"Bit of power now, little bit more, no too much!" shouts Ed, just as the Porsche 911 I’m at the wheel of begins to spin round and we pirouette backwards through the water fountains. Belatedly, my mental faculties kick back in, I press the brake and we come to a stop, both laughing as I’ve once again failed to catch the slide the 911’s been deliberately put into.
We’re at Porsche’s Experience Centre at Silverstone race track, going through an "experience" course that’s offered to everyone in the UK who buys a new Porsche. But aside from living out a high-life fantasy, we’re also here to try the new 911 in an extreme environment and find out how cars behave in extreme conditions. Like us, we guess you’ve heard of things like traction and stability control - TC, ESP and the various acronyms that they’re called by - but do you actually know what they do, how they help you out, or what happens if you turn them off?
As you might imagine, when Porsche offered to show us from behind the wheel of the new 991-era 911, it didn’t take us long to say, "Go on then".
Built in 2008, the Porsche Experience Centre sits in the shadows of the famous Silverstone Race Track where the British Grand Prix is held each summer. The Centre offers various programmes - but most people who attend spend some time on the Centre’s own 3.1km long track, the various test areas attached, or the off-road course.
As we’re in the new 911, a Carrera S, with PDK automatic gearbox since you ask, we thought it’d be rude not to try out the track. And given the car’s legendary reputation - its rear-mounted engine means that many previous generation 911s have been put through hedges, literally backwards, by over-enthusiastic owners - we wanted to see if we could tame the beast on the various low-friction and skid-pan style set ups, that simulate what might happen if you lose control of the car, say, on ice or in snow.
Part of the appeal of the experience Porsche provide here is that everyone who attends gets their own instructor for whichever course they go on. If, like me, you’ve done the odd bit of circuit driving or a track day but been frustrated at your inability to improve or get faster, the appeal here is that there’s an expert - in my case racing driver, Ed - alongside you, to tell you where you’re going wrong and help you to learn.
On the track
We start with me in the passenger seat, Ed driving me round the track, to show me the lines and then through the various skid-courses. As you might expect from a professional race driver who spends several days a month at the Porsche experience, he makes it look rather easy. Then it’s my turn and first we head out onto the track.
While it’s tempting just to bury the accelerator into the carpet and hear the amazing howl of the straight six, the reality is that circuit driving is all about precision, so Ed encourages me to build my speed up slowly, and teaches me to "look through each corner" to where I want to go. The trick is to set the car up for each corner, and keep thinking ahead, so that you’re not just thinking about one corner in isolation, but stringing together several into a series, until you’ve built up the entire track and get the car going in a real rhythm.
I learn not to be so aggressive with my steering inputs, instead gently rolling into corners and trying to carve as straight a line as possible. Not only does it mean you’ll be faster, but you’ve also less risk of destabilising the car and spinning it.
After a few laps of the track, we peel off, with Ed giving me the promise that we’ll come back to it later on. We head to a thing called the kick-plate. Essentially, this is a long, wet, skid-tastic surface, but before you enter it, you drive over a moveable plate, which moves quickly sideways as your rear wheels pass over the top, spinning the rear of the car out.
The trick is to react quickly, applying opposite lock to steer into the skid. Apply enough lock quickly enough and the back end doesn’t spin fully round, instead you catch it and then either "drift" - holding the slide by adding a bit of power - or "correct" - bringing the back end back into a straight line - or, as I do on the first couple of goes, have a "tank slapper" - basically you catch the first slide, but then over-correct, and the back spins round the other way and you simply spin off in the opposite direction.
It’s something that I - and I suspect most of you reading - could have played on all afternoon. Basically, if you fail to catch the slide and spin, you instantly want to go back and try again. And if you catch it – and better still drift - it’s so rewarding you instantly want another go. On about my fifth attempt, I get a wonderful drift for about 20 yards. Elated is not the word.
It sets up what’s in store for the rest of the afternoon - great fun, rewarding, but educational too. I wouldn’t want what happens on the kick-plate to happen to my car on the road, but I know now that if it did I’d stand a much better chance of gathering it up - and not crashing - than before I came on this course.
Next we move on to the ice hill. It’s a 7 per cent downward slope, with a very low friction surface being sluiced by two water fountains that act as chicanes you’re supposed to drive down.
What happens next proves to be the most important lesson I learn all day. We head down the hill, steer left to try and go round the first fountain. Ed has warned me that as this happens, the back will slide out (like on the kick plate), and I need to be ready to - quickly - correct it. At this point, and this is the lesson, the traction and stability control systems are still switched on. I head down the hill, steer left a bit too hard, feel the back spin out and try to correct it - and instead of holding the slide, we spin, backwards down the hill.
I’m confused, and turn to Ed and ask him how the car has spun with the stability control switched on.
"Basically, it can’t beat physics," replies Ed. "This hill simulates ice, and because you were going quite hard and made quite sharp inputs, once the back end had lost traction, there was nothing the system could do to get the traction back."
It’s an important lesson for me - in truth, I drive a rear-wheel drive car on the road, and sometimes take liberties with it, thinking that the stability control (ESP) will save my backside. I now know that in really extreme conditions, it sometimes can’t.
However, we try another run - a bit slower this time - and the stability control does manage to save me. And you appreciate how much it’s helping when - on the next run - we switch it fully off again - the feeling of the back end letting go feels much more noticeable, and needs serious quick-wittedness to catch.
Finally, before heading back to track we try the low friction surface, which simulates driving on snow. It’s similarly slippery to the ice hill, but without the gradient - so in theory you’ve got more time to correct any slide. It turns out to be great fun - and we try the Sport mode on the 911, which allows the rear end to slip sideways a little, but keeps the stability control there in the background, to step in at a higher threshold - the threshold it thinks you’re out of your depth and are going to overcook it.
With the system in this mode, I have a ball kinking round the tight circuit, doing little drifts – but the stability system - on one occasion at least, stops me from chucking ninety-grands worth of Porsche in the grass banking.
Skidding, sliding and car-control lessons over, we head back to the track to apply some of the learning and to see if I have improved.
And while sweaty work, I do find that 90 minutes with the 911 on low friction surfaces has made me both more confident and given me a greater understanding of what I’m trying to do. On the last couple of laps I really nail it, feel that a couple of the corners that earlier in the day were tripping me up I’ve now got sussed and I feel like I’m driving the circuit much more smoothly - and more quickly - than before. Ed goes quiet, which I’m not sure how to take, but I keep going. I know that racing drivers aren’t known for being very good passengers, and I’m not sure I’d want to sit next to myself on a track, either.
We head back into the parking area and I’m absolutely buzzing. When Ed turns to me and tells me: "Those last couple of laps were pretty dam good", I move on to cloud nine. If the idea is to give you a taste of what a 911 can do and make you want one, then consider me sold. I’ll keep dreaming that one day my pocket-lint wages might be enough to let me buy a used one.
But in seriousness, and as I write this the day after the event, the most rewarding thing about the Porsche experience was feeling like I became a better driver and got to understand more about how cars react - and how electronic systems work with them - in extremes.
I’m still amazed I managed to drift a 911. I am still picturing racing lines. But I could sense - even on the way home from Silverstone - that I was being a better, more anticipatory driver. And perhaps most importantly, I’m not sure I’d ever want a car without ESP (stability control) because it is perhaps the most valuable electronic device for helping you out when you get into trouble. What I also know, which I didn’t before, is that even the most advanced of electronic systems simply can’t always beat physics.
The good news is that you don’t have to buy a new Porsche to experience this yourself. Porsche run a programme called YouDrive, where you can take your own car on to their circuit and experience some of the things we did, for £165. Various other packages are available - we sampled a 911 Driving Experience, which lasted 90 minutes and costs £275.
Having been through the experience, and considering that includes time in a new 911 and one-to-one instruction for that entire time, we reckon that’s actually a bit of a bargain. We encourage you to try it, and if you really want to have fun, ask if you can be instructed by Ed.