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Testing the tiers of Porsche's motorsport ladder
Porsche now offers three UK national-level categories aimed at giving amateurs and budding professional drivers real racing experience. Ben Anderson compared the cars on a chilly day at Silverstone.
The racing driver in me owes much to Porsche. That's an odd thing to say considering I've raced one only once, at Knockhill, way back in 2008, but it was nonetheless utterly transformative, proving key to my progression as a driver.
Driving in the single-make, national-level Carrera Cup with no prior experience of the circuit - or much else other than Formula Jedi and club-level karting - opened my eyes to just how... bad I was.
Rory Butcher wowed crowds at his local track - forging a path that eventually carried him to British Touring Car title contention - while I (then aged 23) spun off repeatedly, broke my car's clutch, struggled to defeat a couple of gentlemen backmarkers, and sweated buckets merely to lap within a couple of seconds of a then 46-year-old Tim Harvey and his fellow frontrunners.
It was a chastening experience, one that showed me just how good top Carrera Cup drivers are and how difficult the Porsche 911 can be to drive if you don't treat it with enough respect - and don't have the necessary experience or ability to dive in at the deep end.
Eleven years on, I find myself back in the cockpit of the latest iteration at Silverstone. Ostensibly we're here to compare it with the new Cayman GT4 and an entry-level 'Restoracing' Boxster, as Porsche trumpets its expanded 'Motorsport Pyramid', designed to allow marque enthusiasts to progress from track days all the way to professional GT racing.
Oh, how I needed this education in 2008. Perhaps then I would have left Knockhill with a spring in my step rather than my tail between my legs...
'Restoracing' Type 986 Boxster S: 2m28.337s
Engine size 3179cc
Transmission Porsche six-speed manual transmission
Tyres Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R
Driver aids ABS
Weight Minimum of 1350kg including driver
Photo by: Autosport
The Boxster is simply a great place to start your Porsche racing journey. It is a superb entry-level club racing car. No frills, no bells, no whistles. Well, a few tiny bells and whistles - namely tweaked suspension, Mintex racing brake pads and trackday 'cut-slick' Pirelli tyres.
But from the driver's perspective this is as basic as it gets: a road car on the race track. The result, as you'd expect, is minimal technological help (save for basic ABS) and a highly enjoyable driving experience: three pedals, manual six-speed gearbox, 8000rpm red-line on the rev counter; fill 'er up, heel-and-toe and off you go!
My prior experience of Boxster racing was a particularly rambunctious outing in the British Racing and Sports Car Club's Porsche Championship in 2013. The ethos behind Porsche Club's Restoracing series is similar, but with an added twist of colour.
Our car sports a psychedelic livery reminiscent of the Gerard Larrousse/Gijs van Lennep Porsche 917K that finished ninth in the 1970 Watkins Glen 6 Hours, or the more famous psychedelic long-tailed 917 that placed second at Le Mans in 1970 (with Larrousse/Willi Kauhsen driving).
"It started two years ago to promote the fact that Porsche still provide an awful lot of spare parts for older vehicles," explains Porsche Motorsport manager James MacNaughton.
"The Porsche Centres had to restore a car to the rules and choose a classic Porsche livery - there's the 'Pink Pig', the psychedelic one, there's all sorts. The cars look great.
"It went very well, so they did it again [in 2019]. It's been such a success that some of the dealers still want to do it, and now it's being opened out so anyone can do it. The cars still have to be in a period livery, a historic Porsche livery."
The category's growing popularity means the calendar has grown steadily too, from three events in 2018 to five in 2019, to seven this year, as part of Porsche Club Motorsport's Classic Boxster Cup series.
"Entry fees are not crazy, nor tyre use," says Porsche's senior press officer Rob Durrant.
"You don't need to do a crazy amount of testing, the cars are pretty reliable. A donor car can retail for as little as £3-4000. The 'Pink Pig' is a 150,000-mile driven Boxster, so that wouldn't have cost them much at all.
"By the time you've fitted a conversion kit, we're budgeting maybe £10-15,000, then you're looking at £10-15,000 to run it for a season. It's a really cost-effective way in."
"That's the entry level into what we call 'the Pyramid'," adds MacNaughton.
"You go from doing trackdays into that. Fundamentally it's easy, accessible, affordable racing."
It certainly seems a fun place to begin. The Boxster slides around all over the place, but not in a way that makes you feel you are wrestling it.
The car breaks traction progressively, but the rear tyres quickly overheat (even in cold, wintery conditions) so the Boxster soon becomes quite loose, and tells you pretty quickly when you're trying to carry too much speed through Abbey.
That's taken in fourth gear (fifth and sixth aren't required on Silverstone's International Circuit) with as small a deceleration as you dare on the way in.
Third is the lowest you need for the other corners. That's just as well, because the rudimentary technology on this car means you absolutely have to be patient with it.
As successful ex-Porsche GT racer Phil Keen once told me, "driving them well is all about keeping the car settled and pinned to the road. You can't afford to upset them too much - they're like fat old ladies!"
The great thing about this car as a learning tool is that you have enough control at speed to place it on multiple different lines as desired, and if you make mistakes you can quickly bring the car back into line without huge penalty.
It has those same echoes of quirky rear-biased handling you get with the more powerful porkers, but after driving the Cayman and Carrera Cup cars you feel as though you're doing 2mph while driving on the limit in this thing!
It's firmly within my club racing comfort zone, so I know it would be a great place for beginners to start their journey.
718 Cayman GT4 Clubsport: 2m14.504s
Engine size 3800cc
Transmission Porsche six-speed PDK (dual-clutch) transmission
Tyres Michelin control slicks and wets
Driver aids Switchable ABS, traction control and electronic stability control
Weight 1320kg excluding driver
Ben Anderson, 718 Cayman GT4 Clubsport
Photo by: Autosport
This is the newest addition to Porsche's motorsport pyramid. It's a carefully considered and well-executed halfway house between the Boxster and the Carrera Cup, but the look and feel of the 718 undoubtedly places it closer to the Carrera Cup end of the spectrum.
The control panel gives away the Cayman's road-going roots, but the racing steering wheel, paddleshift system and Michelin slick tyres tell a different story. The Cayman drives in a similar way to the Carrera Cup car, only easier, because the driver aids - traction control and ABS - allow for much more aggression behind the wheel.
You still need to drive it with a modicum of discipline, but you don't get punished for imperfection in quite the same way. The dash also helpfully lights up whenever you activate the driver aids by overwhelming the brakes or the rear tyres.
"The GT4 is more amateur-friendly, but it's still fun to drive," says former Carrera Cup frontrunner Dino Zamparelli, who spent 2019 campaigning a GT4 version of the Cayman in British GT.
"I'm not saying you don't have to be superstar DJ to get it going, but [although] the traction control and ABS are there to help you, it's not boring, you can still move it around once you start working towards the limit, and you've still got to have nice exits and drive with precision.
"I found it really fun to do both. The stepping stone for me is that I drive the Cayman the same as I drive the Cup, in terms of braking and everything - it's just that it's got the safety net of the ABS.
"Because you've got the ABS system it's very easy to get lazy with it and let it kick in every corner - and it doesn't feel as nice when you're on that sort of driving style, which is on and off like switches. It's not artistic."
Lowering the level of ABS - and TC - does make the car feel more dynamic, affording extra freedom to position the car. Consequently, I lap faster on my second run, finishing up just within a second of Zamparelli's reference time.
This suggests the car is pretty accessible, and Porsche is hoping strict limits on technical freedom - rear-wing angle, roll bars and tyre pressures are the only permitted adjustments - coupled with a £130,000 'all-in' price point for a full season with a team (Carrera Cup budgets can exceed £200k) will make the new series attractive.
"We've got six weekends: two of them are on the TOCA package, three of them are with British GT and one of them is with the [Porsche] Club," explains MacNaughton, who confirms the Sprint Challenge received four confirmed entries within a week of its unveiling.
"We're showcasing the Cayman to people doing Restoracing, or the other club championships, who might want to step up.
"They can see what the platform's like with TOCA - the razzmatazz that's involved with that; they can watch themselves on telly and all that lovely stuff - and if they want to stay with Porsche they can do the Carrera Cup.
"If they like British GT and the endurance side of things they can buy the Manthey Racing pack - carbon bumpers, wings, bonnet, Perspex windows and lighter wheels - and upgrade for British GT4. The pack is about €27,000."
The Sprint Challenge allows competitors six slick tyres - 1.5 sets of new rubber - per race weekend, which features two 30-minute races. The calendar includes two visits to Donington Park's GP circuit (supporting British GT), a race on the Silverstone GP circuit (also British GT), Silverstone National (BTCC), Croft (BTCC) and Snetterton (Porsche Club).
MacNaugton says there is also a "big saving" on running costs with the Cayman, because the engine and gearbox have "zero-lifing", which means they require only basic maintenance to run and run: "belts, plugs, filters and fluids".
"With one-make racing, and it's a proven formula with Carrera Cup, there's no point giving people three different sets of springs - just give everyone the same," adds MacNaughton.
"Otherwise people have to go testing for three days to find out what the best set-up is, which makes it expensive. We're trying not to do that - it's got to be down to the driver's skill."
911 GT3 Cup: 2m03.001s
Engine size 3996cc
Transmission Porsche six-speed sequential dog-type transmission
Tyres Michelin control slicks and wets
Driver aids None
Weight Minimum of 1305kg including driver
Photo by: Autosport
"The Carrera Cup car I love," enthuses Zamparelli. "It's my favourite car to drive. It's pure, it's got that rawness about it."
I actually drove the Carrera Cup car first for this test - in at the deep end again, just like Knockhill in 2008. The nerves I felt when I first drove the 997 version are gone but that idiosyncratic rear-biased handling catches me out yet again when I brake too late at Club, pitching the car into a spin.
I also flat-spot my scrubbed set of new tyres by nailing the brakes in a successful attempt to keep the thing out of the gravel. The vibrations are too severe to continue, so I drive a slow lap back around to the pits with that familiar sheepish feeling...
"I had the same traits as other drivers from single-seaters - hard braking, relying on the aero, but it just doesn't take it," says Zamparelli..
"You have to drive it with finesse, on the brakes especially. You can't go hammering it.
"It's almost better to have less of a peak [brake pressure reading] than a single-seater. It just gets out of control.
"My team-mate in 2016, Alessandro Latif, was really aggressive, and into Brooklands he was actually braking later than me by five or 10 metres - but really hard, the thing was on its nose, it was all knife-edge stuff.
"I was earlier, less of a peak, but controlling that right into the corner. Three and a half tenths I was quicker through that corner.
"It took me half a year maybe to get used to that. Some take to it earlier; some take to it not at all. Once I got it, I really enjoyed that feeling of being on the limit with it."
Porsche kindly allows me out for a second run on a new set of tyres, which take several laps to bring up to temperature in the cold weather. The car feels completely disconnected in the meantime!
Once we get going again, it's clear to me I've gone too far the other way in adjusting my braking technique and am now stopping too gently. There's very little you can do with the bias to compensate, because there's so little base weight over the front.
I'm leaving way too much on the table to avoid another spin, but nothing follows on if you don't get this approach right. It's why Porsche 911s remain such difficult beasts to tame.
"You can get in a Cayman and drive it very quickly, quite quickly," says MacNaughton.
"The Cup, you can get up to 95% of a good pace quite quickly if you know what you're doing, but that last bit is bloody difficult! No ABS, no traction control, the balance is unique to a 911.
"Time and time again, whatever people get into after a Carrera Cup car, they can drive it really, really fast.
"We're doing some analysis to find out the percentage of people paid to race - in GTE Pro or GTE Am - who started out in Carrera Cup, because I know it's more than 50%.
"That underlines the strength of the programme and, as you've found, these are not easy cars to master."
Some things never change.
Porsche's junior racing ladder
Dino Zamparelli in Porsche Carrera Cup
Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images
Nineteen-year-old Harry King is the reigning Ginetta GT4 Supercup champion, and follows an illustrious line of competitors who've joined Porsche Carrera Cup as junior drivers from Porsche Motorsport GB's scholarship scheme.
Successful Blancpain GT racer Michael Meadows, Supercup racer Josh Webster and Aston Martin factory GT driver Charlie Eastwood have all used the junior scheme as a springboard to bigger and better things.
King hopes to follow them, but first he must make the most of a two-year programme aimed at developing his racing skills while contributing £85,000 per season to his Carrera Cup GB budget.
"It's a really big opportunity - one of the biggest in British motorsport," says King.
"I don't think there are any other junior programmes that offer two years. If I go in with high expectations and don't meet those expectations, I'll walk away disappointed. It's easy to walk in as champion of a previous series and think I'm untouchable but I won't think that way - it's good to take it all as it comes."
King feels he is "gradually getting to grips" with a car that behaves very differently from the Ginetta G55, and knows that proving himself at Carrera Cup level could help his career.
"What makes it such a great championship is it's all down to the driver," he adds.
"Yes, the cars might fluctuate three, four tenths once you're down to set-up, but most teams are very good at dialling that in to your driving style.
"It's very technical to drive these cars - a bit more technical than the previous cars I've driven - but it's good because it brings out who the better driver is."
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