Apart from beautiful girls (a really common sight in this male dominated sector, honestly) and the jet set lifestyle (regularly taking in glamorous venues like M1 road works), one of the reasons I decided to delve into automotive journalism was to experience driving as many different cars as possible.
Not being a direct descendant of a wealthy Russian oligarch meant the best way I had of getting to drive cars most of us mere mortals can only dream about would be as a road tester. It wasn’t done to only test the latest beautiful creations out of Italy, but to drive as expansive a range of cars as possible to improve my education and experience of modern cars.
So when Michelin asked us if we’d like to come down to Porsche’s Silverstone Experience Centre to try out a variety of Porsches in a range of environments on the latest Michelin street tyres, it seemed like an opportunity to kill a handful of birds with one stone.
Anybody who buys a new Porsche in the UK is invited to a day at the Porsche Silverstone Experience Centre where they can try their hand in cars ranging from the chunky Cayenne to a nimble Cayman S, all fitted with Michelin tyres.
Porsche describes the aim of Driving Experiences offered at the Centre “is to improve your driving skills on an on-going basis, enabling you to drive more safely and deal more effectively with hazards on the road. Some of our courses are more focused on motorsport, from the basic fundamentals to professional driving skills.”
Michelin had arranged for us to sample three key elements during the day – off road driving, human performance and handling circuit work. The morning was to focus on driving the off road course where afterwards the human performance element would consist of a mini lecture on general fitness, before an unforgivingly honest computer analysed your body and printed out an analysis of your fitness with embarrassing and brutal levels of clarity – in hindsight perhaps the pretty but tiny breakfast offered wasn’t the worst thing in the world.
In the afternoon we’d sample one of my favourite combinations – 911s and the open road.
Off roading – Cayenne
Driving the latest Cayenne for the first time was an interesting experience, chiefly because it had to fight my pre-conceptions about it perhaps not being the most “pure” 4×4 out there on the market. On paper, being an actual German vehicle and having to sit on the left wouldn’t help my acclimatising to the Cayenne, but after a quick demonstration by the instructor of how the off road mode works and how to lock/unlock the centre diff, it’s surprisingly intuitive. The real issue with the Cayenne on these assault type courses though is how it’s all mind over matter.
When a good friend stands behind you and tells you to fall back claiming they’ll catch you, it takes a lot of trust no matter how well you know them. So when the Porsche instructor beside me I’d just met told me half way up a 40% incline hill to simply let go of all the controls because the Cayenne will deploy its automatic handbrake and catch us, it took a large amount of trust to go with this apparent madness and put my faith in the German electronics. Of course I shouldn’t have worried, the moment I let go the car held us with our noses pointed to the sky and when I breathed back on the right pedal, the handbrake gently released itself as I fed in more revs and I was away. Highly impressive.
I remained impressed when the Cayenne pulled another party trick. This time on the descent, the Cayenne prevented itself going more than 4mph allowing for a smooth and gentle descent rather than barrelling down wildly in a 4×4 without such technology. Despite being fitted with an off-road pack (so the ability to lock and unlock the diff plus the ability to raise the ride height of the car á la many Citroëns), the course we had to straddle the recently facelifted Cayenne was far more difficult than you’d ever encounter on the roads.
An “axle twister” slalom that mimicked the moguls you see in the winter Olympics showed off the impressive ground clearance but most of all I was impressed that this was all done on street tyres – not once did I break traction despite having the car point in all directions possible, including 45 degrees on its side at one point. I severely doubt the majority of Cayenne owners will ever take their cars into rugged territory but I was impressed that should they wish to do so, the car will do so all the while comfortably within itself.
Out on track
After a fun session in Porsche’s human performance centre (I’m apparently not obese), we were led out after lunch to try our hand in four road cars on four different circuits – handling, ice hill, kick plate and low friction. I grabbed the keys to a Targa 4S, one of my favourite Porsches currently in production and enjoyed flying around the semi-octagon shaped handling circuit. Not exactly a track, but designed to replicate a challenging A road, with no oncoming traffic the handling circuit allows you to really push on and iron out any creases in your technique. After a few enthusiastic laps on this course, my instructor passenger beside me mock-accused my style of being “a little chainsaw massacre” so we peeled off to the kick plate to help cool the tyres.
Porsche describes the kick plate as “a moveable metal plate set flush with the road surface designed to be triggered remotely as a car travels over it, thereby generating the effect of a loss of rear wheel traction.” So in effect you drive forward at around 25mph onto the soaking wet area and at a randomly chosen time your back end will violently kick out and you have to collect the slide before you end up looking where you just came from. It’s a fun exercise that helps sharpen up your reactions and showed off how much slip the tyres can take before you can make a total hash of things – I’d love to see it added to the driving test.
The ice hill allows you to slalom in and out of shoots of water down a 30 degree hill which is good fun but the most enjoyment to be had is on the low friction course. Specially formulated tarmac allows the car to easily be provoked into a slide allows you to master the art of not just getting into a slide, but also gracefully maintaining one and making a clean and safe exit from corners. Throw in the top area to practice doing large circumference donuts (somewhat difficult in the 4 wheel drive Targa 4S) and you have a wonderful facility to practice sideways driving and the limits of tyres in a safe and controlled environment.
After stepping out of the opulent Targa 4S I also drove the Carrera S, Cayman S and Boxster S on the same variety of circuits again, with the smallest and cheapest Boxster S being the most enjoyable of the three thanks to its light weight characteristics allowing you to place it precisely where you desire. Although I didn’t manage to replicate any Gilles Villeneuve Zandvoort 1979 tyre delamination moments, after intense lapping on the perimeter handling circuit you do have to allow the tyres to cool off to avoid any Gilles moments.
Given that the handling circuit is effectively a large clockwise circle (and so huge pressure on the left side shoulders of the tyres) and how hard these cars were driven, it’s impressive that Michelin’s street tyres can like those on the Cayenne for different reasons handle such a battering.
The reason the tyres excel in their endurance is because the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup+ fitted to all the current 911 models (and BMW M3s plus Porsche GT3/GT3RS/GT2RS) actually has two different compounds across the tyre tread area. The inside shoulder includes silica which guarantees superior traction on slippery surfaces like in the wet whereas carbon black is used on the outer shoulder to maximise grip in dry conditions.
We’d need to test back to back the same cars on different tyre manufacturer’s tyres to give a full and balanced view on the Michelins fitted to the Porsches we tested, but even in isolation you can tell these tyres were more than sufficient enough for hard road use. The driving (and slip angles) we encountered was of a far higher intensity than one would encounter on the road, so from a performance point of view (we’ll cover long distance another time) you can’t go wrong with fitting these twin-compound Michelin tyres to your road car. Sometimes in life you get what you pay for and I’d happily put down the extra amount for such technology. After all, why skimp on the only thing that makes contact with the road?
If you’re interested in trying a similar day to the one we enjoyed, contact Porsche Silverstone and take advantage of one of the most fun experience days out there today. As for Michelin’s immediate future, they told us they are introducing a new Pilot Super Sport that we will cover in detail when more information is available in the New Year. If you’re lucky enough to be on the waiting list for a Ferrari 458 or 599 GTB then you will get to sample these new tyres before the rest of us. Be sure to enjoy them as Gilles would.