What is it?
If the theory holds true, what you’re looking at is the greatest version of the greatest sports car there has ever been and, almost by right, therefore, one of the finest street machines ever conceived.
Here, the operative word is ‘street’. The new Porsche 911 R was conceived because there was a sense in Porsche’s legendary Motorsport department that the idea of adding ever more grip via the use of additional downforce, stiffened suspension and wider tyres was not indefinitely extendable.
Few such concepts are. In the GT3 RS, the department had developed an extraordinary track day machine, a car designed to ripple your cheeks under the massive lateral acceleration. It is able to develop and be set up in such as way as to extract not only optimal lap times, but also seriously challenge its driver. A pussycat it is not. The 911 R is its alter ego.
Even so and though you will doubtless read it elsewhere, it is far too simplistic to call them Jekyll and Hyde cars, they are instead identical twins, dressed in different clothes brought up to excel at different things, and while the RS’s métier is the circuit, the R’s is the road.
The differences are crucial, and every one of them designed to trade fast for fun. The biggest is the gearbox where six manually selected gears replace seven selected by paddles. Why not seven manual gears? Not for the first time the Motorsport department is going its own way, as it did by insisting you should push a sequential shifter forward and not back to change down (a change subsequently adopted by Porsche) and as it is by staying faithful to atmospheric aspiration.
The Weissach mob considers seven gears needlessly complex to change by hand and, besides, losing the top gear saves an entire kilo of weight. Instead the gearbox retains the original first four ratios, but uses a longer fifth and sixth. The engine is the same 4.0-litre, 493bhp flat-six masterpiece, but because of lower frictional losses in the gearbox, a little more of it finds it way to the rear wheels.
The body is based on that of a standard 911 and while it retains carbonfibre front wings and a plastic rear screen, it entirely lacks the dramatic aero structures of the RS or even the standard GT3. There’s just a normal Carrera rear wing whose only modification is to extend a little further to offer touch more downforce at the far higher speeds the 911 R can reach.
Its lack of rag means it’s the only 911 on sale that’s a genuine 200mph machine. Underneath, however, there is a largely flat floor and rear diffuser, not to mention a titanium exhaust. Overall it’s 50kg lighter than a GT3 RS with a kerb weight of just 1370kg.
On the chassis side, GT3 RS settings have been abandoned entirely: without RS downforce, there’s no need for the suspension to be super stiff to support the body, so the springs come from the GT3 instead, supported by a bespoke damper iteration, reprogrammed rear-wheel steer and a new steering map too.
Tyre sizes drop two sections front and rear relative to the GT3 RS to a 245mm front and a 305mm rear, but Porsche’s carbon ceramic brakes are standard; normally you need to pay extra for those, even on a GT3 RS.
What’s it like?
Normally joyous, and on occasion capable of providing an almost spiritual experience. Both are equally important. First you don’t have to be driving like you’re trying to escape an erupting volcano to enjoy it.
The manual gearbox is one of Porsche’s finest of any era, as good as the incredible gearbox still used in the Cayman and Boxster, and it transforms the experience for those who like to feel not merely in touch with their car but properly in charge of it too.
The steering is far lighter than that of a GT3 RS and in moderate driving all the better for it. Whatever anyone says, the feel is still not as lucid as it was in the days of hydraulic steering, but it is genuinely the next best thing.
But if you have such a car, hopefully you know and will take it to somewhere it can be used properly. There you will find it can do things not even a GT3 RS can do. Once traction is re-established it accelerates faster than a GT3 RS, and as the 8800rpm redline approaches, it sounds better than a GT3 RS, too, however ludicrous that sounds.
The real difference, however, is in the car’s feel. Where the GT3 RS darts aggressively from apex to apex, the R flows. The grip on Michelin Pilot Cup 2 tyres is massive and while we’re assured it drifts beautifully, few sane drivers will be likely to exercise this option in public.
Instead the pleasure comes simply from that rather traditional sense of being at one with the machine, involved in its every action, influencing every outcome, not just directing the action but being in the thick it. Even when not near the limit of adhesion the 911 R is more mobile than the rigidly planted RS, asking more of its driver to maintain a pin sharp line and, yes, offering even more in return.
It’s probably not a very fashionable thing today, but when you are at maximum attack in a 911 R – or at least as close as is sensible in public – you are reminded of how 911s used to feel. You will never replicate their behaviour because the wheelbase of the 991 chassis is just too long even with rear steer, but the spirit, the back to basics no-nonsense enthusiasm and that sense of adventure is there, just reborn on a plane of dynamic brilliance unimaginable even a few short years ago.
I guess that’s why it’s called the 911 R, recalling as it does the lightest, most driver-focused 911 of all: the original 1967 911 R.
Should I buy one?
You’ll be lucky. Just 991 will be made, all were offered to preferred customers, most already owning 918 hypercars, and all were snapped up immediately. Those few that have come to market since have had almost incomprehensible figures attached to them, one known to have been advertised for €745,000, another owner believed by Porsche to be asking a cool million.
So let’s forget such insanities and try to judge the 911 R with some cool detachment. And the truth is that, for Porsche, it’s a very clever car indeed, created from parts almost all of which already existed: the body of a Carrera, the motor of an RS, the suspension of a GT3 and so on. Even that gearbox, while unique to the car for now, will be standardised for the second generation of 991 GT3 next year, so it’s not as if Porsche wasn’t already going to be making it. Although the suspension and steering systems have a bespoke tune, the hardware is almost entirely a new combination of extant componentry.
Should this matter? Not in the least: the virtue of a vase lies not in the clay, but the potter’s skill, and the skills on show here are as good as they come. The 911 R is not a better car than a GT3 RS, but a different one and one that shows Porsche’s Motorsport department remains focused on the driver and the many different ways he or she might choose to enjoy their driving. And the truth is that, for the money, the only cars capable of offering so rich a driving experience are, in their very different ways, the GT3 RS and the McLaren 570S, two of our three favourite cars on sale right now. They were both five-star cars and so is the 911 R. We can’t rate any machine more highly than that.