Mid-week long read: youth movement
The Porsche Pyramid is one of the pillars of our present and future success in motorsport, nurturing driver talent from grassroots to the pinnacle of international racing. And a key stage on this journey is the Junior Programme that cherry picks the very best drivers from around the world and gives them that elusive first footing. Over half the current crop of Porsche works drivers are former Porsche Juniors, so this is an opportunity like no other if you are serious about competing in top tier motorsport.
We’ve been allowed behind closed doors with Porsche in Great Britain to watch its own complex and secretive national Junior shootout unfold. It takes the form of a long and demanding single day that pits a shortlist of youngsters against a series of on- and off-track tests, both physical and mental, the upshot of which is a two-year factory supported drive in Carrera Cup GB.
The day begins early at the Porsche Experience Centre (PEC) at Silverstone, typically cold but mercifully dry and bright. Inside the centre, Luke Browning, Louis Foster, Lorcan Hanafin and Harry King are still admiring the Hugo Boss-branded Porsche team kit they found in their hotel bedrooms last night, a collective ball of excited, nervous energy. King is 18 years old, Browning 17. Remarkably, Hanafin and Foster are both just 16, too young to hold a road car driving licence in the UK. All four have been chosen from over 40 applicants, aspiring young racers from differing disciplines, all brimming with confidence.
Before breakfast, the four candidates undergo body composition analysis to provide a baseline for their performance throughout the day. Next up is media training, with each individual taken into a room where they are bombarded with fast, awkward and occasionally intimidating questions. The idea is to put them on the back foot and see, with the cameras rolling, how quickly they can think on their feet. Later, the boys will all be walked through their responses and given guidance as to how they might improve.
Other tasks include talking through a flying lap of the circuit and creating an off-the-cuff video entry as they might for their own Instagram or Twitter account; such are the PR and digital media demands on racing drivers today. They are also probed on the wider world of Porsche motorsport and tested on their brand awareness, shown how to build a relationship with an interviewer and to pitch your responses to the right level for the relevant broadcast. It’s fast paced and unpredictable, and still desperately early in the morning.
Following a formal briefing, the bread and butter of the shootout begins with hot laps of the Silverstone National circuit. Each driver is dropped straight into the current Carrera Cup car, a Weissach-built thoroughbred 911 GT3 racer, with 362 kW (485 PS) on tap and none of the driver aids of its road-car equivalent. One of the candidates has never driven a Cup car before, while the remaining three have a mere five days of testing between them.
On-hand throughout the day are recently crowned Carrera Cup GB champion Dan Harper, himself the former Junior, and Dino Zamparelli, another prominent driver in Carrera Cup in the last few years.
The sessions take the form of a series of timed laps, with full telemetry being deployed by Porsche’s own race engineers to closely analyse each driver’s differing techniques and abilities. They start on a set of used tyres, with just 10 laps to get a feel for the 911, with its unique braking and throttle requirements, before they are given a set of brand-new tyres with which to lay down some real fliers. At vital points of the circuit there are spotters, positioned to see if and when liberties are taken with track limits, in case the fastest lap is not the fairest.
After each session, the drivers are sat in front of the telemetry and guided in the finest detail through where they are gaining and losing, and what they can do to improve. A huge part of the test here is for these young men to prove they can communicate effectively, listen carefully and apply what they see on screen.
The final 10-lap session takes place on the now-used tyres they have just bedded in, and hopefully not worn out or flat-spotted. These are the laps that really count, when they have the extra wisdom of their own and their engineer’s experience to put into play. Each driver knows that, although they are being assessed across a number of challenges across the shootout, what separates wheat from chaff today is speed in a race car. And there’s no shortage of that.
Zamparelli observes that the standard is unusually high, something he attributes some degree to sim racing. All of today’s young drivers have already had meaningful experience on most tracks by virtue of simulators and games, and with it some transferable understanding of how a particular car might behave in the real world. James McNaughton, Porsche’s Motorsport Manager in the UK, reveals that he, too, cannot remember a shootout that was so close in terms both of talent and prospects. And the unenviable task of making the final call will ultimately be his alone.
When the candidates are all out of the cars and back in the PEC, it’s time for fitness. This starts with a VO2 Max test, a cardiovascular challenge that sees the drivers run as hard and as far as they can on the treadmill as its angle of incline steadily increases. (It’s exhausting to watch.) Following this, reflexes are tested, as is core strength, grip strength, stamina and explosive power. Each process is conducted under virtual-lab conditions, seeking out minute individual weakness that might cause problems down the line.
When all this is done, it’s back into their race suits for promotional video interviews and stills photography, a useful reminder that the job of the modern racing driver carries on long after the engines have stopped.
After a debrief the four hopefuls are sent on their way, with a week to wait until the winner is announced at an awards dinner for the previous season of Carrera Cup GB. Each has given every ounce today and it is easy to imagine the emotional turmoil they take away as the prospect of a life-changing opportunity dangles before them.
In the end, the young man for whom the dice rolls is Harry King, current Ginetta GT4 Supercup champion, the oldest and most experienced of the final four but, perhaps more critically, the only one with experience racing sports cars. His pace on the day is marginally greater than his rivals, his fitness and determination self-evident. But he also seems like a thoroughly nice guy, someone Porsche will enjoy working with and helping on his journey. “We’re not looking for a world champion now,” says McNaughton. “We’re looking for someone who has the potential, with all the training and support we can give them, to be the finished article in two years.” We’ll watch with interest.