While hurtling down the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans in a road-going Porsche 992, the greatest challenge is not outright speed. The challenge is completing the next corner. After testing terminal velocity, the demands on both car and driver arrive suddenly with little margin for error – pick a braking point, stab at the brake pedal with delicate but emphatic pressure, chart a path through the apex, and carry maximum speed through the corner exit before picking up the pace on the other side. Easy to describe, yet difficult to execute and that’s only one corner. This, and more, is what makes Le Mans special.
The full 24 Hours of Le Mans race circuit is only operational twice each year – once for the test day and the other for the race itself. During the rest of the year, the track reverts to public roads (with the exception of the small Bugatti circuit that orbits the paddock area). So, when the Porsche Experience Center Le Mans invited The Speed Journal to join for track time prior to the 2019 24 Hours, the only question was how quickly airplane tickets to France could be booked.
Every June, eyeballs in Stuttgart and Weissach look west to rural France. Since Porsche’s successful debut in 1951, Porsche has made international headlines with a succession of iconic cars that fill history books such as the 917, 936, 935, 961, 956, 962, and 919. Variants of the 911 platform have taken professionals and amateurs to numerous class wins as well. While other manufacturers have come and gone, Porsche has arguably been the driving force that has given Le Mans its longevity and prominence. A major part of that secret sauce is the direct connection between road cars sold from the showroom and race cars running in competition.
After many years of temporary presence at Le Mans, Porsche opened a trackside Experience Center in 2015 that cemented its connection to the track and the race. With a physical location, Porsche quickly organized driving experiences to showcase its road cars on a short handling course adjacent to the facility and the nearby Bugatti circuit. The location also provides a headquarters during Le Mans race events for guests to take in the race from the marvelous outdoor balconies overlooking the track across from the entrance to pit lane.
The Speed Journal is no stranger to the Porsche Experience Center. Speed Journal readers may recall prior Driver’s Series editions where house pilot Jeff Francis tackled the Experience Center in Los Angeles and Le Mans. Each was memorable but merely set the stage for a unique experience prior the 2019 24 Hours of Le Mans. For a handful of Porsche enthusiasts, the Thursday before the race was scheduled to be spent in the service of the Porsche Experience Center running demonstration laps on course. With the benevolence of race organizers, three twenty-minute time slots between other race sessions were carved out for Porsche to show off current road cars utilized in Experience Center programs.
Arriving on Wednesday allowed an opportunity to fully experience the Le Mans atmosphere. Crowds milled around the paddock while manufacturer display areas and hospitality areas received final assembly attention. Teams made final preparations before setting off for first practice laps. Rain pelted the grounds on and off throughout the day, adding to the drama. Walking across the Dunlop bridge amidst the torrent of rain pinging off the metal served as the official welcome for The Speed Journal to Le Mans.
The Porsche Experience Center facility was its own hub of activity. The usual French staff who run the Experience Center were augmented by dozens of German staff who moved in to assist for one of Porsche’s biggest events of the year. The buzz was palpable. After a brief welcome on Thursday morning in the Experience Center, it was time for business. Demonstrating Porsche’s current offerings in front of thousands of spectators at one of racing’s biggest stages requires preparation, so a formal briefing laid out logistics.
The fleet included seven new Porsche 992 models and a single GT3RS. The group of eight cars were split between Experience Center staff instructors and guests, who then had exclusive use of the entire circuit for 20 minutes. As the program called for high-speed demonstration laps rather than racing door to door, the briefing focused on logistics. Each instructor was scheduled to lead a guest in a train around the circuit for four laps.
The demonstration laps clearly were second priority to the main Le Mans racing program, so the group staged with plenty of time to be ready when the call came to roll out. Each driver was provided a Porsche logo balaclava to wear beneath their helmet. Similar to an astronaut getting outfitted in their space suit before launch, sliding into the thin layer of cloth and strapping on a helmet before flight were pre-flight signals that the engine was about to be fired.
Professional prototype driver Patrice Gay preceded Francis for the lead-follow, each piloting a 992. When the whistle blew, the group launched onto the course and down the front straight with speed. It was quickly apparent that the laps were not a casual tour through the countryside. What better way to showcase the Porsche brand than show their road cars at full tilt?
The front straight and run through the tight corners leading to the Dunlop bridge were familiar to Francis since they are part of the Bugatti circuit he had driven before. After the Dunlop bridge, unfamiliar territory awaited – informed only by watching onboard videos during the prior weeks and any specifics the instructors shared that morning. The run downhill through the esses was smooth and rewarding. The duo planted the throttle and carried speed out of Tetre Rouge and the 992 Porsches headed down the Mulsanne straight.
Seeds of self-doubt need to be brushed aside when your first lap on the full circuit at Le Mans is behind the wheel of a new 992 at speed. With the odometer closing in on 290 kph/180mph, would you be able to spot a braking marker? If so, could you react quickly enough to get the car slowed down enough to make the corner? Luckily, the lead-follow arrangement gave Francis the chance to lean on Patrice’s many laps of experience to navigate the first right-hander chicane. Back on the Mulsanne, the pair hammered towards the left-hand chicane and repeated the process. Patrice offered a few comments through the radio, but Francis mostly watched the line and stayed alert for the first flicker of brake lights when corners approached.
Trees and guardrails flew past in a blur. Bravery and prudence fought over whether to keep the throttle flat to the floor until the sequence of Indianapolis and Arnage corners. The left-hand corner at Indianapolis is heavily banked which helped the 992 feel planted but the flat right-hander at Arnage was awkwardly slow after running so much track at such high speeds.
The Porsche curves awaited, requiring more precise handling and steering input than raw speed. The cadence of the corners and the confidence of the 992 encouraged more and more aggression. The rhythm of linking corners together was magic. The balance of the Porsche and the sticky Michelin tires gave welcome confidence as speeds increased. Once again, being able to follow Patrice was helpful to see how a professional set a course through the twisties, particularly when the walls were close at corner exit and there was little margin for error.
At the end of the first lap, waves of relief and exhilaration washed through the cockpit. A single lap around 13.6 kilometers (8.5 miles) of Le Mans was enough to show why the course earns driver respect. Confidence increased with every straight and corner navigated. The grin beneath the balaclava said it all. After four laps, the group eased off in the Porsche curves to cool the brakes before returning back to the Experience Center.
Instructors and drivers compared notes after the session. While Le Mans is known for high speed straights, braking is critical to scrub speed and manage pace through the corners. The 992 has extremely robust brakes that reward aggressive pressure followed by a lighter touch through the corner. Lessons learned from the special coaching session, the group moved to a light lunch prepared by a Michelin-starred chef.
Porsche ambassador and former Porsche factory driver Mark Webber paid a visit to the Porsche Experience Center during the day. The nine-time Formula One Grand Prix winner and FIA World Endurance Champion kept guests and instructors alike riveted with insights on driving the full length Le Mans circuit. His competitive spirit lurks just beneath the surface. The guests enjoyed Mark’s obvious passion for Le Mans and absorbed his insights.
Throughout the day, Mark made informal chats with guests feel like catching up with an old friend. Mark recounted that he owned Porsches before ever driving for Porsche which certainly showed his genuine interest in the brand. Later, he joined the group on track for the second and third sessions to thrill guests as he drove them around the circuit at speed in a silver GT2RS. A lengthy display of tire spin and blue smoke from the Michelins introduced the GT2RS to the delighted onlookers. He autographed the pavement next to the tire marks to ensure there was no mistaking their origin.
Before long, the second session beckoned. With more confidence and knowledge, the 992 drivers enjoyed four amazing laps. The laps were spirited and pace increased from the first session, but were not measured against a stopwatch or other competitors. Sailing the Porsche through corners with confidence was its own reward. No need to risk putting the car in unnecessary peril, so undoubtedly time was left on the track.
The laps wound down and the group again returned to the Experience Center for more bench racing and Porsche hospitality. The learning curve for the drivers was moving quickly as well. Discussions with instructors now focused on the nuances of curbing around the circuit. These are the details where professionals focus. Fractions of seconds are gained or lost by knowing which curbs to use and which to avoid and having the car control skills to place the car’s tires where each curb requires.
The third and final session capped the day. Rain threatened but never materialized. While waiting in the queue, spectators and marshals took photos of the Porsche posse. Knowing how special it is to drive around the full Le Mans circuit, they wanted a small memory of the occasion. Again, the pace quickened, as the straight line speeds crept higher and higher, but fell just short of the magical 300 kph mark. Splashes of color from grandstands and spectators along the fences tempted a side glance but the priority of bringing the car home in one piece redirected focus back to the pavement. Fortune shined on the group as the clock stretched to permit an unexpected fifth lap. The 992 performed flawlessly when pressed hard. To be able to switch from a sedate daily driver to a car capable of racing speeds and then back seamlessly is a triumph of engineering.
After successfully recovering the group back at the Experience Center, the adrenalin was still flowing. It was the kind of driving experience that, once complete, one yearns to repeat. The sense of history with the races, cars and drivers that covered the same ground over the many, many years of Le Mans history was humbling.
The staff at the Experience Center was kind, knowledgeable and supportive making the whole day unforgettable. The team put together a gift bag with Porsche swag and even a plaque to commemorate the day which Mark graciously autographed.
As if that wasn’t enough, the day wasn’t done…
At Le Mans, race teams build temporary infrastructure behind the garages in towering labyrinths of working areas and storage. Fortunately, Porsche staff scheduled time for the group to tour the garages with the factory 911RSR race cars competing in the GTE Pro class. In total, Porsche divided four cars among two sub-teams of about 40 people each. The #93 and #94 cars were kitted out in Brumos historic livery, with a red and blue stripes over a white car. The stripes on the front bonnet featured a small pattern with the number 59 in homage to the famous Brumos Racing number and livery.
Porsche Team Manager Francis Schammo provided a guided tour of the race cars, including a detailed look at the cockpit. The group was also treated to a look at the ancillary tools necessary to support the racing effort such as the stacks of Michelin racing tires. Porsche crew members and Michelin engineers responsible for preparing and managing them tended to their duties nearby. The assortment of spare bodywork prepared with precision but with hopes they would not be needed, braking systems, and the fueling rigs. Multiply the buzz of activity within that small space for two cars across the 61 total cars in the starting field and the pit complex was a very busy place – and this was only Thursday afternoon.
The group moved upstairs for a look into the media center and race control. This perspective gave a better sense of the magnitude of the event logistics. The visual perspective looking down over the race scene was also compelling.
Next the group moved past the Experience Center to the open field between the track complex and the nearby airfield. Several helicopters were ferrying guests for an aerial lap of Le Mans. Two loops around Le Mans while the 24 Hour race cars circulated in the qualifying session was quite the experience. Only several hours earlier, they had experienced the circuit from as close as humanly possible behind the wheel but now were seeing all of the action from above. The view from the air also emphasized the speed of the cars on the straights as they gave the helicopter a serious challenge around the track.
Back at the Experience Center, the balcony was open for business as qualifying continued into the evening. What a great vista from which to watch the magic of racing at night between Porsche and their competition from Ferrari, Corvette, Aston Martin, Ford and BMW. The Experience Center staff continued their brand of hospitality, welcoming those sharing the common thread of Porsche ownership and enthusiasm. For some, Le Mans is an annual tradition. For others, Le Mans is a once-in-a-lifetime bucket list adventure. Regardless, the Experience Center staff make every effort to create an unforgettable experience where guests are made to feel like family.
A visit to Le Mans wouldn’t be complete without a night-time tour around the Ferris wheel. A full day indeed, but taking in the neon lights and music as the cars in the evening qualifying session sped by seemed like the appropriate cherry on top for the Le Mans sundae. These laps are the kind of experiences The Speed Journal targets – an enthralling driving experience in a world-class sportscar around an iconic course.
The Speed Journal wishes to extend its thanks to Porsche, the team at the Porsche Experience Center Le Mans, Patrice Gay and Mark Webber.
The Driver’s Series scours the world to find and explore compelling driving experiences for anyone with a driver’s license and passion for speed. We send our resident driver Jeff Francis to get behind the wheel and report back to Speed Journal readers to ride along virtually or become inspired to take on the driving experiences themselves. Are you involved with a driving experience that should be featured on The Speed Journal? Do you have a driving experience suggestion for The Speed Journal to investigate? Please contact us.