Battles within battles, within battles. As the day passed, it became increasingly apparent that this was much more than another clash of posh Beetle and posh Fiat. Yes, the old rivalry was simmering away nicely, providing a robust undercurrent of niggle to a contest riven with power – at 1272bhp, more power than has ever previously been seen in a Porsche and Ferrari twin test. But there was more: front engine versus rear, natural aspiration versus turbocharging and paddles versus stick. Looking back, Ferrari versus Porsche was just one battle within a war.
Having driven both cars in the past six months, it was clear this test would be best conducted away from the open road. They may be completely useable on the street, in fact both come very close to matching their ‘ordinary’ donor machines in this respect, but their performance demands space for higher speeds. Days earlier, a text message had arrived suggesting that a GTO would be present at a Nürburgring trackday. I prepared the sale of an organ to locate a GT2 RS.
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Trepidation is the emotion you feel in anticipation of an event of unknown and potentially worrying outcome, but its remit doesn’t cover the stomach-crunching nausea induced by a cloud-burst just north of Frankfurt. I’m driving the GT2 RS and the weather is biblical: the wipers are fixed in that crazy 911-on-wet-Autobahn setting, swishing like a hummingbird’s wings, but are helpless in the face such a volume of water. This isn’t good.
Maximum speed in these conditions is no more than 110kph, and you concentrate hard because 4mm of Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tread (the Ferrari’s Michelin Supersports have a full 7mm)and 611bhp do not enjoy flooded asphalt. The traction light flashes so often you wonder if the bulb will blow, and the car will still heave a long way out of shape before the computer gathers it back up. If it’s like this at the Ring, we might as well use a Riva speedboat.
But the curious macroclimate that lurks in the Eifel hills doesn’t conform to prevailing weather conditions. I nose the 911 off the Autobahn with 20km left to the circuit gates and the road is still sodden, but as we climb it clears and the road dries. Fingers crossed it remains that way.
Hero status greets the RS in the car park. People crowd around it, point, shrug and grin. Until the moment that a certain 5999cc V12 sparks into life and, with the suddenness of a teenage girl spotting the school stud in a crowd of science scholars, the Porsche is dropped.
We take some photographs and the weather does its best to worry us: the occasional squall of drizzle and strong wind rushes through. Photographer Lipman growls when I call time and tell him I need to get driving, but for once his suspicions – that I’m keen to play at the expense of honest graft – are unfounded. Truth is, I’m terrified by the prospect of the GT2 RS around the Nordschleife.
This particular RS has no cage and no air-con – it is as light as it can be. Thanks to the horrid weather I haven’t yet had a chance to acclimatise to the car on full boost, but as it rockets away on that first lap, I’m not sure you ever fully come to terms with a 2wd 911 that’ll hit 186mph from a standing start in 28sec. The sheer thrust is magnificent, addictive and, as we pile into Tiergarten way, way too fast on this first attempt, also cause for a complete recalibration of braking zones and entry speeds. I’ve been guilty of calling this car a turbocharged GT3 RS, but I now have to apologise and retract that statement – this car is an animal compared with that tiddler. Short-shifting on the run down to Schwedenkreuz, it hits an indicated 165mph.
But it’s already understeering too much – way too much. Chase the throttle in a turn and the front tyres never seem to find anything like the purchase they, or you, need. Rear traction is spectacular, but that just compounds the nose-ploughing. Baffled, I check the tyre pressure monitor, which reveals the problem: set at street pressures, a GT2 RS appears to have about three corners at track speed before the pressures hit danger point. We complete the lap, release air and try again.
The balance is far better, but the experience still isn’t as pure as perhaps I’d expected, nor is it as fluid as a GT3 RS. Still the car has some unwanted understeer, but the speeds are mind-blowing: it rockets from any kind of turn and arrives at braking zones 15-25mph faster that anything I’ve driven here before. Convinced operator-error is playing a part, I try to work around the problem the only way possible – by slowing the car even more in the braking zones and being less greedy with entry speeds. The difference is remarkable: suddenly the car finds a rhythm, the front axle hooks up and the frustration disappears.
The GT2 RS’s problem is quite simply one of excess pace. It clears corner exits so effectively and steams up to such bizarre speeds that you forget to slow the car enough for the front tyres to have any chance of working in the following turn. Perhaps it’s the nature of the acceleration that adds to the confusion? Being force-fed, the Porsche makes very little noise; wear a crash helmet and you have to keep an eye on the tiny shift-light to have any idea what’s going on. It just surges and surges. I love the gearchange though: physical and fast. You keep bunging more gears at that motor but its 516lb ft gobbles them the way the Cookie Monster does Oreos.
Even so, during those rare moments when the track is clear, I still feel like I’m riding some rocket-sled. Connected, yes, but never quite equipped to extract the absolute maximum from the car. Grow a pair, man!
It takes a very special kind of human being to invite you to drive their £350,000 Ferrari around the world’s most shunt-some circuit, but the words have yet to be invented to describe the man who does this, then encourages you to go flat-out and wants to sit next to you while you do it.
Three corners in, approaching the left-hander after T13, as the rear axle arcs wide the very instant the throttle closes, it all feels like a disaster waiting to happen. I catch a bit of the slide and the software mops up the rest of it. When Raffaele de Simone told me at the launch event that the GTO had been set up like a racer to be deliberately unstable in the name of agility, I smiled. When I experienced that razor-sharp response and the natural downside – severe punishment of a trailing throttle in any turn – I smiled again. Partly because the systems are so clever but also, as I now realise, because Fiorano’s open spaces and generous run-off areas don’t engender the same terror as the Ring…
So at first you abandon any notion of trail-braking in the 599 GTO until you have acclimatised completely to the car’s controls. These are both lighter and less feel-some than the Porsche’s – where you wrestle with the 911, you actually guide the GTO, learning how to coax the best from it. Its front end is quite extraordinary, the 275-section Michelin SuperSports allowing the car to tip in while carrying vast speed. Here it holds a clear advantage over the Porsche, whose smaller 245- section fronts just can’t generate the same grip.
So many of these mini-battles can actually be illustrated in a single turn. The cars are so different, their behaviour so foreign to each other, that the driving styles required to extract the best from them mark opposite ends of the motoring spectrum.
The Ferrari excels on the way in: those new CCM brakes and ceramic pads leave you hanging in your belts, the nose is almost magnetically attracted to the apex and, once it takes a set, the mechanical grip is superb. But with your brain/throttle interface still set to the GT2 RS, you want to gas it early, and the GTO doesn’t want to play ball. The traction control won’t sanction full power and the accompanying wriggle from the hips confirms why. At this point the Porsche just squats and runs. It loses slightly on entry speed, nothing in the braking zone, and takes the Ferrari to the cleaners post-clipping-point, and you only truly appreciate how spectacularly efficient it is in this respect when you attempt to cajole the GTO into the same exit speeds. It just can’t match the Porsche.
Experientially, then, they couldn’t be more different. The Porsche is physical to operate but mute; the Ferrari is delicate to the point of numbness, but its noise is perhaps unsurpassed in the world of performance cars. It does feel less potent than the Porsche though, and this is borne out on a run onto the 2.1km main straight: the RS is the quicker of the two in a straight line, but then so it should be because its power-to-weight and torque-to-weight figures beat the GTO’s. For the record, we don’t get beyond 190mph in either of them.
In terms of plain efficiency, there’s little the Porsche can do to touch the latest Ferrari F1 transmission. Up-shift times barely register, and working back through the ’box is made even easier by the ‘hold’ function that allows you to just hold the left paddle and watch the computer shift as many times as it feels necessary.
It frees up valuable brain capacity for positioning purposes too: you see, the GTO really is a big car, much bigger than the 911. And it weighs 1605kg with fluids, making it well over 200kg heavier than the RS despite its aluminium construction. Accordingly, despite its trick real-time reactive Skyhook dampers and fast rack, there’s always a sense of inertia in the Ferrari. It’s not laziness – the car’s too sharp for that to be the case – more an underlying sense that multiple direction changes require the driver to really be thinking ahead.
The engine is plain sensational: a musical instrument providing linear propulsion all the way from 2000 to 8500rpm. The Porsche’s motor is certainly more effective, but it lacks the throttle response and it feels like a nameless propulsion device after the V12. Vast, explosive – but just a device.
We run two fast laps in the GTO, and with familiarity and sensitivity comes increased speed. Traction is definitely the limiting factor for the car around here: I’m committed to leaving the systems on, albeit in Race mode to allow some slip, but, in just about every exit zone, the throttle is gently controlled to allow the Michelins to take purchase. It is a remarkable experience though, especially running fast through Schwedenkreuz, feeling the downforce working the chassis into the surface, clipping down two gears, carrying seemingly impossible speed into the right- hander at Ahremberg and then listening to that V12 jangling the conifers on the run down into the Foxhole. Spellbinding stuff.
Later, when they’re stationary in the car park, there’s the chance to consider them as objects. Earlier that morning the RS had felt like the most special object on four wheels, but Ferrari has recently re-written the rules on desirability and the GTO – twice the price of the Porsche remember – makes the 911 feel a little ‘white goods’ by comparison. The GTO is festooned with gorgeous little details, littered with expensive carbon and trimmed with sexy materials. After this, the Porsche feels what it is: a very fast version of a 911, with the proviso that for 911-geeks (a growing population, it would seem) there’s still plenty to drool over, especially that carbon bonnet and rear diffuser.
Before leaving for Stuttgart, I run two more fast laps in the Porsche, and I reach the point that exists in every fast 911 – where your mind tells you that every millimetre of suspension travel (we’re running with the dampers soft and the traction control off) is being used and that to push harder would be to tempt fate, but you try even harder and the car somehow delivers even more. Porsche’s recorded 7min 18sec lap is entirely believable, but at that pace the GT2 RS is an animal: one that needs respect and, most importantly, real diligence in the braking zones to keep those entry speeds in check. After this the rain falls, and the fast laps are over. Given the weather in the rest of Germany, we’ve been incredibly lucky.
And these individual battles? So many different answers, and so many of them subjective. I can’t help but feel that the 911 must be smirking at the preposterous increases in both power and torque outputs, because they highlight the benefits of the rear-engined layout. Yes, the GTO has perfect weight distribution, but it just can’t use its firepower on the exit of a corner the way the Porsche can.
Naturally, the 911 feels raw, almost antiquated, after a Ferrari whose gearchange requires you to move, at most, four fingers. I can see arguments in favour of both approaches, just as I would understand anyone who felt giddy every time the Porsche’s crazy mid-range unleashed another dose of thrust, or people who simply couldn’t believe that a better, more life-affirming internal combustion engine exists than the one fitted to the 599 GTO. The noise alone is worth £100K; possibly more.
And so I drove back south with all of this swilling through my head: whether there could actually be a winner amongst two all-time greats. Whether there should actually be a winner when they, bizarrely, actually complement each other while simultaneously exposing each others’ deficiencies. And of course the reality is that someone with the bunce to buy a GTO can almost certainly have a GT2 RS as well.
And then I realised the folly of attempting to make an objective call. I’m writing this, I’ve driven them both on the same day – so which one would I have? The Porsche: because it represents everything I would want in this type of car. And I would understand anyone who called it differently. Honestly: we’ve never had it better than we have it now.