So I recently returned from a very special kind of driving school with racing and rally drivers as instructors, classroom lessons, very hands-on sessions, and a full evaluation over a lap of a Formula One-grade track. It was the Porsche Media Driving Academy (MDA), and they held it at Sepang International Circuit in Malaysia.
The MDA is an exclusive program of Porsche Asia Pacific, and it’s aimed at educating and improving the skills of journalists from the region. All-in-all, the program makes better -and safer- drivers through thorough instruction and analysis. There are three levels that journalists progress through: Individual, Professional, and Elite. Since I had already taken the Professional program in 2016, now I was trying out the Elite program.
In a nutshell, here are the major lessons I learned after a day with Porsche’s instructors in their Elite program, including 2017 24 hours of Le Mans Winner and Porsche team driver Earl Bamber.
1. Athlete-level preparation and fitness
While many are excited at the motor in motorsport, Porsche makes it clear that the sport part is very demanding on the driver’s body. Any racing driver has to be fit in order to survive, much less succeed, in competitive motorsport, and that’s what Porsche makes clear with their works/factory drivers.
So before even stepping in a room for instruction on racing lines and performance driving, Porsche’s fitness coach pulls you into another room for some race-specific exercises and stretching. Particular emphasis was placed on stretching the back, the arms, and the neck especially given the G-forces involved.
2. Understanding and managing friction circles
Perhaps the most important lesson taught to us was how to understand, analyze, and work within something called a tire’s friction circle; a theoretical concept in motorsport that illustrates to the driver the maximum he can expect from the tires.
It’s challenging because tires are can only do four things: brake, accelerate, corner/steer, and take weight. The difficulty lies in understanding that a driver has to understand and manage all four at once, especially on a racetrack. Exceed the circle, and you’ll go off. Stay within the circle, and you’ll be fine.
While tires are large (and expensive), round pieces of steel-reinforced rubber, the actual contact patch is really no bigger than a postcard; actually, it might even be smaller. Porsche showed us how manipulate our input to perform maneuvers like trailbraking (bleeding off brakes while adding steering), accelerating out of an apex (unwinding the steering while feeding in throttle), so on and so forth, all while keeping those four postcards in check.
3. Cornering finesse with throttle steering
A key skill in performance driving is a concept called throttle steering. While many see the steering wheel as the only means of actually changing direction, the throttle pedal is actually a very important tool to help it out.
Case in point: while cornering at speed at Turn 5 and 6 with the brand new Porsche Panamera, the instructors asked us to modulate the throttle pedal and bleed off a bit of pressure. The results were clear to see: the car tucked itself into the apex a bit more. This maneuver allowed us to enter corners with a little more speed and compensate with throttle control to adjust our lines.
4. Understeer recovery
Understeer is a concept best explained while in the car, and to do this, the instructors soaked a portion of the the tight Turn 1 of Sepang; a decreasing radius right hand corner.
With the Porsche Boxster and 911, we were instructed to go in at a good speed and onto the wet. Immediately the car understeered, or kept skidding forward even with the wheel fully turned to the right. This was a result of a low friction value on the surface because of the water. Enter too fast and you’ll get understeer. Turn too hard (even at a slower speed like 60 km/h) and you’ll still get understeer. Thankfully there’s a lot of run-off for mistakes.
We did this with Porsche Stability Management both on and off, and the results were clear: the technology gives the driver a bit more control by managing the brakes independently. Of course, with PSM off, we had to perform the recovery ourselves by unwinding the steering wheel and restoring order.
5. Managing oversteer
The exercise at Turn 1 is actually two fold because only half of the corner is wet, meaning one part is understeer, but once your front tires grip the dry surface midway while the rear tires are on the wet, you’ll get oversteer. The cars for this exercise was the 911 and the 718 Boxster.
Essentially, it’s what we call drifting. And it’s good fun. The key is managing it with countersteering (turning the wheel in the opposite direction) and throttle control to keep the powerslide going. Get it wrong, and you’ll be spinning out. Get it right and you can smoke the tires as you exit the corner. And yes, they let us do just that.
6. Lap and chase car analysis
One thing that was truly unique about the Porsche MDA was the analysis of your lap via a chase car. For this exercise, we used the Porsche Cayenne GTS; yes it’s big and heavy, but it can handle laps around this track.
While I was driving the Cayenne GTS around the full course of Sepang, Porsche instructor Admi Shahrul stayed on my tail with the fast Porsche Cayenne Turbo. The chase car recorded my braking points, apex clips, line, and how I managed the car overall.
After the lap, we went back to the paddock and analyzed how I handled the Cayenne around. The first few corners were great; I managed the corners well and took a late apex on each one. The latter half of the course I saw the mistakes I made after misjudging the entry speed into Turn 9 (too fast) and the entry speed into 12, 13 and 14 (too slow).
This kind of analysis from a Porsche instructor is priceless, and allows you to figure out exactly where and how you can improve… or how well you can make excuses for the mistakes.
7. What makes Porsche special
But overall, the great takeaway from a program such as the Porsche MDA is the sheer number of cars you can enjoy and drive. They had everything in the paddock: the 911 Carrera S, the 911 Carrera 4S, a Cabrio, a Targa, a Boxster, the Panamera, and the Cayennes.
Each car behaves differently given the variety of drive layouts (some were rear-wheel drive, some were four), the variety of engine locations (front, mid, and rear), and the variety of performance capabilities based on their weight, suspension tuning, and electronic driver aids.
Overall, it’s one great experience, and you’ll have a blast lapping Sepang in these sports cars, saloons, and SUVs.
At their core, Porsche is a performance brand, and so they saw fit to up the performance of the drivers who want to experience or even own their cars. That’s why they have programs like the Media Driving Academy.
Some of you may wonder if you have to be a journalist to experience and learn with Porsche. The great thing is the Media Driving Academy program is simply media equivalent of the Porsche Sport Driving School (SDS) that any performance enthusiast can take.
There are four tiers: Warm-up, Precision, Performance, and Master. The Warm-up is the most basic program, teaching the essential skills for handling a Porsche around a track, and it starts at SGD 2000 (about PhP 73,000). Precision teaches more skills and takes the speeds up a bit higher, and it starts at SGD 2650 (about PhP 97,000). Performance is perhaps the most interesting, and is intended for more advanced drivers looking to try out Porsches, and it starts at SGD 3300 (about PhP 121,000). The Master course is the approximate equivalent of the MDA Elite, and it starts at SGD 3550 (about PhP 130,000).