“How do you solve a problem like Maria?” … A question that may not instantly be burning on the lips of every motorsport enthusiast, but one, all the same, that requires consideration.
The “Maria”, in this case, is not, needless to say, a guitar-toting, child-mentoring, folk-singing nun, but rather, the Porsche 911 GT3 Cup (Type 997), as used globally by Porsche in the Carrera Cup and F1-supporting Supercup.
For the last few months, I’ve toiled with this subject. Even now, in the full flow of final composition, I find myself questioning the validity, even the existence of the argument, yet the proof is there for us all to see. To understand the issue, you have to understand the psyche.
You see, just as Maria is the embodiment of human virtue, so the 997 represents such levels of Teutonic perfection that as a one-make race car, within the framework of current regulations, it has become fundamentally flawed.
To give Porsche the credit they deserve, they work relentlessly at their motorsport programmes and can now boast 20 stand-alone championships worldwide, and over 2,200 911 GT3 Cup units sold since 1998. And of course, if you hadn’t noticed, they continue to do rather well in multi-marque racing as well. To emphasize this point, I attended the latest VLN meeting at the Nurburgring where, from a 168-car entry, 14 of the top 20 finishers were Porsche 911s.
So where’s the problem?
Put very simply, Porsche have engineered a car to such precision that it has become ballistically sterile. Add to this an infusion of performance debilitating regulations and both the Carrera Cup and Supercup now, often, and at best, create a visual spectacle more congenial than enlivened. From the cockpit, the experience is, of course, very, different.
Drivers work hard to push through the inevitable understeer, using all their might to manage weight-transfer and gain traction but whereas previously, skill would be rewarded and errors punished, now, the wider track, grippier rubber and more effective aero all combine to compensate and deliver a car that forgives all but the wildest of moments.
The irony is, the 997 is a beautiful car to drive and a sensational car to race, but it’s the contradictory nature of the beast that, in amongst a pack of other 997s, makes it almost flaccid. Why Porsche have allowed this to happen, I can only speculate on, but what is for certain is that it is not an accident of birth.
The first of my concerns came with the re-design. Clearly there is more power but there’s also far greater stability and less “edge”. To me, this is more akin to perfecting a track day car than a thoroughbred one-make racer, and I can’t help but suspect that this is a fundamental aim from the manufacturer.
After all, even with almost 200 race units per annum being sold, programmes of the nature that Porsche deliver require sustainable funding and this can only be achieved by building sales volumes from road and track users.
Influx of the refugees
Next, there’s the influence of regulations, and in particular, the reduction in the minimum weight (car plus driver). For 2011, the Carrera Cup car is 20kg heavier than its predecessor yet the minimum weight allowance has been reduced by 10kg. This is an obvious benefit to the more diminutive ex-single seater drivers, but reduces the competitiveness of some of the older stalwarts (think Tim Harvey and Michael Caine).
Additionally, the continued constraints on adjustments to both suspension and aero components removes the potential for experienced teams and drivers to push the handling limits and so gain the traditional advantage that longevity often brings.
Finally, it’s also worth looking at the way Porsche support and promote their racing. Again, it’s to their credit that they invest heavily in format, paddock presence and prize structure, but however well intentioned this might appear, the emphasis of the last few years appears to combine with other factors to be aimed squarely at encouraging refugees from Formula Series’, rather than the more traditional “gentlemen drivers”.
In the hazy light of this October day, I can see the merit in Porsche’s plan. The globalisation of Formula One has widened the gene pool and the harsh reality for many talented young chargers is that even with an increase in seat numbers, it is nationality and market appeal that counts.
By offering a car that can make an effective transition from one seat to two; racing on nationally and internationally recognised packages; with opportunities for both progression and careers; racing against your peers in one of the Carrera Cups looks like a wise choice.
For Porsche the brand, it introduces them to a wealth of potential owners across trans-continental markets who see the cars taking to the track with a new generation of racers; not just the same old class of yesteryear.
The annihilation of risk
So returning to “understanding the psyche”, we have to understand that in their mind, only by offering the perfect car within controlled environments can Porsche roll-out their strategy. Risk is not a word that warrants mention.
Cars must appear brutish, yet reliable; sophisticated, yet manageable. And this is exactly what they are. And with a host of meritorious young drivers such as Mike Meadows, James Sutton, Nick Tandy, Sam Edwards, Euan Hankey and Stephen Jelly, all now challenging for domestic and international honours, and full grids across both hemispheres, it looks like the plan is working.
Cast your mind back only a couple of years and Carrera Cup GB was finding it difficult to maintain double-figure entries. That was with a car that was light and edgy and needed a level of understanding that only time and experience could give. And the Supercup was so inimical that even the best of our emerging drivers would struggle for presence – remember those fierce battles between Richard Westbrook and Barry Horne?
So which do we prefer? As spectators, we obviously want to see close racing with plenty of overtaking but not at the expense of depleted grids and an exclusion of incoming talent.
The issue is not unique. F1 went through the same only a few years ago but this isn’t a call for DRS. It is, however, a call for Porsche to consider what they will compromise to allow cars to be individually more competitive.
Ultimately, the answer may actually lie in a change of platform to the 991, but this is unlikely to happen until at least 2014 and so for the time being, other solutions need to be sought. A reduction in the size of the rear wing, combined with greater scope for adjustment might be one consideration? Or a change in rear tyre size / compound?
All I ask is that having rebuilt their championships, Porsche now open into dialogue with teams and drivers to best understand how they can maintain standards yet improve the spectacle before competitors and fans around the world start to sing “so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen and goodbye”.