The cars. Click image to enlarge
Story and photos by Chris Chase
My first experience driving a Porsche came earlier this year, when the
company sent a 911 Targa 4S our way. As a car nut, this is a company whose cars I’d been eager to drive for a long time, so naturally, I was a bit disappointed when the car didn’t excite me the way I’d thought it would. It was wintertime, and the car had Porsche’s
Tiptronic manually-shiftable automatic transmission in it. As a result, the car felt awkward and unwilling, leaving me to wonder if this was what I’d waited for all those years I’d lusted after the Stuttgart sports cars.
I was somewhat relieved when the company sent along a Cayman press car. This one was a no-frills model, the only option being a set of floor mats, and even though it was still winter, I realized that a Porsche with a manual transmission was actually a fun daily driver,
even in cold weather. But I still didn’t understand what makes people
want to drop $60,000 – or a lot more – for one of these cars.
That is, until May 9, the day I attended Porsche’s unofficially-named
Spring Sports Car Event. Held at the home of the Porsche Sport Driving School, Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama, it was a chance to let car-crazy writers get a feel for what the company’s cars can really do, something that’s not (legally) possible during a normal week-long test drive. The idea, too, was to dispel any thoughts that Porsche went “soft” when it launched the Cayenne SUV in 2002. If anything, the extra profits the Cayenne has brought in have helped make the company’s cars even better: its strong sales mean the automaker has a lot more money to put into developing the rest of its line-up.
It was in Alabama that I realized that Porsches, like most high-performance cars, are all about context. Driving one as a daily commuter, as I had the Targa and Cayman, makes it impossible to
understand what a Porsche is all about. Well, thank you, Porsche Cars North America,
because now, I get it.
Kees Nierop goes over the finer points of the Cayman for the assembled journalists. Click image to enlarge
The company brought along five cars: Turbo, GT3 and Targa 4S versions of the 911, plus a base Cayman and a Boxster S. About 20 journalists were split up into five groups and matched with an instructor; my group was paired with Kees Nierop, a friendly Dutch-Canadian with a racing resume longer than the back straight at
The track, by the way, is a 2.38-mile (about 3.8-km) road circuit and
is very challenging, particularly for drivers who, like myself, have
little to no racing experience. There are 16 turns: my favourites turned out to be the first four, but I’ll get to that later.
I hopped into my first car with Nierop riding shotgun. The order in
which we drove the cars was completely random, but as luck would have it, I got to start with the “slowest” – the Cayman – and work my way up. Nierop coached me around the track with a constant flow of
instructions: when to brake and how hard; when to turn in, when to get back on the gas for a smooth exit after hitting an apex. It’s not often you get to drive hard like that, and having someone in the car
with you who knows not only the limits of the car, but also has an
innate sense of where your limits are as a driver, is invaluable.
This Cayman was very similar to the one Porsche had sent to Ottawa
earlier in the year for us to test drive. It was a non-S version, with the 245-horsepower engine and a manual transmission. It was fun to drive on the street last winter, but it feels a million times more at home on the track. It’s not hard to find a car with 245 horses these
days, so the Cayman doesn’t feel stupidly fast. It’s very balanced,
though, and after my four lap stint, I was feeling pretty confident.
This special, Limited Edition Boxster will go on sale in North America later this year. Click image to enlarge
The Boxster S was next. It has about 50 more horsepower on tap, but
the biggest difference was that we were able to take advantage of the
car’s convertible roof to enjoy the day’s hot, sunny weather. Despite the lack of a hard top, the Boxster feels very solid structurally. Granted, Barber is a smooth track – bumpy roads are the best way to gauge the stiffness of a car’s structure – but the Boxster was just as much fun to toss around.
I followed that one up with the other Porsche I’ve street-driven, the
911 Targa 4S. The key difference was that my winter tester was fitted
with Porsche’s Tiptronic gearbox, which I found less than thrilling.
The car I drove at Barber had a stickshift and that oh-so-important
third pedal, and what a difference it made.
We took an hour’s break for lunch, and then it was back to the track to drive the 911 Turbo. When I was a kid, this was THE car; if someone had told me I could drive any car for a day, the 911 Turbo would have been it. What a treat, then, to have my first experience behind the wheel of one in a race-track environment, with Nierop’s expert guidance to help me make the most of it.
That was the car in which I discovered my favourite part of the track
at Barber. The back straight was good for about 165 km/h in the Turbo (at least in my hands; I had neither the skill nor the nerves to take it any higher than that). From that speed, it’s hard on the binders in the braking zone for turn one, a medium, downhill left-hander. Then, into a long, tight right-hand sweeper (this is actually turns two and three); as you exit three, you’re pressed down into the seat as the car transitions from a slight downhill to a steep ascent that leads up to turn four.
The Porsche Sport Driving School’s fleet. Click image to enlarge
At this point, from the driver’s seat, it looked as if I was about to drive off the edge of the earth – the only clue that there was anything beyond the crest was the timing tower, looming large. Nierop instructed me to aim towards it and floor the throttle. Against all
better judgment, I did, and the twin turbos spooled and hurled the car
toward the crest. The thrust was reminiscent of a jet plane at takeoff and indeed, if there had been wings on the car, we probably would have gotten airborne.
Nierop was complimentary as I eased the car into the pit after lap
four. “You did well in the Turbo,” he said, “but that’s a car that does a lot of the work for you.”
He was setting me up for our next dose of lap time, which happened in the 911 GT3. As Porsche factory race driver Patrick Long explained it, the Porsche 911 GT3 is as close to a no-frills race car as you’ll find in a Porsche showroom. And while the example Porsche brought to Barber had an optional navigation system and standard niceties like air conditioning, cruise and a sunroof, lots of stuff had been deleted in the interest of weight savings. There was no back seat, and far less sound-deadening than you’ll find in other 911 models. Also, the GT3 is rear-wheel drive, not all-wheel drive like the 911 Turbo and certain other 911 models.
Interior of the Porsche 911 GT3. Click image to enlarge
When Nierop talked about the Turbo doing the work for me, he was
referring to Porsche’s various electronic safety systems. Despite its
racing genes, the GT3 has all the same stuff as Porsche’s other cars,
but the set-up is more transparent; more “track-able,” if you will. The
GT3’s traction control system (it comprises automatic brake differential (ABD), automatic slip control (ASC) and engine drag
control (EDC) in one unit) is similar to that used in the late Carrera
GT super car. Nierop didn’t come out and say it, but compared to the
other four cars I’d driven so far, I got the feeling there was really
just a steering wheel, a brake pedal and me behind the wheel to keep
this car shiny side up.
It was obvious before we even got underway that the GT3 was a much different beast than the Turbo. The engine started with a wicked bark from the exhaust. Compared to the Turbo, I had to practically stand on the clutch to get it to the floor. The shifter and steering were likewise much heavier.
Clutch take-up was more abrupt, too, but it’s not a difficult car to
drive. We went easy for the first lap, to get a feel for the car. Even
at relatively modest speeds, turn-in is razor sharp. The track surface
at Barber is very smooth, but the GT3’s suspension picked up every
imperfection in the asphalt. The 2007 GT3 is the first of its kind to
get Porsche’s Active Suspension Management (PASM); left turned off, Porsche says the suspension is more or less the same as that found in the previous-generation GT3. Switch it to Sport mode, though, and the system switches to firmer, track-ready damper settings. Sport mode also unleashes another 11 lb-ft and 14 horsepower from the GT3’s 3.6-litre engine.
After the first lap, Nierop wanted to push things a little harder. Like the other cars, the GT3 displayed prodigious grip in turns, but it felt more balanced, more neutral. The other cars would understeer
ever so slightly at the limit, but not this one.
The Porsche Sport Driving School’s fleet. Click image to enlarge
The GT3’s straight-ahead speed isn’t as impressive as the Turbo’s –
the GT3 gives up 65 horsepower and a whack of torque to that twin-turbo beast – but it’s far from slow. The GT3’s 415 horsepower and 300 lb-ft of torque come at higher revs – 7,600 and 5,500 revs respectively – and the motor will willingly spin to its 8,400 rpm redline, at which point the unholy mechanical racket coming from the back of the car reminds you just how little sound-deadening there is. Nierop figured we drove the Turbo to seven or eight tenths of its abilities; in the GT3 we went no higher than six or seven. That makes it sound like we were going slow, but actually, we regularly hit the same speeds we did in the Turbo. It’s just that those are comparatively slow for the GT3, at least in the corners.
Like I said, the Turbo is faster in a straight line – according to Porsche – four-tenths of a second quicker from zero to 60 mph. The Turbo was my favourite car to drive through my favourite part of the track, but the GT3 was my favourite car overall.
My day’s activities were a brief taste of what you’d experience in the
Porsche Sport Driving School; the North American school is led by
acclaimed endurance driver and Motorsports Hall of Fame of America
inductee Hurley Haywood. It’s not cheap – the least expensive program, a one-day lesson in high-performance driving, costs $1,800 US – but would be well worth it for any serious driving enthusiast.
Barber Motorsports Museum. Click image to enlarge
Certain packages include an off-road course to test the Cayenne as well as the on-track hijinks, and there’s also a winter driving school held in Colorado. There’s even a women’s only course.
The Porsche Sport Driving School calls Barber Motorsports Park its
home; the park is also the venue for the Barber Vintage Motorsports
Museum, which is considered the world’s most extensive motorcycle
collection. For more information on the Porsche Sport Driving School, visit PorscheDriving.com; more details on the Barber Motorsports Park can be found at BarberMotorsports.com.
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