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Panamera in Germany

Ronan McGrath proves you can go back!

THERE IS NOTHING LIKE the feeling of picking up a brand new automobile from the works in Germany. As is my normal habit, I had spec’d a 2018 Panamera Sport Turismo Turbo and would have picked it up at Leipzig… 

Until it all went wrong. The Dieselgate debacle resulted in Porsche temporarily suspending all European deliveries just as the car was ready for pickup, and furthermore, there were long delays in getting the cars cleared for entry into Canada. I picked it up, not in a pleasant European fall, but at DFC, my great long-term dealer on a freezing Toronto winter day.  

It was not quite a typical Panamera – all chrome deleted, no Turbo badges, CF instead of wood inside, torque vectoring and colour-matched wheels among other features. It was also very red, indeed…

Still, it was not quite a typical Panamera – all chrome deleted, no Turbo badges, CF instead of wood inside, torque vectoring and colour-matched wheels among other features. It was also very red, indeed.

The original plan had been to run through Germany, Belgium and Denmark, and then to return to the tracks at Spa and the Nürburgring as I had done with previous cars. The difference would be that all three had been the GT3 RS, and this one would be a very different animal. There was only one option; the car had to go back.

There is some complexity in doing this, but the indispensable Laurance Yap from Pfaff put me in touch with a full service specialist shipper, and in April I dropped the car off at a warehouse in Mississauga. It would take six weeks to be delivered in Frankfurt. 

On the appointed day, the car was scheduled to be delivered at 10am to the hotel in Frankfurt airport. At 09:45 a small unmarked enclosed truck arrived, took five minutes to unload, and there it was. The adventure would begin.

By this time I was already familiar with the car in Canadian road conditions, which meant that it was using virtually none of its potential. A car capable of 300 km/h is not ever going to be used even close to its capabilities in this country. 

I’m  familiar with driving in Germany and how to drive on the autobahn. Over the next few days, driving through Northern Germany, there was a fair amount of lightly travelled road and so it was possible to gradually run to fairly high speeds. The car already had about 5,000 km on the tires so it was best not to try for maximum speed. However, at 275 km/h it was rock solid and surprisingly quiet. I had ordered the extra sound insulation package on the car, so the V8 was unobtrusive. The fastest cars out there were invariably AMG and Audi station wagons and I frequently saw them coming up in my mirrors even at over 250 km/h.

As a road car it had two personalities. Driven on quiet country roads the experience is that of a luxury vehicle, quiet, very comfortable, and utterly untiring. There is no sense of a performance car, none of the taut nervousness of a GT3 RS, for instance. One thing I did miss was a good HUD such as the outstanding implementation in a BMW, but I felt I could drive it all day and still be relaxed. On the autobahn with a mid-setting, the suspension tightens up and the car feels far sharper and more responsive.

The open question was, how would it perform on a track? I’ve had cars on track in the past that were too heavy or under braked. 

Arriving at the Nürburgring on a Sunday, the track was quite chaotic. I had originally decided not to run at all that day, but the weather forecast for the following days was thunder and lightning. I had tracked here in the past in very bad weather and it’s an exhausting and scary experience and so I waited till late afternoon and headed out just in case the track would be closed the next day. I’ve also had several outstanding instructors here over the years and kept the videos of the sessions, so the track was immediately familiar to me. As expected, the Ring was too bumpy and uneven for the most extreme set on the car, so medium it was.

It was a revelation that it was possible to drive a Panamera on a track and make it feel like a much smaller car. Cornering was precise and braking was exceptional. Cars at the Ring have changed greatly. Years ago it was mainly old BMW 3 series, British sports cars and a smattering of Porsches. The paddock was chock full of GT3 RS’s, McLarens, M5’s and some pure track cars like Dallaras. The Panamera did not have quite the cornering of some of those cars so vigilance was essential. In the late afternoon the track was clearing out so there were times when it was possible to have no traffic at all visible ahead or behind.

The subsequent days were much lighter, and despite the usual Ring accidents and closures the car came out unscathed. I installed Xpel when it was delivered which is essential to run hard here. I once stripped the paint off a new car when I did not realize the amount of abrasion that can be suffered.

Before leaving Nürburg I had an oil change and inspection at Manthey who run the semi-works team for Porsche and are also an authorized dealer. In their showroom, they had the most desirable GT2 RS. Their version is lightened; having a complete suspension and braking replacement and different aerodynamics. It was street legal but looked to be the ultimate RS.

Sitting down over dinner I reviewed some video of Spa. I would be there the next day. Unlike the Nordschleife, I had not been there for years, and had no intuitive feel or track memory. I booked an instructor.

Spa is very special. It has a long history and is set in beautiful Belgian countryside. As a current F1 track, it’s much safer than the Ring with generally better runoff areas, and is silky smooth. The bad news is that it is unbelievably fast. 

After the normal registration and safety briefing we took a drive around the circuit, stopping with the chief instructor to discuss critical corners. From Eau Rouge to Radillon it’s one of the most celebrated corners in F1 and is impossible to appreciate how steep and blind it is without walking it. 

The cars are also a very different mix than we would normally see in Canada. Lots of GT3 RS’s, a few McLarens, but also full race cars on slicks mixed in. Some people had full rigs and pit suites for their Cup cars. They all run together. While crash helmets are mandatory, as usual with European track days, windows are closed. Hand signaling has long been dispensed with.

My instructor had run thousands of laps here and so when the track opened he suggested we wait about fifteen minutes and then merge in. 

I set the car up to the most aggressive settings which makes the suspension rock hard, makes the PDK a lot more aggressive and lowers the car noticeably. It was a transformation.

We gradually got our lap times down. This is a very demanding track for a car and requires exceptionally heavy braking which the Panamera does superbly. However, after about 20 minutes of hard running, the brakes and tires were very hot and the car was beginning to slide a little. 

Taking a break, we had the mechanic drop the tire pressure considerably.

Back on track, I found that I was nowhere near as precise as I had been earlier, as my instructor politely noted. We came in for a review.

I realized then, I had forgotten to reset the car to track and had run a couple of laps in road mode. The difference had been huge, but once we got the setup back we were able to run properly.

Driving on a mixed track in a sedan is a unique experience, especially with the closing speed of Cup Cars on slicks. I asked my instructor to drive the car and give me his impressions. He was incredulous that a car of this nature could be driven so hard on a race track. So was I.

The fearsome run up from Eau Rouge is a very easy place to have a major mishap. Entry is fast and the steep hill upwards means that the car sticks like a clam all the way up. The view is clear sky ahead and it’s not possible to see the sharp left turn at the top. Once over the top at speed, if you are off line, the car suddenly unloads and there’s virtually no opportunity to correct. It took me a number of laps to get this right, but once learned, the apex suddenly appeared as if by magic and with wheels straight there was a long, very fast, straight ahead. Accidents at Spa are less frequent than at the Ring, but they are often worse. However because the full F1 control desk is used for track days, the marshals can see every inch of track on screen. There are also many marshals as well as LED flag screens. On a full day we only had two red incidents, though one resulted in the demise of a new GT3.

Driving on a mixed track in a sedan is a unique experience, especially with the closing speed of Cup Cars on slicks. I asked my instructor to drive the car and give me his impressions. He was incredulous that a car of this nature could be driven so hard on a race track. So was I.

Of course this is not a track focused car like what I drove previously but it is much, much better than it has to be. Soon it will be back in Canada and in a way I am sad that it will never be stretched to its potential again. The amount of capability that the designers built in is simply staggering. 

Being able to experience this car in its natural environment was an unforgettable experience. </>

Story and photos by Ronan McGrath UCR member

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