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One weekend, two 24-hour races in a Porsche 996 GT3

One weekend, two 24-hour races in a Porsche 996 GT3

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A quick drive in Paul’s 996 GT3 prompts Bennett to reminisce on a mad Le Mans/Nürburgring 24-hour road trip 20-years ago when both endurance events clashed on the same weekend.

There aren’t many benefits to getting old, but one of the few is an ever expending back catalogue of experiences to be plundered and ‘back in my day, everything was better,’ style tales of automotive adventure, to bore young people with. I mean it probably wasn’t, but then again…

Paul’s original Gen 2 996 GT3 needed a bit of exercise recently, so I selflessly volunteered to take it round the block and beyond. In Guards Red, it’s an absolute dead ringer for Porsche GB’s press test car of 20 years ago, reg ‘RY03 EEF’, albeit it is in Clubsport spec. Cue the rose-tinted reminiscence, but I could hardly forget my first GT3 experience and no one would blame me for making the most of it either.

I’ve still got the picture of that car on my drive, parked next to my 911 Carrera 3.2 (sold to me by some chap called Paul Stephens). Indeed, my modern Porsche experience at the time was limited to a week with a 996 Carrera 2, a couple of years previously. If that was the moment the Porsche penny dropped, then getting familiar with the 996 GT3, was when it cascaded one-arm bandit style. It was a car that had a profound effect on me for all sorts of reasons, dynamically and even emotionally.

I was behind the wheel of Circuit Driver magazine at the time, the track day bible, when track days were booming. It was my own business, with best mate and business partner, Bob McLaren. The day the GT3 arrived at our rural Suffolk locale, Bob grabbed the keys and went tearing off up the road, returning wide-eyed 30-mins later. “176mph,” he blathered. “It pulled 176mph on the bypass…” Tragically, Bob died aged 32, 12 months later from the rarest of cancers. In the ensuing business carnage, we renamed the publishing company 176mph Ltd, in his honour… Emotional, you see.

Dynamically? Well it wasn’t as if I wasn’t well versed in these things, having raced Caterhams and saloons and driven every hot hatch, homologation special, Lotus and everything else, but boy did the GT3 feel like it was from another planet, even in relation to the 996 C2 and my own Carrera. Respected colleagues had told me it was a game changer as a road car, and they weren’t wrong. The guttural Mezger engine, with its normally-aspirated linear power delivery that peaked at a savage 8000rpm. The animated chassis that was perfectly tuned into UK roads in a way that some later GT3s seem to have lost. The incredible steering feel that gave such rich feedback. The 996 GT3 was a car that you could relax into and guide through the palms of your hand and seat of your trousers. Special, very special.

Students of Top Gear might remember RY03 EEF too. Even now on a Dave channel re-run it pops up on the TG test track going very, very sideways with the early Perry McCarthy ’Stig’ at the wheel. In the studio Hammond opined, that he wanted to fit a half cage in to his 911 SC and create a sort of ‘Junior GT3.’

But we hadn’t blagged the GT3 just to rag it up the local bypass. No we had big plans for the GT3, largely based around the enduring endurance legend that is the 911.

Y’see, 2004 was one of those years when the powers that be (whoever they may be) had seen fit to run both the Le Mans 24-hour race and the Nürburgring 24-hour race on the same weekend. We were, to put it mildly, a bit miffed because as long as we could remember, Team Circuit Driver had spent the month of June in a sort of endurance racing nirvana. Clearly, we had more time on our hands then, because we would head first to the Fatherland and then (usually) a couple of weeks later to Le Mans, for the world’s most famous motor race.

So let’s get this into perspective. The problem? Two 24-hour races on the same weekend in two different countries. The conundrum? Which to watch. The solution? Watch them both. Got that? Let’s go then.

And go we did, in a Guards Red 996 GT3, which seemed only right given that were hordes of 911s competing at both events, largely in privateer hands, which was often the way during Porsche’s endurance racing sabbatical.

The plan was simple enough: Arrive at Le Mans to see the start and leave in time to catch the night racing action at the Ring, which has to be experienced, really to be believed and not just for the on-track action, because culturally, these are two very different events. The tricky part to all this? Just the 450-miles that separates the two 24-hour endeavours, and that’s after our dash to Le Mans. This was very much our own endurance homage. And anyway, who needs sleep?

Had we known what the future had in store, then Bob would have certainly have been joint No1 driver (he did make it to Le Mans the following year, very much on borrowed time), but as it was I needed a snapper, so CD’s resident lens man, Charlie, was in the co-driver’s Recaro.

Any concerns that the GT3 might be too hardcore Porsche soon dissolve. Snug in our respective Recaros, the Porker is effortless and unburstable and looking back at the story again reveals that these were clearly different times: “We settle into a relaxed pace. A steady and stable 110mph equates to 4000rpm as Calais disappears behind us and the French Autoroutes open up ahead…” You certainly wouldn’t attempt that now.

Back in 2004 it wasn’t a straight Autoroute dash. There was Rouen to be negotiated, and a cross country finale, which saw us pick up a ‘Brit plated Ferrari 355 and 996 GT3RS for company and some spirited sparring. The locals wave encouragingly as we dawdle through town and village before letting loose again as conditions allow. If you’ve done it, then you’ll know that the road to Le Mans for the 24-hour race is one of those things, that you just have to do.

Le Mans is buzzing as we arrive. It feels weird to be dipping in and out so quickly, particularly with our usual Le Mans gang camping for the event. But we’ve got our own clock counting down. You can’t beat the start, though, for spectacle and atmosphere as thousands cram into the grandstands and terraces and the flamboyant French commentator whips himself into a Gallic frenzy as the countdown to the 4pm start draws closer. It’s pure theatre as first the grid is evacuated and the cars erupt into life, the muted Audis’ turbo engines drowned out by the ground-shaking rumble of the V8 Corvettes and the shriek of the Judd V10s. One lap behind the pace car and Le Mans ’04 is unleashed and the Audi UK R8s take an immediate lead. In the Eiffel Mountains the race is already an hour in…

The race settles, the hordes disperse to do other Le Mans stuff, like drinking or perhaps visiting one of the, er, live strip shows… Another thing you wouldn’t see today! As the sun begins to drop, we leave the 24-hour party people to it. They party even harder in Germany and that’s where we’re heading in our now trusty endurance GT3. There is, however, the small matter of 450 miles and three countries (OK, one of them is only Luxembourg, but it still counts) to cover.

It’s a great drive. You get to appreciate just how vast and empty mainland Europe is on a Saturday night. Endless stretches of deserted two-lane blacktop peaking and plunging through dramatic countryside. The GT3 is just the machine. Edgy enough to keep it real and focussed, but just refined enough to make it comfortable.

Again we settle into three figures, the flat-six a distant thrum in our wake. Skirting around Paris is a fiddle and we’re tempted to drop into Reims to check out the old GP track and buildings (still unrestored back in 2004), but its dark now so we push on. Besides Paris has cost us time. According to my published scribblings: “an hour at a steady 120mph makes amends. And at such speed the GT3 is rock solid. The wings are pushing it into the tarmac and the flat underside further smooths the airflow…”

As we get closer to the German border, the weather starts to darken. We know it’s been raining at the ‘Ring and so it proves as we hit the drizzly mist that can so often hang over the Eiffel Mountains. It’s nearing midnight and weather or no weather, we’re anxious to get our fix of the night time action. Le Mans to Nürburgring in under five hours actually seems too easy, but then such is the pace of our GT3 road racer and the eerily quiet roads.

Pretty much abandoning the GT3, we head for Plantzgarten. Here the track plunges downhill over a crest and then turns rapidly uphill right. The cars emerge from the blackness and mizzle in gaggles. The commitment is breath-taking, particularly from the faster DTM, Porsche Turbos, M3s and GTRs. Unlike Le Mans where approximately 60 cars line up at the start, for the 2004 Nurburgring 24 Hours, as with most years, the grid comprised of 220 cars. We watch for over an hour, clutching well-earned beers and chewing on Frankfurters. Around us, 100,000 Germans camped in the forests and hanging from self-built scaffold viewing platforms are going a leedle bit crazy ya, letting off flares, fireworks and blasting their own peculiar blend of Euro metal at the night sky. Frankly, it makes Le Mans look almost genteel.

Sadly, despite bringing a Porsche to the party, we are not rewarded with a Porsche victory. That honour goes to Hans Stuck and Pedro Lamy in the works BMW M3 GTR. There are plenty of GT3s in the Top 10 however, plus the ever popular Falken Tyres Nissan Skyline in fifth. I mention that even now, 20-years on, because Falken very kindly put us up for the night, and that hotel bed was very welcome after our own 24-hour trip. Thanks guys.

We stick around for the 3pm flag and as the race counts down the stragglers and the wounded start to emerge from the pits to complete the last laps and so register a finish. The leading BMW duo collect the pack and lights blazing, at least 100 cars cross the line together. Now that is a sight to behold.

We catch the last minutes at La Sarthe on a telly in the Nürburgring paddock. It’s an Audi walkover, the Audi Japan entry of Seiji Ara, Rinaldo Capello and that man Tom Kristensen, taking the win ahead of the Audi UK R8 of Jamie Davies, Johnny Herbert and Guy Smith. There is a sole 911GT3 RS in the Top 10, driven by Porsche stalwarts Jorg Bergmeister, Patrick Long and Sascha Maassen.

No prizes, though, for the driving team of Bennett and Robinson, and their heroic endurance to take in two 24-hour races in one weekend.

And that 996 GT3? Or any 996 GT3 for that matter? Well, I’m guessing that RY03 EEF is still very much around. Maybe with a bit of digging a reunion could be engineered. But then again, the PS resident 996 GT3 is a near dead ringer stand in and just a few minutes behind the wheel is enough to remind me why these early, all analogue GT3s are so special. Enough too, to remind me of me old mucker Bob, who will forever be driving at 176mph in RY03 EEF. Bob, you went so fast, you got there before us…

About The Author
Picture of Steve Bennett
Steve Bennett

Steve bought his first Porsche – a Carrera 3.2 – from Paul Stephens in 2002, and since then we’ve been unable to shake him off. A motoring journalist of nearly 40-years - via Cars & Car Conversions, Autosport, Circuit Driver and 911&PW - he’s been there, seen it, driven it and isn’t afraid to wang on about it. Just don’t get him and Paul started about the ‘good old days!’

In fairness he has extensively driven just about every variant of Porsche, from 356 to current 992 and has a strange fondness for 944s and 996s. Oh, and he’s probably the only person in the world who has delivered pizzas in a 924 Carrera GT…


Favourite classic Porsche: 911 Carrera 3.2
Favourite modern Porsche: 997 GT3 RS Gen 1
Most disappointing Porsche: Any 991
Picture of Steve Bennett
Steve Bennett

Steve bought his first Porsche – a Carrera 3.2 – from Paul Stephens in 2002, and since then we’ve been unable to shake him off. A motoring journalist of nearly 40-years - via Cars & Car Conversions, Autosport, Circuit Driver and 911&PW - he’s been there, seen it, driven it and isn’t afraid to wang on about it. Just don’t get him and Paul started about the ‘good old days!’

In fairness he has extensively driven just about every variant of Porsche, from 356 to current 992 and has a strange fondness for 944s and 996s. Oh, and he’s probably the only person in the world who has delivered pizzas in a 924 Carrera GT…


Favourite classic Porsche: 911 Carrera 3.2
Favourite modern Porsche: 997 GT3 RS Gen 1
Most disappointing Porsche: Any 991

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