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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The New World's Fastest Car

On the damp, slippery road next to Dortmund airport, as the back wheels claw desperately in a bid to overtake the fronts and the exhaust outlets in the rocker panels spit fire and noise, it feels just for a second as if this car might have gone too far in the horsepower department.

And then as there's the faintest whiff of traction from the 325/30R19 Continental ContiSportContact Vmax tires in the rear, the twin Garrett T35 turbos kick in and the world explodes. There are very few truly intimidating cars left, and the 2009 9ff GT9R is one of them.

The Bugatti Veyron has proven that the title as the world's fastest production car can sell automobiles. If our terrifying drive in Dortmund is any measure, the next record-breaking effort could come from the wild, Porsche-based 2009 9ff GT9R.

Flight of the Valkyries
The 2009 9ff GT9R is the antithesis to the perfectly mannered Bugatti Veyron. With flames coming from its twin-turbo 1,105-horsepower engine, the rear-wheel-drive 9ff GT9R could be the Veyron's drunken, bar-brawling cousin. It judders at low revs, spits, snarls and jumps through town and slides without a moment's warning. And yet despite its lack of finesse, the GT9R will smash through the 60 mph mark in 2.9 seconds, reach 186 mph in 15.8 seconds and blast past a Veyron with ease.

The 9ff bounces off every rut and ripple in the pavement as the racing-specification Bilstein suspension has just 3.9 inches of travel (although adaptive damping control is being developed). At indecent road speeds, the car skips gently across the pavement like a stone on a dead calm pond, with the tires absorbing most of the impacts. Even at low speed, the GT9R jumps off near-invisible pockmarks in the road.

Power steering means it's as light, progressive and easy to place in a corner as a Porsche 911 GT3, even though the aircraft-style steering yoke leaves us grabbing a handful of fresh air every time a U-turn is called for. The steering wheel is fine for high-speed work, but for the track there's a more useful round racing wheel, and even that isn't enough to save the car if you give it a touch too much throttle.

The 9ff GT9R is a brutal car, and it takes skill, precision and nerve to cope with it. Perhaps when the production cars are equipped with stability control from the Porsche 911 GT2, it will be possible to rein it in. This prototype doesn't have it, so one twitch at the wrong time will kill you.

The 9ff outfit has hammered seven top-speed records into submission with heavily modified Porsches since the company's inception in 2001, including the title for the world's fastest cabriolet. But company principal Jan Fatthauer, formerly an apprentice at Brabus, always wanted to go further, and so after three years of development his own GT9 supercar was unleashed last year and touched 254 mph on an oval course, 2 mph faster than the Bugatti Veyron.

It would comfortably have become the world's fastest production car, but the SSC Ultimate Aero TT went and spoilt it all with a run that was 1 mph faster. So the R version of the 9ff GT9 — intended initially to be a track-only machine in the vein of the Ferrari FXX — has suddenly become street-legal in a bid to beat the record and satisfy customer demands. Only 20 of these cars will see the light of day, and each one will be different.

Start With a Porsche 911 GT3
The front structure of the GT9R comes from a Porsche 911 GT3. This is mated to a space-frame chassis inspired by Porsche's 1995 GT1 racing car, and it's far from the stretched GT3 that other reports have suggested. Of course it looks like a flattened Porsche 911, as 9ff has built its reputation tuning Zuffenhausen's finest.

The engine starts out as the block of a 996-model 911 Turbo, then it's bored out to four liters, the cylinder bores are plasma-coated and finally forged pistons are fitted. Twin Garrett T35 turbochargers complete the package. Four engines detonated during testing to find the right mixture of Nikasil and carbon for the cylinder coating, but such a thing seems inevitable when the stress of 300 hp per liter is involved.

The roof is a key element in the GT9R's slippery aerodynamics, and it's a single piece of carbon-fiber right down to the pillars. It's ironic that the whole platform sits on a floor of plywood. Fatthauer simply couldn't match the strength, light weight and pure functionality of wood even with exotic carbon-fiber, and it's refreshing to see someone admit that high tech isn't always the best solution.

The interior of the GT9R still needs some updating, as the 996-model 911 dashboard that sits in this car simply isn't good enough for a car that will cost nearly $980,000 in its most expensive form. Fatthauer has developed a cleaner, Cayman-style dash with an electronic control screen that should sit far better, and the customers will, of course, be able to specify every level of fit and finish — from pure luxury to a stripped-out racing cockpit clad in carbon-fiber that should save 110 pounds off the overall weight of 3,086 pounds.

Power for Speed
Those who sign up for the 2009 9ff GT9R can choose their poison, as power ranges from 740 hp to 1,105 hp depending on turbo boost, plus the aero kits include a high-downforce setup for track use and a high-speed configuration that features F1-style wheel spats, no rear wing and an open rear end that leaves the car looking unfinished but does an efficient job of decreasing turbulence and lift.

There is something for every occasion, although Fatthauer admits that the big power version is too much for the track, not to mention most roads, so it's really only appropriate for hammering down a stretch of autobahn with an unrestricted speed limit. His choice would be the 750 hp version, which can come with a six-speed racing box and clutch like this one, or a $55,000, specially developed sequential-shift manual transmission.

As for the looks, the R-version is far more attractive than the slippery eel that was the GT9. The new car's rear wing and back bodywork complete the shape. Aside from this, it still looks like a Porsche 911 that has been in the soap dish a little too long.

Is Your Wallet Fast Enough?
The 2009 9ff GT9R is a unique automobile, but it's still too much money, in truth, for a car that's less complete in style and utility than a Bugatti Veyron, Pagani Zonda F and even the Ferrari Enzo, especially in these troubled times. But then again, the GT9R is exclusive and if — if — Fatthauer captures the speed record for a street-legal car, then it might be possible to sell the whole run of 20 cars.

Fatthauer isn't headed for the Bonneville Salt Flats for his record attempt, either. "This is a street car, so it makes sense to do the record on the street," he says. "So we want to close a section of the French autoroute. It is a 12-mile stretch, completely straight, so we should be able to hit 258 mph, maybe 261 mph."