Practice makes perfect, and where driving is concerned, there can never be enough especially when it comes to honing the finer elements of car control beyond what’s needed for the daily commute. High performance driving, in particular, should only be attempted in the confines of a closed environment – this makes constant practice of the art difficult without access to a suitable venue.
Some people may say that advanced car control is relevant only for racing drivers, but that could not be further from the truth. Emergency situations can happen in the most mundane of conditions and the unfortunate truth is that the regular driving curriculum does not quite do an adequate job in equipping drivers with the necessary skills to face the unexpected.
Our line of work in this industry gives more frequent access than most to performance driving events organized by car and tyre makers. Having went through the easiest Individual difficulty in the Porsche Media Driving Academy last year, this writer recently returned to Sepang International Circuit to further sharpen his teeth at the next difficulty level – Professional.
The day starts with a briefing covering the topic of safety and a quick refresh on theories regarding grip circles, understeer, oversteer, and the like. The inevitable run-through on finding a good seating position followed – same old stuff, but no understating the importance of getting the basics right before moving on to more advanced learnings.
This being the intermediate course, we get more time behind the wheel. Three of the exercises lined up – slalom, emergency braking, and emergency lane change – were repeats from Individual level experienced last year, however, although we were taught more aggressive lines during the guided track runs in the various Porsche models.
- Slalom: The simplest, most basic activity of any driver training class. An exercise in smooth steering and throttle inputs. The trick is to maintain partial and constant throttle pressure whilst being smooth with the steering.
- Emergency Braking: Driver accelerates along a straight line, slam the brakes hard and steer to bring the vehicle to a complete stop at the adjacent lane. This exercise serves to demonstrate how ABS helps a vehicle retain directional control even under full braking.
- 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.
- Guided Track Runs: Compared to the Individual course, we now have more time on track. Led by a Porsche instructor driving a lead car in front barking instructions over radio, we were guided through multiple full laps around Sepang in different cars. The cornering lines being taught are more aggressive too, being sportier in nature than the ‘safety lines’ taught in the Individual class.
We were also given half-laps behind the wheel of the all-new Porsche Panamera 4S and Turbo, but more on that in a separate article.
- Fine margins of braking: A particularly noteworthy activity after completing the emergency braking exercise was a challenge to slam the brakes and stop the vehicle as close to a wall of cones as possible without knocking them down. I was given three runs, and after two conservative runs stopping the vehicle by more than a metre before the line, I delayed braking by just a further fraction of a second and ended up ploughing through the cones. In an emergency, that delay was the difference between stopping safely and ramming to the back of a stationary vehicle.
- Smooth inputs keep the car balanced: When attempting the emergency lane change exercise in the 911, I was able to keep the car remarkably stable simply by maintaining smooth steering and throttle inputs, despite having ESC switched off. It was when the instructor asked me to yank the steering more abruptly that the car was finally induced to spin after the second swerve of the steering wheel to straighten the car back.
- Speed is everything when countersteering: Still on the lane swerving exercise with the 911, I found myself having problems straightening the car after its rear broke wide. The instructor highlighted that my steering corrections were not applied fast enough to catch the slide while I still could and the rear ended up behaving like a pendulum. To remedy my situation, I was asked, with the car stationary, to practice turning the steering as fast as I possibly could. The subsequent run after this, I was able to correct the slide before it developed. The lesson here is this: when the tail end of your car slips, there is only a small window in which you can effectively countersteer and bring the car back under control.
- Ensure your helmet is the right size: My oversized cranium often requires me to take the largest available helmet for track events, but for two successive years, the Porsche MDA's headgear were too small for me. The result? Uncomfortable headaches after I completed my laps. Better save up for a personalized helmet before next year's event.
Whilst the Porsche MDA was an exclusive event for journalists, similar programmes are replicated for customers and any members of the public willing to pay the admission fee. The chance to practice advanced driving techniques within safe confines is always welcomed and each outing help us sharpen our skills behind the wheel that little bit more.
This being the intermediate of a three-level course, the practices of the day felt largely like revision of the previous year's Individual level exercises but with less theory, more practice, and a little more aggression thrown in. It all adds up to extra practice of things we already know, and in an art as fine as driving, no extra minute of practice ever goes to waste.