March 28, 2016 @ 03:31 PM

Porsche takes us back to school, their very own driving school…

It is said that learning is a never learning process. Well, it is time to pack the bags and head back to driving school.

What I was about to do scared me. The task that lay before me went against the instinct I had developed over the six years as a motoring journalist and much more as a road user. It flies against the lessons I learned over the years and especially in driving school. And it goes against the principles of slow in fast out.

Earlier in the day, during the briefing of the inaugural Porsche Media Driving Academy, the lead instructor broke down the lessons that I, as well as the pack of journalists who are enrolled in the Elite course, would have to go through today. The first was Trail Braking, the second was drifting.

Obviously, this driving school wasn’t like any other; this one was organised by Porsche Asia Pacific, with the support of Thailand’s official Porsche importer – AAS Auto Service – solely for the benefit of journalists in the region. The main aim of the lessons was to make us more able drivers so that we can appreciate the performance machines produced by Porsches. Either that or we are all lousy at what we do and needed to be schooled again.

The briefing and the theory lessons that came after it was the easy part. Most of what was taught were already familiar to me but it was a good opportunity to fill up certain gaps in my knowledge if any. Seating position, contact patch, understeer, oversteer and counter-steer were covered in the lessons; it was a good revision. Still, it didn’t quite prepared me for what I was about to do.

I gazed down the main straight of the 2.41km Bira Circuit in Thailand. It is a circuit that consists of 11 tight corners, which I had the opportunity to drive only once before, a long time ago. The car at that time was a little hatchback of Japanese make — a far cry from the Cayman GTS that I am in right now.

There’s a thin film of sweat slowly covered my hands that were on the three-nine position of the steering wheel. I reminded myself what needed to be done while emptying my cup so that it could be refilled with new knowledge; you heard that ancient Chinese proverb before, yes? A voice crackled over the radio, “Alright Chris, you’re up. Go when you’re ready.”

Time to rewire the synapse. The first task was to execute a perfect Trail Braking manoeuvre, which to put in simple terms, required me to go fast in and very fast out. Pedal to the floor, the Cayman GTS proved that it takes only 4.6 seconds to reach 100kph. Verification of the sprint times could not be done as I didn’t take a peek to see if it was true, I trusted that I am going appropriately fast as the first corner rushed towards me. The run to Turn 1 wasn’t the smooth and the bumpy tarmac threatened to throw me off my line. There’s a spot that I needed to aim for and I started to lock in my line.

I quickly realised that I have just passed the point that would have seen me standing on the brakes to scrub off as much speed as possible. Defiance and my determination to keep to the lesson kept my feet on the pedal for what felt like a second too long. The spot, an orange cone, flies by… I stand on the brakes.

Very quickly I realised that the car would only come to a complete stop only if it buried its nose in the tyre wall. Today’s lesson wasn’t about just braking, it’s about trail braking. A split second later, my foot gently lifted from the brakes as I fed the steering into the corner; I was still carrying plenty of speed. By the time I reached in mid-corner, my foot was already touching the accelerator, which would put the car in the correct window for a pedal-to-the-metal scream out of Turn 1. The rear stepped out but a small counter-steer set things right, and I piled on full power once more. This felt very right, more so that the instructor has given his seal of approval.

The lesson didn’t stop with the Cayman. I jumped into the Panamera S, then the 911 Turbo and lastly a Cayenne S E-Hybrid — all different vehicles in Porsche’s stable, all required different speeds and braking points to execute trail braking correctly. It was not just about technique but the exercise also required equal amounts of instinct and feel for the car. In situations like these, there wasn’t enough time to think things through, although enough practice time will make the body remember the movement. The time that I didn’t have.

About 30 minutes later, I was in a Porsche 911 Carrera GTS Cabriolet, with the windows down getting tips from the instructor about how to drift this rear-engine rear-wheel drive car. My first attempt was a complete bust. I couldn’t even get the car’s rear to step out in spite of the especially wet track and the traction control switched off. The key here was to upset the balance of a well-balanced machine. And apparently, approaching the wet part of the track at 40kph was too fast; I needed to go in slower.

I crept the car onto the wet track, took a peek at the speedometer to make sure my speed was about 30kph. No dice, at 35kph, I was still going in too fast but I decided to take a chance. Once past another orange cone, I turned the corner and committed my foot to the pedal. The revs jumped up as the rear of the car slid out. Success, but this was akin to turning the first page of a thick book. My hands quickly twisted the steering into the opposite direction and the car power-slides, spraying water forward. My right foot needed to keep the power just below the boil, a tricky feat that required plenty finesse. Too soft and you lose the horses; too hard and you’ll have too much power to the rear that will throw you into a spin instead of a slide.

In quick time, I began to get the feel of the throttle. It would seem counter-intuitive but I needed to be gentle in order to get the car to power-slide around this hairpin turn. The feeling of getting it right was exhilarating; adrenaline started flooding the system as I began to locate the exit. Found it, never got anywhere near it. In the briefest moment of excitement, my feet pushed the pedal further than what was needed, which effectively turned the Cabriolet into a washing machine set on spin, thankfully the roof was up. I needed more lessons to get it right, but time was something the day could not give more of.

After lunch, we were set loose. The Bira Circuit was fully opened to any person who would like to take a Porsche and have a go at the track. Everyone jumped at the opportunity.

The thought that the 911 Turbo would be the best car to drive here was folly. The short stretch and tight characteristics of the track would not let the 911 Turbo discharge its full potential. There was so much untapped power in the car that it quickly became disappointing. Not the car’s fault, the track needed to be bigger and longer to let the 911 Turbo play.

The Cayenne was interesting, to say the least. While the image of a large utility vehicle on a tight track may look out of place, driving the Cayenne proved that the Porsche DNA clearly surged through its chassis. The body remained poised even when stringing up a set of apexes in quick succession. However, like the 911 Turbo, I could not fully bring the Cayenne to full power, often stopping short because I had already run out of road.

The last car that I drove on the day proved to be best suited for Bira Circuit. The Small Track of Many Corners exploited the Cayman’s agility and there were too many opportunities that allowed me to carry plenty of speed into and out of each and every turn. The amalgamation of rapid speed and precise handling has never come together so beautifully for the Cayman than on this track. To know how this feels like, you need to head to your nearest go-kart track and take the fastest kart the centre offers out for a few laps. It is that fun.

Usually, driving programmes don’t serve up any new lessons, although the lessons reinforce what I already know. I do welcome it simply for the reason that practice makes perfect and I do want to drive as safe as I humanely can. To have the chance to learn something new makes going back to driving school interesting. Having said that, Elite is the top level offered in Porsche Media Driving Academy; there’s none higher. I hope that my learning doesn’t stop here and there’s something in-store that even the Elites can do. One can only hope...


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