Enter the main gates of Silverstone, turn right, and a meandering road leads to Porsche heaven. This is where owners go for expert tuition in getting the best out of their cars. But there’s a surprising twist, as Sue Baker reports
Tucked away in a quiet corner of Silverstone is a Mecca for Porsche enthusiasts. It is where existing owners and new buyers of the marque’s exotic machinery go to hone their driving skills. This is the pearl in the German sports car company’s British infrastructure: the Porsche Driving Experience Centre.
After six years in development, it opened at the end of last year, located next to the UK circuit’s famous Hangar Straight. As you might expect, the centre comprises of a series of disciplines that give Porsche drivers the perfect environment for learning how to get the best out of their cars safely. They include a twisty little handling course and a skid pan with kick-you-sideways skid plates. But there is also something else rather more unexpected. Nestling to one side behind the circular building that affords an impressive panorama of the centre’s facilities, there is a rugged little off-road course. It lurks in all its muddy glory behind an impossibly steep hill that initially conceals the slither and squelch beyond. Off-road? In a Porsche? Yes, but strictly off-limits to a Boxster or 911, of course. This is where Cayenne owners, or prospective customers can go to acquire the skill for getting a lot more out of their cars than they might ever have believed possible. Experiencing what a big Cayenne can do up a onein- one ascent and down the middle of a muddy river certainly surprised us – so it must be a revelation to a new owner
REMARKABLY, THE CAR’S ELECTRONIC AIDS ALLOW YOU TO STOP MID-WAY UP THE HILL, TO SNATCH A SIDEWAYS LOOK AT THE NOW BIZARRELY-ANGLED SCENERY…
The off-road course, and the rest of the Porsche Experience Centre, is located on the site of the old Silverstone WRC Rally of Great Britain special stage used in the late 1990s. Editor Ian and I were tutored in the techniques of driving a Cayenne off-road by one of the centre’s regular instructors, Porsche driving consultant, Neil Hopkinson. It was a first for all of us, the first time that a Porsche Cayenne Diesel has tackled the tough trials and undulations of the rugged terrain test. Usually it is one of the centre’s V8 petrol models that is employed for demo drives here.
The Porsche off-road course starts with an initial 30 per cent hill, nicknamed Serengeti, that climbs steeply away from the wheel-shaped Experience Centre building and plunges down towards open countryside behind the circuit. It feels almost vertical as you gingerly ascend. This is a tough test for any car, and a telling demonstration of the Cayenne’s ability to confound its city slicker image. Remarkably, the car’s electronic aids allow you to stop mid-way up the hill, to snatch a sideways look at the now bizarrely-angled scenery, before continuing cautiously on up to the crest. Then comes a strongly controlled trundle down the vertiginous descent, with the Cayenne’s power and weight again held in check by its clever electronics. Although it’s natural habitat is obviously far more on-road than off, the 4×4 Porsche has a greater ability over the rough stuff than most of us would ever have suspected – and this terrain showcases it very effectively. One of the trickiest parts of the off-road obstacle course is a tortuous rock climb, dubbed Van Zyill after a notoriously tough pass in Namibia. Under Neil’s expert guidance, we took turns to scramble the Cayenne very tentatively over the punishingly big boulders.
Then came a heart-lurching, steeply angled crawl along a 45 degree slide slope before we reached a narrow water trough – The Canal – which plunged the car into a murky swirl almost bonnet-high. This led on to Sandpiper, a deep pond so called after a shy little bird often seen there in between 4×4 invasions. All of this has a surreal element to it as we subject the car to a degree of terrain trauma that must surely have most Cayenne owners agog.
So what is it all for? “It’s about showing them what the vehicle is capable of,” Neil tells us. “Customers who buy a Cayenne come here for a half-day course which is part on the tracks and part off-road. “On the uphill slope we demonstrate the hill-holder, which is good to give people confidence in the car’s ability. With the air suspension set at the highest level there is eleven inches of ground clearance, which enables you to do a lot more with a Cayenne than people imagine.” Elsewhere at the centre, we tried out the car over a series of disciplines, exploring its performance and stability. The handling circuit is like a mini race track where you can experience the car’s behaviour over a miniaturised equivalent of a snaking Alpine pass. There is an interesting low-friction area, where a mixture of polished Tarmac and limestone creates a very slidey surface. The Ice Hill is a seven degree slope surfaced with epoxy resin that’s kept wet to replicate freshly fallen snow. The Kick Plate, sluiced with water jets, creates the heart-lurching effect of a sudden lane-change in treacherously wet weather. “These all let you experience tricky situations and understand how you and your car react. It’s about learning to read the conditions and react appropriately, such as the beginning of a spin and how to grab it,” said Neil. “It’s about enjoying the car’s performance but recognising how to drive sensibly and properly within your limits.”