How the watercooled Porsche saved the RS name

The legendary 'Rennsport' RS badge nearly slipped into history, until one man revived it. Now it's alive and well – as this test of every watercooled 911 GT3 RS proves

Yes, we’re aware that the RS story reaches further back into the annals of Porsche history than 2004. The legendary 2.7 RS started it all in 1973, its Rennsport badge a nod to the lightweight, sub-1000kg build, its brakes, wheels and tyres, larger 210bhp engine and that signature ducktail spoiler demarking it as a homologation car that allowed Porsche to dominate on the track.

Others followed in the air-cooled era, with specials such as the 1974 3.0-litre RS and ’84 SC RS being built in tiny numbers. It wasn’t until the production 964 RS arrived in 1991 that an RS would properly feature on Porsche’s price lists once again.

It would spin off a 3.8-litre special in a run of 55, and Porsche then used this engine in the 1995 993-based RS – a 300bhp, 1279kg car that followed the RS dictum to the letter: lighter, faster, sharper.

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The RS badge might well have died in the watercooled era that followed, as the 996’s introduction saw Porsche’s racing GT department produce the GT3, a car that seemed to take the RS idea and put it behind a different sticker.

It was GT product line director Andreas Preuninger (below) who would revive the name. Involved in the GT3’s development, he wanted to bring back the RS, having had a picture of a 2.7 RS – white with contrasting blue detailing – on his wall as a kid. Unlike others beholden to the great automotive cliché of childhood dreams, Preuninger had the means to make them reality, which is how the 996 GT3 came about.

‘We built it without management knowing,’ admits Preuninger of the project to further hone the GT3 along the lines of the original RS. His boss said to take what they built to the board, and a business case was made. The RS was back.

Porsche 996 GT3 RS

There is no hiding Preuninger’s inspiration for the 996 GT3 RS. With its white paintwork and blue script down its flanks, it makes a very reverential nod to that 2.7 RS original. The wheels evoke the RS’s original Fuchs alloys, although Preuninger admits that painting them with their polished rims was heinously expensive. The ducktail is replaced here with a spoiler, which seemed preposterously large when the car arrived in 2004 but today looks meek in relation to what followed it.

Indeed, in the company of its RS relations collected here at the AutoClassics shoot on the Isle of Man, the 996 GT3 RS is arguably the most understated. Narrow bodied, offered only in white – with either red or blue detailing – it took the already light, focused GT3 and added RS character by means of subtraction.

The body features composite panels, with the bonnet, rear wings and door mirrors made of the lighter material, while the rear ‘glass’ is in fact acrylic. Seen through the rear-view mirror, the back window shimmers when you close the door.

Those losses add up to a 1360kg kerbweight, around 20kg less than a GT3. The RS also gains complete wheel-hub assemblies, split front and rear lateral control arms in the suspension and revised geometry, as well as a 240mm sport clutch. The engine – the famous Mezger flat-six, which traces its origins to Porsche’s GT1 race car – boasts a single-mass flywheel for quicker response. It red lines at 8200rpm.

The original quoted output of 381bhp and 385Nm was, by Preuninger’s own admission, understated. He suggests: ‘None left us with less than 400bhp.’ Why the discrepancy? It was easier and cheaper to homologate the car with the same figures as its GT3 relation.

I’ll admit a touch of bias – or at least, rose tinting – here; the 996 GT3 RS was the first Porsche RS I ever got behind the wheel of. A 2004 winter drive in the brand’s then-UK press car remains a vivid memory, so much so I’m almost reluctant to turn the key on this German example. Damn temptation; the 3.6-litre motor fires, and fills the pared-down interior with the RS’s slightly uncultured engine note.

The rumble of the clutch-release bearing adds to the cacophony, while the lack of rear seats, binned sound deadening and thinner carpets allow the mechanical sounds to filter through. That clutch chuntering would become an RS signature right up to the 991 model, when the RS succumbed to lap times and a seven-speed paddle-shifted PDK transmission.

No such modernity here – indeed, there’s very little of it. The 996 GT3 RS does without anything as useful as traction or stability control, which means it’s not just the looks that hark back to its forebears.

The weather is damp today, but the RS finds plentiful traction while its engine pulls strongly from low revs up to its 8200rpm redline. The six-speed gearbox shifts cleanly, with good weighting and fine pedal spacing. This RS a joy to drive; demanding, but in an appealing, engaging manner.

If there’s a shortcoming, it’s the front axle. The steering has feel – lots of it – and the weighting is finely judged, but the 996 is initially reluctant to turn in, leaving something of a pause between turning the wheel and the nose following. This is unnerving at first, as the RS seemingly leads with the rear. The damp roads only exacerbate the way the front bites and the rear yaws round under you. Driving it just needs patience and a recalibration of your initial expectations.

Do that and it’s a joy. The demands it places on you put it very much at the cusp of old-school driving and modernity, while the utterly contemporary performance is underlined by the 4.4-second 0-62mph sprint and 190mph top speed. As would become the RS way, though, more was to follow.

Porsche 997 GT3 RS

The 996 GT3 RS was something of a last hurrah for the 996 model, which the 997 replaced while the RS was still reaching customers though 2004/’05. The 996 RS might not have sold in huge numbers, with only 682 finding buyers, but the business case had been made. The expectation was that Porsche would continue to spin off an RS from the GT3.

That’s exactly what the brand did – and more quickly, too. The 997 GT3 RS followed the GT3 into showrooms shortly after that model’s introduction. Again, it satisfied those buyers for whom a GT3 wasn’t quite hardcore enough. Arriving in 2006, once more it reduced weight, added focus and became visually more riotous thanks to overt graphics down its flanks.

The colour choices expanded, from the 996 RS’s white-only scheme, to orange, green, black or silver, with the GT3 RS badging in black for the former two cars and orange for the latter pair.

If the 996 RS represents the first modern-era RS, then the Gen I 997 GT3 RS exemplifies the technological creep. It’s no longer narrow bodied, but instead features a Carrera S body with its wider rear hips. A carbonfibre engine cover sits over the now 415bhp 3.6-litre flat-six, which gives a 0.2-second 0-62mph time saving, while there’s a plastic rear window and less sound deadening in the pared-down interior.

Actually, that’s disingenuous, as while there’s no back seat as in all GT3 RSs and, thanks to the Clubsport package, a cage behind, the 997 RS’s interior isn’t devoid of comfort. There are buttons for equipment such as PASM (Porsche Active Suspension Management) with two modes, a Sport button and traction control.

There’s air-conditioning, too, as well as a radio. As with any water-cooled RS before or after, you can deny yourself of these for ultimate weight savings, but you’d have to be some sort of heat-loving, music-hating masochist to do so.

Porsche quoted a kerbweight of 1375kg, up from the model’s predecessor, but the newer car’s greater sophistication is clear, while that wider body also accounts for some of the greater mass. The rear axle here would be fundamental in addressing the 996 GT3 RS’s turn-in response, with the Gen I 997 RS immediately feeling more natural when spinning the Alcantara-covered wheel. That hesitancy at the front axle is no longer apparent, which is no bad thing.

Slipping into the bucket seats it all seems pretty familiar, as the 997’s cabin feels closer to its newer relations than it does its 996 predecessor. It might be very closely related to that model, but it feels bigger; you can see more of those haunches in your rear-view mirror, while the steering wheel is heavier set and its design less delicate than that of 996 GT3 RS.

Starting up results in the familiar flat-six GT3 engine note, while that noisy release bearing chatters as you lift the clutch from the floor after turning the key. Push the pedal to the floor to silence it, slot the chunky lever through its gate and pull away, and you’ll quickly find yourself immersed in the driving experience.

It immediately feels more resolved, more complete. Yes, the traction-control system brings a degree of confidence to push harder from the get-go, but it’s not the only factor. Turn the steering wheel and there’s a sharper initial response.

In comparison with the 996 it’s night and day, and its quicker turn-in is the biggest delineation between the two cars. They might be separated by only a few years, but whereas the 996 GT3 RS seems like it has a foot firmly in the past, the Gen I 997 GT3 RS feels like it’s racing towards the future. Very quickly indeed.

Porsche 997 Gen II GT3 RS

If the first 997 GT3 RS feels like the start of a new era, then this, the Gen II car, could be considered the model’s zenith. Retaining its manual gearbox at a time when the performance-car zeitgeist dictated paddle-shifted transmissions, the Gen II 997 GT3 RS might have relied on puristic, three-pedal interaction, but it wasn’t some simpleton Luddite in comparison with its competition. Despite weighing in at 1370kg – nearly 400kg heavier than the original 2.7 RS from which it steals its Rennsport badge – it produces more than double the power.

The flat-six in the back is 3.8 litres and pushes out 450bhp, enough to allow the Gen II to reach 0-62mph in just 4.0 seconds. That engine sits on active mounts, which control the car’s mass in cornering, preventing the weight transfer from upsetting its trajectory. The traction control is complemented by stability control, but there’s an ‘off’ button for both.

The grey car I’m driving today is well known to me, having been on the UK press fleet since new. In fact, it’s something of a legend within the automotive media; its HBY numberplate means anyone who’s driven it affectionately refers to it as ‘Heebee’.

That emotion is entirely justifiable, as of all the RS models the Gen II 997 GT3 RS is the model most say they’d have. If you’re a purist it’s clear why – that manual transmission is key, even if a positive shove is needed to get it through its gate. The hydraulic steering is another plus, as later RSs would revert to fuel-saving, electrically power-assisted set-ups,

Here, it works on that wider front axle for sensational feel, speed and accuracy. The wheels have centre-lock nuts for motorsport authenticity, and the aerodynamics took a leap in-period, with Porsche quoting meaningful downforce figures for the first time.

The interior retains simple, pull-door-strap authenticity, too, and takes that arguably needless weight saving to the maximum by doing without air-conditioning or a radio. The entertainment, then, is in driving the car, and you’ll not want for any music other than the notes from the engine as it runs to its 8400rpm red line. You might miss the air-con, though, as you start to stick to the cloth-covered bucket seats as the intensity rises – as it inevitably will.

The 997 GT3 would evolve as well. The 600-built 4.0-litre model added 200cc for 500bhp, dive planes on the front bumper and even more focus to help Porsche homologate cars for racing. The few lucky buyers made tonnes of money when re-selling, too.

That incarnation has taken away some of the lustre from the model on which it’s based, but it shouldn’t have, because the Gen II 997 GT3 RS is a car that really can be considered peak analogue. There’s little else like it to drive, as its ability to cover ground is limited only by your own ability. The feel it delivers is so rich, you’ll wonder why Porsche bothered to develop anything else. As driving experiences go, it’s up there with the very, very best.

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Porsche 991 GT3 RS

At the 991 GT3’s launch, Andreas Preuninger stood up in front of the press and said: ‘PDK is faster, so it is better.’ Even then, you could tell saying this pained him – but since then, no RS model has featured a third pedal. Underlining that there’s still a market for manual, however, Porsche did backtrack with the limited-run R – a GT department-developed car with a six-speed stick-shift – while the GT3 and its aero-denuded Touring relation are also now offered with a manual transmission.

With the RS’s reputation so firmly centred on its track prowess, and specifically the arms-race manufacturer lap times around the Nürburgring, the PDK paddle-shifted transmission is now an RS signature. And yes, it is faster; indeed, the 991 GT3 RS moves the genre to another level, its ’Ring time being 7 minutes 20 seconds – the significance of which will shortly become apparent.

As with every modern-era RS before it, the 991 is a development of the GT3. The gains, though, are more significant. A wider body – that of the Turbo, with its punctured rear wings – allows the RS’s intake system to breathe differently.

The naturally aspirated engine is now 4.0 litres and 500bhp, allowing a 3.3-second 0-62mph time and 193mph top speed. It would be faster top end, but that wider body and its overt aero, which sees it produce as much downforce at around 90mph as the 997 4.0 RS did at Vmax, underlines how advanced its aerodynamics are.

If the 997 before it was fast but pure, then the 991 loses some of that purity for raw speed. It’s sensationally rapid, the PDK not only enabling a quicker shift, but also allowing a clever electronic differential for mesmerising control on road and track. More than any RS before it, though, the 991 GT3 RS feels like it’s been built to beat the clock. While the driver is not a secondary consideration, they are perhaps not the epicentre of development.

That’s not to say it isn’t an engaging, involving car to drive – quite the contrary – but compared with its 997 and 996 predecessors it feels more overtly modern as, perhaps understandably, its contemporary positioning dictates it should be.

Porsche 991 Gen II GT3 RS

It genuinely seems like only yesterday that the first-generation 991 GT3 RS was launched, although it was back in 2015. The latest RS, on paper at least, follows the usual route. There’s no less weight, with Porsche quoting the same 1430kg of the ‘old’ car. Preuninger and his team have instead worked on accuracy and precision.

The gains look deceptively marginal. The power from the now-9000rpm 4.0-litre engine is up to 520bhp, while the 0-62mph time drops by a scant 0.1 seconds to 3.2. Yet, this car has just lapped the Nürburgring 24 seconds quicker than its predecessor. It’s managed a six-minute 56-second lap time, breaking seven minutes – a barrier that separates merely very, very fast cars from those on an other-worldly level.

Here, in the Isle of Man, it doesn’t feel like a track machine – even though its suspension is now fully rose jointed. The GT department’s work on the dampers and roll bars are key, as these have been slackened off while the spring rates have increased. The way the RS rides now is incredible, the chassis allowing it composure and control where its predecessor is running out of ideas on the ravaged Tarmac.

Mix in the sharper responses of that hedonistic engine and the immediacy of the PDK transmission, and the GT3 RS has the ability to exploit its power regardless of the road it’s on. That it can achieve this while delivering masses of information to the driver is the key differentiator over its predecessor. It adds layers of detail, yet still filters out the unnecessary chatter.

This is an RS that’s convincingly old school in its ability to thrill, yet utterly contemporary at the same time. It’s the best of both worlds. As perhaps the RS should, it moves the game on significantly, even if the days for the naturally aspirated engine that powers it are surely numbered as we race towards a turbocharged, hybridised future.

If it proves to be the end of the line – and we sincerely hope it isn’t – then there’s no denying the GT department has created something of a masterpiece.

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