Porsche can train customers to become racing drivers. But can it turn one of CarBuyer’s writers into a competent driver?
SEPANG, MALAYSIA — “Keep it going, keep it going!” barks Matthias Hoffsummer over the walkie-talkie. Hoffsummer, a pro driver for Porsche, is doing his best to teach me and a group of journalists the art of speed.
While Hoffsummer watches, I barrel into the first two corners of the Sepang F1 circuit in a bright orange 718 Boxster S. I feather the accelerator, trying to alter its trajectory with throttle-steering, when his voice booms into the walkie-talkie again. “Pretend you’re fighting for the championship!” it says. “It’s the last lap of the last race!”
All this is said out of encouragement rather than exasperation, but the meaning being directed at me is clear: you’re going too slow.
“You’re going too slow. I mean, keep it going!”
Hoffsummer’s day job normally sees him behind the wheel of Porsches that have yet to hit showrooms, as he tests prototypes and works with engineers to hone them to perfection. As a development driver he has to be fast, of course, but the job also demands millimetric precision, along with an ability to think through the tiniest details about what a car is doing underneath him. It’s a job few people on Earth could do.
But here at Sepang, his task of running the Porsche Media Driving Academy is infinitely tougher. He has to turn a ragtag bunch of keyboard warriors into proper drivers.
Yet, why should Porsche take one of its best drivers, lay out a fleet of its cars and book an expensive Formula One circuit just to help journalists become better at the practical part of their job?
The event is partly a PR exercise. “We of course want to bring the journalists closer to our brand,” says Martin Limpert, the managing director of Porsche Asia Pacific. “Let’s talk about Asia. It’s not always possible for everybody to experience a Porsche at its limits, to really push their personal limits and push the car’s limits.”
The track, which Limpert refers to as Porsche’s “playground”, lets everyone let their hair down in a safe environment.
Sure enough, throughout the day there are harmless spins and the odd drift from journalists who try to learn the finer art of trail braking and throttle steering. The cars shrug off the abuse, and the only thing that ever gets dented is someone’s pride.
But a day like this is also a natural expression of the brand’s DNA. “The whole idea is to show why motorsport and Porsche belong together and are inseparable,” says Limpert. Porsches, he says, are born on the track and belong there.
Yet, making fast cars that rule the track is useless if hardly anyone can make proper use of them, so it isn’t just motoring writers who can learn from the brand’s instructors. Porsche has a structured pyramid that people who are serious about becoming better drivers can climb.
“We have the so-called motorsport pyramid,” explains Limpert. At the very bottom, the brand invites prospective customers to try out its cars. “You can book a Porsche test drive at every officially assigned Porsche dealership,” he says.
One level above that is the Porsche World Road Show, which costs $500 to attend. If you still haven’t bought your Porsche but have identified yourself as a serious potential client, you might get invited to this annual test drive orgy — a fleet of cars are made available on a racing track so you can sample them to your heart’s content under guidance from Porsche instructors.
For actual customers, though, things can quickly get serious. There is a Porsche Sport Driving School, which takes you from the basics of fast driving and gradually moves you into competition level stuff if you want to give racing a go — a two-day “Precision” driving course in Leipzig in Germany costs 1,550 Euros (S$2,342), inclusive of car, while the “Master RSR” session that preps you for racing costs six times as much.
The Porsche Driving Experience at Sepang has just been launched, with courses equivalent to the Porsche Sport Driving School starting at $2,000. That includes the car, so you don’t need your own Porsche to take to the track, though you could if you were inclined to do just that.
And training to race is something entirely relevant to Porsche customers. “We have the Carrera Cup Asia, where customers that started with motorsports as a hobby can develop into semi-professional racing drivers who compete against professional drivers,” says Limpert.
The tantalising thing about racing in the Porsche ecosystem, though, is that if you’re freakishly talented, someone will spot you. From there, Porsche itself could take you to the top of the motorsports world.
That’s precisely what happened to New Zealander, Earl Bamber. Just four years ago he entered the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia for the first time. The racing cars used in that series aren’t radically different from a 911 GT3 RS that you could drive home from a showroom, but in 2015 Bamber found himself behind the wheel of the 1,300 horsepower Porsche 919 Hybrid.
Earl Bamber went from racing 911s to taking one of motor sport’s top prizes: the Le Mans 24-hour crown
He had been drafted into the prestigious Porsche factory team at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, an opportunity he duly made the most of by winning the event.
No other brand operates such a kindergarten-to-university system of driver development, in which there’s a clear path from prospective customer to champion racer.
Most of the motoring writers at the Porsche Driving Media Academy are probably at the upper levels of Primary School at best, though. That isn’t to say we learnt nothing — I found out that if you drive the socks off a Porsche SUV, you can still keep a Boxster or 911 in sight over a single lap — and if anyone of us had shown a grain of talent, Hoffsummer would have spotted it.
Mind you, when I tell him in the pits that every motoring writer thinks he is racing’s great lost talent, he chuckles so hard I think he’s had an asthma attack. His advice for those of us who really want to make something of ourselves behind the wheel? Practice. Lots of practice. That probably goes for customers too, but with so much driver training on offer from Porsche, there is no excuse not to.
So you wanna be a racing driver…
Like many racing pros, he had his start in karting and single-seater racing cars, but parlayed a championship win in the 2013 Porsche Carrera Cup Asia into a drive in the more international Porsche Supercup Series the next year. He won that, too. The factory took notice, gave him a tryout in the fearsome Porsche 919 Hybrid — it’s faster than a Formula One car, says Bamber — and the rest is Le Mans history.
That makes it sound like Bamber is the kind of driver with raw talent to throw away. He probably is, but he himself believes that pure talent is overrated. Or at least, that it ain’t enough to guarantee success.
“How many under-21 champions at Wimbledon have actually won the senior title, in all the years? I think it’s four,” he says. “When you’re so naturally talented, you never have to work. You just pick up the racquet and you kick ass. You don’t train so hard, you don’t learn new skills about the tactics of the game and so on.”
The less talented sportsmen, meanwhile, have to work harder and develop skills to win, he says.
In a similar vein, he believes that too much money can be a handicap, too. Bamber, who is based in Kuala Lumpur, feels that parents in our part of the world have a tendency to splash out on the best equipment for kids who say they want to race. It would probably be better for their development if young drivers had to struggle a bit, he suggests.
In fact, Bamber believes that learning to stand on their own feet is something racing drivers would benefit from early. Asian drivers have a tendency to live with their parents, while in the West it’s more common for young drivers to move out early, by age 17 or 18. “In motor racing, when you’re on the track you have no one else to help you and sometimes you need to be quite confident in yourself and go out and attack the world,” he says.
Above all, though, Bamber advises young drivers to enjoy themselves. “The only way to be a really good racecar driver is to really love it. Not to like it, you need to really love and enjoy doing it,” he says.
His observations on young drivers are based on his interaction with them as a driver coach for Porsche. Racing drivers may be notoriously competitive, but Bamber is eager to share what he’s learnt with up-and-coming talents. Perhaps it’s part of his laid-back Kiwi nature, or maybe he wants to return something to a system that he’s benefitted from. Either way, it’s a remarkable situation: As you climb Porsche’s motorsports pyramid, you can actually get a helping hand from someone who got to the top before you.