At the 2023 Hankook 12H SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Porsche’s 992 GT3 R was entered for its first official race start in the 24H SERIES by two teams. One of which, the distinctively liveried Modena Motorsports, was making its first 24H SERIES race start in four years. Quite the tall order…
Words – James Gent
Images – Nico Mombaerts / Porsche Press
To say that Porsche’s newest track star has a formidable challenge awaiting it would be quite the understatement. Alongside on-track competition from BMW’s relatively new M4 GT3, Audi’s rejuvenated R8 LMS Evo II, and the upcoming challenge from Ferrari’s new 296 GT3, the new 992-generation GT3 R also has the reputation of its illustrious predecessor to uphold, if not beat. Since 2016, among other accolades, the 991-generation GT3 R has twice won both the Nürburgring 24 Hours (2018 and 2021) and the Spa 24 Hours (2019 and 2020), and taken class wins at Daytona (2017) and Sebring (2020 and 2021). In the 24H SERIES meanwhile, the 991-gen GT3 R has taken 21 outright race wins – including two at the Hankook 24H DUBAI (2017 and 2021) – as well as Overall GT Teams’ title honours in 2017 and 2021. That’s some seriously big shoes to fill for a car on which Porsche is also pinning its GT3 Le Mans hopes when ‘GTE’ disappears for 2024.
Though not on the same level as the German sports car, Modena Motorsports nevertheless had a mountain of its own to climb going into this year’s Hankook 12H SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS. Modena was one of only two teams running a 992-gen Porsche GT3 R for the first time at Spa (more on that shortly), and on top of that, CREVENTIC’s third European round of the season marked the Hong Kong outfit’s first start in the 24H SERIES since 2019.
“Well in 2020, motor racing was basically cancelled, and we couldn’t go anywhere,” Modena Motorsports team owner John Shen explains to CREVENTIC. “I was stuck in Canada, or rather, couldn’t go to China because, at the time, you had to quarantine for three weeks. And I wasn’t going to go to Hong Kong or China for a three-week quarantine! In 2021 and 2022 I could race again, but they only really opened the border earlier this year. So of course, I was going to join a full series!”
One saving grace for Modena was that, although the 2023 Hankook 12H SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS was the first time the team had competed in CREVENTIC’s GT3 category, it was not the first competitive outing for the new 992, John and teammates / business partners Francis Tjia and Christian Chia having raced the 992 to the GT3-AM podium two months earlier at the Sepang 12 Hours. Nor, if we’re being honest, is racing in a different category in the 24H SERIES an unknown challenge for Modena Motorsport. On the team’s debut in Dubai in 2014, John (with brother Wayne), Francis (with brother Marcel) and Christian raced an ‘X85’-gen Renault Clio Cup in the A2 class before moving up to TCR with a SEAT Leon for 2017. ‘991’ duly followed with a Porsche GT3 Cup in 2019. On all three occasions, the Hong Kong team took class wins.
Though some race rust will need to be chiselled off, there was plenty of multi-class motor racing experience to fall back on at Spa…
“We were also being supported by Earl Bamber Motorsport that weekend, so that helped quite a bit too!
“But we have a number of very experienced drivers, and good technical support of a mechanical team, so they make things much easier for me! I’m the guy who signs the cheques, pushes the throttle and the brake pedal, and tries to bring the car home in one-piece. I have full confidence in the guys behind me.”
That the latest generation was developed specifically for “tapping larger performance reserves” – aka improve driveability for – PROs and ‘gentlemen’ alike is another bonus for John and Francis, and seasoned teammates Benny Simonsen and Mathias Beche, heading into Spa. Yes, the new 992 GT3 R replaces the outgoing 3,997cc engine with a larger, 4.2-litre water-cooled flat-six that ups power by 15bhp to 557bhp, but balance of performance regulations mean outright grunt was never the priority. Admittedly the 4,194cc’s wider power and torque curves mean that heightened power is more readily available, and the sequential six-speed gearbox – borrowed from the 992-generation GT3 Cup car – is snappier than its predecessor.
Improved balance and aerodynamic performance though will make the main difference. The new flat-six is canted forward by 5.5-degrees, allowing Porsche to mount the rear diffuser higher and thus work more fluidly with the smooth underfloor (run in tandem with a new elevated front splitter, this improves downforce without increasing drag whilst also reducing pitch sensitivity). The 992’s wheelbase is 48mm longer than that of its forebear, meaning ancillaries like the alternator and the air conditioning compressor have been moved forward to counter the engine’s rear-biased weight distribution, putting less strain on the rear tyres.
Revised suspension geometry does likewise, but it’s the reworked double wishbones at the front – “numerous components and technical solutions” for which have borrowed from the Le Mans-spec 911 RSR – Porsche believes will create more precise handling. New KW shock absorbers provide a wider adjustment window, meaning suspension alignment and modifications should be less time consuming. Even the ‘tongues’ on the six-point racing harness slide faster into their clasps, which could potentially save up to a second during pit stops.
Certainly from the ‘gentlemen’s perspective, John is already more comfortably in the GT3 R than the Cup he races in Asia…
“I feel that, the way Porsche keeps developing the car, it’s so much easier than driving used to be five years ago. To me, [the 992 GT3 R] is much easier car to drive than the Cup. I mean, just look at the size and width of it, and that spoiler. Oh my God!” – Now mounted from the rear, the new spoiler allows cleaner airflow beneath its lower surface, improving the aerodynamics as a result. – “I have a 2019 Cup car, which we raced in the Porsche Carrera Cup [Asia], and I also have a 2019 TCR car. Compared to this…? Whoa!
“In my opinion, the Cup car is much more difficult to drive because there’s no ABS and there’s no traction control. So you have to be quite technical. But in [the 992 GT3 R]? You just step on it and you’re gone! It’s much easier for me and much easier for gentlemen. Let’s be honest, I’ll be 67 this year, so my reflexes and everything have slowed down. And I didn’t start racing early. I started racing in 2005, so it’s fair to say Porsche has quite a bit more experience than I do!
“For me, it’s a learning experience. I just to improve every year and reduce my lap times. I’ve started learning about trail braking for example, but that takes time for me. Anything Porsche can do to help me get the most of the [992 GT3 R] is going to be a big help!”
His convivial tone throughout our conversation doesn’t hide the fact that John is clearly keen to secure a good result at Spa. Modena Motorsports after all already has one eye keenly trained on the circuit’s annual twice-round-the-clock marathon in July, and what better training ground is there for the team’s new charger than the Hankook 12H SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS? There is however another, more personal goal driving John this weekend…
“At the [Spa 24 Hours] in 2019, we were 3rd in PRO-AM with 27 minutes to go. But we had an unfortunate accident and we didn’t finish. So that’s my bucket list. If we can finish and get a trophy – and I want that biig trophy! – is my dream.
“It was my brother’s dream too: I’m John, my brother’s Wayne, my father loved his movies! It was his bucket list to do Spa in a GT3 R. Unfortunately he had cancer and died in 2018. And we only bought our [991 GT3 R] in 2019, so he never raced it. So my bucket list is to complete my brothers dream. In 2019, we didn’t get it. This time, I hope we can. For him.” Wayne, a long-time competitor in the 24H SERIES, last competed at the Hankook 12H IMOLA in 2018. When Modena Motorsport took 991 victory at the following year’s Hankook 12H SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, they did so in Wayne Shen’s honour.
Fast-forward to the 2023 Hankook 12H SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS itself. A cautious start, an early pit stop motivated by a light shower, and the surprising pace of the 992 leaders in the slick conditions, meant the #16 was already outside the top 30 – from 8th on the grid – after the first hour. Storming runs from Beche and Simonsen though, plus an impressively consistent double stint from Tjia, meant Modena Motorsports went into the event’s overnight intervention in the lead of GT3-PRO/AM, in an impressive 4th place overall, and on the same lap as the leaders.
Limited PRO and SEMI-PRO running on the Sunday, plus an unfortunate delay in the refuelling area early on, meant Modena struggled to hold off the charging JP Motorsport McLaren 720S (with former Formula 1 driver Christian Klien at the wheel) and the 992 leaders. Flawless reliability from the Porsche though as well as savvy pit work meant the 992 GT3 R went the distance at the 2023 Hankook 12H SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS to finish 7th overall and claim GT3-PRO/AM victory first time out.
One win in the bag already then for Porsche’s newest GT3 contender, with many more no doubt to follow. The first steps on that mountain to climb have assuredly been taken.
Introduced by Marvel Comics in 1972, Ghost Rider starred former stunt motorcyclist Johnny Blaze, who made a Faustian-like deal to become the devil’s bounty hunter in order to save his father’s life. Being the only one who can walk in both worlds may be a handy bonus, but the Ghost Rider theme is nevertheless a stark departure from Modena Motorsport’s traditional white and red branding we’ve grown accustomed to in the 24H SERIES…
“My brother, when we ran Modena Motorsports together, was very keen on the white with red stripes, and we used that for many years. But I just got a little bored and wanted to do something a little crazy. A lot of people have designs that are very traditional, and in Asia, I’ve seen a lot of teams using the red dragons, for example. But I didn’t want to use a dragon. So instead I thought, skull, flame… a bit like you might see on a leather jacket of a bike rider. I thought that would be cool.”
Granted, it’s not the first time the Modena ‘skull’ has hit the track, the Hong Kong outfit having run variants of the theme at the Spa 24 Hours in 2019 and in Porsche Carrera Cup Asia since 2018 (“for the last six or seven years, I’ve enjoyed using the ‘Ghost Rider’ concept.”) This year, John(ny) Shen has even carried the hell-scape theme over on to his helmet. But where does the blue come in?
“Francis [Tjia] and I have raced together for many years. His company, the ‘Open Road [Auto Group]’, is one of the biggest dealerships in British Columbia in Canada. And their branding is blue and silver. So all his racing suits are blue, all Open Road Racing in the Porsche Carrera Cup is blue and silver, etc. When I ordered the car, and since we’ll be doing the Spa 24 Hours, we decided to ‘share’ the car. So this is what we came up with.”
Anyone who’s read up on BAR’s ‘zip’ livery from 1999 will know dual designs are rarely the work of a moment. And while Modena’s OpenRoad-Ghost Rider livery didn’t require arbitration proceedings with the FIA, it was still several months before the final draft melding John’s fiery Carrera Cup Asia look with the OpenRoad Racing blue was signed off.
“In the beginning, all of our designs were done in-house, and we did that first year, second year, third year. That took quite a while. Maybe three months because the design kept changing. But after three years, using my own design team, gradually we had a ‘history’ of what the designs looked like, and that made it easier to make changes. This year for example we took out the green highlights, and we leaned more and more on red and orange.
“Then in the last two or three years, we wanted to get a fresh look from outside, so we gave them all my previous liveries and concepts, and I asked them to update it.”
Sadly, thanks to multiple elbows being thrown out at the first corner, the OpenRoad ‘half’ of the #16 Porsche has been damaged just moments into the race (duct tape dresses the wounds at the first pit stop). Aptly, protected as it was by the arch-demon Mephisto, the Ghost Rider side went almost unnervingly untouched across the full 12 hours. The threat of dire retribution from a vengeful anti-hero consumed by hellfire is as good an incentive for GT3 rivals to race cleanly as any, we suppose…