasn’t going to have any of that whatsoever. My first few attempts were a straight-up embarrassment as I tried to apply the same technique with plenty of heavy stabs of the throttle and letting the steering wheel spin itself before catching it at the right angle on the switch.
This GT3 required a far gentler, more calculated hand to control the oversteer and I struggled badly to calm down and reduce the ferocity of my inputs. Unlike far lazier cars I’ve driven in the past, the Porsche was far more temperamental on the edge, and it seemed as though that line between perfect oversteer and and a spin was so much thinner than what I was used to.
While that may be the case, what I quickly realised is that line, as thin as it is, is also much harder to reach in the first place due to stupifying levels of grip the GT3 offers up.
With so much weight sitting over the rear wheels, the 911 is capable of incredible exit speed, even more so in the GT3 thanks to its massive 305/30R20 Michelins wrapped around 20×12-inch centre-lock wheels. You can really get a good sense for how much rubber sits under the tubby rear guards in the shot above.
As the sun set on our first full day out on the track, I have to admit that I was fairly dissapointed in my performance. However, at each facepalm moment, with the help of the instructors I was able to correct my mistakes and rectify some very poor habits I’d somehow picked up throughout the last 15 years worth of pretending I was the next Keiichi Tsuchiya. Tomorrow, I decided, would be the first day of an all-new, leaner, meaner, less gung-ho Peter Kelly.New Beginnings
I arrived back at the track early on Sunday morning, with a full night’s sleep spent dreaming about all things GT3 under my belt. I hate to gush, and I’m always suspicious when I read a review that seems overly enthusiastic, but this car is nothing short of exceptional. There aren’t too many modern machines that really get me going, but the GT3 is one of them. The looks, the sound, the feel, the speed; it’s the sort of car I’d gladly kick my wife out of bed for and lovingly spoon until morning, at which point I’d make it breakfast and exaggerate about how much I get paid before pretending to go to the gym with a promise to ‘text later’.
Shaking off the morning cobwebs, I once again fired up the GT3 and immediately felt more at home and more in control. With the advice of Benny and Nico still fresh in my mind, we began learning sections of the track one by one, perfecting each set of corners before moving on to the next.
I was definitely feeling like a far better driver, which meant I had paid attention the day before, or I had simply become comfortable with the car. It was most likely a little of both.
Surprisingly, there was also a little time before lunch to jump in some Cayennes and beat the living snot out of them in some serious off-road terrain. It was not expected, but it came as a welcome bit of hilarity – the kind of fun that can only come with climbing impossibly-steep walls and off-camber traverses in luxury off-roaders with a bunch of new friends.
Once lunch was over it was finally time to put it all together with open sessions on the full track – and it was magical. I felt precise, fast, purposeful (I’m sure it probably didn’t look that way from the outside) and I was grinning from ear to ear. I felt as though everything I had learnt so far was coming into play as I began passing car after car, making small corrections as the rear stepped out and braking hard and late into the hairpins.
Sure, I had one of the fastest cars on track, but I’ll just let my ego keep thinking it was all down to my newfound wheel skills.
I know that some whinge about the current 991 becoming more complicated and less ‘raw’ with its electronic steering and PDK-only transmission, flying in apparent contradiction to the original ethos of the GT3 and its spiritual predecessors. But I can tell you, drive this car for any length of time and you’ll quickly understand that none of that rawness, that indescribable feeling of connectivity between driver and machine has been lost.
The cold hard truth of the matter is that you can simply go faster with a well sorted dual-clutch transmission than you can with a traditional manual, and Porsche’s PDK is one of the best. There’s simply nothing quite as enjoyable as peaking out at 9,000rpm before slapping the paddle and shifting up a cog with a lightening-fast and an entirely intoxicating thud.
After what I can honestly say would be probably be best few hours I’ve ever spent on a racetrack, I had to retire the GT3 and return it to the pits. It was time to go home, but not before the crew at Leipzig had one final lesson for us – hot laps with the instructors in a fleet of 991 Turbo Ss.
I can’t help but feel as though it was a message of sorts; a reminder that although we were all leaving as far better drivers than when we had turned up the day before, we were no experts – not even close. The pure speed and aggression of a professional driver behind the wheel of an exceptionally fast car is about as sobering as it gets.
Heading back to the airport, I reflected on the whole experience. Perhaps it’s a male thing, but I, and most guys I know, have a tendency to think that we are some sort of Senna-incarnate, and although I play the self-deprecating card in public, deep inside I’m probably subconsciously thinking ‘I’ll play my skills down, and then they’ll all be really impressed when I drive the pants off this thing…’.
I’ve since learnt to become much more honest with myself and my abilities, and I’m very well aware that one weekend of training does not a Senna make.
The thing about driving fast is that no matter how good (or bad) you are at it, it’s still enjoyable. You could be the worst driver in the world, but you’re probably still going to be having a good time. It’s this that perhaps stops people from pushing themselves to do any more learning than their basic driver’s license test as a spotty-faced teenager.
After my weekend spent at Leipzig, I can’t recommend professional driver training enough, and I’m almost embarrassed to realise that I had been arrogant enough to believe that I knew the best way to drive fast, without really ever being taught. Sure, not everyone is going to be able to go to a Porsche Driver School weekend like I did, but most local circuits offer some form of schooling.
I came for a chance to spend some time behind the wheel of one of my all-time favourite cars – a screaming, raw and visceral man and machine moment, and I got that. It’s a memory I’ll cherish forever. But what I really got was a re-education of sorts. No matter how good you think you are, there’s always something new to learn. The day you decide that you’re good enough, at anything really, is the day you should probably give up.
A huge thanks must go out to all the crew at Porsche Sport Driving School in Leipzig and to all my classmates for putting up with my on-track spins and grating Kiwi accent!
Additional Photos by Sebastian KubitzCutting Room Floor