Porsche Sport Driving School: Mt Cotton, Australia (Part I)
By James Wong
The state of Queensland in Australia is famously known as ‘The Sunshine State’. It is said to possess the best weather conditions of Australia and, perhaps, the world; it is also home to the Great Barrier Reef and the Gold Coast, where the imaginary worlds of fantasy and fairy tales come to life. However, few people would suspect that Queensland is also home to the Porsche Sport Driving School (PSDS), the only one in the whole of Australia. Located in the Mount Cotton Training Centre that is a short 40-minute drive from the capital city of Brisbane, Porsche leases a part of the facility for a few times every year to open its doors to locals and foreigners alike for the PSDS. Being isolated and dedicating the whole day to driving is a rare and wonderful experience that anybody who loves cars should try; you don’t feel any undue pressure or stress about the outside world and people around you. You put aside your work, concerns and worries and just devote yourself to driving and learning how to do it properly. Certainly a few hours worth spending on.
There are a total of 5 levels available in the PSDS, each with increasing difficulty and a whole set of new challenges. The first two levels, Precision and Precision Plus, are closely related and teach the most basic skills of car control, like any advanced driving course. The third level, Performance, gives you the chance to drive the 911 GT3 and 911 Turbo (if you’re lucky, and chances are you would be, the latest versions of both) on the Queensland Raceway, being geared towards track driving and the skills involved in lapping efficiently and quickly. The last two levels are even more intense, allowing you to drive the GT3 Cup car to fine-tune your handling skills and accuracy. For me, I attended Precision and Precision Plus, missing out on Performance due to cost reasons. These courses are not cheap – but I can assure you, they are worth every dollar.
Equipping myself with the mandatory sunscreen and, according to Porsche’s recommendation, a comfortable pair of shoes, I left the hotel early in the morning full of excitement for the day. The drive to Mt Cotton is pleasant and relatively straightforward with a GPS, with the freeway bringing you in no time to the facility. The weather in the morning in the relatively suburban area of Mt Cotton is quite chilly, so remember to pack a jacket.
I was first greeted by two GT3s parked in the entrance of the facility, with the familiar ‘Check-In’ signage at the entrance reminding me of the Porsche World Road Show (PWRS) I attended not too long ago. After a brief introduction to the instructors and what we would be doing for the day, we proceeded to check out Porsche’s latest range of cars at the garage. I looked at the lineup with envy, especially at the higher range models like the Carrera 4S and Turbo, with little hope that I would get to drive them later in the day. But, as I soon found out, I got to drive every Porsche in the range save for the GT3 and GT2.
After a quick breakfast we were split into our groups and then started on different ‘stations’. The first station we went to was simply named ‘Over- & Under- Steering’, which is carried out on a figure 8 track layout. The two cars idling at the start of the track was the base Carrera and the Boxster S, the former having a manual gearbox. We were not informed before the course that we needed any manual experience, which wasn’t a problem for me, but I can foresee some people who might be surprised by this. Nonetheless, the opportunity to drive a manual 911 overshadowed all concerns as it is a rare chance indeed, especially in Singapore where almost all Porsches are ordered with either Tiptronic or PDK.
The whole track was made extra slippery with diesel as well as water poured onto it, with the sole purpose of making us go sideways. Porsche Stability Management (PSM) had to be turned off to allow this, something that was completely excluded from the Porsche World Road Show where I was told never to turn it off under any circumstances. So off we went, where I first sampled the Carrera. Even as a base model it didn’t feel disadvantaged in any way, not in this station anyway where we were only going at a maximum of 50km/h. There is no need to go any faster as you can feel the intended effects of oversteer and understeer very acutely at this speed. The rear-engined, rear wheel drive layout instantly made itself obvious from the first corner where the car proved itself to be very tail-happy, more than willing to oversteer when you apply too much power at the right moment. Once it goes into oversteer, it was pretty hard to correct for a novice driver; sometimes you might even be facing in the opposite direction! Apply the power too early in a corner however, and the car goes into frustrating understeer, where it is just better to back off and let the front wheels gain traction again to continue yet another round of sliding.
After a few rounds in the 8, where I started to get a better feeling of the throttle sensitivity and chassis, it is not too difficult to bring the car into a continuous slide for a good part of the track, maintaining control over oversteer and understeer and ensuring you never step over the limit of both to kill the car’s momentum. This is where it starts to get really fun as you feel as if you are drifting, but at an entirely safe speed and space. I went next in the Boxster S, which felt easier to trim and make adjustments to bring the car where you want to go. It feels more lithe and less cumbersome, allowing less instances where the car came to a complete stop because of a misjudgment or mistake. It felt easier to read and more forgiving to the driver as the immaculate balance of the mid-engined layout is hard to beat. For some laps I turned the PSM on to see the effects it had on the car. True enough, it was a real challenge to get the car to even go sideways – the car just often went wide or understeered, which was enough for me to quickly turn it back off.
The next station is to test the Anti-Lock Brake System (ABS) of the cars in an emergency braking situation. I found it odd that for such a simple and relatively easy station they catered quite a lot of time for it, and also provided us with a great variety of cars. Perhaps they wanted us to see the different braking distances for each model as the heavy Cayenne Turbo S also took part. In this station, we also got to drive the Boxster, Carrera 4S Cabriolet and the Carrera Cabriolet. The gist of the station is basically to drive as fast as we can and then start to brake as hard as we can when we reach a set of cones to feel the ABS kicking in. One interesting fact is that quite a number of accidents are actually caused by people letting go of the brake in an emergency braking situation because they felt the ABS and thought that something was wrong with the car. It is quite unfortunate that a technology that is developed to save lives can sometimes cause an accident as well. What was surprising for this station is that the Cayenne Turbo S managed a pretty decent stopping distance even though it fish-tailed a bit while doing it, although its brakes did give off quite a screech at low-speed braking.
After a sumptuous lunch (no kidding, the food at the facility is actually superb), we went on our Roadtour. Unlike the Roadtour of the PWRS, where we only got to drive the new Cayenne on public roads, PSDS’s version involves a closed road, much like those quiet countryside roads with meandering corners, blind apexes and varying gradients. In short, it was nothing less than an awesome driving road. The cars waiting for us in the lineup was the Panamera S PDK, the Turbo PDK, the Carrera S manual and Boxster S PDK. Instead of the wide open spaces of a racetrack, the closed roads had the conditions of a true open public road, except that we could cross lanes, so we had the width of two lanes to ourselves. That said, it is still quite a challenging and thrilling drive, with trees and vegetation sometimes just within a hair’s breath of the car and (I kid you not) kangaroos jumping out of nowhere onto the road. We always had to be alert on this track, never for a moment looking away or being distracted.
There are no speed limits here and no restrictions except for the instructors sitting next to you, so there is a surprising amount of leeway in what the instructors actually allow you to do. The course also had a chicane that was installed right in the middle of a long straight where it is possible to hit up to 250km/h if not for the chicane. Even with it disrupting speed, the 911 Turbo could hit 170-180km/h effortlessly in the straights. There was a moment when I entered the chicane a bit too quickly and slid at the chicane, but thankfully PSM worked its magic to bring the car back to control. The next time I went pass the chicane I could see my skidmarks!
What I learnt for the roadtour was probably the most useful of the whole course, for my style of driving at least. It is always beneficial to look ahead, very far ahead if possible, for the reason that your steering will follow where your eyes point to, and also because you can anticipate obstacles much earlier should you need to. Many of us say that we are obviously looking ahead, but the fact is that most of us are just looking at the patch of road that is only a few metres ahead of us, when what we should be doing is to look 10-30m ahead depending on the situation. This is especially useful for hairpin turns as well as sweeping corners, where I went faster than I ever thought possible just by following this principle. It might feel unnerving at first when you are quite wary of the cones and objects nearby you, but after a while you will get used to looking ahead. Also, it is wise to be gentle on throttle and braking inputs so as not to destabilise the balance of the car. Braking the car too hard and then letting go will pitch the car forward and shift the weight towards the back, giving insufficient traction to the front wheels for a corner (especially the 911s). Accelerating and decelerating gently will not upset the balance of the car too much as weight transfer is minimised when it is not needed. Being progressive yet firm is the trick for driving fast on the road, though not necessarily on the track.
The last activity of the day was to compete in a gymkhana style race in the Boxster, Carrera Cabriolet and Cayenne Turbo S. Everybody had a chance to compete for the best timings for the top prize of the day; it is surprising how similar the timings of these 3 cars can get. It is difficult to tell apart which car performed the best out there on the gymkhana as all the timings were very close. At this point in time, I still wasn’t making very good timings as I did not really apply the techniques taught to me. On the second day, which I will write about in a separate article at a later time, I managed to tweak my driving style to get much more favourable timings that made me feel the two days of training certainly paid off. Age is certainly no barrier – there was a 17-year old who attended the course who attained first place for the gymkhana!
To close off the day, we were all given a ride in the GT3s on the roadtour track. It reaffirmed my love for arguably Porsche’s purest modern sports car… It is lightweight, it requires human finesse and skill and it is naturally aspirated (yet goes like a rocket) – few cars possesses all of these talents in one package. It certainly left a sweet aftertaste for the end of the first day as we all retired back to our accommodation to rest for the next day of driving. Stay tuned!