“Yes, Bryan, that is it! That’s what I’m talking about! That is called drifting!” Those words from Franck Kirchoff, heavy with French-Canadian accent and beaming from the walkie-talkie dangling precariously in the Cayman’s cupholder, offer validation for a day’s worth of serious effort. Throughout the course of the day, Kirchoff has been coaching from the sidelines — instructing me to turn in earlier, look further down the road, give it just bit more throttle, and so on — as I fight the laws of physics trying to drive sports cars quickly on the ten-inch-thick ice that passes for a race track. This is the Porsche Winter Driving Experience, Canadian-style.
Known officially as Camp4 Canada, the program is a North American import of Porsche’s Camp4 winter driving school in Finland, which aims to teach Porsche owners the fundamentals of driving their sports cars — or any vehicle, really — on the traction-compromised surfaces of ice and snow. To ensure the consistently frozen conditions needed to teach winter driving, the program is based at the Mecaglisse motorsport complex an hour and a half north of Montreal, which sits at a latitude more northerly than Minneapolis, deep in the heart of Quebec’s Laurentian mountains. The cars, in this case 911 C4Ss and Cayman Ss, are fitted with studded Hakkapeliittas to give them at least a fighting chance at traction. But just barely, as I soon find out.
As a teen in the Midwest, I spent a large percentage of my winters pitched sideways after every snowfall, usually with the help of my trusty handbrake. As a result, I naturally came into this with expectations of it being a cakewalk. But ice is a far different surface than snow-packed asphalt, and driving powerful rear- and mid-engined sports cars requires entirely different reflexes than a front-drive hot hatch.
There are three exercises taught at this most basic level, which Porsche calls “precision” training: understeer and oversteer principles on a skid pad, proper steering and throttle application on a slalom course, and complete car control and load-changing on a short road course. Successful completion of this two-day introduction is required for drivers who wish to take their training to the next level, the “performance” curriculum taught at Camp4 Finland, which builds on these fundamentals but adds speed to the equation.
The first assignment for my group was the slalom course, where we piloted 911 C4S coupes through a line of orange cones spaced maybe two car lengths apart. The initial pass was made with all of the electronic aids active. Predictably, the car preferred to understeer when traction was lost in a turn, and applying the throttle resulted in almost no change since the wheels had no traction anyway. The exercise may as well be called “Frustration Management.” For the second pass, we pressed the “Sport Plus” button on the center console, unlocking a more responsive throttle and shifting program (all the Camp4 Canada vehicles are fitted with PDK gearboxes to simplify the instruction) as well as allowing for a bit more oversteer. At this point the car felt livelier and more engaging, but the electronics still stepped in to prevent us from spinning outright. Finally, we were allowed to turn all the nannies off and let it all fly, which we all promptly did. There were spins, but also some pretty fantastic maneuvers as we discovered the art of the Scandinavian Flick, using the throttle to set the car up well in advance of its normal turn-in point and then countersteering through the turn.
The other two exercises would follow the same path of progressively dialing back the electronic crutches. This format is brilliant on Porsche’s part, since in addition to learning new dance moves we also gained a more direct understanding of how these aids affect the relationship between a driver’s inputs and the car’s reactions under various conditions and settings. Nowhere was this more obvious than on the skid circle, where we piloted 911 C4S cabriolets. In safe mode, with all aids engaged, getting around the loop was largely a waiting game: turn in, apply throttle, break traction at the front, wait, wait, wait for front tires to respond, correct the line and reapply throttle, then do it all over again. Sport Plus was slightly better because we could apply the gas to get sideways, but as soon as we’d lift off with opposite lock at the wheel, the car’s brain assumes we’ve screwed up and it tries to save us from ourselves. We can actually feel the torque being reapportioned to the front axle through the steering wheel, which doesn’t jerk or pull, but suddenly gains weight and resistance at our hands.
With PSM turned off, the fast way around the circle requires almost no steering input at all. With a proper setup, a good driver can negotiate the loop with all four wheels pointed straight ahead, prodding the throttle to maintain the perfect balance of grip and slip to keep the car traveling in its established arc. It’s a thing of beauty to see it done well.
The final event for our group is the road course, and at this point we switch from rear-engine, all-wheel-drive 911s to the mid-engine, rear-drive Cayman Ss. In a way, much of what we’ve learned goes out the window, as the chassis dynamics and vehicle physics are completely different. On the other hand, the principles of car control remain unchanged — look far ahead, set up the turn with the throttle, countersteer through the turn, adjust the throttle for the next transition, brake in a straight line, etc.
By this point we’re all eager to just skip the first two passes and get right to PSM-off mode. We already know we won’t be able to actually drive the car until we kill the nannies. Nevertheless, the learning curve is good, as the Cayman’s more centralized mass renders a finer line between correcting the line and over-correcting the line.
Personally, I take more quickly to the final exercise than the other two. It may be the car, but it’s probably the culmination of all the other work leading up to this point as well. Almost instantly, I’ve found my comfort zone with the Cayman, and I discover the joy of drifting it down the straight and giving it just enough wiggle to thread it through the next combination with confidence and a bit of flair. After a day of corrective advice, I’m finally hearing accolades coming through the handheld radio. I don’t want it to end.
I arrived here fairly confident in my winter driving abilities. It’s been a long day and I’ve done pretty well, but if I’m being honest with myself, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to experience even just one day at Camp4 Canada, and I can only imagine the feeling of accomplishment regular participants must feel after two full days of instruction and practice. Reluctantly, I surrender the Cayman and walk away.
Camp4 Canada is a two-day, all-inclusive winter driving instructional program for current or prospective Porsche owners. Instruction takes place at the Mecaglisse complex in Notre-Dame-de-la-Merci in Quebec, an hour and a half north of Montreal. Participation includes three nights of accommodations and meals (three dinners, three breakfasts) at the Fairmont Mont Tremblant resort hotel in the Aspen-like ski village of Mont Tremblant, about an hour’s drive from Mecaglisse, as well as use of a Porsche vehicle to get between the resort and the track.
The cost of the program is CAD $4995, plus airfare to Montreal and transportation to and from the resort. Dates for 2011 have already passed, but 2012 dates will be made available later in the year. Arrangements can be made through Porsche dealers, or online at Porsche.com.