The Curriculum of Performance
It's not everyday that you get a chance to observe the driving of a racing driver, much less one that is at the top of his game and at the top tier of motorsports. But that's exactly what's happening.
Here I am, riding shotgun aboard a brand-spanking new Porsche 718 Boxster while works driver, Earl Bamber, tosses it around. He's showing us how to work the wheel and the pedals, all to make this mid-engined sportscar dance around the cones. It seems I'm out of my depth, but I have no intention or inclination to drive against him.
No, I'm here at the Porsche Media Driving Academy to learn from the best, and who better to learn from than one of the three drivers that took the outright win at the 2015 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans?
For the unfamiliar, the Porsche Media Driving Academy (MDA) is a progressive, three-tiered course to show journalists and media practitioners what Porsche's models can really do. In a nutshell, the MDA seeks to teach us the upper limits and capabilities of each and every Porsche through classroom instruction and on-track application. In other words, this is one of the most enjoyable schools around.
And the playground is the home of the Malaysian Grand Prix: the Sepang International Circuit. It's a freshly-repaved race course with long straights, fast corners, and plenty of run-off areas. I've been to a few circuits before, and I can't even begin to tell you what a relief it is to have so much room for error.
Right when we arrived, I thought that we could just put on our helmets and gloves and drive Stuttgart's finest like we stole them. But no; the first order of the day was stretching and exercise, as led by a German fitness instructor. I don't know about you, but there's something different when someone with that German accent tells you that he will pump you up. Well, he didn't say those exact words, but you get the point.
He's Porsche's race fitness instructor, meaning he trains their racecar drivers to get to -and stay at- their peak physical shape. Motorsport, after all, is a sport; meaning given two drivers of equal skill, the one that has more stamina, more endurance, and more strength has the better chance of prevailing. And so we stretched and worked ourselves up on yoga mats and medicine balls; thankfully, I had some Salonpas handy.
Once we'd worked up a bit of a sweat, it was finally time for some instruction. Our group for today was already at the second tier, and so we were given a refresher on driving principles such as understeer, oversteer, weight transfers and the like. But what Porsche really ingrained in us was the friction circle, otherwise known as the traction circle.
Simply put, it's a diagram of the traction limits of the tires under acceleration, braking, cornering, and any combination of the three. For instance, a driver cannot fully engage the brakes (100%) and expect to have traction left to steer; but a driver can partially engage the brakes (i.e. 70%) and still have some traction in the tires to steer (30%). Of course, the friction circle is relative to the type of tires, the suspension set-up, and the car (Porsches have high limits), but the theory is what matters as it allows the driver to better visualize how to modulate the controls (steering, braking, shifting, etc.) to maximize the capability of the car.
Now we can get some driving done.
The first real driving exercise was braking, and for this, we used the new 718 Boxster and Macan. It was simple: accelerate and then brake as hard as you can and steer to avoid a set of cones. This was the friction circle in practice, but what Porsche was showing us was how their race-derived anti-lock braking system can bend it to the driver's will. Of course, the cones still flew a couple of times, but it was an impressive display of the car's (and SUV's) braking systems as well as how much abuse they can take.
Next up was Porsche's version of a moose test. The cones may look like they’re arrayed similar to the braking test, but this time instead of slamming on the brakes, we have to use just quick steering work to avoid the obstacle. It's easy to avoid the orange paint transfer from the cones if I was driving a lightweight Macan, a low-slung Boxster, and even a new 911 Carrera 4S in that great shade of Graphite Blue, but we may be asking a bit much of the Cayenne. Still, the heavy Cayenne did it, avoiding the obstacle time and again despite the repeated complaints of physics, as evidenced by the body roll and the squealing tires; a clear demonstration of the capability of the stability and traction control systems.
Now we get to the good stuff: cornering, or at least how to stitch two corners together. The instructors selected a section of Sepang known for its difficulty in judging the line: Turns 5 and 6. For this exercise, the instructor observed from the gravel trap and called out whether we're too wide, too fast, or even if we're “babying” the Miami Blue 911 Carrera 2S just a bit too much... that last one was me. Once dialed in, we proceeded to the next course: the slalom.
The slalom is a Porsche classic, one meant to demonstrate the precision of their models: in this case, it was the Macan, and Earl Bamber was the one showing us the ropes before we go on our timed runs aboard the 718 Boxster. His steering work was smooth while his pedal control was even better, something I tried to emulate as I went on my timed runs. The first went alright, the Boxster rotating itself on the hairpin far better than its predecessor; perhaps due to the turbo's quick response to my right foot.
The finale, as befitting this entire educational enterprise, was a series of cadet laps; a follow-the-leader run around Sepang in its entirety. A late afternoon rainshower gave the track a very greasy feel to it; I would have much preferred either fully dry or fully wet, but this was in between, releasing some of the oils of the fresh tarmac to play hell with the tires. But all was well regardless of which model I sat behind the wheel of, particularly that 911 Carrera 2S.
And now, I get it. Sure, the MDA seems very media-centric, but the advanced techniques are what Porsche enthusiasts can learn at the Porsche Sport Driving School (SDS). It's not about going all out or being a race car driver; this is about acquiring the skills to appreciate what goes into a Porsche.
They're teaching us how to safely unlock the capabilities of the Macan, the Panamera, the Cayenne, Boxster, the Cayman, and the 911. It doesn't matter if we're on a daily drive, pushing the pace on a race track, or on an empty mountain road that's just begging us to open up the taps; Porsche not only provides some exceptional automobiles, but the education to match them.