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Driver training at Porsche Silverstone Experience

Published: 27 December 2011

The Porsche Experience Centre at Silverstone is a purpose-built facility that’s located just next to the Silverstone GP circuit, on a bit of land that once formed the super-special stages at Rally GB. These days there’s a swish showroom with a mix of new and classic metal, a restaurant, a short, twisty track that looks more like a British B-road than a racetrack (there’s no run-off, but there are road markings and Armco), plus a kick-plate (a large, wet, flat surface that automatically kicks up as you drive over it, sending the car into a slide) and an ice-hill (a slippery slope that simulates, yes, hitting a patch of ice). There’s also an off-road course, but you’re probably best leaving that to the Cayennes.

All buyers of a new Porsche get theory lessons and track-time here, while everyone else can select from various programmes to suit their needs and experience. To save costs, you can also bring your own car, but the enjoyment of thrapping a new Porsche about, plus the cost of fuel, insurance, tyres and brake pads for your own car means I’d always opt for some wheels from Porsche.

Ben Barry drops in for some driver training

I’ve been to the Porsche Experience Centre a few times now, so today I’ve got a half-day’s intensive training with instructor Rob Newall, an experienced racer and brilliant teacher. In fact, today’s session is his idea: he’s been unfortunate enough to passenger with me before and, the last time, picked up on a few foibles which he suggested I come back and work on with him. I’ve also passengered Newall in a GT2, all the traction aids off, and marvelled as he tip-toed between constant understeer and oversteer all the way round a scorching lap. Already I’d been put firmly in my place, and I was ready to take onboard any tips the Porsche guru had to offer.

‘You tend to work the car and yourself very hard,’ he says over a lovely breakfast in the restaurant that overlooks the track. ‘You can be very hard on the brakes, and your heel-and-toe technique could do with some work.’

My pride is stung with this last criticism, as I’d previously been told my heel-and-toe was pretty good by another instructor, so I tell Newall so. ‘It’s rubbish!’ he says. Fair enough. In fact, this is exactly what I need: someone who’s going to deeply analyse and critique the way I drive, rather than glossing over them and – ‘next!’ – moving onto the next customer.

Our L plate vehicle of choice: a Carrera 2S

And so we head out onto the main track – dubbed Handling Circuit – in a beautiful Carrera 2S with a manual gearbox, and I’m immediately on best behaviour, trying to keep a nice balance between going quickly and not over-driving. Newall looks at my seating position. ‘When you go quickly, you start to hunch a bit over the wheel,’ he points out. ‘Lean back and let the seat support you more.’

Funny. I always thought I did sit back, but now Newall mentions it I notice myself creeping forward as the speed rises. I make a real effort to sit back, and what a difference – because my upper body is better supported, so my steering inputs are more consistent and more confident, and I feel the level of physical exertion reduce. It’s a tiny little tip that holds massive benefits for my driving, without my skill level increasing one bit.

How to heel and toe in a car

Next we’re onto heel-and-toe. The name’s a bit confusing, but this is a technique of braking with the top left of your right foot, while simultaneously rolling the right-hand side of that same foot onto the accelerator as you dip the clutch to change gear. The idea is to smooth out downshifts under braking in cars with a manual transmission, so that the revs are as high as they need to be for the next gear, before that gear is engaged. Don’t do this and you have a jump between the revs you did have in, say, third gear and the higher revs you’re about to get in second gear. This jump in revs can unsettle the car and, in extreme circumstances, can even lock the rear wheels, neither of which is desirable as you pile into a corner.

Newall points out that I sometimes lift my heel off the floor as I heel and toe. Just like leaning forwards in my seat as the speeds rise, so this reduces the stability and consistency of what I’m trying to achieve. He also points out that my leg isn’t dead straight, but rather cranked over slightly. As first we experiment with trying to get my leg straight, but I’m a bit lanky and holding my leg straight results in what feels like uncertain pressure on the brake pedal, and an increased risk of snagging the steering wheel with my knee. I don’t like it.

‘Fair enough,’ says Newall, ‘you’ve got to feel comfortable with what you’re doing.’

Instead we focus on keeping my heel on the floor, which works a treat, feeling less strenuous and more accurate in the way I balance braking and metering out the power.

Now, usually these driving experience things feel like they’re over in a flash, but already we’ve been out for ages. I ask if I’m getting special journalist treatment. ‘No, says Newall, ‘it’s the same for everyone on this course.’

Feathering the throttle

We continue to lap and, as I try to squeeze extra time out of my lap, Newall spots something else that needs work: the way I eke little bits of extra acceleration in-between two corners that come in quick succession. My instinct is to briefly squeeze the accelerator to the floor, where Newall suggests a more moderate approach. ‘Putting the accelerator flat gives you a burst of speed, but then you’ve got to work over-time to kill it again before the corner,’ he says. ‘Try just squeezing the power on a bit, then easing off.’

Once again, another quick and easy but massively helpful tip. Suddenly my driving in these situations feels calmer and more precise, plus the brakes are having an easier time of it too.

By now I’m actually feeling a bit dizzy from driving round in circles for so long, so I take a rest to, well, drift the low-friction track, a short, winding, slippery track, with a large roundabout-type section in the middle. You’ll struggle to top 40mph here – far less if it’s raining – so it’s a brilliant place to explore the uniqueness of a 911’s on-limit handling – that light front end will push on and understeer hopelessly if you go into a corner too quickly and boot the throttle. Instead you need to go in more slowly to the circuit’s first right-hand bend than you might have initially predicted, feel the nose bite, then accelerate hard, bringing that rear-mounted flat six into play. We’re often told how scary this is supposed to feel but, actually, it just doesn’t these days – modern 911s feel incredibly stable when they oversteer, the steering always communicating what’s going on, and the immense traction giving you something positive to work against while maintaining the slide. And that feeling of the engine swinging about behind you is just so uniquely Porsche, it’s a brilliantly tactile sensation.

With the car cranked onto the lockstops, the next step is to give it one more push on the gas and then let go – of, yes, both the steering wheel and the accelerator – the sudden release pivoting the 911 about its front axle and swinging it into a slide to link you into the next left-hander. Again, legend would have it that this is a wild, flailing motion due to the rear engine, but it’s easy to use that weight transfer to your advantage – the knack is to catch the steering when you’ve reached your desired angle, and to match that input with some sustained revs.

Back on track

Fully rested, I return to the main track with Newall. The final bit of finessing is on the brakes, which Newall had accused me of being too heavy on. Instead he gets me to brake a little earlier, then gradually release the pressure, therefore keeping the car as stable and balanced as possible as it enters a corner. ‘Excellent,’ he says after a few laps. ‘I couldn’t feel the transition between braking and acceleration then. Spot on!’

Then it’s a case of remembering all this new stuff, and flowing it together to produce a series of killer laps, which is easier said than done. But, after half a day, it’s all starting to gel and, while I do make mistakes, I’m aware of them happening, and consciously trying to avoid repeating them again, where before I’d have carried on oblivious.

If you fancy a go, three hours of tuition in your own car is £395, while a 911 Carrera S can be hired for an additional £230. Visit Porsche.com/Silverstone or call 08443 575 911 for more info.

By Ben Barry

Contributing editor, sideways merchant, tyre disintegrator

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