Who's in charge here, anyway? The question starts to nag as I complete a day of winter-driving school at Porsche Camp4. It's not about the organization, which operates with military precision. It's the cars. Driving on snow and ice, I've progressed from serial spin-outs in the morning to confident, controlled drifting in the afternoon. But have I really improved so much so quickly? Or am I being flattered by the quiet, subtle genius of the Porsche Stability Management (PSM) system?
The occasion of the confusion is media day at Camp4 Canada near Notre-Dame-de-la-Merci, Que. They're cycling us through a selection of Porsche sports cars, and they're not just permitting us, they're encouraging us to hang the tails out. As our chief instructor puts it, the understeer built into the handling of most cars "has no style," whereas oversteer "can be a lot of fun."
But we're also getting mixed messages. Upon arrival, we had to agree in writing to pay the first $5,000 dollars of any damage we cause to the cars. Then, at the drivers' briefing, we're warned not to expect soft landings in the tall snow banks that line the track; beneath the layer of fluff from the previous day's snowfall, there's solid ice.
And it is a track. This is no temporary course plowed out on a frozen lake where there's nothing to hit when you run out of talent. The Mecaglisse driving-school-cum-gearhead-playground has 15 tortuous kilometres of narrow tracks spread over 700 acres of hilly terrain. Some tracks are dirt, others are paved, but on this day they're all layered in various permutations of snow and ice.
Most luxury auto makers run similar programs, but Porsche has been at it since 1996. Camp4 now has courses at three skill levels in Finland, Switzerland, Italy, China and – since 2011 – Canada. Paying customers get two full days of driving, plus three nights with breakfast and dinner at a luxury spa in nearby Esterel, about an hour north of Montreal.
The package costs $5,195, excluding travel. You don't have to own a Porsche to attend, though those who do are more likely to be able to afford it. The cost is comparable with many of the options Porsche buyers typically order for their cars.
It's -25 C when our group of Canadian, American and woefully under-dressed Mexicans arrive at Mecaglisse, where a selection of rear- and all-wheel-drive 911s, and mid-engined Caymans, await. There are also some Cayenne SUVs, "but you may not want to see them because they are the tow vehicles," we're told.
Two students to a car, we cycle through exercises designed to provoke and control (at least, that's the plan) tail-out oversteer. Standing atop a snow bank, the instructor uses a radio to relay instruction and encouragement. Before lunch, we're let loose on one of the shorter tracks to practise what the instructor has preached. After lunch, it's more of the same but on a longer circuit.
Looking back, I realize I have an excuse for my earlier serial pirouetting on the skid pad with PSM off. I misheard the instructions and put the Carrera S into Sport Plus mode instead of Sport. Beyond making the chassis stiffer and throttle response sharper, Sport Plus further loosens the reins of the PSM (which, even when it's "off," isn't really off – it just gets progressively more tolerant in Sport and Sport Plus).
But that explanation is a double-edged sword. If pushing the wrong button explains my earlier humiliation on the skid pad, was my sudden infusion of talent on the road course nothing more than a matter of pushing the right button? Then again, when I'm having this much fun this safely, why even ask?
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