Thunderbolts lightning

Porscheís two best motorsport-developed cars on one of NSWís most epic roads. What could go wrong? Quite a bit, as it turns out

WORDS STEPHEN CORBY PHOTOS SIMON DAVIDSON

HERE are moments of transcendent joy; moments where you need to pinch yourself to be sure what youíre feeling is reality. Then there are other times where you just need to slap yourself in the face, hard.

A slap was what I needed, and deserved, after climbing out of Porscheís gut-pummelling, knucklerapping 911 GT3 RS into its keen-puppy little brother Cayman GT4 and feeling the need to whinge and moan.

Just minutes earlier Iíd been experiencing a pure pinch-me moment, the beautiful blue nose of the GT4 behind me and the most spectacular, absurd, super 911 in history holding me in its thin, noisy shell of wonders.

Itís no exaggeration, because there is no contest, to say that the 4.0-litre engine in this RS Ė with 368kW, 460Nm and the will to rev to 8800rpm Ė is the most mind-blowingly absurd naturally aspirated engine Iíve ever had the pleasure to be frightened witless by. The whole first day of driving it, I was more intimidated, and deafened, than impressed, but then my first encounter with it was spent largely navigating what appeared to be the bottom of a lake. But more on that in a moment. For now, we need to address my whinging about the GT4.

By comparison, the GT4 felt slow, stodgy, completely lacking in bottom-end torque. A power differential of 85kW will do that to you (and will result in a 0-100km/h disparity of 3.3sec versus 4.4sec). But the GT4, at $190,300, might just be the best Porsche smart money can buy, and it certainly looked pretty damn good when the GT3 RS blew up in a ball of white smoke, leaving us weeping impotently on the roadside. But weíll get to that too. First, to the idea.

The idea was good. After some of the sweetest talking since the witch tricked Hansel and Gretel, we convinced Porsche to lend us two of its rarest and most special cars, and despite their pleadings about limited kilometres, we were allowed to fire them four hours north of Sydney to the most appropriate road we could think of, the Thunderbolts Way.

Sadly, to get to this legendary road Ė named after the fabulous-sounding Captain Thunderbolt, a bushranger who, aptly, outran the authorities for years by using the fastest horses available Ė you have to traverse the Bucketts Way, a stretch named, at least on this day, for its ability to hold water.

Never have I driven through rain like it. Only Noah, his wife and a few lucky animals have ever seen a deluge like it, and the sound it made on the GT3 RSís carbonfibre roof and bonnet, Perspex windows and disturbingly shattery-sounding windscreen made it seem like this might well be The Apocalypse.

Suddenly the Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres, the semi-slick design of which weíd so admired only that morning, were not the ideal fitment for the conditions. We were forced to crawl along so slowly that at one stage we had to pull over and let a truck past. That truckieís still telling the story of how he carved up two be-winged Porsches; we know, because the guy at our first servo stop had already heard it.

The road gods granted us some respite when we finally reached Gloucester, the firing point for the start of the Thunderbolts, a climb into what looked like Germanic mountains, coated by clouds and, it turned out, summer fog. Actually seeing the surface would turn out to be the least of our problems, however.

Part of the point of bringing these track-hard weapons out onto a public road was to see how they would cope in the real world, with all its choppy imperfections. On Sydneyís streets I was immediately

Captain Thunderbolt, aptly, outran the authorities by using the fastest horses available

struck by the amount of noise that intrudes when all of a carís sound-deadening is thrown in a skip. The crashing from the back of the GT3 RS was so brutal it sounded like a roadie was assembling Metallicaís drum kit in the back seat.

Low speeds and traffic are not this carís happy place, although you can always cheer yourself up by looking at its outrageous curves, wings and gills. While they look showy, being stared at is not their purpose; this car is a serious aerodynamic exercise. The lip of the RS spoiler almost kisses the ground, which means that even with its nose-lifter at the top setting, driveways are a nightmare.

You may also come back to the car to find pelicans nesting on the rear wing, itís that big, but the combined result is simply ridiculous downforce on its extra-wide footprint. Weíre talking more than twice the downforce of the previous-gen 997 GT3 RS. Think about that for a moment: more than double what was an astonishingly planted track car. It may be challenging to put up with around town, but you just know itís going to be worth it on the right road.

The GT4 could almost be called quiet compared to the RS, but next to any other road car itís about as hushed as an angry chef hurling all his pots down a garbage chute.

Both cars are happiest on properly maintained asphalt. Sadly, the Thunderbolts Way, after a pleasant, sweeping and soaring first 40km, resembles the surface of the moon, if the moon had recently been savaged by logging trucks. Itís an absolute mess and itís miraculous that these two manage to traverse it at all without hospitalising us.

Ride quality on both cars is better than youíd believe possible, and better than it really needs to be for cars that are effectively track-day specials. But this collection of bitumen cow-pats is just too cruel for them, and us, although co-tester Butler does point out, with a straight face, that the suspension gets better the faster we go because we spend so much time airborne.

Fortunately, the country seat of Walcha is where the Thunderbolts meets the staggeringly fabulous Oxley Highway. Locals tell us the blokes who busily do the roadworks on this stretch are all keen motorcyclists, so they spend extra time making the surface as track-like as possible. Furthermore, the local councillors insist on much of it remaining a 110km/h zone, and are allegedly attempting to get an Australian Tourist Trophy held on the road, which would be a fine thing.

ĎThe Oxleyí could fairly be said to offer every possible kind of corner, and just about every backdrop a keen motorist could want. Itís wide open and fast heading out of Walcha, pours into stunning verdant rainforest with sweeping 55km/h corners, then tightens into a typical Aussie mountain pass Ė only with more immaculate road surfaces Ė and seems to hog most of the countryís 35km/h corner advisory signs, along with dozens of 45km/h ones for variety. You can buy a T-shirt that suggests the road has 300 bends along its 180km length, but it feels like more, and all of them are fantastic.

Having noted on the first day that Porscheís new blue meanie feels a bit sluggish after the GT3, and slightly tardy when trying to keep up with it, I spend the whole morning driving the Cayman, and find myself relishing its slightly throatier sound and more comfortable seats (the GT3 RS comes with both seatbelts and racing e

Manual override

If you missed out on the sold-out 911 GT3 RS, and you feel like paying more for less, then the car pictured below is the Porsche for you. Dubbed the 911 R, it was officially revealed at the Geneva motor show. The bodyshell and suspension are the same as a GT3ís, while the 368kW/460Nm 4.0-litre flat-six is out of the GT3 RS. The sole gearbox offered is a six-speed manual and the R comes with a titanium exhaust, carbon-ceramic brakes, plastic windows and no rear seat or airconditioning.

This makes it light, the 1370kg kerb weight making this the lightest model in the 911 range. Only a handful will come to Australia and theyíre not cheap. Priced from $404,700, the R will be the second-most expensive 911, trailing only the $466,500 Turbo S.

The GT3 RS has simply ridiculous downforce on its extra-wide footprint, more than double the previous RS

harnesses, so youíve always got a heavy package lolling between your legs, which feels more natural for some than others).

The Cayman is a lot of fun, but then, with just 18km left to our next stop at Gingers Creek, I switch to the RS and proceed to have one of those revelatory moments. Or, rather, a series of them.

Iíve driven a lot of 911s, and loved them all, but none of that experience could prepare me for the way this car eviscerates that brilliant bit of road. Corners are shoved closer together by both the absurd speeds it encourages you to attempt through an apex and by exploding out of each bend with the battering ram of 368kW at a screaming 8250rpm. Theyíre not ordinary kilowatts, either; theyíre angry Porsche ones, each honed for maximum engineering purity (up to a point, it turns out).

In short, the GT3 is so furiously, fornicatingly fast that it makes me feel slightly ill, in a good way, like a particularly potent rollercoaster.

When I get out, shaking slightly, I almost burn my face on the heat coming off the tyres and Iím slightly alarmed by the smoke whisping off the brakes. Then I notice my jaw is hurting and my temples are throbbing.

I lay down on the grass, partly to contemplate whether thereís any tread left on the RSís super-soft tyres and partly because I just need to, and Iím struck by just how ridiculous the rubber is. The carís prodigious grip seems slightly less surprising when youíre staring at two 325/30 rear tyres on 21-inch wheels. These things are pre-diet Joe Hockey-spec units; wide, sticky and with an almost uncanny ability to hold on against all odds and powerful forces.

Itís just after this that I feel the need to uppercut myself for whining away about how slow and benign the Cayman GT4 is. Relatively speaking.

Yes, it is noticeably less explosive, and back-tobacking it down one carving stretch that day I notice itís 10-15km/h slower on short bursts between corners, which feels like a huge amount. And it does feel comparatively lacking in both bottom-end shove and ultimate feedback, but in any other company it would be a world-beater.

The steering is not as sharply tactile as the RSís, but its more street-Porsche-like weightiness is still truly wonderful; it communicates to you perfectly at that brilliant, mid-corner moment where the mid-engined balance of a Cayman canít help but make you smile.

It takes about five minutes before my brain recalibrates and Iím able to appreciate the charms of the GT4ís 3.8-litre flat-six Ė an engine that never felt slow in a Carrera S Ė and, most pointedly, the manual gearbox. I can see why theyíve made the GT3 RS dualclutch only, because itís so fast that thinking too much about gearchanges is possibly dangerous, but I also love the fact that the Cayman GT4, despite being at least notionally also a track special, only comes with a manual. And what a beautiful, near-perfect shift quality it possesses.

On the downside, it does rev for you on downchanges, automatically, which I thought would annoy me enormously, but itís amazing how quickly you come to appreciate it, because the blips are so swift and perfectly timed. Itís so good, and so clever, that it could spell the end of heel-and-toeing forever (I still did it anyway, on hard stops, just for fun).

Porsche says it gets a manual because itís an enthusiastís car, rather than a racerís weapon, but

who cares what the reasons are? This gearbox, with its millimetre-perfect shifts Ė each one of which feels as wondrous as a perfectly hit five-iron Ė alone makes the GT4 a more desirable car for me than even the RS.

In fact, this might be a nice early point at which to say that, while this ultimate 911 impresses and scares the hell out of me, I wouldnít buy one. For $411,000, which is what our test car costs, Iíd want something that looks a little less Porsche and a bit more true supercar.

In this stratosphere, itís not just about being fast, itís about looking super-sexy while doing so, and thatís where the RS doesnít kick ass.

Itís important to remember that in isolation the Cayman GT4 is a staggering car. Finally putting a proper 911 engine into this mid-engined baby and uprating its suspension, chassis, steering, you name it, to Porsche Motorsport levels has created clearly the greatest Cayman yet. With its beautiful mid-corner balance, there are those who would argue this makes it the best Porsche of all. And with a sub-$200K price, it certainly looks like the wisest way to spend money on a Stuttgart stormer, though we realistically know that people with that kind of dough will have a 911 instead, or as well.

As it turns out, Iím about to get a lot of time to study the GT4 in isolation because Ė thankfully while Butler is at the wheel Ė the GT3 RS suddenly goes bang.

Butler notices unfortunate noises, warning lights and then thick white smoke from behind him. ďIíve seen enough F1 races to know what it looks like when an engine lunches itself,Ē he later reports dolefully.

Coming around the corner to see the oil-dripping carcass, and Butlerís hang-dog face, I am unaccountably upset, almost bereaved. Not just for the people at Porsche, who were going to be deeply discombobulated, but just genuinely shocked and appalled. My first thought is that Porsches just donít do this. I later realise I was mainly just sad because I wouldnít get to drive it any more.

So now we are Ďstuckí with just the Cayman GT4 to drive for the next 24 hours or so. And sure enough, with its better-looking, more exciting big brother out of the way, it just grew more and more attractive.

It is noisy, almost to the point of annoying, on concrete freeways in particular, but itís not so bad that you wouldnít take it on long drives to places like the Oxley Highway. And the fun youíll have when you get there, particularly every time you shift gears, will make it all worthwhile.

It really is possible that this Cayman GT4 is the bestvalue Porsche money can buy. But it is equally true that anyone who has enough money to buy one is still going to want a 911. As usual, Porsche canít lose.

The GT3 RS is so furiously fast that it makes me feel slightly ill, in a good way