This season Paul Denby and I have decided to join forces; a canny move, some have observed. After all, if last season was a two horse race, then why not reduce the competition and give us both of chance of winning the championship? With hour long races this season, the tried and tested pace and reliability of the Porsche 996 GT3 Cup car make it the ideal choice. Its relative affordability in running costs versus its 997 successor also make it the ideal choice for us.
As Alex Renner Motor’s sales manager, Paul is well connected in the trade and knows what he’s looking for. Plus the car will be his, with a seat for me. A summer of poring over the classifieds and scouting trips to the UK yields the perfect car: a 2003 996 GT3 Cup in sky blue livery previously campaigned by Abbot Racing and managed by the much respected Parr Motorsport independent Porsche specialists in the South East of England.
As amazing as the past couple of seasons have been, it’s as if I’ve been driving the number 99 cobalt blue GT3 street-car-turned-racer through the fog of a dream. Though ‘Cobalt Blue’ had been under the knife to turn it into a near-Cup spec racer, it was never intended to compete head on against the bespoke racer equivalent, nor indeed would it have been financially viable to do so.
Whilst the basic essence of the Cup car is the same as Cobalt Blue – immediacy of response, balance, feedback, that wonderful Metzger flat six – by comparison the intensity of this experience is injected directly into the nervous system. Heat, sound, smell, violence, fear, exhilaration, all played out in wide screen IMAX 3D. The interior and exterior are comfortingly familiar, but the moment you fire the engine into life (BLAM!), you know this is distilled essence of adrenaline in automotive form.
The entrance to the cockpit is much the same as Cobalt Blue: the substantial side bar of the FIA approved cage blocking access to a dimly lit cave surrounded by scaffolding, slide legs first into the footwell, drop into the high sided Recaro bucket, buckle up in 6-point straps, and grip the now-faded alcantara three spoke wheel, projecting out a long way from the dash, and high up in the air, like reaching for the wheel on your dad’s Allegro on the driveway.
Fire up, dip the clutch (very stiff – designed for the rigours of extreme warfare, not the school run), ease in the throttle and release the clutch. Splutter, near stall, a compensating flare of revs, release the clutch and a violent entry onto the pit lane, with a couple of tyre smears thrown in for good measure – sorry Fraser… I kangaroo up the pit lane in second, (an undignified and jolting chug chug chug as the engine struggles for breath at this pace), cross the pit exit lights onto the track and slam the hammer down.
The upshift is distinctly different from Cobalt Blue and dominates my initial impressions. Jerky. Immediate. The Cup gear linkage cables enhance the rifle-bolt precision of the change (still an H-pattern 6 speed and not a sequential like the later 997 Cups), and the shift up point is more critical than the road car although I am surprised at this, as in theory the flywheels are the same in both cars, and the drop in revs ought to be the same. However, minimising the time to shift in the Cup car is the key – feet need to shimmy left and right on clutch and gas as quick as they can, and the shift itself must be dominated with a positive and precise forearm action. As a result, the revs stay near constant, each shift is seamlessly super smooth, and the car reaches for the horizon, its big lungs giving it the same epic aerobic reach that the road car has, though this time with shorter gearing.
Whilst Ferrari and others may produce gearboxes with more sophisticated tech, precision and shift-speed, there’s no doubt a high quality manual ‘box is infinitely more satisfying when it’s done right. Especially when it’s engineered so solidly, so tight and precise in its action, that you feel it could launch a rocket ship. You might need to concentrate a little more on turn-in, perhaps you lose a fraction of a second on the transition from downshift to trail brake to settle the car, but weight saving and long term reliability are in your favour.
The gears whine, the rear zizzes, there’s a rortier induction sound, and an unapologetic blare from the Cup exhaust (though my own Cobalt Blue was no shrinking violet when it came to exhaust sound).
First turn, dab the brakes a couple of times to get some heat in (it won’t take long, it’s 40 centigrade today), and ease out of the turn up the hill towards the right hand sweeper. Traffic ahead. It’s a public track day and two road GT3 RSs are sharing the track just in front, a viper green first generation 997, and a brand new second generation 997 in silver with black decals. Road cars don’t get faster or more thrilling.
The out lap is a wakeup call. I enter the long left handed bowl onto the back straight, and heel and toe from fourth down to third, but I’m nonchalant. As accustomed as I am to casually heel and toeing on the fly in Cobalt Blue (even whilst trail braking), in this car concentration into the turns is critical.
I don’t quite match the revs on the throttle blip and momentarily lock the rears on the downshift, the car immediately slewing violently sideways like a carbon-clad psychopath who might brutally axe murder you if you look at him a bit funny. A wide-eyed instinctive correction and the on-camber gradient of the bowl save me from embarrassment, though, and I bring the car back in line and stay fixed to the rear bumpers of the two RS road cars, though this time with adrenaline surging manically through me. What must the two RS drivers be thinking as they see this fool drifting behind them?
I settle down and focus on smoothness and precision whilst I warm through the fluids, brakes and tyres. With the heart rate starting to come back down a little, I pay attention to smoothness at the controls – pedals, steering wheel and gearshift, all consciously operated with fluidity and confidence but not arrogance. After a while, I start to find the balance between relaxation and concentration, and begin to pick up speed.
With no sound deadening material and minimal anaesthetising rubber and plastic between the driver and road surface, this car offers tactility that no road car can. There is no delay, no slack, between input and response. You think it, it does it. Even through the padding of a helmet and balaclava, the audio seems to be cabled directly in to my brain.
I still need to drive round the rear-engined 911’s inherent tendency to want to drive straight on at the turn-in point, but this car’s responses are even more faithful, if that can be possible, than Cobalt Blue. Although I’m not yet driving at race pace, it’s clear that the driver must learn to make this car dance from apex to apex on its tip-toes if he is to make it come alive and extract decent pace. It will need a firm hand and plenty of courage but I’m not quite there yet. Besides, I’m not the owner and I dread bending it on my first outing.
Are the two RSs in front pootling or trying? Because (other than the brainfart I had a few corners back) it seems I’m just admiring the scenery as I follow them. In theory, the silver generation 2 RS is no slouch: timed around the Nurburgring at an astonishing 7 minutes 33 seconds, it nevertheless presents no challenge as I get a run on him out of turn 16 and pass on the main straight once my seven year old 996 Cup is warmed up and ready to gallop. Within a lap he is out of sight and I am starting to pick up the pace, though still shifting well before the 8300rpm red line. Soon I am stringing together corners at a pace which hints at the car’s potential, and I am beginning to explore that optimal zone, the rhythm one needs to be race quick, where the tyres skip from kerb to kerb but without the energy sapping slide which ruins lap times.
It’s over all too soon, though, just as I am gathering the courage to attack the Grand Prix circuit with a full flying lap. Alex radios in that Paul has spotted something and I coast in to the pits. There’s a puff of smoke from the rear as a result of a gasket failure, but it’s nothing serious. All part of the shakedown process designed to catch any stray gremlins.
Paul and I are grinning from ear to ear as we come in from our short stints behind the wheel. Paul’s earthy Anglo-Saxon suggests he’s chuffed to bits with his carefully researched choice of car – indeed he extracted a lap time equivalent to the fastest lap from a race-prepared RS today (his own Championship winning ex-race car, in fact) which is encouraging.
Simmo arrives in the pit garage (sans unlit fag this time and looking rather too wiry and toned for the new season) to concur that this could, indeed, be the one to watch. Though MSW Racing (a rebranding of DXB Racing) have their own tasty metal on the way, so I’m not so sure.
Now liveried up in a retina searing TNT orange livery, the car looks box fresh. I only hope Paul and I don’t end up labelled as “all the gear but no idea”. Today is a chance for us to find race pace.
It’s a public day again, and Fraser is at pains to warn the assembled drivers that today is for the benefit of non racers, and they will have priority. Boo hiss.
There’s also a lot of traffic out there. Paul is first out to warm up and extract an indicative time, and I then head out for the same. We examine the data together and discover that his half second advantage over me is almost all in one section of the National Circuit, the downhill S at turns 5 and 6. So we compare lines and head out again, this time sitting together in the car, with Paul first behind the wheel.
It’s pretty clear why he’s taken a chunk out of my time – throughout the S, he remains on the kerbs (first left then right) straightlining the S and turning in to the subsequent tight right hander much earlier than me. It requires confidence in the car’s abilities, and I just haven’t found that yet.
In some senses, it doesn’t help to sit next to each other – there is an element of exam anxiety, a desire to prove, and Paul – by his own admission – overdrives the session. When he downshifts, particularly into second gear, he locks the back end, and the rear slides to tip the car into the apex. He misses a couple of gear changes and is loose with lines, and he knows it. It feels dramatic, but the data trace shows he is now a full second off his earlier pace. There has been some tweakery on the front dampers and the rear anti-roll bars, but it is obviously not to Paul’s taste.
When I head out with him sitting next to me, I am ragged and undisciplined, and I am also struggling to grip the wheel properly – the faded alcantara feels slick under my old gloves, and I also find myself concentrating extra hard on the gear stick to avoid a miss-shift. Seems a trip to the local motorsport equipment supplier will be in order.
Now I am really trying hard to extract a decent time and I feel the weight of Paul’s expectation – has he chosen the right partner to win this championship? I know I am not finding the right rhythm here – I saw at the wheel, grab furiously at the stick (oh for a sequential, or even better a paddle-shift), struggle to balance the revs on the downshift, failing to trail brake effectively. It’s awful. And yet, amazing fun. When we come in, Alex tells us we are both three to four seconds off last year’s pace in our road cars. Oh dear.
Change of plan: Paul opts to go out with a view to changing his style. He keeps it neat and tidy, focusing on the basics of braking, turn in and throttle application. And he nails it. Hard stamp on the brakes into the turns triggering the ABS, downshift in chunks (6th to 4th to 3rd into turn 1), more forceful trail braking to tip in to the apex, steady throttle to allow the car to drift back out to the opposite kerb, then hard up the hill, balancing the car precisely on a fixed line into the long right-hand sweeper. A similar relaxed but efficient style throughout the lap bags him a time on par with last season and a huge sense of achievement: he’s just slashed 3 seconds off his earlier session!
We don’t have time for me to repeat the exercise but race day testing should give me ample time to put our findings into practice. It’s been a good day’s work.
As a final note, Paul and I need to thank our sponsors this season, without whom it would not have been possible. Thank you TNT, Motorsport Wheels, Fibra Foil and of course Alex Renner Motors. And once again we will be supporting The Citizens’ Foundation, our chosen charity which builds and runs schools in the poorest rural and slum areas of Pakistan. Our sponsors have kindly agreed to allow us to donate a portion of their sponsorship to the TCF.
We’ll make you all proud this year. That’s a promise.