Did Mercedes put you on its F1 race seat shortlist when Lewis Hamilton caught coronavirus? Me neither.
These days, becoming a real racing driver only appears likely if you’re freakishly talented and have a billionaire daddy who owns a race team.
Before you curse your lack of silver spoon, it’s possible to get a tiny window into being a Dan Ricciardo or Mark Webber, albeit without the massive salary and adoring fans.
Porsche’s Track Experience are driving days where you’re handed keys to one or more rapid sporting Porsches, given expert instruction, plenty of track time and honest feedback to boost confidence and skills. And – let’s be honest, the bit we care about – make you go faster around a racetrack.
It’s not just for Porsche owners, either. You pay the Experience fee (more on that shortly) and Porsche Australia provides the cars and all the fuel, tyres and brakes you need. Unlike track days, you’re not risking your own car.
The entry-level experience is called Precision – an introduction to proper car control, racing lines, slaloms and road circuit lapping, driving cars such as 911 Carreras, Boxsters and Caymans. Having a fang in such precision tools is probably worth the $1595 entry fee alone.
After Precision – and if you don’t bend anything – you can return for Precision Plus ($1695), Performance ($1980), Master ($3993) and, if things get really serious, GT3 Cup. The latter – costing $6600 the day – sees you living out your Le Mans fantasies in a Porsche factory GT3 Cup Car shod in slick tyres.
Hardly stocking fillers money, but in these Covid times when overseas holidays are distant dreams, more people are turning to Bucket List experiences to spend their hard-earned. Telling tales of how Bathurst champions coached you late braking and turn-in techniques beats grumbles about delayed flights and dodgy foreign food anyway.
My level may have been classed Master, but passengering beside a Porsche instructor for a few laps of Queensland Raceway (ex-Supercars driver Steven Johnson in my case) reminded me I’m far from it. Good God these boys make very fast driving look very easy indeed.
Chief Instructor Tomas Mezera won the 1988 Bathurst 1000, while on pit wall analysing my efforts were Johnson and 2017 Bathurst champ Luke Youlden. There’s a lot of experience watching someone with very little.
It’s clear, from the get-go, there’s nothing Mickey Mouse about this Porsche Experience. On the Master course I drove a 911 GT3 RS, a machine perfectly suited to the phrase “race car for the road”.
Figures? Over $415,000, a naturally-aspirated 4.0-litre revving to 9000rpm, and 383kW/470Nm helping sling it to 100km/h in 3.2-seconds. A dining table rear wing, carbon fibre seats and roll-cage remind me Porsche takes its racetrack credentials very seriously.
“You can get hooked on this,” Mezera told me. “For some people, doing this is for escape and relaxation. But it’s not easy. We’re all comfortable driving at 110km/h, but move up to 200km/h and it’s a different ball game.”
Yes it is. After a briefing and sighting laps, helmet on I was soon barrelling along the Raceway’s main straight at over the double-ton with a glorious wall of sound behind. There’s no instructor in the passenger seat this time, they’re (rather smartly) communicating in my ear from the pit wall. “Not too soon on the throttle,” Johnson offers as I slide a rear tyre onto the dirt out of a corner (wasn’t scared … honest), then as confidence builds: “you can brake a few metres later coming into turn one.” We students must look like rank amateurs to these racing heroes, but inside a hot helmet in a brutally rapid Porsche it feels ragged-edge stuff.
Reality bites when you see your lap times and data. For Masters you have your own race engineer, and the car immediately sends him your speed through corners, brake input and throttle input. We both go over these digital graphs – overlaid with a benchmark hot lap done by Mezera – to see where I’m too early on the brakes, too eager on the power and too slow through turns.
The results are in. I’m not an undiscovered racing god after all. Positively, I shed a healthy six-seconds from my original lap times, but plateaued at just above 60-seconds for a lap of Queensland Raceway.
My engineer, nice chap he was, said what he looks for is consistency, and my final five laps were all within 0.8-seconds of each other. Great job. But Mezera’s 57-second lap time – probably done with just his finger – showed the gulf between the pros and we wannabees.
Even so, positives abounded. My speed graph showed me just about matching Mezera through a couple of corners (perhaps Toto Wolff will call after all), and when Steven Johnson’s in your ear telling you that was a great set of laps it all feels rather special.
Porsche even provides you in-car and forward-facing video footage of each of your 50 or so laps. Ideal for learning where to improve next time, or, like me, for boring the family with video and tales of how Daddy was a racing driver. Well, for a day at least.