An amusement park is all about the experience. Regardless of age, the rides and the music and the food and the games and the peals of laughter make it more than just a collection of wood and metal and plastic and lights. It is a rite of passage for children when they’re old enough to graduate from the merry go round and bumper cars to the roller coasters.
Acceleration, the sensation of speed, twists and turns, changes of elevation, and the noises of the wheels hugging the tracks – it is all about the experience. For a child, the roller coaster is as close as it gets to driving or flying. For an adult, piloting a performance car on a track without the worries of traffic, regulations, or other drivers can be an experience that pushes the same buttons.
Porsche aspires to jump up and down on those buttons as much as possible, connecting their marque to owners, potential owners and those just looking for an automotive roller coaster ride for fun. The idea has taken shape as an “Experience Center” designed to provide a more engaging experience than a dealership or day as a passive spectator at a race track.
A typical showroom with static displays on shiny floors housed in a glass and metal fishbowl can only be so engaging. The experience centers are not dealerships. Instead, they provide opportunities to participate in various driving programs, check out interesting racing and road cars on display, and enjoy a culinary delight or two. Facilities vary, and some even permit potential owners to take delivery of their cars and become more familiar with their new “family members” on the track.
Just in time for the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans, Porsche opened its Le Mans-based “Experience Center” located trackside within sight of the pit entry and the last corner on the track. The Le Mans Experience Center concept is similar to other Experience Centers around the world in Leipzig, Germany; Atlanta, Georgia; Carson, California; Silverstone, England; and Shanghai, China.
Jeff Francis visited the Porsche Experience Center in Carson, California for The Speed Journal in April 2017 and sampled the Cayman GT4 and GT3. After thoroughly enjoying the experience, the opportunity to stop by the Experience Center in Le Mans in September 2018 was too tempting to resist.
There is only one Le Mans and being able to maintain a permanent presence trackside solidifies Porsche’s claim as an inextricable part of Le Mans history. However, an €8 million investment and a significant amount of coordination with track authorities ensured much more than impressive trackside hospitality for one race a year.
Locating an Experience Center at Le Mans is a very tangible and affirmative recognition of the role that the 24 Hours of Le Mans has played in Porsche history. Nineteen overall wins and over 100 class wins is a record unmatched by any other marque. In fact, Porsche won the GTE class at Le Mans in 2018 in dominant fashion, spraying champagne and claiming trophies on the victory podium within sight of the Le Mans Experience Center.
With the benefit of a trackside base, two circuits and a roster of coaches, Porsche has designed a variety of one- and two-day courses aimed to provide an active and engaging experience for guests behind the wheel. Guests can bring their own car or drive one from the Le Mans Experience Center’s fleet. No prior or current Porsche ownership is required – just a driver’s license.
The Maison Blanche circuit is about 1.75 miles and can be configured in multiple ways. It includes features such as a low-friction skidpad that instructors may utilize to improve driving skills. The Bugatti circuit is about 2.6 miles in length and is more of a purpose-built race track meant for lapping at speed. The Bugatti circuit incorporates well-known features of the Le Mans track, looping down the pit straight, up a rise to the Dunlop bridge and then winding down and back behind the pit complex to rejoin at the entry to pit lane.
The driving experiences available are designed for the range of guests, spanning from those with no experience to those with considerable experience. Novices can try out a one-day driving skills experience on the Maison Blanche course under the watchful eye of instructors. A second one-day course is also available that builds on the lessons of the first. Skills development in the morning is followed by applying those skills on the circuit in the afternoon. For those wishing to continue, one- and two-day advanced courses are another option. The two-day course offers more solo track time yet still provides the benefit of instructor coaching.
Proving that the Experience Center truly has an option for all guests, another offering is a one-day race coaching experience with either a Cayman GT4 Clubsport or a 911 GT3 driven on either the Maison Blanche or Bugatti Circuit. Participation is granted only to those with prior experience and skill. Given his prior racing record and his time at the Porsche Experience Center in Carson, Francis took his driving helmet and signed up for the race coaching day with a GT3 on the Bugatti Circuit.
Situated trackside at the Le Mans track, guests arriving on public roads will quickly recognize the iconic guardrails and road markings that are familiar from the 24 Hour race that uses public roads for much of its 8.5 mile length. Road signs of “Mulsanne” and “Arnage” along with gravel traps further validates the connection. It doesn’t take much to get the heart beating a little faster.
In the morning, Francis met his instructor and coach for the day, Vincent Capillaire. Not only does Capillaire have experience in a prototype at the 24 Hours of Le Mans five times as a professional racing driver, he was born in Le Mans which gives him about as much local knowledge of the track as one could imagine. Diligent and thorough, Capillaire made frequent notes on his ever-present clipboard and provided thoughtful feedback.
Naturally, as this was a race coaching experience, the GT3 model chosen for the day was the GT3RS which takes the “standard” GT3 and removes almost everything that might be considered a compromise for the road. It still retains a thin connection to a road car, but not by much. The GT3RS is intended for the track. Porsche engineers installed a powerplant that is based on familiar 911 philosophy but stretches the limits of physics to produce 500 plus horsepower from the 4.0 liter flat six-cylinder engine. Other refinements and features include rear steering, quicker gear ratios, stiffer suspension, additional brake cooling and subtle aerodynamic tweaks. Of course, Porsche also “added lightness” by removing weight through the more plentiful use of carbon fiber and other lighter materials. You might also be familiar with the 911GT3RS from its sub-7 minute lap time around the Nürburgring Nordschliefe in the hands of factory racing driver and Le Mans winner Kevin Estre.
To get started, Capillaire took the wheel for several laps in the green 911GT3RS, but soon switched places with Francis to allow him to get familiar with both the car and the track. Both demanded respect. After each session, coach and student walked through critiques and targeted skills for the next session.
The 911GT3RS has a variety of electronic controls that kick in if the computers sense control slipping away. With so much raw speed and grip, the car has immense capabilities which is why permission is required before the Porsche Experience Center accepts a student into the race coaching experience. The key to the instruction, however, is developing driver skills to manage the car to the limit without invoking the electronic safeguards.
While the 911GT3RS is an extremely capable car and the Bugatti circuit is quite unique, the driving skills being developed are not exclusive to wrangling that specific car around that specific track. Car control skills are universal, transferrable and adaptable. A good example was focusing on braking and smoothness through a corner. Effective braking allows the car to be well balanced and positioned through the corner which, in turn, leads to quicker acceleration out of the corner and faster exit speeds. However, the ideal exit also involves managing the throttle so that the car and driver work together rather than the electronic controls taking over and managing the process. It is all a balance and requires focused attention to refine the skill.
Capillaire also described the absolute need to look further down the track to make judgments before arriving at a corner. The ideal process requires paying just enough attention to the present while analyzing the prospects for the future. The faster the car and track, the more imperative this skill is because the future arrives much more quickly, while conversely the time available for assessment and decisions shrinks. Driving at full speed on the Bugatti Circuit around Le Mans perfectly illustrated those points.
A two-hour break for lunch prepared by Chef Olivier Boussard provided guests a chance to catch their breath and meet others at the Experience Center that day. The break also allowed a brief respite from the track activity for the Experience Center’s local residents and neighbors.
The guests were provided a tour of the entire Experience Center facility. The décor is distinctly Porsche and incorporates many clever details. For example, a boardroom features an inlaid outline of the full Le Mans course map. The Experience Center also includes a workshop to maintain the cars used by the driving school. Visitors may also be lucky enough to see Porsche Museum cars on display from time to time.
After lunch, the track beckoned and more lessons were learned. Nearing the end of the afternoon, Francis recalls steaming down the pit straight surrounded by the massive grandstands and heading towards the Dunlop bridge with thoughts of all the previous fields of snarling race cars that thundered down the same section of track in front of thousands of screaming spectators and clicking cameras. This split second of appreciation and humility is one of the things that is absolutely unique to the Porsche Experience Center at Le Mans.
As a capstone to the experience, Francis and Capillaire switched seats again and Capillaire unleashed the full capabilities of the 911GT3RS with several hot laps. The raw speed and violence of the 911GT3RS would be frightening if not for the confidence in the pilot, but it was also enlightening to see what a professional could do with the 911GT3RS weapon – truly an amazing and awe-inspiring experience.
The day ended with participants receiving a goodie bag and certificate to memorialize completion of the program, tales of triumph and woe shared among the guests, and with champagne – after all, it is France.
Departing the venue and reflecting on the day, it was evident that the “experience” is the secret sauce for Porsche. Driving a car does not need to be an exercise of transiting between two points on a map, especially two points mapped via a computer GPS navigator. Acceleration forces, gripping the pavement and hunting through a curve, and braking to firmly arrest momentum can transform the task of transit into an “experience.” With decades of sportscar and racing fabric running through Porsche’s design and engineering departments, a Porsche should always be capable of more than mere transportation. While not every driver or every trip will result in a lap around a race track or a run through twisty country or mountain roads, it is compelling to know that it could.
Interested in tasting a piece of the Le Mans magic and enjoying a roller coaster ride designed with the famed race course in mind? Make your way about 130 miles southwest of Paris, ask for Monsieur Capillaire or one of his friends, strap in and hang on!
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.