Michelin/Porsche Driving Experience

Monday 1st November, 2010
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Last week I was kindly invited by Michelin to a Porsche Driving Experience event within the purpose built facilities at Silverstone in Northampton. Porsche have an excellent conference centre there with an adjacent private track that allows visitors to try our numerous different vehicles on their tricky handling circuit as well as low friction "skid pan" style surfaces and even an off-road facility.

After a lovely smoked salmon and scrambled egg breakfast, we had a short briefing after which our group of 8 was split into 4 and then into pairs as the other half of our group went outside. Meanwhile, inside the building, we were led by an instructor into the gym for a fitness assessment. Nothing makes you feel like a fat, old, married man more than being paired up with Lucy, a 6ft, blonde PR girl who has the figure of a catalogue model - but at least I wasn't being asked to change into a vest and shorts!

Sam, our fitness instructor, took us through the facilities available on-site and, by way of a slide show, introduced us to the members of her team and explained what we would be doing today. First, we would use some wall mounted equipment that was basically a keep fit version of Whack-a-mole that would test both reaction time and peripheral vision. Being such an active type, naturally I excelled at this (cough) and quickly moved on to the next part of the assessment which involved a piece of equipment that was a bit like Star Trek meets Wii Fit. We removed our shoes and socks and stood on the footplate of the machine whilst holding an electrode in each hand. This allowed the kit to measure the physiology of our bodies after which we were each given a detailed report of the results which Sam took us through line by line. Sadly, it didn't tell me much I didn't already know but I was somewhat surprised that my fluid levels were apparently in perfect balance. After comparing my results with Lucy, I laughed it off and we then headed outside for our off-road session.

Led to a Porsche Cayenne, we jumped aboard and were taken around the delights of the Porsche off-road track. It was clearly explained to us that they were using standard Michelin road tyres as we went over all manner of incline and descent. Once back at the start, we changed places and it was my turn to drive. The Cayenne was a left-hooker but, thankfully, I had driven a LHD Nissan Leaf in Portugal just a few days earlier so the road positioning didn't bother me too much - if you can call a load of mounds of gravel and some strategically places railway sleepers a road, that is! Needless to say, we had a bit of fun and, although trickier than it looked, I think Lucy and I managed pretty well as we popped our off-roading cherry.

Next we had some time to kill until lunch but, thankfully, Rick from Skiddmark was in attendance and kind enough to take myself and @majorgav on a little trip around the Silverstone perimeter in a new BMW 335i coupe he was testing. I'm not a big BMW fan but this was a lovely motor with oodles of carbon fibre trim on the interior. I liked, a lot. Back at Porsche I had another pleasure of hearing my first F1 car on full song, somebody happened to be blasting one around the main track in testing...it really was a glorious sound.

After a fantastic lunch, consisting of a Corn-fed Chicken, Chive & Truffle Terrine followed by Sirloin of beef and a Dark Chocolate sponge desert, we were led out on to the track where I was paired up with another Ben...Ben McLoughlin, one of their seasoned driving instructors. A longer than expected track session in a new Boxster followed by a session on the "melting ice" skid pan which features a skid inducing kick plate on one edge. As you drive from the tarmac onto the almost frictionless surface, the back end is thrown in a random direction in an attempt to make you lose control. You then learn techniques to recover it from the spin. After improving somewhat, they then turn off the Porsche Stability Management (PSM, aka Please Save Me) and show you how effective the modern gizmos are at saving both your life and your insurance excess.

Drive in the Boxster complete, we did it all again in a new Cayman then, after a short break, also in a 911 Carerra 2 and Carerra 4. Comparing them all was quite an eye opener and, whilst I couldn't pick out a favourite, I'd say the Boxster would be bottom of the list for me. The others just felt a lot more solid and controllable - mainly due to the torsional rigidity, Ben explains, the Cayman has the same properties as the 911 and both of them feel that way as they have a solid, not convertible, roof.

Of course, being sponsored by Michelin, the day was partially about tyre awareness and I tried to go with an open mind. Both my new MX-5 in 1999 and my new Golf R32 in 2005 came fitted with Michelin tyres as standard and I'd never been all that impressed. They had a good long life but this was mainly, in my opinion, because they were too hard and, as a result, lacked grip. I'd swapped my MX-5 Pilot SX tyres with Bridgestone Potenza SO2 with great results. The Golf R32 changed to Goodyear Eagle F1 GSD3 with similar, more grippy, results. I was so impressed with the latter that I also fitted them to my RX-7 Twin Turbo but, as they were so soft, I completely killed them on a track day as the outer side of the front left tyre effectively melted and all of the directional grooves ended up at odd angles. For better grip, you need a softer tyre but if they are too soft then you overheat them and lose grip again. So what is the solution?

In Michelin's case, the Pilot Sport 2 which features "dual compound technology". This basically means that the main footprint of the tyre is a softer compound that adds extra grip and better handling in the wet. On the outside shoulder, however, there are much bigger, harder, patches which are there to handle expected high temperatures and offer extra stability during hard cornering.
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In the photo I took, you'll see a little join down the left hand side where the two compounds meet. Compare it to the inside shoulder of the tyre on the right hand side and you'll see a significant difference in wear - the darker patches show where the softer compound has rubbed the tarmac. Ultimately, it works and Michelin is back on my list of worthy tyres and will be short-listed when I come to take the winter tyres off the Lexus next April. Before then, however, Michelin will launch the new Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyre which will offer more extreme performance for the most demanding vehicles...it could be a winner.

Thanks again to Michelin for an excellent day out that was well worth taking a day off work. You can see my pictures from the event here.

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