Every so often, an e-mail drops into the Only Motors inbox that gets me really excited. When one offering a day at the Silverstone Porsche Experience Centre popped up, I let a out a rather embarrassing shriek.
Porsche Experience Centres are dotted all over the world. They offer a range of driving experiences to paying punters and to Porsche owners who get a day thrown in for free with their shiny new car. Every Centre is broadly the same, with one or two handling circuits and various low-friction surfaces to test those drifting skills.
The Silverstone Centre, just next to the Hangar Straight, has two circuits, both of them surprisingly gnarly. They’re short, sharp and packed with corners, many of them blind and off-camber. Plus there’s a low-friction circuit, the water-soaked kick plate and ice hill and a couple of long straights to test launch control.
The cars I would be driving on the day were pretty exceptional: Boxster Spyder, Cayman GT4 and 911 GT3 RS. Oh yes. Opportunities to drive Porsches of that caliber are rare, indeed. But for me, the cars were almost secondary. Rather, I took the day as a chance to improve my driving skills, guided by some of the best racing instructors in the country.
I like to think I’m a good driver. I know all the principles of circuit driving and apply them as far as possible on the road – they are best practice, after all. But my actual track driving experience is relatively limited and applying those principles I know so well on a tight and twisty circuit I don’t know is not at all easy.
We started with Boxster Spyder, a car that is much friendlier than you might imagine of a lightweight, mid-engined, 375bhp sports car. I felt confident enough in it to push reasonably hard from the get-go, but I still had to learn my way round the circuit.
Fortunately, I do that pretty quickly. Taking it easy round the first lap was all I needed to get a decent idea of the lie of the land, and from there I got stuck in. My instructor, an ex-Renault Clio Cup racer, offered lots of advise on the right lines round corners, braking points, where I could get on the power; the long process of chipping away, trying to nail the perfect lap began.
We switched to the Cayman GT4, a car I’m told is marginally better than the Spyder, but there was too much else going on for me to be able to pick out the differences. By this point I, and more importantly the instructor, was confident I knew what was what this time around. So where he had allowed me to take the comfortable line around a few corners in the Boxster, he started pointing out the right line. And where I had been holding off the throttle a bit, he told me to keep it pinned.
A good racing instructor can tell pretty quickly what level of ability a driver is at. After all, they deal with everyone from professionals down to beginners.They will rein in a driver who is over-reaching themselves and push a driver they think has more to give. My instructor clearly felt I could do better and actually wanted me to do better.
Before I knew it, we hopped of the Cayman and into the 911 GT3 RS. What an astonishing machine it is! The power is immense and the noise, my god the noise! I have no time for people who complain that turbo engines sound flat, but there is a lot to be said for a naturally-aspirated motor zinging past 8,000rpm. It’s spine-tingling.
But what made the biggest impression was the four-wheel-steering. It points in the opposite direction to the front wheels at low speeds, reducing the turning circle and at high speeds turns with the fronts, increasing agility and stability. You notice it immediately in the GT3 RS and it is hugely confidence inspiring. Immediately I left able to wring as much out of it asI could, which admittedly wasn’t much. But even so, I felt like it was all starting to come together.
Out on the low friction surfaces I did alright. Apparently I have decent feel for the car and my steering inputs are generally on-the-money. But I’m bit heavy with throttle, or not heavy enough; certainly there was no style or elegance. I imagine it looked like an elephant on ice skates desperately trying to keep its balance.
Another turn in each of the cars offered the chance to whittle away some more. But by now traffic was becoming a problem. It’s worth pointing out that the traction control stayed firmly on throughout. Though I think Sport Plus mode was engaged at one point. I suspect that without the electronic nanny, the cars would have been rather trickier to handle, to a point that my limited car control probably couldn’t cope with. And on days like this, you really don’t want to be the one that stacks it.
I was no doubt held back by, err, not brilliant physical state. All but one corner on the circuit is a right-hander and after a while my left shoulder started to hurt quite badly. Still, I managed to string together a few good, clean laps that I was actually happy with, even keeping pace with the GT3 RS in the GT4. But all too soon it was over. Time to assess my performance.
Personally, I felt like it was all starting to come together and my instructor concurred, reckoning I was about 85% of the way there. I’ve got potential, in other words. Which made me very happy as I was worried I’d turn out to be hopeless.
All I need now is time on track to work away at it. I must get myself to a trackday.
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By Only Motors