Jonathan Yarkony at the wheel of a Porsche Cayman
Jonathan Yarkony at the wheel of a 2012 Porsche 911. Click image to enlarge
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By Jonathan Yarkony; photos courtesy Porsche Canada

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Notre Dame de la Merci, Quebec – Losing control has never been so easy. Controlling losing control is going to take a few more trips to this winter wonderland. But after a day of dodging snow banks and cones at Porsche’s Camp4 Winter Driving Experience, I want only to keep on failing. The objective: to tell you the truth, I was often unsure, because of my desperate desire to not bury the car in a snowbank, but it sure was fun. I wasn’t really that clueless and besides, the goal for attendees is to experience these conditions in the safe confines of a closed course and develop one’s car handling skills at the absolute extremes of poor traction. Driving the latest Porsches is just the gravy.

I gave it my best to piece together some stretches of progressive understeer into poised oversteer, hold a four-wheel drift with throttle modulation and opposite lock steering and execute a “pendulum” manoeuvre (drift one way, snap the car back, drift the other way, repeat, repeat, repeat). Fail, fail and fail (though thankfully I did not do so directly into any snowbanks or to such a degree as to require towing). Okay, maybe I’m being a little hard on myself but I can’t say I had many (or any) moments that looked or felt like the graceful arcs shown in the video demos during the too-brief training session we had before being sent into Porsche’s fleet of new 911s.

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Got Porsches? Click image to enlarge colleague Paul Williams writes about this eventfrom the perspective of one who has participated in several driving schools, but perhaps I can better imagine a typical Porsche customer’s experience at Camp4 as more of a novice driver. Customers will receive more substantial instruction and practical experience with every “exercise” over two days than our one-day crash course (pardon the pun) allowed us.

The morning session saw us jumping straight into the 400-hp, rear-engine 911 Carrera S, the brand new 991 generation that is just going on sale at the time of this writing. Seems a little crazy and more than a little trusting, but as it turns out, their trust was rewarded and faith earned with only minor dust-ups by a handful of journalists with the forgiving snowbanks that lined the course.

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Porsche Camp4 Experience. Click image to enlarge

The first exercise was on the long track at Quebec’s Mecaglisse facility, with a focus on getting a feel for the car’s tricky handling on ice with more safety mechanisms deactivated after every couple laps, until we were navigating the frozen track on the 911’s most aggressive Sport Plus track mode and with the Porsche Stability Management turned completely off. The back straight of this track also included a slalom in which we were to attempt the most difficult exercise, by trying to kick out the back end by lifting off throttle in mid-turn, then goosing the gas, catching it with opposite lock steering and mild throttle, then straightening and bringing the back end around to swing out the other way, all while trying to navigate between the cones that always seemed to pop up right when I was about to do something right.

This is an exercise that our instructors usually save for the afternoon of the second day, when everyone has had plenty of time to get a feel for the ice and the cars. I managed to spin out on just about every slalom pass when I wasn’t crawling around in fear of re-arranging snowbanks with the nose of a brand new 911 and being told by our track hostesses, “You can go faster now, Jonathan,” over the walkie-talkies we all had: lessons straight from the public shaming school of education.

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Porsche Camp4
Porsche Camp4 Experience. Click image to enlarge

After a break for lunch, we moved onto the small track and into the comparatively modest 320-hp Cayman S. Its mid-engine, rear-drive layout meant that it was harder to get it to break grip, and with perfect balance, precise steering and sublime feel for the surface and traction, it was easier to control both going forward and sideways. The short track also featured one of my favourite areas, a wide flat corner exit coming off a short, steep uphill climb that made it easy to free up the rear wheels without too much speed or throttle. The wide expanse of track meant there was plenty of room to play with the throttle and spin out to my heart’s content in an attempt to master holding a longer drift. Following that stretch was another slalom, this one with fewer, and more widely-spaced, cones where I think I might have actually pulled off a classic “pendulum” motion. Maybe… once, I think.

Our last exercise of the day was at the big oval in a 911 Carrera 4 GTS Convertible from the 997 generation. While this 408-hp rear-engine car’s weight distribution is similar to the Carrera S, that “4” means all-wheel drive and allows a slightly more aggressive approach to handling on ice. This exercise walked us in baby steps through the feel of understeer slip, then lifting off (and maybe even braking a little) to inducing oversteer on a big, round circle of ice with a pile of snow in the middle, but plenty of room everywhere to get going sideways, backwards and every which way but straight. Finally — room to breathe. With all stability systems off and using the most aggressive throttle, transmission and suspension settings right from the first lap, the dual-clutch PDK auto-manual held the lower gears (rarely needing anything past 2nd) and kept the engine wailing up to its 7,500-r.p.m. redline.

The object of this exercise was to get the car into oversteer, then dial in some countersteer and keep a four-wheel drift going for as long as possible by gently modulating the throttle. Having power at all four corners means the wheels at both front are working to maintain an even power slide, controlled with steering angle and by gently adjusting throttle inputs. I’ve watched drifting videos and rally clips on YouTube, NASCAR victory celebrations and watched instructors at other advanced driver training schools holding drifts until the rubber is peeled off the wheels. I tried to channel any of those drivers, but to little effect.

Porsche Camp4
Porsche Camp4 Experience. Click image to enlarge

However, that little effect was good for about a quarter or third of the way around the oval, and I would gladly spend day after day and thousands of dollars (if I had either at my disposal) for the chance to try, try and try again to recapture those four or five seconds of defying physics in the seat of a car I’ve dreamed of since the age of six, holding the car in a four-wheel drift on a sheet of sheer white ice. It’s a moment seared into my memory banks, right up there with the first time I opened up the throttle in the first Porsche I ever drove, a 964 Carrera Cabriolet, the first time I heard the bark and scream and brutal acceleration of a flat-six behind the rear seats.

The backdrop around the Mecaglisse track was a winter postcard, and pushing the Porsches around its icebound tracks and past the limits of adhesion was an experience of a lifetime for me. Another Walter Rohrl quote presented to us by the training team perfectly captures the challenge and illuminating experience of Camp4: “The true art of car control is felt in an unstable way of driving.” What better way to discover the abilities and essence of cars legendary for their precision and control than in an environment in which you first have to lose control before truly mastering it?  I know I’d gladly sign up for another round.

Despite all the fantasy fulfillment of an event like Camp4, participants acquired some very concrete, real-world driving skills. For example, understeer and oversteer are common occurrences when cornering on our slippery winter roads. Reacting to them appropriately comes with experience, and Camp4 offers exactly that. In both situations, it is important to look where you want to go (at the road ahead, not the tree or barrier or ditch), as hard as that instinct can be to conquer.

Having the chance to build skills like these in the comparative safety of the closed Camp4 circuit will help if you ever face an emergency situation on your daily commute. Porsche’s Camp4 is not the only advanced driver training event that hones these skills (BMW and Mercedes are two other manufacturers that have such programs too), so search online for local events if you can’t spring for something as exotic as Camp4.

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