It’s a scary thought that anyone with money can go out and buy a seriously quick car with no training other than the basic driving test.
And seriously quick cars are getting more and more attainable. You can now buy Volkswagen Golfs capable of hitting 62mph in less than 5.0 seconds. Not so long ago, that was the reserve of supercars such as the Ferrari Testarossa.
The day you pick up your first performance car – whether it’s a hot hatch or something a little more focused such as a Porsche 911 – could soon turn sour. The salesman hands over the keys, waves goodbye and you are no longer his responsibility. It’s all too easy for you to be overcome by the power and end up finding out just how quickly your new car stops when it meets something as substantial as an ancient oak tree.
But Porsche is doing something above and beyond its call of duty to make sure not only that new customers will be safe in their new performance cars, they’ll also know how to extract the best out of them – while having a lot of fun along the way.
All buyers of new Porsches are offered a driving experience session at one of its experience centres around the world. They get a 90-minute session in a choice of models and one-to-one tuition from a qualified instructor.
Each session is bespoke – tailored to your experience and exactly what you want to get out of it.
But is the entire thing just a huge gimmick? I headed to the original experience centre at Silverstone before jumping into a Porsche 911 GTS and driving 450 miles to its brand new centre on the legendary Le Mans circuit. As you do.
Porsche Experience Centre – Silverstone
Everything you could possibly want to do with a Porsche is catered for at Silverstone. There’s a pair of handling circuits – great for finding out just how far you can push your Porsche with a professional driver sat next to you.
I also spent time on a straight bit of tarmac designed to replicate a motorway. Here, the driver encourages you to accelerate hard (using launch control) to as high as 80mph before going hard on the brakes to see how the car reacts.
Using the brakes (ceramic, as an optional extra fitted to the Cayman GTS I’m trying here) to their maximum potential is something we rarely, if ever, do on the road. It’s astonishing just how quickly you can stop if you need to. You also get the opportunity to experiment with swerving while braking and even taking your hands off the wheel.
Low-grip areas at Silverstone are perfect for finding out exactly how to control a skid when you push your Porsche beyond its limits of grip (as well as realising just how hard you have to try for that to happen).
Not only will the 90-minute session take you out of your comfort zone – no matter how competent a driver you are – it’ll teach you an awful lot about how a Porsche drives up to the limit and beyond. It’s a thrilling session that will make you a much safer and more responsible driver, as well as showing you just how capable these cars are.
Porsche to Le Mans
As enjoyable and rewarding as a session at Silverstone is, most 911 buyers will spend more time sitting in traffic than exploring the car’s limits on a track. I remind myself of this as I thread the 911 GTS cabriolet through stop-start traffic on the M25.
Once you get used to the sheer girth of the 911 (at 1,852mm, it’s 62mm wider than a Volkswagen Golf), it’s a pleasing companion. Its PDK dual-clutch gearbox takes the strain out of the stop-start traffic – my only complaint being the 20-inch wheels transmitting a horrible thrum along the concrete section of London’s notorious orbital motorway.
Considering how common (erm, sorry, popular) 911s are in the south east of the UK, it’s surprising how much attention the GTS gets – even with the roof up to shelter me from the dismal weather outside.
Eventually the M25 turns into the M26, and soon the M20, and keeping my speed within sensible limits becomes a bit more of a challenge. The road surface improves and I start to get a bit more of a teaser of what is to come when I cross the Channel.
Boarding the train at the Eurotunnel again brings the 911’s width back into focus – those black alloys ready to taunt me should I get it slightly wrong. I don’t, I’m pleased to say, and before long I’m on French tarmac ready to start really covering some ground.
You know those moments where everything just clicks – the road, the car and the soundtrack? Hitting the quiet French autoroutes heading south of Calais in a 911 with its Bose sound system playing the Red Hot Chili Peppers is a moment that will stick in my memory as a highlight of my driving career.
Apart from pulling into a service station to dip below 31mph and put the roof up (and enjoy the aural delight of accelerating back onto the motorway), I continue down to Rouen without a break. Not only is the 911 an amazingly refined car for European jaunts, it’s also such a pleasure to drive that you won’t want to stop.
Rouen is famous for many things – not least the city where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431. But for me, it’s always that horrible industrial port that can’t be bypassed while trying to get towards the nicer parts of France.
The 911’s PCM sat nav guides me through the city’s streets fairly easily, roof now dropped again and full-on poseur mode engaged. Before long I’m free, on the toll road heading towards Le Mans – only after a fairly apt Le Mans start at the toll booth. With an impatient lorry driver behind I bail out, grab a ticket, run back to the driver’s side and jump in. I start the engine and give it the beans while simultaneously reaching for the seat belt. I glance over and notice a couple of Gendarmes watching this spectacle – amazingly, they don’t seem to mind… but who would? The sports exhaust fitted as standard to the 911 GTS sounds fantastic.
With the sat nav telling me I’m 50 miles from the centre of Le Mans, and my hotel, it’s also telling me I have a similar amount of range left in the tank. Not wanting to risk getting stranded in the city centre, I opt to pull into a service station on the autoroute and feed it some V-Power.
Had I not played it safe, I’d probably have made it to Le Mans on one tank of fuel. And if I’d topped it up in Kent, I’d definitely have made it. With the trip computer showing average fuel consumption of 28.6mpg (at motorway cruising speeds and with unsympathetic use of the accelerator), the 911 isn’t as horribly inefficient as you may expect. Mid 30s mpg would definitely be possible with someone less oafish at the wheel, but surely that’s missing the point.
Journey complete, it’s time to enjoy a beer and to reflect on a job well done before heading to the race track the next day…
Porsche Experience Centre – Le Mans
If you’ve seen pictures of Le Mans while the 24-hour race is in progress, you’ll have probably seen the iconic Ferris wheel. Fans may have been discovered it had moved this year – and that’s because Porsche’s new €8 million experience centre now stands on its site.
The new three-storey building houses a workshop and showroom on the ground floor, as well as a technical training school and a VIP delivery area where customers can collect their new Porsche if they so wish.
On the first floor is a terrace overlooking the Maison Blanche track, as well as a classic Porsche exhibition and even a restaurant complete with Michelin-starred chef.
On the top floor is a large, open space used as hospitality for the 24-hour race, with a balcony offering one of the best views in Le Mans.
But it’s the bit outside I have driven hundreds of miles to see. Within the confines of the Maison Blanche circuit are facilities similar to those found at Silverstone.
There’s the kick plate – essentially the same as the one at Silverstone, but flat, meaning gravity won’t help or hinder depending on your direction of approach. Unlike at Silverstone, where I tackled it in a Cayman, I opt for a Cayenne this time – fancying a challenge and to show off my previous experience.
I spin it, naturally. You’d think the extra weight would be compensated for by the Cayenne’s four-wheel-drive system, but any thoughts of 4×4 invincibility are soon obliterated. Sideways.
I make my way around the centre’s different sections – including its low-friction area (my personal favourite) and the dynamic area (which lets you experiment with swerving while trying to brake… an eye-opener), before ending on the off-road course in a Cayenne.
It’s weird how I was pretty unphased by losing control of the car on the kick plate but find it terrifying on the off-road area. It’s not that it’s not capable – it is, surprisingly so – but some of the angles Porsche has manufactured into the course are seriously scary. When you’re driving up a steep slope in £60,000-worth of SUV, unable to see anything but the top of your spotter’s hands and the sky, it’s more than a little unnerving.
But that kind of sums the entire trip. There’s an old adage I’ve been told previously by off-road instructors, that the driver will fail before the car does. And that’s so true for everything I’ve done on this journey. Whether it’s playing on a skid pan in a Cayman, tackling side slopes in a Cayenne or mile-munching in a 911, it’s clear that Porsches will always take it in their stride, flattering the driver along the way.
If you buy a Porsche, definitely take up the offer to visit an experience centre to. It will teach you new skills and make you a safer, more confident driver. And you’ll also have an awful lot of fun in a safe environment. Even if, like me, you’re not in the fortunate position to buy a new Porsche, it makes for a top day out.