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Winter camp for people who love to drive

Porsche Camp4


If it feels like it's all going horribly wrong, you're doing it right.

An hour north of Montreal, the Mecaglisse track facility has been carved out of the ice and snow. Porsche operates its Camp4 program there, and with expert instruction and tons of practice you will see incremental skill advances as you learn to drive sideways.

Camp4 is unlike any other driving experience, unlike any other advanced driver training. While there is no question about the available power of the new cars we are driving – the Boxster S, the Carrera and the just-delivered Carrera 4S – this day will be about control. It will be about isolating specific notes within the cars' technological ability as well as that of the driver's. If the term "track day" has always symbolized cars flying past at whiplash speeds, Camp4 will force a reset.

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I took part in a one-day session that is representative of the two-day program on offer for the third year in Canada. Camp4 is also offered in China, Finland, Switzerland and Italy, with some skill level variations.

You learn and practise control and technique on a huge skid pad, a slalom course and a winding road course, all in preparation for taking on the race course. Though the cars were kitted out with winter tires and jammed with 1.5-mm studs, after a half hour of track use, most parts of it are basically ice, taking back any unfair advantage you might think the studs have given you. You couldn't do this day without them.

You know that helpless feeling you get when the rear of your car lets go? A good driving school will teach you how to control it. At Camp4, you swing it out on purpose, over and over, and press your car through the corners in a controlled sideways skid. Well, mostly controlled. With those big fluffy snow banks, it's a lot like bowling with bumper guards; you can make a mistake and be forgiven.

The day started with discussion of oversteer and understeer, something that, while you may have difficulty explaining it, is like the judge referencing porn: you know it when you see it. My favourite definition is this: "Understeer is when you hit the wall with the front of the car; oversteer is when you hit the wall with the rear of the car. Horsepower is how fast you hit the wall; torque is how far you take the wall with you." We are about to substitute snow banks for walls.

Starting off in the smallest car of the day, the Boxster S with its rear-wheel-drive and mid-engine, we've been told to get the car's rear swinging out, then back the other way. In a perfect world, it's slide, recover, slide, recover. In my world, it's slide, yelp, slide some more, recover, cheer and do it again. And again. I can tell by the squawking over the walkie-talkie that I'm not being aggressive enough, but this day really is about tossing your instincts out the window. It was a learning curve with all three cars, but especially the Boxster; it's a beautifully balanced car, and you're asking it to do ugly things.

The PDK transmissions in the Porsches means paddle shifting after you've put it in manual. The upside of paddles is never taking your hands off the wheel; the downside is decades of instinct with clutches and shifting. We took the tracks mainly in second gear, especially on the huge circular skid path where vision is imperative. You can't afford a single lapse in maintaining your eye line when you're flying around on ice.

After the Boxster, the rear-engine Carrera with its rear-drive is easier to start throwing around, but you quickly learn you have to get that much more weight under control, rapidly. Throttle and brake control are feathered; there are no big moves on this day, unless you count the crazy steering of someone who can't remember which way her tires are facing. Disengaging the stability and traction control later in the session, it's apparent why this technology is mandated in Canada.

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My favourite driver on this icy track is, hands down, the Carrera 4S. With its all-wheel-drive power and rear-mounted engine, we can finally use some throttle to pull out of slides that threaten to go off course. Brakes are rarely your friend in slippery conditions, and having control of all four tires means more options to get into – and out of – those long controlled slides.

So who is Camp4 for? The obvious answer might be those with deep pockets. A three-night stay with two driving days is $4,995, which includes all meals and accommodation at the beautiful Esterel Suites Spa & Lake. But it's also a one-of-a-kind experience (and it truly is an experience) that should be considered for the bucket lists of those who love to drive.

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