The Carrera GT: the only thing you need to know is this was the animal that scared Group B rally legend Walther Röhrl … not surprising given its test-drivers were a bunch of ex-kart drivers enamored with sideways action …

Porsche’s naming of their cars has always been a little byzantine. While the Carrera is perhaps most associated with the 911, charting the Carrera’s past is to map the very history of Porsche: back to the early years, to a time when winning Le Mans was but a distant dream, and all those sportscar world championships and thousands of race wins were still two decades away. The name is anchored to the early 1950s―this, six short years after Porsche had rolled out “Number 1” in 1948―and an epic 3,000-plus kilometer journey known as the Carrera Panamericana.

Porsche, with the lucrative post-war American markets very much in mind, sent two “factory” 550 Spyders to the 1954 event that ran from Mexico’s southern tip all the way up to the US border; through cliffside roads and 50 kilometre-long straight, on tarmac, dirt, and everything in-between, the Carrera was one of the world’s most classic road races, and it was customary for elite European manufacturers to sail their entries to New York and drive, leisurely, down the Eastern Seaboard, pausing en route to Mexico to enter promotional races with superstar drivers all too keen on earning US dollar prizes.

With thrills and spills (and injuries and far too many deaths), the Carrera was up there with the Targa Florio and the Gran Premio del Norte down in Argentina―the 10,000km classic where men like Fangio would cut their teeth―in the public’s imagination. This was a time when these races made for riveted reportage by many of Europe and North America’s top motoring journalists, and a win at the Carrera, for a new brand like Porsche, was advertising gold.

Imagine the delight then when, after 19 hours of racing, two little 1.5-litre Porsche 550s screamed home to a class win and an incredible third and fourth overall with German veteran Hans Hermann and local kid Jaroslav Juhan at the wheels of their dusty, battered 550s.

The Porsche legend, in many ways, began at the Carrera, and the Carrera name would go on to be inscribed on a few iconic Porsches through the years―1973’s 911 Carrera RS 2.7, created to homologate the 911 for Group 4 racing (500 models required) being, for many, the greatest of them all.

Until 2003 that is, when Porsche unveiled the Carrera GT, one of the nine icons of Porsche―and one of only two road cars―in the ‘Porsche Legends Pack’.

The Porsche Carrera GT

So what makes the Carrera GT such an icon? One-part handling and performance, and one-part genesis: this was a car built as a concept after its true birth―as a Le Mans prototype―ran out of funding, and all of it was fired by an evolution of a Formula 1-derived but never-raced Porsche V10 engine.

The year is 1999. Porsche, in financial dire straits, decide to pull its 911 GT1 out of sportscar racing (you can race it in Project CARS 2) to focus all its efforts and resources on an SUV called the Cayenne. Key to that decision was new CEO Wendelin Wiedeking, whose notorious pragmatism was seen, by the Porsche board, as essential to saving the company from ruin.

Wiedeking had seen Mercedes-Benz (with its M-class) and BMW (with its X5) enter the highly lucrative SUV market in the US. A quick glance at the typical Porsche owner revealed an interesting statistic: they typically owned another two cars aside from their Porsche, and one was a 4-wheel-drive utility vehicle. It was a no-brainer: offer these Porsche enthusiasts a Porsche SUV, and watch sales soar.

In 2002, Wiedeking made his position clear for Car & Driver magazine: “For Porsche to remain independent, it can’t be dependent on the most fickle segment in the market [sportscars]. We don’t want to become just a marketing department of some giant [automaker]. We have to make sure we’re profitable enough to pay for future development ourselves.”

Anathema to Porsche enthusiasts around the world as it may have been, that decision―to invest hundreds of millions on the Cayenne SUV (including a whole new factory in Leipzig)―not only saved the company, but made it into one of the richest car manufacturers in the world.

But the cost of saving Porsche was high: an end to its racing program.

Porsche, at the time, were working on their new Le Mans prototype which, in mid-’99, was rolled out for its first shake-down using an engine developed in secret back in 1992. That was the V10 engine that had been commissioned by the Footwork Formula One Team, and then shelved without seeing any action.

The test in the fall of ’99 lasted two days before the call came from on-high: the Le Mans project was to be immediately abandoned, and all resources redirected onto the Cayenne project.

In the background, a few engineers continued to work on the abandoned Le Mans project which had now evolved―this over the winter of ’99―into a concept car to be shown at the Paris Auto Show in early spring of 2000. Ironic, of course, because that concept car was built to generate some buzz for the Porsche stand that was debuting the new Cayenne SUV.

The concept car was powered with the old F1-engine, now upped to a 5.5-litre V10 (the Le Mans prototype had been the 5.7-litre), and if the intent had been to generate some buzz, it was mission accomplished.

Two years later, with the Cayenne a massive success, and Porsche flush with cash, it was time to return to building sportscars. The concept car was pushed into production with an initial run of 1,500 projected Carrera GTs to begin delivery in 2003.

The Carrera GT came with a price tag of just under $450,000, but with new safety regulations in the lucrative US market (almost 50 percent of the GTs were sold there) coming into effect halfway through the production cycle, Porsche ended production at 1,270―the new regs would have meant a total overhaul of the GT.

Not that the Carrera GT was in any way primitive: carbon-fibre and silicon-carbide ceramic composite brakes, staggered 19-inch front and 20-inch rear wheels, and a rear-wing that deployed at over 70mph was very much ahead of its time. It also came with a beechwood gearknob as an homage to the Le Mans-winning 917s.

What made the Carrera GT a legend though wasn’t what was under the lightweight body: its performance and handling is what makes this Porsche so very special. With no Stability Control and 600-plus horses, the Carrera GT was not a ‘modern’ supercar by today’s standards: It was not a car built for the rich to be seen on a Sunday afternoon. This was a driver’s car, and unlike the Ferrari Enzo (its natural foe and waiting in Project CARS 2), it did not come with a paddle-shifter (the 917 knob was attached to a sublime 6-speed box).

Some said it was “brutal and savage” [Jeremy Clarkson]; others, like Car & Driver’s Eddie Alterman, would tell CNN it was, “not a car for novices.” No stability control, no ABS, and Traction Control either fully-on or off, the Carrera GT quickly staked a reputation for itself for its handling.

The bravest driver who ever was, Group B legend Walther Röhrl, confessed: “This was the first car in my life that I drive and I feel scared.”

Part of the mystique that built up around the Carrera GT was its reputation for biting drivers. Encouraged by the sublime handling, they would begin to push and realise, sometimes too late, that with no nannies onboard and loads of power instantly available under the right foot, getting it all out of shape and coming back was often a slide too far.

It’s the type of performance and handling that you’ll find echoed in the Project CARS 2 Carrera GT.

A tour with Lead Technical Vehicle Artist Casey Ringley

The engine is that famous V10 which began life with intention to race in the 3.5-litre era of Formula 1. It was shelved for a bit before being brought back for the aborted LMP900 project, and eventually grew to the 612hp 5.7L variant used here.

The owner’s manual includes a nice dyno plot of the engine’s full range which matches up well with independent dyno data and served as our main reference point. It makes a smooth 600hp with plenty of torque from 5,500rpm right up to the limiter at 8,400rpm.

Feedback from owners is that it’s just a perfect example of a naturally aspirated engine to drive once you get the hang of starting-off with the aggressive clutch and virtually no flywheel. The stalling in public of the GT remains part of the mystique of this car―all the way until the 2005 model updates added some anti-stall auto-throttle software to help get the car rolling.

Power goes through a 6-speed manual and clutch-pack LSD to the rear wheels. Ratios spaced in nice progressive steps that increase speed by about 30mph in each gear; combined with the fat torque curve, it feels like you always have a good gear to use and the whole thing is working with you.

Performance is about: 0–100 km/h (0–62 mph) in 3.57 seconds / 0–200 km/h (0–124 mph) in 9.25 seconds: Top speed: 334 km/h (208 mph).

Aero claims for the car are modest with CdA=0.72 and a useful downforce of 400kgf @ 330kmh, with both values being backed up well by Sport Auto wind-tunnel tests. Aero balance is actually slightly forward of where you would expect on a road car, but still in a nice position given the car’s weight distribution and heritage of being set up by Porsche factory race drivers of the era.

Suspension is a very simple double wishbone design with coil-overs on inboard rockers. Very similar setup to the Enzo from that same supercar era. Rocker-pushrod design appears to work out to a motion ratio of 1:1 (suspension tuning being one of the few things not discussed at length on rennlist, aside from how to lift the car for daily use on rough roads), and good photos of one car being worked on show 90N/mm springs at both ends. Those wheel rates, the 1455kg DIN weight and 60 percent rear weight, and a typical Arnao-Porsche damper setup work out to a very nice chassis balance. Lateral acceleration was measured at 1.4g.

The car did originally have a strong reputation for oversteer as it rolled out from the factory―both in general cornering and lift-off oversteer. It has an adjustable rear anti-roll bar, and their test drivers liked it in the firmest position. Randy Pobst had a good article about it during his time as a Porsche factory driver and pins it on their test drivers all having strong karting background. A bunch of kids who grew up winning races by adopting a “pitch sideways and catch” driving style; heavy emphasis on oversteer in the baseline setup. Porsche eventually changed to shipping cars with the rear bar in the middle of three settings, and pretty much every owner has moved to the softest setting for ‘very slight’ understeer and increased confidence in the car. Our setups default there too.

It is very quick. In testing on Trofeo R tyres, I’m lapping the ’Ring in around 7:15 (Jussi Karjalainen, Handling QA Lead, turned a 7:07, the speed demon!). Given that we’re modeling newer, better tyres, and the official lap done back in 2004 was a 7:28, we appear to be right on target for performance.

The 2003 Porsche Carrera GT comes with eight other icons from Porsche in the ‘Porsche Legends Pack’ in early March.

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