200MPH, the world sideways and conquered fear

There is a top secret test facility in Papenburg, north Germany.

It’s very similar to the MIRA circuit we have in the UK. It has an 8 mile banked oval for high speed testing, a number of complex road layouts and a significant amount of closed off testing facilities. Most importantly, they have an exact replica of the Hockenheim GP circuit.

From time to time, a select group of individuals are invited to take part on a drift day on this course. When Henry invited me to this event, it was obvious there could be no yes/no answer to the invite. It was simply a calling and despite any reservations, your presence was required.

It was also decided that as we were in Germany, it was clearly necessary to make the obvious pilgrimage to the Nurburgring on the public Monday too. Plans afoot, a trip of epic proportions had been thus organised. The story would be told to children when greens were left uneaten.

So started this incredible weekend.

With 3 track days under the GT3 belt, the thoughts of tyres began to surface my pessimistic mind. I do not dally on the German autobahn, so the thought of worn tyres working close to the double tonne was a concern. Add to that the combination of a drift day and a ‘ring day, the initial dilemma soon became the bleeding obvious. Thanks to Steve at Simply Tyres and the considerable weight saving plan of my wallet (£1000.00 for a complete set of Michelin Pilot Cups), a new set of rubber was fitted right in front of my home the night before departure.

All that was left was a sufficient stock of the usual checklist (Redbull, water and Tic-Tacs) and an alarm clock at 5.30am. Kept awake by waves of anticipation and excitement (and the caffeine from 3 cans of back to back Coke), it took until 2.00am before I was able to dream of synchronised, balletic Scandinavian flicks.

Day 1

7.00am and I’m part of a 4 car GT3 convoy heading down towards the Euro Tunnel. Glenn in his orange 997GT3RS, Pete in his black 997GT3RS, Ken in his 996GT3RS and me in my white 997GT3. It’s always a pleasure to be part of such magnificent convoys. There is always a titanic sense of occasion and constant photography and almost paparazzi style attention from other road users can often be hilariously flattering.

Once over the border together with our latest convoy addition, Henry in his M3 CSL, we make our way across to Papenburg, the location of the test facility which will eventually host our drift event. We decide to go via Duisburg, as this route will eventually provide us with a 100 mile stretch of de-restricted autobahn. It proves to be a good choice. However, it’s not long before we approach Belgium when we are targeted by traffic police. As soon as I see the collection of police motorbikes on the central reservation, I haul in the brakes and everyone behind me follows suit. But I know it’s futile, the moment you see police, it’s normally too late. Eventually, the biker pulls up beside me and signals me to follow him and to pull over. The rest of the convoy continue whilst I take one for the team. It’s not a huge fine, 135 Euros for doing 157kph (120 speed limit), but it does demonstrate that the Belgian police are serious about maintaining and policing their speed limits.

I pull away and head for the next service station on our route, a meeting point as always after any incident. I am greeted with inquisitive faces and everyone has a 20 Euro note attached to their hands. It’s good to know you’re in a convoy where each individual is concerned about the welfare of the others, so I reluctantly accept the generous offer.

Leading the convoy (I have factory sat-nav – where are the whingers now!?), it’s not long before I notice the approach to the long de-restricted stretch of autobahn, so I pull into the petrol station for the third time that day. A quick fill up later and already we’re cruising at 150MPH. My comatose brain rudely awakened, I’m grateful for the sudden rush of adrenaline and fresh blood to my core neurone functions. Maintaining fastidiously the 75MPH speed limit for 2 hours was mind-numbingly dull.

Of course, 150MPH is nowhere near satisfying enough in a group of Porsche’s with double tonne quoted top speed figures. We’re soon heavy on our throttles accelerating hard and fast and before long, we’re sat at 175MPH. Henry is pretty much on the limit in his CSL, but I’m interested to see how much faster my car is on the autobahn than my previous generation 996GT3RS. In that car, I saw 200MPH on the speedo exactly, but it was quite terrifying as the car was very light and quick to move based on road camber and steering input and could change lanes at the blink of an eye.

With Glenn in his bright orange RS filling my mirrors, we both find a gap in the traffic and simultaneously reach for the top end. It doesn’t take long before I see 190MPH, the remaining incremental digits appearing in sure, patient fashion. When I hit 200MPH, I’m amazed at the composure of the car which reflects its older sibling as a relatively poorly dynamic car at high speed. This car feels stable, sure footed and only some scary cross wind moments force me to slow down at 203MPH. I’ve broken my personal record and I’m slowing down. Slowing down, of course, an absurd statement as I look down and see I’m travelling at ‘only’ 150MPH. I guess I better really slow down to let the others catch up!

As Glenn comes to my side, we slow down further and gesticulate our vmax’s. He tells me he’s just hit 200MPH. Deep down, I know I’ve got more in the car. It may be the odd 2-3 MPH, but I’m determined to see it and bury my curiosity once and for all. Naturally, I come across the next bend and I see a stretch of road further than my eye can see. I downshift to fourth gear and bury the throttle. Fifth, then sixth gear, 190 approaches very quickly and I count the digits as they rise slowly. 195, 200, 201, 202, 203….

At this point, I detached myself from reality. Any contemplation regarding your current activity can do nothing other than hamper the immense amount of concentration I am dedicating to this pursuit. It’s ridiculously reckless on my own part, futile in reason and utterly pointless. So why do I do it? Well, why does one climb the mountain? Why do we skydive?
Quite simply, to push our own boundaries in thrill seeking can be a very human motivation. 200MPH in a car is the most mesmerising joyous activity I can think of, bar the obvious other one.

I can see the autobahn bending a little ahead. What appears as a straight road at 100MPH can be quite different at twice that speed. I decide to press on regardless in my quest to travel through space and time. I see in my mirror nobody close by, but cars are still being overtaken at over 200MPH – it must be a surreal sight for the other road users, but I ensure my main beams are always on so as to provide sufficient warning for my strafing run. But my time has come to an end, the road is getting busier and I decide to lift off. I quickly glance at my speedo to check my final figure. 207MPH. I start to smile to my self and let out a violent yelp – I’ve forgotten to breathe for too long. Thank Porsche also for the provision of an alcantara coated steering wheel – my hands are clammy and my heart is racing. As Glenn pulls up next to me, I mime “TWO OH SEVEN” out my side window. His eyebrows are raised in disbelief, but I’m happy knowing the GT3 is faster than the RS on the autobahn. Mostly do to with the narrow body aerodynamic and also the simpler spoiler which doesn’t provide huge downforce at the expense of top end speed.

A short while later and we’re at the petrol station, again. Incredibly, it’s taken us exactly 45 minutes to deplete a whole tank of fuel. I’m not even going to begin to work out our fuel consumption, it’s a given that we’ve raped not only the German roads, but also their ecology too.

We decide to cruise to our destination at a sensible 150MPH all the way. Strangely enough, despite my earlier “Make it so” speeds, this still feels incredibly fast so as a result, it’s still a fantastic trip of the journey. It’s 7pm by the time we arrive at our hotel and my sat-nav has brought us right to the front door. As the end of the first night approaches, we’re sat at our meal exchanging stories of crazy moments and vapourised bugs.

Day 2

The security personel at the top secret test facility at Papenburg firstly confiscates any equipment that can serve a photographic purpose and then ask us to sign a plethora of documents. We witness with our own eyes many test mules and development cars, but these are to be committed to memory only and no pictures are allowed. Which is a HUGE shame considering the sideways nature of this drift event. If ever I needed evidence of being a hero, this was it. The event consists of about 20-30 cars altogether and a vast majority of them are E30 BMW’s. Bangers basically. As we ponder the potential reaction of these people as we turn up to McDonald’s wearing a dinner suit, the feeling of being overdressed is soon evaporated as the incredibly friendly nature of the regulars rubs off on us. Consisting of mainly Dutch drivers (for some strange reason, they are amongst the best drifters in the world), everyone is keen to help and take you out for a few laps for familiarisation.

We even have with us Andre who is a semi-pro racer but also a champion drifter. A few laps in his BMW 130i just has me laughing like an idiot, raising imaginary 10 cards. With his display of exemplary car control, I was saddened by the notion that I’d never be able to drive in such fashion. His ability to connect Scandinavian flick to lift off oversteer and the following switchbacks meant I was watching the rear of the car through the side windows. I was blown away.

As I went out in my GT3, Andre explained the braking points and the sections at which I was to force my car to lose traction and encourage full four wheel drifts. A difficult task at first as the very nature of a drift is to lose control of your car. Psychologically, this isn’t easy in a £90k car. It took many minor spins and a few major ones before my inhibitions evaporated and before long, I was throwing the car in to fast, 60 MPH apexes with full throttle powerslides and relishing the fan-base cheering from the side of the pit lane.

As the day progressed, so did my bravery. The tractor and its water tanker dampened the corners every 30 minutes or so, so the tyres were kept relatively cool and in good order. It’s a surprisingly low stress event for a car. Unfortunately, only Henry in his CSL gelled with the concept of drifting and a couple of spins for the others did nothing other than dampen their bravery further. It’s a hard barrier to cross, but it does require a few failed spins to really understand and learn the true limits of your car and your subsequent reaction. The rest of the team went a day early to the ring to catch some evening sessions, leaving just Henry and I to play Makinen.

Towards the end of the day, I was itching to see what a true pro drifter would do with my car. As I asked Andre if he wanted to borrow my keys, his face lit up like a Christmas tree. I sat in the passenger seat and gave him the pre-flight.

Andre: “What’s this?”
Me: “That’s the dampers setting.
Andre: “We’ll have that on hard – what’s this?”
Me: “That’s sport mode – opens the exhaust valves fully, releases more power and allows slip from the traction control.”
Andre: “We want sport mode then, finally what’s this?”
Me: “That’s traction cont….
Andre: “OFF!”

Now, drifting a GT3, a rear engined, rear wheel drive car with 12J x 19 with 305/30 ZR 19 tyres on the rear is a task in itself. First, it grips like a newborn and has traction that has been known to cause rips in the fabric of space time continuum. But when the rears let go, you need to be on the ball as there is a pronounced pendulum effect that throws the rear right the way around. Once caught, it’s relatively benign and holding a drift can be quite straightforward. For the initiated.

Andre took a whole half a lap to familiarise himself with the car before he was sideways on every single bend. With accurate and precise use of the throttle, the car was balanced in a beautifully poetic dance as he linked one bend to the next. Not only was he sideways everywhere, he was also devouring everyone else on the track. After 5 laps of amazing skill, he pulled into the pits, jumped out and claimed that his car was now on the market and he wanted a GT3. My trust in him was rewarded with a display of awesome competence – if ever he’s around, make sure you validate this opportunity!

Day 3

Henry and I travelled up to the Ring to meet the rest of our group that same evening. Unfortunately, my frequent visits to the gravel trap meant my car befriended a number of unseen stones in it’s hidden folds. It was only when the car was hitting warp speed on the autobahn again that they decided to part company from my car. Normally, this isn’t a problem, but when you’re being closely followed by a friend in his car, the destruction of his windscreen is inevitable. 175MPH stones took 3 size-able chunks out of his window. In addition to this, there were a number of peppered dents put into his front end. Henry was nonchalant about the affair and no amount of arguing would change his mind over the refusal to accept my contribution to repair. Sterling chap.

The next morning saw the five of us at the ‘ring car park. I was immediately teleported back to the first time I drove on the ‘ring, almost 5 years ago in my GTR V-Spec Nur. I recall enjoying a relatively well paced lap in this state of the art car that had just cost me in excess of £60,000, when a stealth black, Mk1 GT3 totally and utterly annihilated me by overtaking me on the outside of a bend whilst leaving me two thick, black marks across the circuit. Not only had I been dismissed so unconditionally, but the perpetrator also saw fit to leave me with his autograph, as though proud to showcase his incriminating evidence in what was, essentially, a brutal murder. I loped back to the ring car park that ill fated weekend and made an instant decision. I must buy a GT3.

So here I am in my third GT3 – a car which could comfortably claim to have been built specifically for this exact purpose. Parked up under the cafe, the car was battle-scarred beyond comprehension. Having survived a drift day, a drive across 3 countries and a 200+MPH jaunt across the autobahn, it looked like it needed a weekend trip at a luxury spa and golf hotel for some pampering. With a layer of dirt thick enough to change its colour and the nose cone home to an insect holocaust, there were no aspirations to grandeur today.
With Glenn and Pete’s gleaming RS next to my car, I may as well have been a Mondeo parked up beside them, such is the effect of it’s wounds from the three days before.

Eight tickets purchased, but I first want a lap with Henry in his CSL. I’m gagging to see Henry drive out here. He’s really set himself up for a fall as all weekend he’s been giving everybody advice with tips and tricks for the ring. He tells me I don’t need a helmet as we’re out only for a casual lap, windows open, have a chat on the way etc. I’m about to start stirring the Nescafe when we he sticks his ticket into the toll booth, qualifying a lap. What happens during the next eight and a half minutes was a revelation. Aside from eating my pessimistic hat, I was a front row witness to a spectacle of speed, knowledge and prowess. Every four miles, Henry would turn to me and ask “Are you alright?” as I would allow a rush of blood to escape out of my arteries back into my skin cells to allow the colour to form back into my cheeks. The surreal thing is, every single bend, curve, straight and narrow was described to me in minute detail, whilst at the same time my palms would get clammier and my yelps would get ever more silent. Upon returning to the car park, Henry asked if I wanted another lap out. Bears, Adenau forest etc?

The rest of my day was in the shadow of those first two laps with Henry. That’s not to sound too pessimistic. A ‘ring instructor once told me if you come to the ‘ring knowing everything, you will learn nothing. I emptied my brain, passenger seat and bladder of its contents and proceeded to enjoy seven laps of the best place on earth. There simply was no other place I’d rather have been. I am someone who relishes solitude. This is very relevant on a track day, but on the ‘ring it’s amplified ten-fold due to its immense size. Aside from the octane overdosing, it’s surrounded by beautiful forest backdrop and if you squint, you can imagine yourself on one of the colourful Gran Turismo 4 imaginary circuits. It’s like a walk in the forest. At 150mph.

The GT3 is in its element. It’s fast, competent and remarkably usable on a circuit that has a death toll in the 100’s. Its outright speed is stupendous and the ‘ring is all about carrying speed through the bends and using brakes as little as possible. In this context, I know of no other car out of the box that can compete at this level. Everything on this car is 100% factory standard and the fact that Porsche developed this car here shows. My courage develops as the laps tick over and as the day progresses, the circuit starts to empty as tourists begin their long journeys home. I’m not timing, but estimates from other cars that did time suggest a lap time of around very late 8 Min’s, leading up to 9 Min’s dead. This, for me, is deliriously quick. I’m still a minute behind Henry, but I’ll never attempt to achieve those kinds of figures, lest I decide to return home in a coffin. Impressively, Glenn in his RS is also stupendously fast and makes quick work of me as he appears in my mirror then disappears into the horizon shortly after.

As always on a track day, I leave my last lap on my ticket unused and I decide to return home on a massive high. I have been intoxicated, rejuvenated, liberated….I am already thinking about my next booked event here back in July. It’s too far away and when I get back to the UK, I eventually put my name up for an event in May. But for the now, my drive back to the UK is a serene, hypnotic affair. We chase the sun for what appears to be the best part of four hours. When we reach Calais, my eyes are fatigued from the squinting and my body feels weary from 2500 miles of serious driving. My bladder is large enough to levitate the next Virgin Atlantic crossing attempt but I still manage to grab a cafe noir before we are ushered onto the train. I’m certain Noah had more time to gather his animals. The analogy is amusing as I arrive in London with my own hot branding on the rear of my GT3 in the shape of the Nordschleife circuit.

The UK motorways bring with it a nauseous, overcrowded depression and my thoughts are singular in ‘just-getting-home’ as I navigate from one extended roadworks sign to another. I have another three hour journey but I make good time by listening to classic FM on my upgraded sound system whilst depleting my final Red bull – ensuring my last leg is both drama free and efficient.

As I reverse back into my garage and pull my handbrake up for the last time, I turn off the ignition and my ears are buzzing, my eyes are bleary and my body aches from dehydration and abuse.The carbon backed buckets have done a fabulous job of keeping my body in one shape (losing 6 kg has helped this, no doubt!). I feel slightly guilty as the car has had a battering 3 days and truly needs some love and care. I’m curious though, and I start the engine one more time, just to make sure. As always, the revs are blipped by the starter and then it settles to the GT3’s unique baritone flatline.

Good as new.