Porsche 911 GT3
Classroom sessions, physical stretches and hours of driving on the edge – or how to perhaps drive like a pro…
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”
Engel making MDA participants sweat in unison