High & mighty

Porscheís iconic 911 cut its motorsport chops up in the mountains above Monte Carlo. Ben Oliver retraces those tyre tracks in the new Turbo S to see if thereís still a racerís edge to this brutally rapid sports-luxo flagship

WORDS BEN OLIVER PHOTOS TOM SALT

íM LEAVING one of the worldís great motor racing circuits behind and heading somewhere better to drive. Downtown Monaco early on a winter weekday morning isnít as much fun as the Grand Prix circuit it becomes for one weekend every summer. Its corners keep their deep red-and-white apexes year-round, but today theyíre cut across by pushy, surly van drivers with delivery schedules to keep, swarmed over by mopeds with chic riders and gingerly ventured onto by elderly Monegasque ladies with tiny dogs on leashes and baguettes under their arms, trying to find a safe way home from the boulangerie through this madness.

Monaco is occasionally the place to exercise a very powerful car, but now is not the time.

If you happen to be passing in a decent car, youíre obliged to drive a couple of laps of the circuit and briefly imagine yourself as Fangio or Senna before a hoot and a curse from one of those van drivers Ė or a traffic jam Ė brings you back to reality.

But the Grand Prix isnít Monacoís only major motorsport event. Since 1911 it has organised the Monte Carlo Rally, held not in the tiny principality, of course, but on the extraordinary roads of the French Alpes-Maritimes which rear up over its port. Like the Grand Prix circuit, theyíre freely available all year round because, unlike many of the other famous Alpine driving routes, theyíre not high enough to be lost under snow from November to May. Conditions at the Col de Turini, the high mountain pass which is the highlight of the rally and the junction of some of the regionís best driving roads, can be treacherous in mid-winter. But if youíre brave, and have the right car, these roads let us Europeans indulge our stringbacks-and-shades Alpine driving fantasies all year round.

We have the right car. In 1965, the Porsche 911 made its motorsport debut in a snowy Monte Carlo Rally, and in 1968 it took its first rally victory here in the hands of heroic, lantern-jawed British driver Vic Elford. The 911ís storied motorsport career since gives it a credibility that partly explains its extraordinary longevity. And it all started here.

But the 911 Iím taking back to the Col de Turini has performance that might have scared even Quick Vic.

With 427kW, it produces four times as much power as those early competition cars. The recent facelift brought a power hike of 15kW for both the Turbo and the Turbo S, partly to maintain their otherness now that the entire 911 range is turbocharged. The 3.8-litre flat-sixís ports and fuel pressures have been revised, and its twin variable-vane turbochargers are now even bigger. Porsche, with its usual modesty, claims that the Turbo S will hit 100km/h in 3.0 seconds. Privately, the engineers admit itís less, and one American car magazine has independently proven that the tin-top Turbo S accelerates to 60mph (96km/h) in just 2.5 seconds. Thatís 0.3 seconds faster than a Veyron.

This is one of the craziest road cars Porsche has ever made, and it gives this road trip a double purpose. I

want to explore the route of the Monte. But I also want to measure how far the 911 has progressed since those early, lithe, light 911s, and see if you can still sense the link despite its stupendous power output.

This road trip actually started at Porsche HQ in Stuttgart, not Monaco, and the long drive to the Mediterranean revealed much about the carís character.

A hard frost in Germany rendered everything a frozen, jewelled white. Usually Iíd be nervous of driving such a powerful car in icy conditions, but this one has a slightly odd combination of all-wheel drive, racing centre-lock wheels, snow tyres and a cabriolet roof, which is staying shut for now. The softer rubber means the top speed has to be limited to Ďjustí 240km/h on the autobahns: a small price to pay for guaranteed forward progress now, and later on the Col de Turini.

The Turbo S just eats up the 800km trip. Despite its power itís refined and comfortable and simple to drive.

Itís easy to forget how special it is. A Lamborghini and most Ferraris would hate a long trip like this. The Porscheís cabin doesnít have the design exuberance of its (more expensive) Italian rivals, but it offers build quality to survive a nuclear attack and endless gadgets, including real-time data on g-force, power output and

The 911ís storied motorsport career gives it a credibility that partly explains its longevity. And it all started here

When 911s went the full Monte

In 1965, just a year after it had gone on sale, Porsche entered a barely modified 911 in the Monte Carlo Rally. It was the first works motorsport outing for the 911 and almost its first competitive outing of any sort: a few privateers had raced their 911s the previous season. Output was increased from 95kW to a massive 110kW, and a bar was welded across the back for the co-driver to stand on to give more traction in the snow. It still managed an impressive fifth. In í68 (above), Vic Elford delivered the 911ís first Monte win, part of an extraordinary season in which he would also win Daytona (just a week later) and the Targa Florio for Porsche, and finish fourth in his first F1 race.

Bjorn Waldegard won the Monte in a 911 the following two years, and in í78 Jean-Pierre Nicolas repeated the feat in a 3.0-litre Carrera. But Porsche didnít enter the 959 in Group B, and the 911ís appearances in top-level rallying have been sporadic since then. In this yearís Monte, the only 911 competing was Romain Dumasís 997 GT3, which provided some visual and aural relief and a sense of history in a field dominated by Euro hatches.

The road is instantly recognisable to motorsport fans: a series of hairpins clinging to the steep valley walls

torque split between the axles. As enthusiasts we might prefer the stiffness of a coupe, but even at high speeds and in sub-zero temperatures the fabric roof is so thick and fits so well that it might as well be steel. A little extra noise disrupting some of the finer detail of the audio system seems the only downside. And there is something pleasing about driving the very top of the road-going 911 tree, with its $477,700 price tag, even if most of us would prefer the new GT3.

The sat-nav guided me unerringly on a trip that passed through four countries (five if you count Monaco), leaving me to concentrate on the view out. Driving south, the low winter sun bleaches the autobahn ahead bright-white, and with the frosted landscapes on either side itís like driving into the beam of light that the Starship Enterprise creates when Captain Kirk engages warp speed. Even when limited to 240km/h, itís not much slower either. Soon the high Alps rise up directly in our path: the route cuts under

them through Switzerlandís Gottard Pass. Once into Italy, the temperature rises as the altitude and the distance-to-destination on the sat-nav drop. After just seven and a half hours I arrive in Monaco in 15-degree evening warmth.

The next morning, photographer Tom Salt and I start our ascent into the mountains and towards the Col de Turini. The road is instantly recognisable to motorsport fans: a series of hairpins clinging to the steep valley walls, often with square-cut rockface on one side and, on the other, the square root of nothing at all for thousands of feet.

This is high-consequence motoring. Get it wrong in one direction Ė even by an inch Ė and youíre guaranteed a very expensive bodyshop bill. Run wide in the other and you might never be found. In truth itís not much fun: the 911 has clearly grown over the years and ours is the wide-bodied Turbo. Itís still infinitely wieldier than a Ferrari or Lamborghini up here Ė more compact and with better visibility Ė but Iím still picking my way between corners, and barely prodding the throttle.

We stop for a photograph and a police car races up ahead of us. When we catch up itís parked across the road, and a gendarme waves us down. The road ahead is blocked, she explains, and weíll have to turn around.

I ask if the blockage can be cleared. Not today, she laughs. An articulated logging truck has jackknifed across the road, the driver perhaps caught out by the gradient, or the sharpness of a turn, or a patch of ice.

The trailer is wedged between the rock face and one of the low stone walls that line some corners. Others have flimsy metal barriers, or nothing at all. The driver stands by his cab, hands around his head, giving silent thanks that he hit the one thing able to stop him going over the edge. If the constant signs warning you of ice and rockfalls donít temper your speed on these roads, the sight of someone elseís near-death experience will.

We head back down to Sospel, one of the ancient,

Is it too quick? Maybe. Itís an engineering marvel, but feels a little distant

pretty stone villages built into the steep valley walls, and from there scale the Col de Turini by another route. At the top weíre level with snow-capped peaks further inland and thereís permanent ice on some stretches, so I keep the speed low as we descend again, heading west to loop over some of the other mountain roads used in the Monte.

Iíve driven these roads before and I knew that theyíd suit this car better. The Col de Vence is another largely deserted mountain road, but itís faster and more open than the Turini, with longer, flowing stretches where I could finally start to extend the Turbo S.

Those insane standing-start acceleration and topspeed figures are largely academic, and the people who buy these cars know it. We want cars like this for what happens in between: that sensation of almost limitless power; the ability to change your speed at will; the way you change the volume on the stereo. You exit a hairpin at 50km/h in the Turbo S and arrive at the next at whatever speed you choose, knowing that the impassive standard ceramic-composite brakes will turn the speed down instantly and precisely.

But even up here, with views all the way down the mountainside to the Mediterranean, your social conscience and your limits as a driver mean you seldom use the full travel of that accelerator. Even from a standing start, a mountain simply doesnít have the space to let you hold the gas wide open for more than five seconds, by which time youíll be approaching 160km/h with a corner looming.

I had to try it, of course. Iím lucky enough to have done the same thing in the 882kW Bugatti Veyron Supersport, and the greatest compliment I can pay the 911 Turbo S is that it feels exactly the same: the same feeling of the blood draining from your legs and rushing into your chest cavity and head; the same distorted vision; the same fear of impending neurological overload. Maybe itís a little slower on snow tyres: you can feel the all-wheel-drive system working hard to keep traction. And maybe itís a little slower for being a cabrio: itís 70kg heavier, and under extreme provocation you can feel the body flexing very slightly across the scuttle. But I still canít imagine wanting or needing or being able to use a car any quicker than this on the public road.

Is it too quick? Maybe. The Turbo S suffers from a more severe case of the problem that afflicts many of its rivals that have recently switched to turbocharging.

Thereís no longer good reason to run them out to the redline. It would be both an indulgence and slower, and even if you do it they just donít sound as good at max revs. The right way to drive them is to short-shift and stay in the thick of the torque. The dual-clutch PDK box knows this, and flicks through the gears so quickly and fluidly that thereís little advantage in doing it yourself.

For a 427kW engine, the exhaust note is muted; thereís a good turbocharged rip when pressured, and pleasing pops and burbles when you back off, but nothing like the drama of the atmo cars of old.

It sounds spoilt to complain when every new generation of 911 gets faster and cleaner and objectively better. The triumph of the 911 is that the simple sports car that competed on these roads 52 years ago has developed into something so omnicapable.

This one will out-drag a Veyron, ace a big transcontinental road trip and drive through ice and snow with the roof down.

But saying it drives like a McLaren is both a compliment and a criticism. Itís an engineering marvel, but feels a little distant. To answer my initial question: yes, some of the character and iconoclasm that once defined the 911 has been lost, sacrificed to abilities whose limits youíll never find.

Most pokey Porkers

This revised 911 Turbo S isnít the most powerful road-going Porsche ever with its 427kW, but it isnít far off. The 918 Spyder had a system total of 652kW, but a mere 447kW came from its petrol engine and the balance from the electric motors on each axle. The Turbo S is about as quick to 100km/h though Ė depending on whose test you trust Ė and a lot cheaper.

The Carrera GT made 450kW and the crazy-horse 997 GT2 RS from 2010 made 456kW, so both had more poke, but with rear-drive, neither gets close to our carís standing-start times. The Turbo S does eclipse the nut-job 911 GT1 ĎStrassenversioní from 1996-97 on both power and acceleration, though. It was a road-going Le Mans car which, despite its 450kWand name, was more closely related to a 962 racer; just 22 were made.

But the real nemesis of the Turbo S will be the new GT2 RS. Itís likely to be the 991ís last hurrah, appearing late this year, just before Porsche reveals the all-new 992. With over 500kW it will be not only the most powerful version of the 991, but it will also feature a lightweight rear-drive chassis. name