Ever fancied being forced into an uncontrollable spin in a Porsche 911? Admittedly it doesn’t sound all that appealing but this is one of the main reasons I am at Silverstone on a cold, drizzly day in winter.
Porsche recently opened its state-of-the-art 10.2 hectare Driving Experience Centre, which sits metres from the famous Northamptonshire Grand Prix circuit. The test track is built on the site of the Rally of Great Britain special stage used in 1998 and 1999.
But first I get to see the Human Performance department, which has the kind of facilities normally reserved for top-level motorsport drivers. We mere mortals can use the one-to-one instruction to improve stamina, co-ordination and reaction times, which is not only useful for racing but also track days, I'm told. All good stuff but I’m keen to do what it says in the title and get out on the circuit.
Most of the facilities are designed to simulate low-friction surfaces like ice or water, and by now the drizzle has turned into a downpour. Combined with the recycled water being pumped onto parts of the circuit this should make thisngs more ‘interesting’, or more likely better show up my driving inadequacies to put it another way. Unlike other similar driving days the emphasis is on showing people what happens when things go wrong, not just teaching them how to make things go right.
First up is the ‘Kick Plate’ in a new 997 with PDK gearbox. For the day I am accompanied by a supremely calm and patient instructor, who despite my early inability to learn from any of my mistakes seems to always enjoy sharing his expertise. The plate won’t trigger below around 13mph and will flick the rear of the car around either way at random.
The trick is to hit it just above this speed but without staring at the speedo when you do like I am the first time around. Oh, and I’m doing about 23mph. My instructor’s next statement says it all:. ‘You’ll never catch this,’ he says, ‘get ready on the brakes.’ By this point I have spun through 720 degrees and am heading for my next 360.
A couple more goes and I’m feeling more confident in my abilities. This would seem like a good time to dump me straight back to Earth it seems, so we head to the Ice Hill, a 7% slope that simulates sheet ice with computer controlled water jets that replicate brick walls. For me this is an exercise in complacency.
If you control the 911 past the first water wall, the back end poking out as you clear the apex, then the resulting feeling of heroics will mean one thing and one thing only – the car will spin as you reach the second wall. Controlling this bravado, and driving smoother, means that you can clear the section, but it is tricky.
On to the Low Friction Handling Circuit and I’m starting to appreciate the low speed at which all this car control can be learnt. It suddenly strikes me as mind-boggling to think that people may be faced with these kinds of handling characteristics for the first time in the middle of a greasy bend on a B-road, with no previous experience.
I’m quite happy with 20mph and a decent run-off thanks very much. The aforementioned low friction track is made up of a small twisty section with polished limestone bends that create a perfect environment for oversteer. Sounds like fun, and I can confirm it is. The first go is pathetic quite frankly but as I learn more about the 911’s on-limit handling I find that I can induce and hold a fairly decent slide and even tank-slap my way across the skid pan (deliberately, sort of).
I try the Cayman later on the same circuit and it feels even more controllable, and even with the PSM system on the cars will still let you have fun, allowing the rear to break free a fair amount before everything is reined in. Even though this part of the circuit is designed to make the car unruly it is highly addictive, and the perfect place to learn from your mistakes.
The whole time my instructor is on hand to tell me where I am going wrong and what I need to do to correct it. Perhaps the most important lesson is to relax. Apparently without addressing the basics there is no way I can progress further. So I learn to hold the wheel looser, relax my driving position and try to flow with the car.
Taking to the short circuit around the facility, which has every type of bend you can imagine, I feel more in control and smoother.
‘This unique facility is a major investment for Porsche Cars GB and it will allow us to create a unique experience for customers that cannot be bettered in the UK market,’ said Andy Goss, managing director of Porsche Cars Great Britain. 'The two core themes that run through each guest’s experience here are learning and choice. Learning about their car and their driving, but also learning about the world of Porsche so that they can make informed choices.’
All courses start from £275 although from next year there is a way of getting it free. All you have to do is buy a Porsche, any Porsche, and a day at the centre is included in the purchase price. Or to put it another way if you pay £33K for a day at the Porsche Experience Centre, you’ll get a Boxster thrown in for free…