They say an accident is the end result of a combination of events that leads inevitably to tragedy. A thought that I found little comfort with on that warm, particularly dry day, where there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Not the kind of day you would expect to lose the tail of a car. Not the kind of conditions you would want it to. I can still remember it, the understeer that dragged the front tyres of the 500PS+ car I was driving over the kerb, the snap oversteer that resulted as the wheels went from grip-laden asphalt to slippery emulsion paint. I remember dialling in as much corrective lock as I could muster, the hopelessness as neither traction control nor any input to the pedals could do anything to avert disaster. It happened so quickly, and before I knew it I was barrelling right through the gravel trap. The momentum I carried proved unstoppable for a sea of stones before I connected with considerable force with a tyre padded armco. Curtain and side airbags detonating quicker than a blink of an eye, I was safe, I was unhurt, so was my passenger who was fazed but otherwise untouched, but I knew something in me died that day.
Since then the events of that day had hung over my head like a spectre of guilt, could I have saved the car if I did something differently? Did I panic in the moments between snap oversteer and impact? It is a question that I can never answer, but I can only hope to prepare for. We all need a driving lesson every now and then, even if it is something that is part and parcel of our profession, and Porsche had prepared a special driver training session that goes beyond the usual exercise in evasive manoeuvres.
Called the Porsche Media Driving Academy, the programme was designed to allow participants to develop skills that would help them unlock the full-potential of Porsche’s high-performance cars. However to separate the novice from the experienced, the programme is split into three categories, “Individual”, “Professional”, and “Elite”, with the programme going from teaching the fundamentals of vehicle control in “Individual” to the more advanced skill sets that involved trail braking and controlled oversteer.
As for me, I was inducted into the “Professional” league based on my past experience with Porsche driver training programmes, which meant slightly more testing lessons, but not the expertise that separate the good from the adequate. For the middling tier of training, the syllabus included brake and manoeuvring exercises, curved slalom, and cornering practices. But the only catch in the training is that we won’t be having it in the wide and familiar spaces of the Sepang International Circuit. Instead we were ferried to Thailand’s Bira Circuit in Pattaya, just a two hour drive from Bangkok.
For those who aren’t familiar with the Bira Circuit, it is a fearsome 2.41km track that features high-speed corners, very little run-offs, and slippery kerbs that can easily spit the unprepared off the track. According to those familiar with the track, it also serves as a challenge for motorcycle racers, much less Porsches, especially in the wet. And joy of joys, our arrival at the track was greeted with a light sprinkling of rain, with the track properly soaked from a downpour that blew in the night before. I haven’t gotten anywhere near the fleet of cars Porsche had prepared, and my heart is already beating at a significantly increased rate. Wet tarmac, wide thinly-threaded performance tyres, and plenty of horsepower makes for a very risky reciepe.
Such conditions is tempting fate, and Porsche’s professional driving instructors are well aware of the dangers of the Bira circuit, their faces glancing towards those heavy skies every now and then, hoping for a ray of sunlight to emerge. Malaysian professional racing driver and all round good guy Admi Shahrul, was in good spirits and optimistic that the rains would pass and that we can get right down to the driver training. His light hearted mannerisms does well to ease my nerves. But formalities are short and after a brief introduction to the track, the activities, and driving fundamentals, it was down to the track for guided laps around the circuit. Porsche’s selection of cars for this event is quite varied as well. From the new Cayenne e-Hybrid, to a 911 Cabriolet GTS and a 911 Turbo, the whole palette of Porsche’s servings for us to sample here, front-engine, mid-engine, rear-engine, and even a plug-in hybrid were present, what a company.
Even though the rain had died down by the time we started rolling out of the pits, the track was still slippery. Not a problem for the four-wheel drive Cayenne, which had no issues in extracting the grip from such conditions, and its elevated ride height provided a good vantage point to scout the track. Admi was right about the fearsome reputation of the track, there is very little space for run-offs, and the track does have a propensity to retain water in certain sections, especially at the apex of a fast sweeping corner with a bank of trees lining the edges of the run off area, where you'd expect an understeering car to end up in.
Luckily for us, the sun started to peer through the cloud cover and our laps contributed to drying out the track surface. Without delay, we pulled into the pits and got down to the lessons, the first being braking and emergency manoeuvres. The exercise was to accelerate to 80km/h, brake hard and evade a set of cones lined up in front, and repeat it at 120km/h. No push-and-pull technique hand technique here, the quicker steering racks of the Porsches favours the more effective “crossing hands” steering. In the Panamera S there was no trouble in bringing its mass to a halt, but in the 911 Turbo it was a whole different story altogether.
We have always talked about how devastatingly effective Porsche’s range-topping 911 is, but when you only have a hundred or so metres to accelerate up to speed before going hard on the brakes, that you begin to realise just how monumentally quick off the line it is. Floor the throttle and the 911 Turbo chunters off the line, but before I could train my sights on the braking point, the boost came in. My eyes were keeping an eye on the digital speedo readout, and in that scramble of torque, the digital readout stopped keeping up with the speed, instead reading “80km/h”, “95km/h”, and before I knew it, the counter read “128km/h”. I’ve overshot the 120km/h target and the cones were already a few metres from the car's nose. Immediately I stamped on the brakes and swerve, but alas, my reflexes weren’t quick enough to compensate for the extra speed I was carrying, and I ploughed the nose straight through the outermost cone. Sterilised? Certainly not, today’s Turbo is as fearsome as its ancestors were, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly.
From the 911 Turbo, I stepped back into the Cayman GTS for the curved slalom course. It sounds simple enough, a set of cones laid in a curved arc, swerve between them, but it is trickier than its sounds. Unlike a normal slalom on a straight road, which is a test of body reflexes, the curved slalom requires more hand-eye coordination as turning to one side requires more steering angle than the other, so you can’t depend on following a rhythm, and made all the more testing when there is a timed challenge thrown into the mix.
After the curve slalom exercise we were back in the Panamera S with a 911 GTS Cabriolet in tow for the last lesson of the day, cornering. The test involves threading the car through a tight chicane and setting up for an uphill right hander, with our instructor Admi watching us from the start line. From where he was standing, he could pick out every little move we make and tell us precisely where we weren’t dialling in enough steering angle, or going too early on the brakes, over the walkie-talkie.
“Daniel, I need you to be more aggressive," responded Admi over the radio after my first run. “You aren’t turning sharp enough at the second corner.” True enough, I was being overly cautious about the right turn up the hill in the Panamera, and I stayed a safe distance away from the apex of the corner, giving a little leeway in case my estimation on the Panamera's girth was wrong. Impressed by his amazing observational skills and goaded on by his advice, I gave it another go, this time carrying more speed into the corner and pointing the nose closer to the apex. “Yes, that’s right, that’s the way to do it,” came the reply. Admi explains that secret to driving quickly is a mix of controlled aggression, to be fast on your reflexes where needed and never too hasty on the controls. He demonstrated this seemingly contradictory philosophy on a quick lap in the Cayman GTS. His entry speed into every corner was alarmingly quick, but his steering inputs through the apex were firm and steady, guiding the nose gracefully through, barely even breaching the tyre’s circle of adhesion.
There is more to the craft of driving than what attaining your driver’s license and YouTube can teach you. And even at the “Professional” level doesn’t cover the more advanced skill set like controlled oversteer and trail braking, which is only available in Porsche’s “Elite” programme. Driving is more than just theory, it is an art that takes experience to master. For me at least, it was enough for me to buried the sins of my past. That night I went to bed with a burden lifted off my shoulders, and being at peace.