Driving the brandnew Porsche 991 T & GT3 Touring with Walter Röhrl
The tall former rally champion stands at the roundabout in front of the casino and does what he does best – he remains silent. He looks around irritated and amused at how the rich are keeping themselves to themselves, at construction cranes building outrageously expensive apartment blocks that vie with other apartment blocks for a place in the sun, at yachts the size of aircraft carriers at anchor in the harbour below, and you have the feeling you can see in his face precisely what is going through his mind at this moment. Presumably something like “It’s good that I never became Formula One World Champion.“ As the World Rally Champion, he can continue to live quite happily in Bavaria of course and let the jet set on the Cote d`Azur go round and round on the carousel of their high-gloss Louis Vuitton parallel world.
And then Walter eases himself into the new Porsche 911 Carrera T, starts up the 370-bhp six-cylinder engine and zips up the hill on his way out of Monte Carlo and onto the Corniche. High up on the road after passing through La Turbie, one last look across the bay below, then a surge of exhilaration as he drives east along the autoroute, taking the exit above Menton and then onto the D2566 to Sospel, where, after just a few kilometres, he encounters the first hairpin bends. He drives slowly through Sospel, with its desolate avenues lined with plane trees, that is still in hibernation at this time of year and seems to be waiting only for the Monte Carlo Rally, which is due to start in a few weeks’ time, then the lightweight basic 911 growls as it finally enters the Maritime Alps. There‘s no turning back now, the sea has lost its pull, and the curves are attracting the car like a magnet.
“Here we go, the rear-wheel steering…,“ says Walter after we reach the Gorges du Piaon and swallows the rest of the sentence. Another try: “Now don‘t get me wrong...“ and lets the Carrera T whip through the bends like a weasel – puzzling. What was there to get wrong? “It’s fantastic what you can get with the T base model that offers the really amazing rear-wheel steering as an option. That is good. But it would also be really nice even without it.“
Is this because a 911 Carrera T has to be the purist’s idea of a 911? Shape, rear engine, sound, character and light in weight? This 911 driving feel with no filter, no tuning and no special features? Less is more, as a clarifying motto for what has become an increasingly weary world paralysed by options? – You could almost imagine that Walter Röhrl is nodding in agreement, but you might be wrong. And somehow on the hairpin bends winding their way up to the Col de Turini, by some form of telepathic transmission, you pick up Röhrl’s idea that if the 911 T has been conceived with no PCM system, with lightweight rims, no insulation and no rear seats, then it doesn’t need rear-wheel steering either, and they can show physics the middle finger as often as they like. This car is allowed to be cumbersome, to celebrate sporty entry-level nonsense and at the same time to reset the engineer’s genius of the last few years to zero. Because the basic 911 concept alone is good enough.
As if in a trance, the 911 T slips over the top of the mountain pass at Col de Turini and now in an emotional moment, we try to coax a few Monte anecdotes from Röhrl, the champion, but lanky Walter only gives us a pitying look. Walter Röhrl is a hero who has understood that his reputation will not increase if he carries his laurel wreath around with him all the time. This is also true of the Porsche 911 Carrera T. Very true in fact. Gliding through wide curves, we surf our way down into the Var Valley, turn off at Colomars and head across to Vence, and suddenly the cold and rugged mountainous country we have been travelling through is mild and heavy with the scent of lavender. Pinnacles of rock, precipitous and angular, and wide, steep pastures, and with Grasse behind us now, we sweep along the D6085 on our way back north. Then onto the D21, with the sky somewhere behind Comps-sur-Artuby. Then Trigance, La Palud-sur-Verdon and just before we reach Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, we are spewed out of the magnificent drama of the Verdon Gorge. We’re on our way south again.
In the 911 Carrera T, there is a mood of awestruck silence. All you can say is that it‘s really nice to occasionally drive a car with such a pronounced playful attitude. Walter Röhrl at the wheel makes straight sections of road short and curves analytical, so that at some point, the experience is purely transcendental. It’s something you can’t explain. Car driving like music, meditation, proof that God exists. Brignoles, Toulon, we’ve arrived back at the sea again.
It‘s a long way from the 911 Carrera T to the GT3, even when the two cars are not very far apart. This was most certainly the case when we swapped vehicles in the Bay of Bandol, but also in spirit – Porsche has made the 911 T base model lighter and a heartbeat sportier. The car is really a perfectly normal 911, but with a few heartbeats a minute more. And when the 911 GT3, which really is the razor sharp version, gets the Touring Package, something similar happens in the other direction – it is transformed from a high-performance sports car into a recreational sports car, Gran Turismo instead of racetrack. The huge wing on the back end of the GT3 disappears to be replaced by the adaptive, retractable rear spoiler of the better behaved 911 models – making it carwash friendly – with just a small Gurney flap so that the aerodynamics can handle the 500-bhp airflow. Dark-tinted front and rear lights and a rear lid grille bearing a GT Touring badge complete the more moderate exterior, while the fitness look of the GT3 Alcantara interior has been upgraded with swathes of fine leather. In terms of the engineering, essentially is no change – that the dual-clutch transmission of the GT3 has had to give way to a six-speed manual gearbox is in fact the strong signal being sent by the GT3 Touring – the GT3 departed long ago into a parallel universe of insane sportiness, it is an uncompromising tool for the ideal line and the dual-clutch, looked at with a complete lack of emotion, delivers just a few tenths of a second advantage – a manual gearbox brings back lost feelings. It‘s no problem if the one here is a little slower, but it feels faster or at least cooler.
With this wonderful conflict surging through our bones, we climb into the GT3 Touring and take off. Up into the mountains as if steered by remote control, but then we drive past the racetrack. We decide not to visit the Circuit Paul Ricard racing circuit and instead continue to storm along beneath cypress and pine trees into Provence’s interior. The GT3 Touring simply turns the country road into a racetrack, a clear case of sublimation. Has nothing to do with infernal speed, however, or out of contempt for society, but quite simply due to the unique manner in which a GT3 is turned into a GT3 – that stubborn way it clings to the line you’re taking, the sensational front end grip, the astonishing rear end traction, handling that has absolutely no sense of humour and ferocious acceleration. A mind-blowing experience, hair-raising in fact. This car comes with a huge dose of energy drink in its veins as standard, ADHD is an advantage here for a change, there is nothing decaffeinated with this car.
Even the Touring Package has not managed to eliminate the GT3 from being the GT3 it is, in no way at all. The GT3’s testosterone-boosting attitude thus tends become a legalised drug that can be bought over the counter. With Aix-en-Provence now behind us, we end up breaking into smiles as we consider this characteristic trait and by the time we enter the Valley of the Durance we are in raptures. A final mountain stage along the D943 as we cross from the Lesser to the Greater Luberon turns into a special rally stage, then we dissolve completely into a state of ecstatic driving pleasure – the way in which the 4-litre naturally aspirated engine combines almost hysterically responsiveness with a solid punch and the mechanical clicking sound of the six-speed manual gearbox as it delivers power to the wheels is pure addiction. Emotional meltdown between Sault and Carpentras, our faces are beginning to hurt from the constant grinning.
As a result, we almost ended up being spewed out onto the Rhône autoroute going south near Avignon, but a sudden instinct took as along the eastern roundabout route over the Alpilles. At Arles, we enter the land of straight roads, with a brief damp hello from the Rhône delta, the hotter sound of the six-cylinder boxer engine cutting into the ancient city wall of Aigues-Mortes, and then at Le Grau-du-Roi we arrive back again on the Mediterranean.
Somebody somewhere is burning wood and dry reeds, the hard smell of the fire fills the winter air. The end of our journey in the Porsche GT3 Touring. Emotional. Days like these.
Text: Ben Winter Pics: Porsche, Stefan Bogner