Monday, 3 September 2012

Porsche Experience Centre - Silverstone

29th August 2012

I'll try not to wax too lyrical about this but this was a fantastic experience.

I decided to visit the Porsche Experience Centre after having had such a great time at Mercedes-Benz World on the AMG experience, as the Porsche session looked similar in style (ie a lengthy session on a variety of surfaces). The Porsche experience though is 90 mins compared to the AMG 60 minute session.

When you book the experience it's quite unique compared to other experience centres in that you get to specify the exact car you want. Their first question to me was "what type of 911 do you wish to drive? A GT, a GT RS, a Turbo, or Carrera?" (nb Boxster and Cayman options are also available). I went for the Carrera because it was the brand new 991 model whereas the other models are the older 997 models (at the time of writing Porsche haven't released them yet in 991 trim). The Carrera price of £275 was also the cheapest. Next question: "would you like the Carrera or Carrera S?" I went for the S. Next, "would you like the 2S or 4S?" I went for the 2S. "Would you like manual or PDK?" I went for PDK and requested paddles as opposed to button shifters. Price for all these choices was the same.

Also of note and different to all other driving days I've been on is that there was no option for reducing the insurance Excess (because I don't think there was one) and no option for in car footage or professional photographs. So £275 really is the total and final price.

I booked a 9am slot. This turned out to be a good move as the track was empty at that time (and by chance it was dry whereas it rained an hour later). The experience is at the purposes built Porsche Experience Centre at Silverstone. It is based at the circuit but Porsche have their own tracks, ie you don't drive on the famous race circuit (which you can do separately - see my Ferrari Experience review).

The centre is small but smart. I received a very nice greeting and was advised my instructor would meet me shortly. I could look at a range of Porsches, sit in them should I wish. Upstairs was a lovely restaurant and cafe where I was offered a range of complimentary drinks and even a full English breakfast. I skipped the food but signed the paperwork whilst sipping a cappuccino.

My instructor Gill was fantastic. There was no group briefing as you might expect. All briefing was done in the car. So, straight to the Porsche. Okay, I'm not here to review cars, but the 991 has a beautiful interior, and the seats are exceptional. We talked through the buttons, made sure the sports exhaust was switched on, and off we went to the dry handling circuit. Fortunately, it was dry. Gill asked what I wanted to get out of the session and for me it was about improving my track driving skills (ie make me faster, smoother and safer) and improve my wet weather driving skills. The track is like a British B road with fairly tight and twisty corners and different cambers - a great challenge for car and driver alike.

Gill really worked with me on my driving technique and we had many, many laps, with the promise of more to follow. Next came the wet kick plate area. Basically you practice controlling the car after hitting 'black ice'. This was useful and my car control certainly improved a lot.

Next up was the downhill wet slalom. Again, an opportunity to learn more about controlling the car in wet conditions. Then a few hard braking exercises in the wet and dry.

Next up was the wet circuit where we had the joy of learning to force the car into opposite lock, ie drift the car around the corners. Using the various traction settings allowed increasing amounts of drift. Fun!

Somewhere in all this we had done more laps around the dry handling circuit, but by this point it had started to rain and so we hit the dry handling circuit again, but of course it had become slippery. This was great to continue learning about driving quickly but with less grip, so again I learned a lot about car control. I should say, Gill was there to teach to me drive faster, and at no point did she ever get me ask me to change up early or ease off - she encouraged me to learn and to have fun. She really did provide great tuition and also encouraged me to just have fun with the car.

The circuit was busy by this point. Basically, when people buy a new Porsche they get a half day at the Centre to learn about driving their cars. I guess they were new to it but let's just say I had to do a lot of overtaking!

The experience is amazing. For me, I wanted to learn how to drive faster, so that's what I got. If you want something different, they will cater for you. One thing though - the car is phenomenal. I've driven other fast vehicles as you can read on the blog, but this latest 911 is incredible. The cornering, braking, and rawness of the acceleration are breath-taking, as is the incredible engine note. When it hit the red line the sound of the engine will make you grin like a Cheshire cat, as will the way you are forced back in your seat. But the car is also refined and comfortable. I just wish I had £85,000 to spend on a new car...

A final few goes at the kick plate and then time to end. 90 minutes of fun and learning. I enjoyed another cappuccino, admired the cars again, and then left, smiling all the way home.

Seriously, one of the best £275 I have ever spent.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

'Ferrari Experience' at Silverstone

'Ferrari Experience' at Silverstone

The 'Ferrari Experience' (link)  at Silverstone was my first ever 'supercar experience'. They had an offer on at the time and so I only paid £125 for four laps of the 'international circuit' (link) in a Ferrari 360. The standard price back then was £250, although it has now dropped to £225, and that's for the F430. Silverstone often have half price offers on for late availability so it's always worth looking out for these.

As a point of note, at Silverstone they seem to be one Ferrari behind. So at the time when I visited the latest Ferrari on sale was the F430, and the Silverstone experience was in the 360. Now the 458 Italia is on sale and Silverstone have introduced the F430...

My slot was in the afternoon so I turned up at the required time in their purpose built experience centre.  This is where you check in, buy any extras (insurance excess waiver, video footage, Xbow hot lap), grab a coffee and some souvenirs should you wish.

After the track and driving briefing we were told to get in our cars and drive to another part of the circuit. We all parked up and went to a warm and dry building where we got kitted out with our crash helmets. There was a wait of about 30 minutes before I got to go out in the 'warm up' car - a Renault Meganesport 250 Cup. A fairly decent hot hatch, and having previously owned a Focus ST (ie another 'hot hatch') I was very comfortable to drive it fairly hard from the off. Unfortunately the car seems to have a very aggresive traction control system and so the instructor and I frequently had the following conversation: instructor - "more power, more power"; me - "my foot is on the floor and nothing's happening". Even when really trying to unwind the steering the traction just kills the drive so this very competent car was a bit of a pain. Still, I was fairly pleased to overtake a number of Ferrari's and an Aston Martin :).

The real downside of the Megane though is that it is front engine, front wheel drive. Sure, 5 laps in it gives you a fairly good understanding of the circuit but the drive / engine configuration gave no introduction to the layout of the 360. I'd never driven a rear wheel drive car before at that point so I really wished they had something like a Lotus Elise instead. I suppose if you've never driven a car with north of 200bhp then it might at least be a useful introduction to what a more powerful car is like to drive.

Anyway, once that was over it was time for some more waiting. If you are on your own - bring a book!

But time for the Ferrari did come. Ooo, very exciting. Got strapped in to the rather over the top racing harness, taught about the flappy paddle gearbox and then off we went. It was a great car - good sound, great feel, very exciting and all that. But I'll be honest and say that I was frustrated by realising that I didn't have the rear wheel drive, mid engined experience to really push the car. If I did it now, sure I could go for it because I have had more experience. But as a first timer I wasn't used to the layout so I spent the four laps learning to adapt my driving technique.  Because I wasn't too slow, I none-the-less found myself getting stuck behind quite a few cars which I found frustrating. Still, all in all in was great to have driven my first Ferrari, especially around Silverstone :).

There was a bit more waiting before some young guy took me for one lap in the Meganesport. With traction control OFF. Wow - that car can corner! It was very impressive for a hot hatch. Shame I had to drive it with the traction on. Not saying I could have driven as fast as him - no way, but it showed me how much better the car is without the driver aids.

After that I was ready to head off, but had to wait half an hour to get a certificate that to be honest I didn't really want. Then I collected my car, drove back to the main centre, and then waited a bit for my video to be made.

Because of all the waiting I'd spent about 3 hours at Silverstone just to drive for about 15 - 20 minutes.

Driving around part of Silverstone is great though. You've all seen it on the British GP and it is special driving down the Hanger Straight and then swooping into Stowe. It also gives you more of an appreciation of how fast the F1 cars go through the corners.

Would I go again? I don't know. For me, it's near where I live so that may sway things. Silverstone is a classic and great circuit. Maybe with more cars in one go that would be better, or if there's a really good deal on in a car I haven't driven yet. Or, maybe doing the Exige experience would be more rewarding because of the higher number of laps and it would be just as fast as the Ferrari. Still, to be fair, £125 to drive a Ferrari around Silverstone isn't too bad is it?

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

AMG Experience at MB World, Brooklands

AMG experience (Brooklands)

I decided to visit MB World and try out the AMG experience for a couple of reasons - firstly, I had an AMG at the time and never felt comfortable to push it to its limits on the road, and secondly, I wanted more than just a few laps around a track, which is what I'd previously experienced on 'supercar' days.

I booked for the AMG experience (AMG Experience) which means you pretty much get whatever car you're given, although you can make a request for a particular model if you choose. Other options at the time included the CLS AMG experience (60 minutes for an additional £60) and the SLS experience (half day for £600).

I paid £150 for the day which was a winter discount from the normal price of £200. That included 60 minutes driving with one to one tuition. Access to MB World is free anyway and it makes sense to ensure you have enough time to enjoy that too. MB World alone is a great place with lots of interesting cars, loads more AMGs you can sit in, and a few interactive experiences too. The customer service was also superb throughout the whole time, be it in MB World or for the AMG experience - I felt very well looked after. There's also a decent little cafe, and an indoor circuit with electric cars for younger children.

Next door (5 mins walk) is the Brooklands Museum where you can see lots of cars, bikes, buses and aeroplanes. Highlights for me were Concorde and sitting in a Harrier Jump Jet :).

Anyway, on to the driving. I drove an E63 AMG estate. A large, but very powerful car (525bhp). I guess ideally I would have preferred something a little smaller and lighter, but to be fair it didn't feel like a big and heavy car when I got driving it.

There are four main driving sections: dry acceleration and braking; wet braking and handling; wet skid circle; and the dry handling circuit.

First up dry acceleration and braking. Various renditions of: accelerate as hard as possible no launch control; with launch control; hard braking ESP off from 70mph; hard braking ESP on from 70mph; using auto; using flappy paddles. All good fun and if you're not used to fast cars, don't be nervous, just bury the accelerator to the floor and jump on the brakes as hard as you can as the car really won't flinch :).

Next, wet handling. In a straight line brake with and without ESP on. Pull out from a junction ESP on and off. Acceleration ESP on and off. It was amazing to experience how good the ESP was - quite incredible at correcting the car.

Then, the wet skid circle. My favourite! Basically, you learn to drift the car around the wet circle. I'd sat in the cafe and watched others before me fail so was not too optimistic, but boy was I determined to power slide this thing Top Gear stylie! It was amazing. The instructor was superb and I learnt how to use both the steering and throttle to control the slide. We built it up bit by bit, and by the end I managed one and a half continuous circuits sideways. Chuffed? You bet!

So, finally the dry circuit. A great tight twisty circuit where you can really get the tyres screeching. My instructor let me push the car as hard as I was able and I had an absolute blast throwing around this huge 500+Bhp AMG! Happy days.

We still had time left so he asked what I'd like to do and I decided to stay on the circuit (I thought I'd quit on the wet skid circle whilst I was ahead!).

The only disappointment on the day was at the end when I learned that the in car recording had failed. So I'm sorry but I have no video to show you :(.

Overall it was a brilliant day out. The staff were superb, the venue first class, the car outstanding and the 60 minutes of varied driving unforgettable. It's a great alterative to the usual circuit based 'supercar' experiences - not only will you get more time behind the wheel but you'll learn more about car control too.

Supercar Lifestyle Club track day

Supercar Lifestyle Club

This supercar experience has proved very popular due to the incredible value it offers.

I paid £99 and for that spent an afternoon at Mira proving ground in Warwickshire where I drove a Porsche 996 GT2, Porsche 997 GT3, Ferrari F430 and a BMW M3.

For each car I drove 3 laps and the circuit was a great mix of fast and slow corners. The instructor was happy for me to push the car as hard as I was comfortable with.

'Supercar Lifestyle' is actually a club. The experience day appears to be a marketing day for the club, hence the amazing value. What that does mean however is that you don't know for sure what cars will be there on the day - I gather that it depends on what cars the customers don't have that day. For me that was fine - I got some great cars.

The day started off with a briefing and coffee, conducted in a marquee. I was advised I'd drive the M3, GT2, GT3, F430, Atom and receive a hot lap in an Ascari.

I assumed I'd be in the M3 first - a nice starting car. But after being driven around the circuit as a sighter in an E36 M3, I was put in the GT3. But this was Oakley prepared with full racing sequential gearbox!

Fortunately I wasn't intimidated and had a few half decent laps (You Tube clip). Then the GT2 (my fav of the day) (You Tube clip). Sadly, it turned out the F430 wouldn't be running that day (not sure why).

By this time I'd realised I would have to sit through a one-on-one sales pitch for their club. Fortunately, my slot was pushed back to quite late in the day. They'd been chatting with me throughout the day and must have thought I was worth a £ or two as when I said how disappointed I was not to drive the Ferrari, they made an exception and off I went and drove the Italian marque!

All enthused it was time for the sales pitch. Sadly, this became aggressive quite quickly, and after about 20 minutes they literally walked out on me. Might have been a sales technique, I don't know, but I considered it rude and it left a bitter taste in my mouth. All I wanted was some time to think about their offer, but it was supposedly for that day only...

After that I was told the Ascari ride was off, and meanwhile the Atom was stranded on the other side of the track having ran out of fuel, but to be fair they did let me drive the M3.

All in all though, I couldn't help but feel that for £99 I had a really good driving experience. Sure, I left feeling a bit sour about the sales, but that feeling passed quick enough and looking back I'm pleased with having driven so many great cars on a great track in one day and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to others.

3 September 2012

Update - looking at the website, there are some pretty good prices for car hire and driving tuition. Maybe something to look into and blog about another day...