You and I aren’t looking at the same car. What you’re looking at is a racing version of a Porsche 911 and, until I had driven it, that’s what I would have done too.
But now I’m looking at… well, I think I’ll use Porsche’s words for that: a single-seat racing car built for the FIA/GTE category. Which means Le Mans and the other rounds of the World Endurance Championship.
But surely this car called the 911 RSR-19 is a 911? Perhaps. But ask someone who knows to point out parts that can be carried over from even a 911 GT3 RS and they will take you to the plastic covers on the lights at the rear and the badge on the bonnet. That’s literally it. Put another way, compared even with its RSR-17 predecessor, which was also based on the 991-generation 911, 95% of parts are new.
Maybe that’s why the RSR-19 won the GT Pro category of 2019’s WEC and pole in its class at Le Mans this year. It’s first, second and third a very serious racing car and a 911 only some distance after that, even if it initially might not seem so. Because you could look at its specification and snort that it has only 379kW – fewer even than the standard street GT3 RS. It has a mere six cogs in its gearbox, rather than the road car’s seven. And you can’t even get ceramic brakes for your RSR-19, not even at – wait for it – €1 million (AUD$1.58 million) a pop.
The first suggestion that there’s rather more going on here than might at first be apparent is that the engine isn’t where it should be. If we know just two things about the 911, regardless of age or price, it’s that it has a flat-six engine located behind the rear axle. Except this one doesn’t. This one is mid-engined, as was the RSR-17. You might wonder how on earth rules that are intended to keep cars at least based around their road-going siblings could possibly allow a car to be so fundamentally altered, and the answer is that usually they wouldn’t. But the rules say that you have to use the same platform and, in this case, that platform also produces the mid-engined 718 Boxster and 718 Cayman, so flip the engine and gearbox through 180deg and, voilà, you have a mid-engined 911.
This is a smart move on Porsche’s part, and not for the most obvious reason. Of course centralising such a large mass makes sense, but that’s not why Porsche did it. Far more compelling was the space at the back of the 911 made available by the recently vacated motor, where an enormous diffuser could now reside. And this provides the clue to what actually makes this car so special: it’s an absolute aero monster.
We meet at the Vallelunga circuit just outside Rome, where I’m allowed a lap in a 911 GT3 RS to learn the circuit. I haven’t been here in years, and I pull back into the pit lane no wiser than when I had departed. I’m a slow learner. I’m then strapped into the RSR-19, but not before I’ve not only inserted plugs into my ears but also had someone from Porsche tape a thick slab of sound-absorbent material over them to go under my balaclava and helmet.
I’m installed. I’m so tightly gripped by the seat and belts that I feel not so much sat down as plugged in. The seat doesn’t move, making the driver one more mass to stay centralised. Instead the pedals and wheel travel to me, the latter with more than 30 different controls adorning its face. Happily, I’ll need hardly any of them.
Just sitting here I experience a new level of intimidation, and at first it’s hard to figure out why. I’ve driven plenty of road and racing cars with far more power than this. It even has traction control. I conclude that it has something to do with the fact that this is Porsche’s current ultimate petrol-powered racing car and it’s being run for me by the official Porsche WEC team – the same team that watched Gianmaria Bruni put this very car on class pole at Le Mans this year. I can’t go out there and just dawdle about, not in front of that lot, but the price of getting it wrong can be measured in the number of subsequent invites to drive interesting cars that I will never receive as a result. There’s a balance to strike, and I simply have to find it. I need help, and thankfully Bruni is here to provide it.
“Don’t worry, it’s easy,” he says, leaning into the cockpit. “Don’t be scared to push; the car is fantastic, lots of downforce…” Bruni says some other stuff too, but I’m already being wheeled out of the pit lane on a trolley, spun through 90deg, dropped off the air jacks and asked to fire up the engine. The bang is so loud that it sounds like it has just grenaded itself. But no, that’s just what it does. I thank heaven for all that additional soundproofing for my ears.
The clutch is gentle, and that’s just about the nicest thing I have to say about the car after my first two exploratory laps. It understeers far too much, the traction control is butting in all the time and the brake pedal is far too long. One of us is doing something seriously wrong.
I suspect it’s me, and I reckon I know what the issue is. In that counterintuitive way often found with racing cars, the way to stop it sliding around and make it behave itself is to drive it faster, not slower. And then, almost at once, it makes sense. Heat builds in the brakes and they start to work, while the giant Michelin slicks reach their operating window and, in an instant, switch on. Air flows faster over and under the car, that gargantuan aero package starts to do its thing and I’m away. By the time I come back in, I’m grinning like a loon.
So they give me four more laps and finally I take Bruni at his word. The power still isn’t amazing, but the gearshift could have come from a Rolls-Royce it’s so smooth. At speed and with the wings working, there’s no amount of force my left leg can exert that can bring the tyres even close to locking up.
But all that is as nothing compared with the way it gets into a corner. It’s so stable that the entire entry phase is also a deceleration zone. I can stay hard on the brakes until I need to bleed pressure away to account for the diminishing downforce and then tread as hard as I like on the throttle, knowing that the electronics will keep me balanced right on the traction limit all the way to the exit. I’ve driven plenty of GT3-category racing cars but nothing that felt like this.
If I have a criticism of the RSR-19, it’s that it’s simply too good to be hilariously good fun to drive. Maybe if I drove like Bruni drives, it would keep me very busy indeed, but the car is so technically accomplished, so sophisticated in the way that it uses its downforce and traction control that it felt more like I was witnessing an extraordinary demonstration than a relationship of equals.
And that isn’t surprising. The RSR-19’s job isn’t to entertain its driver but to put him or her in a position to extract the best possible lap time, which is a very different thing. If you want driver involvement, you can spend less than one quarter of this money on a new 911 Cup, which doesn’t even have much less power or much more weight but comes without driver aids or much downforce. And here a properly wild ride awaits.
The RSR-19 is something else: the most devastatingly capable device to be even distantly derived from a road car that I’ve ever driven.
A mid-engined 911 for the road?
When Porsche announced it was going to build a mid-engined 911 racing car, plenty concluded that a road-going version wouldn’t be far behind. Some even speculated that this might be how in future Porsche distinguished between the 911 GT3 (rear-engined) and the 911 GT3 RS (mid-engined).
We couldn’t have been more wrong. There’s no requirement for Porsche to make a road-going mid-engined 911 so, it seems, none will be built. But what if it were? What would it feel like?
It would be more capable, for sure. There’s a reason why Porsche is the only manufacturer that makes a rear-engined sports car, and its motivations can be traced all the way back to the Volkswagen Beetle. Yes, this configuration does provide traction advantages and the ability to have rear seats without an enormous wheelbase, but there’s a reason why all purpose-built racing cars are mid-engined, and that’s because it’s the best place for the powerplant, with its mass centralised between the wheels.
A mid-engined 911 would do everything better, but it probably wouldn’t feel like a 911 any more. Besides, if you really want a mid-engined 911, you can sort of go and buy one already: it’s called the 718 Cayman GTS and it’s bloody brilliant.