Test driving new vehicles is central to the job description of a motoring journalist. Our worthiness to make a living in this field hinges on the ability to handle a vehicle, assess its behaviour, and then transcribe our feelings and observations into words.
Types of cars that come our way are exceedingly varied; they range from the mundane to the insanely powerful. It makes sense, therefore, that people in our line of work should be well and consistently trained to safely handle powerful vehicles.
We often get invited to participate in driver training programme by the various OEMs and sometimes even tyre makers. Recently, however, we were invited for the first time to participate in a driver training programme catered specifically for the media – the Porsche Media Driving Academy 2016.
The first Porsche MDA was held in 2015 and the series returns this year attracting participation of motoring journalists from across the region. The course is offered at three levels of difficulty – Individual, Professional, and Elite. This being our first participation at the event, I was placed in the Individual group – easiest of the three.
Course Structure – Like most driver training programmes, we were required to sit through a quick theory class followed by a demonstration on finding a good seating position. As mentioned countless times before, a good seating position is essential to ensure that your arms and legs have good leverage to effectively operate your vehicle’s controls – particularly important in an emergency.
But those two weren’t the first items on the agenda. Our day actually started with physical exercise – we were asked to sprint on foot through a slalom course carrying a metre-long pole each affixed with two water containers at either end. In two of the three poles, the two containers were deliberately filled with differing volume of water. The objective was to let us feel for ourselves the difference in moving through a corner when we are front-heavy, tail-heavy, or balanced 50:50.
For the in-car exercises that followed, we were split into groups of four and rotated between the stations. Because of the small number of participants per group, we were able to attempt more runs for each exercise and less downtime between each person’s turn as well. Also, each exercise was performed with an SUV and a sports car model, allowing us to experience the breadth of dynamic talents across the Porsche range as well as the contrast between the two extremes.
- Slalom: One of the most basic activities in any driving course, the slalom is a practice of smooth steering inputs and throttle control. We tried this exercise with the Macan and 718 Boxster S, and the contrast between the two disparate models in terms of balance, agility, and responsiveness was nothing short of remarkable. On the one hand, the Macan was impressively chuckable around bends for an SUV; on the other, the Boxster’s natural mid-engined balance and rawness feel especially pronounced as we jumped over from the Macan.
- Cornering Line: A good cornering line allows a driver to take a corner in the fastest and most efficient way possible. For the Individual difficulty level which I participated, we were taught a less aggressive safety-first line. We were still asked to go at a quick clip, but the priority was to attain a smooth entry and gently coax the throttle upon exit. This exercise was attempted with the Macan and 911 Cabriolet – this writer’s first occasion behind the wheel of a rear-engined vehicle.
- Emergency Lane Change: An exercise to simulate the sudden appearance of an obstacle along your path, we were asked to accelerate full throttle and abruptly swerve to avoid a set of cones and then swerve back to the lane we were originally traveling in, coming to a full stop within a box marked further ahead. At sufficiently high speeds, such a maneuver can cause a vehicle to tailspin and lose control. We attempted this exercise in the Cayenne and 911 Carrera S. Even with ESC switched on, the severity of the swerve was sufficient to cause the Cayenne to briefly let its rear step out before intervention from the electronic nannies. In the 911, this exercise served to highlight just how agile and direct its steering is - the car just when where I pointed without any fuss or drama. There is no illusion on this author’s part that all of my successful runs in this exercise was accomplished without some degree of assistance by the vehicles’ safety electronics.
- Brake-Steer-Avoid: Another regular exercise in driver training programmes. Accelerate hard along a straight line, then apply full braking force and at the same time steer the vehicle to avoid hitting the obstacle.
- Guided Track Runs: After completing the first four exercises, participants were released onto the track in convoy to complete a series of guided laps. Instructors in the lead car would bark instructions over the walkie talkies telling us how best to approach and exit each corner.
- Hot Lap Taxi Rides: The day concludes with participants being driven around the circuit by the course instructors.
- Effects of Weight Balance on Vehicle Behaviour: Porsche is the only automotive manufacturer in the world to offer all three possible engine configurations in their line-up: front engine – Macan, Cayenne, Panamera; mid-engine – 718 Boxster & Cayman; rear-engine – 911. Each of these configurations result in different basic vehicle behaviours. The engine is usually the heaviest part of the vehicle and has the greatest effect on a vehicle’s weight balance. Mid-engine naturally offers the most neutral characteristics. Front engine causes a vehicle to inherently wash wide when pushed too hard into a corner, although it also helps the vehicle to stop most effectively under hard braking. Rear engine vehicles have the best off-the-line traction because the engine presses increasingly harder at the rear as the vehicle accelerates; around corners, however, rear-engine vehicles are vulnerable to the pendulum effect and are thus most liable to throw their tail out if not properly handled.
- The Grip Circle: The limits of a tyre’s mechanical adhesion is conceptually defined by what we call the grip circle, which is influenced by conditions of the tyre, surface, and also the vehicle’s weight. Control is lost when the limits of the grip circle is exceeded. It’s a bit of a physics lesson, but suffice to say that there is a limit to the combined longitudinal and lateral forces that even the best tyres can take. Drivers can influence the limits of the grip circle by braking to shift the vehicle’s weight forward (thereby increasing front end grip) or accelerating to shift the vehicle’s weight astern (thereby increasing rear end grip). Be mindful, however, that shifting a car’s weight forward causes the rear to lighten and vice-versa. Do note also, that external factors such as the weather, surface conditions, temperature, and tyre tread depth, all affect the amount of mechanical grip available to a vehicle at any one time.
- Benefit of Smooth Inputs: It’s all too easy and not mention exciting to be hamfisted in your throttle and steering inputs; but to truly go fast, a degree of finesse is required in operating the controls of your vehicle. Being smooth with your steering, throttle, and braking enable you to cover ground at the best possible speed with the least possible effort. Also, it ensures your vehicle’s behaviour remain predictable and within easy control. It is the reason why Formula 1 drivers clock lap after lap in the smoothest most nonchalant way possible - because it's the fastest.
- Look Where You Want To Go: One of the most basic things they teach in advanced driver training programmes. Whether it is a routine situation or an emergency, your eyes should always be looking where you want to go. In traffic, you should be scanning for empty spaces ahead of you; on winding roads, your eyes should be tracing the road’s curvature for you to plot your best possible path; and in an emergency, you should always be looking for the safest escape route. If there is one mantra you need to remember in an emergency, it is that your hands will always instinctively steer you to the direction your eyes are trained at.