We have all seen the episode of Top Gear. The one where Jeremy is driving the Porsche Carrera GT. One line from that has always stuck with me. When describing the Carrera GT’s engine Clarkson mentions the engine was originally built for racing. Every time I see that episode that sticks with me. What race car was that from? Recently I went from wondering to actually doing a bit of research. Which also happened to coincide with Porsche recently pulling the wraps off their long-lost Le Mans racer.
Porsche had a great deal of success with their GT1 in the middle to late 90’s. But as the new millennium approached, Porsche quickly realized that they would need a bespoke, purpose-built prototype to continue to be competitive. Work on the 9R3 began in 1998 and for the first time Porsche would design the entire car using computers. Previous to that some engineer deep within Porsche’s headquarters still did design work with a piece of paper and a pencil. Even for the day, still ridiculously old-fashioned, but yet completely and totally awesome in the most Porsche way possible. Remember these are the folks who have pretty much perfected the rear engine sports car. An accomplishment they achieved by hard work and pathological stubbornness.
Porsche originally decided to use their tried and true turbocharged flat 6 engine. It quickly became apparent that the flat 6 wasn’t going to work. It was too heavy and underpowerd to be competitive. It may have been near blasphemy to suggest the use of anything other than a flat 6 in sports car racing. Many arguments ensued until finally even the most hardened flat 6 supporter had to admit the engine was not right for this application. It had served with distinction for years, but was too old-fashioned for the 9R3. This left Porsche searching for an engine. They found one in a place one does not usually find Porsche, Formula 1. Porsche has supplied engines to both Formula 1 and Indycar throughout their history. They were moderately successful but nothing when compared to their sports car resume.
In Fact the new V10 Porsche turned to was an object failure in F1. Too heavy, and not powerful enough to be competitive in F1. However, given the correct changes the engine would suit Porsche’s sports car racing needs perfectly. Displacement was enlarged from 3.5 to 5.5 liters. The fancier F1 tech was replaced with traditional components to ensure the engine would last long enough for endurance racing. Porsche went on to build 1 car (and more than likely a 2nd) they even tested it. Sports car driving legend Allan McNish was one of the test drivers. But the writing was already on the wall, and come November, 1998 the program was canceled.
We don’t know how good or bad the 9R3 was. The test was done in very cold conditions and the car never had the chance to show what it could do. But why was it axed? Obviously Porsche is a big fan of motorsport. Accountants! Porsche’s Wendelin Wiedekin and chairman of the VW-Audi board, Ferdinand Piech had agreed to collaborate on a SUV project. The Cayenne and Touareg would the end result of their labors. As shocking as it might sound, Porsche decided to pull the engineers off the 93R and put them to work designing the joint SUV project. We, as race fans were left only to wonder what could have been. Porsche competing with BMW’s LMR V12 and Audi’s R8. But we didn’t wonder because Porsche kept the whole thing a closely guarded secret. Even if you saw one you were met with the same skepticism as if you saw a UFO. Every so often you’d get blurry images of something remotely looking like an LMP race car.
In a weird way the racing community’s loss was the street car community’s gain. On the one hand we lost what could have been a great race car but on the other we gained a phenomenal street car. The Porsche Carrera GT! The only Porsche that Jeremy Clarkson believed was built with passion and soul. It was for all intents and purposes a race car, built for the road. The Carrera GT was an instant classic thanks in large part to its phenomenal engine. Too heavy for Formula 1, canceled before it’s time at Le Mans, but just perfect in the GT.