Porsche’s flagship sports car, the 911, has always been a rear-engined car, at least in roadgoing form. Always! However, when Porsche goes to race, they go to win. And let’s be honest about Porsche’s racing side: Porsche would call a duck a 911 if 911 Duck would win.
For example, take a look at the 911 GT1 they ran in the late nineties. It’s a 911! Well, sort of—it exploited the GT1 class regulations so much that it was more of a purpose-built prototype than a real, honest-to-goodness 911. That’s what makes the new 911 RSR such a curious case. They shoved a mid-engine layout into the 911's signature shape for the RSR, and to be honest, I can’t wait to see it run.
Those of us who love the 911's old-school insistence upon putting the engine in the back of the car surely have some mixed feelings about this. The rear-engine 911s always had an advantage in the rain, as the extra weight of the engine on the rear drive wheels gives it better traction on slippery pavement. Case in point: the last-gen 911 RSR won a very wet, rain-shortened Petit Le Mans on laps—ahead of higher-class, purpose-built racing prototypes—in part thanks to better tires, but also largely because rear-engine 911s have always ruled in the rain.
The rear-engine layout also lets you get back on the power a little earlier coming out of a turn. The 911 is a very unique driving experience that everyone should do at least once. Feeling that big flat-six engine push the whole car forward from way, way back there is a near-religious experience—well, at least to a 911 fangirl.
Of course, there are drawbacks to putting weight on and behind the rear axle, such as the car’s tendency to oversteer—and thus, surprise less talented drivers with a quick and merciless spin-out. Moving the weight forward will improve the balance of the car and make it easier to drive fast. A mid-engine configuration is the usual layout for a sports car for just this reason.
To the 911 faithful, the RSR moving its engine ahead of that axle almost feels like Porsche is begrudgingly giving in to all of the 911's naysayers, or worse—giving in to physics. Even though I know the tweak allows them to add a larger splitter and diffuser allowed by the current World Endurance Championship GTE-class regs, it’s hard not to worry that they’re giving up on improving a rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive car.
With every generation, the 911's engine seems to move just a little further inboard on the roadgoing 911. Despite Porsche Head of Motorsport Dr. Frank-Steffen Walliser’s statement to Sportscar365 that “no production car with this layout is planned,” you have to wonder if the next-gen 911 won’t give in and follow the race car’s lead.
Porsche’s 918 hypercar is mid-engine. The 919 Le Mans prototype is mid-engine. Many Porsche fans feel as if the Cayman was starting to become a better car—at least before the engine was downsized to a turbocharged flat-4. Was that done because it became a threat to the 911? And will we lose the 911's wackiest feature if the race car succeeds?
Personally, I’m going to stick with Walliser’s words for now. It’s just for the race car, and Porsche—whose brand is largely built upon dominating endurance races—is going to exploit every advantage they can.
The new 911 RSR may not be the first mid-engined car to be called a 911, but it’s a still clear break from tradition. When you’re talking to a fanbase who gets extremely unhappy when the 911's headlamps change shape, a drivetrain layout change is certainly going to raise a lot of eyebrows.