Back to school

Posted by Bill Thomas at 11:04 am on Tuesday January 20, 2009

I went to the Porsche Driving Experience Centre at Silverstone the other day. And as soon as I arrived, I knew it was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime kind of deal. Choose from any of the current range of Porsche road cars and head out with an instructor.

My instructor was called Ian. He told me he ‘used to do a bit of speedway racing when he was younger back in the day’ and it was only later his boss told me he’d been British champion. Typical of this place, understated but good. Ian was brilliant.

Out we went and he showed me round the various bits of the track. It’s all interesting, but there are two highlights – an ice hill (shown above), and a kicker (below). The ice hill is exactly as the name suggests. You drive down a hill and it is like ice, a clever lo-grip surface coated in water and you swerve between fountains.

Then there’s a kicker. You drive toward a patch of black stuff in the road, just before another red water-covered super-slippery area, long, permanently wet. Look at the pic – it’s the black bit between the yellow bits. A machine knows when your front wheels hit the black thing. And then it knows when your rear wheels hit the black thing. The black thing is like a giant conveyor belt in the road, about four metres wide, that moves sideways. As your rear wheels run over it, the black conveyor belt moves violently right or left, kicking the rear end out in a random direction. The violence of the kick can be controlled by the operator in a nearby shed, a bit like that bad guy in Moonraker who controlled the G-Machine while Roger Moore was inside it almost dying.

Anyway, imagine the feeling of the rear of the car being slammed sideways by the black thing and then imagine  trying to control the resulting slide, on ice. Not easy. I found myself correcting the wrong way once or twice. Sometimes you get it back, but if the car’s traveling too fast, you just can’t, even if your stability control help is switched on.

And there is a very fine tipping point. I did one run at 23mph and managed to catch the car. Then did another at 27mph and just couldn’t do it. I asked Ian about it and he said ‘no chance, even if you were the best driver in the world’. And it was a difference of four miles per hour. I thought about all the people using icey motorways over winter, doing 40 or 50mph too much speed on bad surfaces, then thought about how just 2 or 3mph made all the difference between control and a spin.

All the while, Porsche’s Active Stability Management system was doing its thing (when it was on), juddering and chattering and keeping things in order. More than anything, this Driving Experience teaches you about what that system does, how to brake and control the car in an emergency, and generally how to react when things go wrong. It’s the sort of experience most people have for the first time during an accident. And even if one person (one) takes one (one) thing away from the day, and they use it to save their life or someone else’s, then the entire multi-million pound investment Porsche has made in this place will have been worth it.

It ain’t cheap. But worth inquiring about if you’ve got a Porsche (any Porsche) and you fancy blowing some wedge.

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  1. Heavy Right Welly said...
    Tuesday January 20, 2009 at 1:26 pm Link to comment Report comment

    should this be part of the driving test then perhaps it could be better than speed camaras at cutting deaths on the road it would sure teach everyday person that cars are quitre unpredictable even with esp tc etc

  2. grimble said...
    Tuesday January 20, 2009 at 1:37 pm Link to comment Report comment

    Er… the link to the ‘desperate shag’ story doesn’t seem to be working – does that mean it’s off already??

  3. jackmw said...
    Tuesday January 20, 2009 at 1:38 pm Link to comment Report comment

    Awww, you’ve made me feel bad for getting a track day in a Dodge Viper now :(

    Great read.

  4. Tak said...
    Tuesday January 20, 2009 at 1:54 pm Link to comment Report comment

    Same here. I imagine I’d like reading about Chrysler shagging Fiat, but it’s x-rated, obviously.

  5. Ash Davies said...
    Tuesday January 20, 2009 at 3:41 pm Link to comment Report comment

    I think thats a brilliant idea. It’s not just giving drivers the experience in wild conditions, but the spontaneity at which the kicker pushes your cars nose or tail out will tune peoples instinctive reactions, and thats exactly what modern drivers need.

  6. Stig's Irish Cousin said...
    Tuesday January 20, 2009 at 4:47 pm Link to comment Report comment

    That would be great for driver training, would be interesting to see your average learner’s car like a Polo or Micra cope with that stuff if the 911 finds it hard going!

  7. Wyvern said...
    Tuesday January 20, 2009 at 5:14 pm Link to comment Report comment

    That was a great read. Sounds like an excellent way to spend a day, and with useful experience to take away. I agree with the idea of something like this being used in wider driver training too – lessons are easier to learn if they’re enjoyable and who wouldn’t enjoy doing something like that, even in a driving school Corsa?

  8. CanadianVDub said...
    Tuesday January 20, 2009 at 7:03 pm Link to comment Report comment

    You all need to visit Canada in the winter to learn how to drive on ice. We can get a foot (yes 12inches) of snow and life goes on! Unlike in England, where an inch is considered the ice age! Salt, Sand, Grit, Ice, Slush, are all part of the morning commute.

    My personal favorite, is going out after a couple inches of fresh snowfall, and acting like im Finnish on the back roads.

  9. J. Stevens said...
    Tuesday January 20, 2009 at 11:38 pm Link to comment Report comment

    We’re not all like that over here you know, I spent a week commuting through snow on my motorbike this new year. Perhaps a move to the Finnish style of driving test is a good idea but learning to drive is already pricey, spending time on a skid pan would end up being ruinously expensive for many people. Anyway, what car did you pick? I’d have wanted a GT2, the hooligan in me couldn’t resist a rear wheel drive, rear engined, lightweight turbo monstrosity on a skid pan. The hooligan in me probably shouldn’t be allowed near such things…

  10. x_kerri_x2kx said...
    Wednesday January 21, 2009 at 8:41 am Link to comment Report comment

    sounds like u ad a gd dai
    it must ave bin wkd

    i aint gt a porsche (onli 17), bt thts 1 fing id like 2 do afta i turn 18

  11. Bill Thomas said...
    Wednesday January 21, 2009 at 1:27 pm Link to comment Report comment

    Thanks for your comments guys.

    I certainly agree that something like this course should be part of the driving test, everywhere. Pity it would be too expensive to sort out in reality. Or would it? It would save lives, so what’s that worth?

    It’s difficult to explain all the technical stuff about tyre contact patches and grip and momentum and weight shift and steering angles and all that – and I don’t fully understand a lot of it anyway! – but the point is that most drivers, maybe not we ‘car nuts’ but most people, don’t know anything about how to control a car, and don’t experience an emergency situation until they’re halfway through an accident. And by that time, they’re probably doing the wrong thing.

    That’s why these stability control systems are so important. And why doing a course like this is incredibly useful. In my opinion, every car on the road should be fitted with stability control, so that skids and ‘emergencies’ can be controlled by very accurate computer.

    Knowing the limitations of these systems is important – they won’t always save you – but it’s better to have them there and for the driver not to be aware of how they work than not to have them there at all.

    Here’s a question – do you know what anti-lock brakes do and why they’re incredibly useful?

  12. Tom Ford said...
    Wednesday January 21, 2009 at 4:46 pm Link to comment Report comment

    I know. I’m not telling though.

  13. J. Stevens said...
    Wednesday January 21, 2009 at 11:48 pm Link to comment Report comment

    Yes, as a point of interest Honda have just made an ABS system that works on a superbike (as opposed to ABS systems on tourers and commuters that have been around for years), juddering isn’t a good thing on two wheels when you’re leaning and nobody likes feeling a lever twitch due to tricksy computers. ‘Tis a good year for fireblade fans.

  14. Tuukka said...
    Thursday January 22, 2009 at 1:43 am Link to comment Report comment

    Yeah, we have skidpan training for everyone in Finland as part of driving training. A lot of fun. Actually, you have to go two times: Once with the driving school’s car and once with your own, a few years after getting the initial license.

    We didn’t have the kicker though, only a driving instructor yanking your handbrake at a random moment while driving…

  15. boring said...
    Wednesday January 28, 2009 at 5:22 am Link to comment Report comment

    Skidpad in itself shouldn’t be very costly, you get one by bolting a metal plate to asphalt and rinse it with soapy water. (or have a sprinkler doing that) Slipperyness guaranteed. Costly part comes from trainer qualifications and permits.

    In fact, what’s there to prevent you guys from building a skidpad and offering training? Being Top Gear you should have a market for that. What would be better than being taught how to drive sideways by the stig ;)

    I have to comment that the skidpad training in Finland is a must-have because of the winters. It’s not for bragging rights.

  16. Bluem000n said...
    Friday April 10, 2009 at 10:06 am Link to comment Report comment

    Spent the day at PDEC on Wednesday, as a guest of my local Porsche dealer. It was as good as the writer described; my instructor was called Mike, and he was amazing. He knew every inch of the track, and how to get the most out of the car (C4S with PDK) in our initial familiarisation laps.

    The wet sections are great fun, but also very useful and I’d suggest that everyone, no matter what car they drive, should go through this sort of training.

    All in all, with the track and facilities (restauraunt and museum pieces) it’s definately recommended.

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