Porsche 911 GT3

Class­room ses­sions, phys­i­cal stretches and hours of driv­ing on the edge – or how to per­haps drive like a pro…

Top Gear (Malaysia) - - Contents - WORDS: DARYL LOY /

We take the purist’s 911 out for a spin in Sepang, but not be­fore learn­ing how to drive all over again

The last time I was told to stretch my neck mus­cles was back in high school dur­ing PE class. This time, it was be­fore I could get into a sleek, sil­ver Porsche 911 Turbo for a run around some cones laid out be­tween Turns 7 and 8 on the Sepang In­ter­na­tional Cir­cuit (SIC).

I’m at this year’s edi­tion of the Porsche Me­dia Driv­ing Academy (MDA) to com­plete the third and fi­nal chap­ter of the train­ing syl­labus also known as the Elite course. The pad­dock that greeted me an hour ear­lier was a sight to be­hold. Porsche Asia Pa­cific pulled out all the stops this year, ship­ping in an im­pres­sive fleet con­sist­ing of the 718 Cayman GTS, 911 GT3 and ev­ery­thing in be­tween just for this pro­gramme.

The Ger­man car­maker al­ways has gems in its in­ven­tory for mem­bers of the press to ex­pe­ri­ence and re­view. But the one thing it wants more than for these cars to rack up glow­ing re­views is for them to come back in one piece at all times, prefer­ably at the hands of a pro­fes­sion­ally trained driver. So that’s why I’m stretch­ing my shoul­der mus­cles un­der the watch­ful eye of one Ro­man En­gel.

En­gel is a fit­ness in­struc­tor flown in specif­i­cally to teach par­tic­i­pants a thing or two about the right phys­i­cal con­di­tion­ing a driver should have be­fore get­ting be­hind the wheel. He doesn’t just work with a white­board in a class­room ei­ther. On a patch of grass be­side the sec­tion of the track cor­doned off for a moose test, En­gel tells us our first driv­ing ex­er­cise is the most phys­i­cally de­mand­ing be­cause of the G forces ex­pe­ri­enced. The con­cept of speed­ing up then chang­ing lanes seems sim­ple enough to me, but who am I to ques­tion the man?

So into the 911 Turbo I go and put in a smooth run. Since this is the Elite level, par­tic­i­pants are ex­pected to ex­e­cute the lane change prop­erly without the help of PSM (Porsche Sta­bil­ity Man­age­ment). And I think I do a de­cent job of steer­ing the 540bhp Porsche safely out of dan­ger, G forces hardly no­tice­able. How­ever, Will Bam­ber, the pro­fes­sional rac­ing driver seated to my right (the cars are all left-hand drive) doesn’t seem im­pressed.

I can­not stress how dif­fer­ent ex­pec­ta­tions are at this level. Safety was the name of the game in the Pro­fes­sional Course I par­tic­i­pated in last year. As­sum­ing that it has be­come sec­ond na­ture to 2017 grad­u­ates like my­self, Porsche’s dec­o­rated in­struc­tors ex­pect us to hone our skills by driv­ing a lit­tle bit closer to the cars’ lofty lim­its, and un­der­stand­ably so. Where else will you get the op­por­tu­nity to do it if not on a For­mula One cir­cuit booked ex­clu­sively for this train­ing ex­er­cise?

Then again, I’ve only been on the track a hand­ful of times within the past year. En­cour­aged to raise my en­try speed and quicken my steer­ing to throw the car off a lit­tle more, I at­tempt all of the above only to put the car into the grass. Pi­lot­ing it back to the start­ing point with an even more dis­grun­tled-look­ing Bam­ber at my side isn’t that much eas­ier with my up­per body all tensed up from the loss of con­trol. Maybe En­gel had a point af­ter all.

The good thing about mak­ing mis­takes early on is that you re­ally do learn from them even­tu­ally. And I man­age to keep sim­i­lar lev­els of speed and the­atrics in check the next time I’m out, in a Cayman GTS, al­though the car’s shorter wheel­base and more even weight dis­tri­bu­tion (mid-en­gined ver­sus rear) might have helped.

Bam­ber and co dish out the same take-it-to-the-limit ad­vice in our next ex­er­cise, which is a les­son in throt­tle steer­ing along Turns 5 and 6. As we were re­minded in an in­tro­duc­tory the­ory ses­sion, a car’s turn­ing ra­dius can be tight­ened or widened sim­ply by mod­u­lat­ing throt­tle in­put without in­ter­fer­ing with the steer­ing an­gle. Get­ting this right goes a long way in nail­ing back-to-back cor­ners with tricky apex points. And I’m con­stantly asked to ramp up my en­try speed and run closer to the apexes de­spite be­ing at the wheel of ar­guably the least ag­ile car of the lot – a Porsche Cayenne S.

To the two-tonne SUV’s credit, it ex­e­cutes ev­ery run, each one more spir­ited than the be­fore, with plenty of grace. And I come out a bet­ter driver from it, slightly more adept at those two turns at least – half an hour of prac­tice re­ally does bring you a wee step closer to per­fec­tion. But my sense of ac­com­plish­ment is quickly wiped out as we pro­ceed to what is eas­ily the most tech­ni­cally de­mand­ing les­son of the day: trail brak­ing.

Turns 13 and 14 host the fi­nal tu­to­rial of the day, which shines the spot­light on the art of mod­u­lat­ing brake pres­sure into a cor­ner. With most cars car­ry­ing more speed than pub­lic high­ways per­mit through Turn 13 on track days (the in­struc­tors crack the whip on us to do the same), mas­ter­ing Sepang’s penul­ti­mate cor­ner, which goes into a back straight famed for host­ing some of mo­tor­sports’ most dra­matic over­tak­ing ma­noeu­vres in the past two decades, re­quires a great deal of tech­nique.

The rac­ing line it­self feels some­what un­nat­u­ral, as you’re point­ing away from the right han­der at first, at three-digit speeds mind you, to en­ter at a wider an­gle that’s eas­ier on trac­tion. As the car ap­proaches the apex that seems an eter­nity away from the di­rec­tion you’re sup­posed to go, the trick is to get onto the brakes be­fore ap­ply­ing steer­ing while keep­ing your sights on the exit, only to re­lease it bit by bit as the car slowly sets it­self up for the high speed straight that fol­lows.

Try as I may, I never time the brakes with enough pre­ci­sion to please the sea­soned rac­ers who have their eyes firmly fixed on the 911 Targa GTS I have the plea­sure of driv­ing through this sec­tion at all times. In fact, the car feels so sorted through the bends in its brak­ing and weight trans­fer that I’m al­ways too early on the throt­tle in the eyes of the pros. Dial things down too much and you’ll be met with a stronger look of dis­ap­proval, so it’s cer­tainly a les­son in hu­mil­ity that couldn’t have come at a bet­ter time be­cause of what comes next.

Af­ter warm­ing us up with half a day of su­per­vised driv­ing ex­er­cises on closed sec­tions of SIC, the boys from Porsche fi­nally un­lock the en­tire track for us to ex­pe­ri­ence the en­tire MDA fleet in roughly an hour’s worth of full-cir­cuit driv­ing. Bet­ter yet, we are driv­ing in the shadow of one of the in­struc­tors to mimic his rac­ing lines, steer­ing an­gles and brak­ing points. Think of it as rac­ing a ghost car in a driv­ing simulator that you just can’t beat. The faster you go, the faster he goes. But it’s more of an ed­u­ca­tional rite of pas­sage than a com­pe­ti­tion any­way. And I’m pretty sure most of us clock sub-2:45 lap times with ease to­wards the end of the hour as a re­sult.

Nat­u­rally the 911 and 718 mod­els were in their el­e­ment here, with the heavy-boned Panam­era Sport Turismo be­ing the provider of some unan­tic­i­pated the­atrics around the faster bends. If you’re won­der­ing which car is the best of the lot, there can only be one…

“Porsche’s in­struc­tors ex­pect Elite par­tic­i­pants to drive a lit­tle bit closer to the lim­its”

PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: PORSCHE ASIA PA­CIFIC

En­gel mak­ing MDA par­tic­i­pants sweat in uni­son

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