I saw the right-hander open out and dialed up what seemed a judicious measure of the big silver roadster's 605 horsepower. Instantly, three sounds hammered me at once: a hardening V10 howl, a rubbery shriek, and Hurley Haywood's severe voice in my helmet radio — "Careful!"
Too late. My view of the oncoming track surface was now over the top of my right fist, which was way over on the left side of the steering wheel.
Great. My first moments in the 2005 Porsche Carrera GT, a race-based, carbon-fiber hypercar — price tag $440,000 — and I'm going to hurl it into the Fontana boonies.
Unless . If I can quell my panic . I just hold everything steady .
It worked! OK, maybe the electronic integrated four-channel anti-spin control (ASC) helped, too — wisely, my passenger had refused to let that be switched off. Anyway, as its wild kinetic energy bled away, the beast calmed itself and settled back into line.
Then, I swear, it turned a long, snaky head around and looked at me like a disgusted dragon. "What next, fool?"
Ummm . Dunno. Don't get to ride dragons all that often. Let's just smooth on around this lap and try to look like we know what we're doing. Fafnir the Friendly Firebreather up there obviously does, and three-time Le Mans winner Haywood does for sure, so two out of three may get us out of this alive.
Racer for the Road
Racers are always trying to justify their passion for speed on the grounds it "improves the breed" of road cars. Porsche's Carrera GT perfectly illustrates their argument, even though it never actually raced.
Porsche last won the famed Le Mans 24-hour endurance race in 1998 with a midengined coupe called the 911 GT1. The company planned to go back in 2000 with a derivative design, a roadster this time, and with the venerable opposed-six replaced by a new 5.5-liter V10.
Then corporate priorities changed (blame the Cayenne SUV), and the race program was cancelled. But the passionate at Porsche did get permission to turn their Le Mans prototype into a performance fantasy like Ferrari's Enzo, Mercedes' McLaren-built SLR and Saleen's S7.
Well, not exactly like them. Porsche's near half-million-dollar flagship would have to preserve such proper Porsche attributes as lightweight efficiency, everyday practicality and a minimum of artificial driver aids. Antilock braking would be the only one you couldn't turn off. A six-speed manual would be your only transmission.
Not to imply the Carrera GT is a simple automobile. It positively sparkles with modern racing concepts. The carbon-fiber monocoque chassis structure descends directly from the '98 Le Mans winner's, and weighs a feathery 220 pounds (not counting the engine, which is rigidly mounted as part of the chassis structure).
Also based on that '98 GT1 is the all-independent, inboard coil-spring suspension whose pushrods are glistening stainless steel. Just as in a racing car, the suspension links bolt to the chassis directly, without feel-numbing bushings.
Its competition orientation means the Carrera GT turned out pretty light for such a powerful road car, just 3,043 pounds, according to factory specs. That's about 800 pounds under the heft of its crosstown Stuttgart rival, the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren.
Though the 68-degree V10 behind the cockpit hasn't raced (not yet), it probably makes even more power than it would have on the track. That's partly because its displacement was bumped to 5,733cc (bore 98mm, stroke 76), but more because it's free of the inlet restrictors required at Le Mans.
And what a frustrated racer of an engine this is. It's packed with 10 titanium conrods, four camshafts and 40 valves. Compression ratio is a heady 12.0 to 1. Horsepower rating is 605 at 8,000 rpm; torque, 435 pound-feet at 5,750. Engine weight is 472 pounds, which is low for the power produced, and it's carried low in the chassis thanks to a dry-sump lubrication system — with eight pumps! — and an extremely small-diameter clutch assembly.
That clutch is the trickest (and, frankly, the trickiest) element of the car. Measuring just over 6.5 inches across, it has two friction plates which are made of ceramic. The first appearance of this very expensive Formula One technology in a production vehicle, it's here for the same reasons as in high-end Porsche brake discs: ceramic is light, it maintains ferocious friction under enormous duress, and it will last a long time — providing the driver treats it right.
Aye, There's the Rub
Hurley Haywood, pro racer and Porsche dealer, likes to preflight first-time Carrera GT drivers with a cautionary tale about the clutch. Recently he drove a new GT cross-country to a customer, described how to engage the clutch and watched as the new owner promptly did it all wrong.
"You just burned up $8,000," Hurley commented conversationally.
Here's the technique: Do not slip it. Let's make that clear: Never slip the GT's ceramic clutch!
"Rather," says Mr. Haywood, "the release of the clutch and the pressing of the throttle have to be done in unison, and there's no slippage. It either grabs or it doesn't. In or out. That's a little alien to most people, but once you've mastered it, it's easy."
At $8 grand a lesson, mastery better come quickly.
To Ride the Dragon
This unfulfilled Le Mans monster does a good job of pretending it's tame. The doors operate conventionally. The interior, an interesting mix of saddle-hard leather and naked carbon fiber, is comfortably roomy. You find a manual-adjuster lever typical of base-model Porsches under the seat's right front corner. (But the seatback rake cannot be adjusted.) The steering wheel and instrumentation also appear to be straight out of a Porsche street car. The key's on the left, of course; twist it and a surprisingly muted but distinctively Porsche-like sound begins behind.
First clue to the beast's real nature comes with the first touch of toe — the engine wings up like a superbike motor. There's hardly any flywheel mass.
Second clue: the neat little wooden-knobbed shifter is mounted unusually high up on the right, conveniently close to your hand on the wheel. That's nice, and so is the shifter action, which uses novel flat "cables" running in ball bearings to command the aft-mounted, transverse gear set with absolutely zero slop. The engagement feel, too, is very bikelike.
So far, so sweet, but now for that clutch. Hurley's strapped in at my elbow, face straight ahead, saying nothing. Is he counting my money?
I vow to deny him. A little gas — yow, too much. A slight release of the clutch — oops, too fast. Gas, clutch, gas, clutch . For one second, through the sole of my left shoe I feel a texture exactly like rubbing your thumb along a ceramic knife sharpener. Then the plates are seated and we're moving. Shucks, piece o' cake.
As for the rest of it, what do you expect me to report? A flaw? Sorry, but as far as I could tell during five cautious, heavily supervised laps of a short, tight road course in the California Speedway infield, a course I'd never driven before, the Porsche Carrera GT is a perfect super-sports car. It goes. It stops. It turns. All instantly, and all precisely as you expect. Its athletic prowess is stunning. So is its civility. Yes, it really does feel friendly. Never has not racing a car so improved the breed.
And listen, for 2005 you get even more for your $440,000. New glass panels behind the roll bar hoops to keep your companion's coif (or yours) neat. Provision to adjust the seat vertically (and if that's not enough, Porsche offers booster pillows, too). A battery trickle charger (as if you'd ever park it that long). More color choices.
So sure, if you want one of these road dragons to ride, go ahead and treat yourself. I can't think of a single reason not to.