Winter is traditionally
a rather quiet period for car lovers. Racetracks are closed, and sportscars are either stored or being upgraded with go-faster parts for the next season. To save us from the perils of winter boredom, Porsche Driving Center Russia has come up with a solution.
And the solution is actually pretty simple. You take a large empty space, add some water to create ice, wait for some snow to fall and then unleash some Porsches onto it. With the traction and stability control firmly turned off. If that doesn’t sound like fun to you, I do believe you’re probably on the wrong page of the internet.
The location is Moscow Raceway, a large and modern track in Sheludkovo which is about an hour’s drive from the center of Moscow. The actual racetrack isn’t used for this winter driving program, but it makes sense as a venue because all the Porsche Driving Center facilities are there, and there is plenty of space around it to create the temporary tracks. Upon arrival, there is time for a decent breakfast in a warm room, followed by the obligatory pre-driving briefing.
It’s usually during such briefings that I start getting a bit impatient to get to the actual driving, but in this case it was sufficiently brief, to the point, and felt pretty grown up in terms of presumed driving skill. After being split into small groups, the first thing we did was head out onto the nearby snowy roads in a convoy of Macans, a Cayenne, and a new Panamera 4S for good measure. This was a pretty normal drive, mindful of the driving laws of this country, so not particularly exciting but a good way to familiarize yourself with the cars and enjoy the snowy scenery. Particularly when you spend all your time in central Moscow, the countryside does look extraordinarily beautiful in winter.
We did a few laps of this short route, swapping cars in between, and I ended up driving a Macan GTS and a Macan Turbo. They obviously felt pretty similar to drive, as the slippery conditions did not allow the Turbo to show off its superior power.
Having done that, we got to drive the same cars around a short snow-filled slalom track marked by cones. Speeds remained pretty low, but there was a long 180 degree turn in the middle that allowed for some prolonged sideways action. In fact, this entire exercise was basically a test of how easy it was to get each of these cars into a drift on the loose snow. The hardest part was avoiding excessive understeer which would prevent the car from to getting sideways. It requires the right amount of speed and weight transfer control when turning in to the corner, followed by applying power at the right time, all of which was easier said than done. The Macans were surprisingly good at this exercise, given that they are SUVs, but I definitely struggled a bit to get the Cayenne to do what I wanted it to. There were only a few short attempts with each car so there wasn’t much time to develop the ideal technique for each. Still, as soon as I got into the new Panamera and set off it was clear that it was in a different world to the Cayenne and Macan. Though it really doesn’t look like a sportscar, the Panamera felt very much like one on the loose snow. The front end would bite into the snow and take you whichever direction you wanted to go. Even in a straight line it seemed to have much more traction than either the Macan or the Cayenne, but I admit not checking how different the tires were between these cars which could be a factor. On the whole, this first test was great at showing just how capable all these cars are to drive in wintery conditions.
Of course, the most exciting parts of the day would involve Porsche 911s. Both the all-wheel-drive Carrera 4S and rear-wheel-drive 2S were in attendance, with 420 horsepower available from their turbocharged flat-6 engines. All 911s were fitted with 20 inch winter tires, but transferring all that power onto the slippery surfaces was still going to be tricky. Just looking at all those differently coloured 911s lined up on the crisp white snow though, is enough to warm your heart, even while the rest of you is pretty much freezing. Fortunately, the cars are nice and warm on the inside, too.
The longest exercise of the day involved the Carrera 4S, driving on a wide oval-shaped track that could morph into different shapes by using cones. The exercises started at a pretty low speed initially, but got faster as the day progressed. I had an absolute ball sliding the 911 sideways from cone to cone, but the ultimate skill we were trying to master was to drift the car under power at higher speeds around the 180 degree turns at each end of the track. The fact that the helpful advice from the driving instructors was occasionally lost in translation somewhat made the learning curve a bit harder, but I cannot thank the Driving Center and Porsche staff enough for helping me out with understanding the Russian instructions. It is one hundred percent my fault for not speaking the language sufficiently, making everyone’s life a bit harder than it needed to be. Thank you for your help!
As I noted about the earlier test we did, the hardest part by far is initiating the slide. Once the car is sideways it’s pretty self evident how to handle the rest, the starting of the slide is what requires the most practice. The required combination of entry speed, weight transfer and timing of throttle application was already known to me, but turning this knowledge into an elegant result took some time. It also required overcoming some of my driving intuitions. I am originally from a country that only very rarely get any snow, and as such my driving habits and reflexes were developed driving on asphalt rather than this white slippery stuff.
Performance driving on snow and ice is definitely a different kettle of fish to asphalt, and getting it right required listening to the instructors rather than gut feeling in my case. Eventually, I had a bit of a eureka moment when I understood the instructions and applied a lot more constant power during the slide. Before, I had been driving the Carrera 4S like I would have driven the 2S — modulating the throttle to adjust the car’s slip angle. The fact that the 4S is all-wheel-drive means a slightly different approach is required, keeping your foot firmly on the throttle in order to spin all 4 wheels around the corner. The result looks a bit like an excited cat making a tight turn on a slippery surface, clawing its way out on exit. It is a ruthlessly effective method to go around an icy corner very quickly, and the Carrera 4S felt like a proper weapon once you knew how to use it. It was also necessary to keep adapting to the changing surface, which offered a lot of grip while covered in snow at the beginning of the day, but became ever more slippery as the ice underneath became exposed. The fastest line through the turn was changing continuously, with the most grip being available far on the outside but that meant covering the most distance, also. To really go fast, you would have to be leaning the back end of the car almost off the track and against the snow barriers. Not something I really felt fit to attempt in a borrowed Porsche 911.
Next, our group moved into the rear wheel drive Carrera 2S cars for a slightly sillier but equally entertaining exercise: slide the car endlessly in circles around a cone. I had never actually tried doing «donuts», but I got on exceptionally well with this rear wheel drive 911 — I didn’t feel like I had to learn to drive all over again like in the previous test. In the 2S, I could simply drive on instinct to get the desired result. The ice circles in which we were driving were pretty wide, so you could choose either a tight line close to the cone or a wider one towards the outside which our instructor told us was the preferred way to go. This would prepare us for the eventual goal of sliding sideways from one circle into the next, throwing the car from one side to the other without spinning out. Not only was this great fun, I was also quite relieved to find a test I was actually fairly good at.
In the process of driving the Carrera 2S and 4S back to back, I learned to appreciate the technical brilliance of the 4S — even though I had always preferred the 2S versions before. Somehow, the 4S manages to feel almost like the rear wheel drive cars do when you take it onto a wet or dry race track, but it transforms into an almost rally-capable all-wheel-drive monster when you get onto the really slippery stuff. It’s just mind-blowingly versatile. It’s only really limited by its ride height, as a sportscar it rides pretty low, so you will get stuck in snow that is too deep. As I would find out shortly after.
To close out the day, we were going to have a little race against a stopwatch. One timed lap would involve going around a special 900-meter long track twice, a track which involved the wide oval as well as a set of narrow icy roads lined by walls of deep snow. We each got a practice lap to learn which way the track went, before we would get to the actual race. The combination of some parts being very slippery meant that probably about half of the cars got themselves stuck in a snow bank at some point or other. I myself got the car stuck on the first exploration round, and then had to stop when the car in front of me made the same mistake on the next. Not wanting to suffer the embarrassment of beaching the car on a snow bank twice, I kept the car too far away from the grippier edges of the track and ended up with an ego-crushingly mediocre lap time to show for my efforts. There were no second chances. I think it’s fair to say that performance winter driving is definitely not as easy as it looks. But my word is it fun.
At the end of the day, taking part in the Porsche Driving Center’s Winter Experience is something I wholeheartedly recommend. Yes, at 65 thousand Rubles it’s not cheap, but you get a lot of value for your money. The course takes 5 hours with a solid 3.5 hours of actual driving in the 911 Carrera 4S and 2S. I am quite certain that it costs Porsche more to organize these events than they end up getting paid for it. You can learn things about car control that you cannot safely try out on the open roads, and you get to drive some of the best cars in the world while you’re at it. Perhaps the Russian winter is something to look forward to now, after all.