Tuesday 20 February 2018

Another day in paradise for Porsche petrolheads

Porsche launched easily its most driver-focused Panamera at a speed demon's nirvana, Race Resort Ascari. And Kyle Fortune was on the guest list

IT WOULD be easy to miss the small entrance peeling off from the A-367 Ronda road in Spain. Easier still when you've 430hp from a 4.8-litre V8 propelling you down the long straight that precedes the turn-off.

It's been an enjoyable drive up from Ronda, Porsche's new Panamera GTS doing what the Panamera does well -- getting you to your destination very quickly indeed. And that's no bad thing when your destination is Race Resort Ascari, an exclusive private circuit for well-heeled petrolheads to indulge in their octane-powered fantasies in luxury surroundings.

Think of it as a luxurious golf club, only instead of acres of fairways there are kilometres of perfectly laid, smooth tarmac. Gravel traps replace bunkers and there's a clubhouse with mouth-watering catering, a bar and a pool.

The locker room is a bit different though; instead of a small room stuffed full of custom-fitted Pings and Callaway clubs, there's row upon row of car. Automotive royalty too, with every conceivable exotic and supercar, with plenty of track specials and Formula 1 racers mixed in for good measure.

If you like your cars, you'll think you've died and woken up in Heaven.

It's Porsche's place for the day. Usefully it's been wise enough to put some flags up at the gate, and the Panamera GTS's brakes are mighty, so we stop in time to pull off and enter without causing a scene. Race Resort Ascari is not far up from Ronda, itself just a short drive from Marbella, and the route is an enjoyable stretch of quiet, testing tarmac: a serious drive, to a serious destination.

Ascari Race Resort is the vision of Dutch millionaire Klaas Zwart, and it is unlike any other racing circuit in the world. There are no grandstands, no advertising hoardings, and it's immaculately tidy. You'll not find legions of fans heading there at the weekend to watch races either; instead it's a quiet, discreet place for wealthy members to come and drive their supercars.

Klaas says it is designed for "unlimited speed and unlimited driving in safety". That's useful these days when even modestly powerful sports cars have the capacity to smash speed limits with impunity.

The Panamera GTS is such a car. Unveiled at the LA Auto Show at the end of 2011, the GTS is said to bridge the performance gap between its naturally aspirated V8 relatives and the slightly unhinged output and pace of the Panamera Turbo and Turbo S. Able to reach 100km/h in just 4.5 seconds -- and a top speed of 288km/h -- Porsche describes it as a four-door sports car.

It's also meant to be the most engaging and driver- focused Panamera yet -- hence the need to stop by Race Resort Ascari.

The specification of the GTS is promising and head-scratching. Porsche recently revived the badge on its 997-series 911 as something of a run-out special, and there are similar elements adopted here. So in comes more power, with a 30hp increase and a hike in torque to 520Nm. A more dynamic chassis is added too, lower with revised air suspension settings and larger brakes as standard.

There's a sports exhaust system as well with a 'sound symposer' ensuring that the GTS sounds magnificent when the exhaust's tuning flaps are opened by a simple push of a button on the neat centre console. The electronic safety nets are more generous in their limits, too, thanks to the standard fitment of Porsche's Sport Chrono Plus, allowing you to select Normal, Sport and Sport Plus driving programs.

All very promising, but for a car billed as the most involving (Porsche rightfully dropping the 'purist' tag it mooted at the GTS's LA unveiling), it's odd that Porsche has gone for four-wheel drive and its PDK dual-clutch automatic transmission.

Porsche already makes a rear-wheel drive Panamera, and could offer it with a manual transmission, but the engineers suggest that to equip the GTS so would mean slower lap times.

So for all Porsche's talk of a more engaging, more focused Panamera, it's been slightly lost in translation.

Sure it's fast, and for such a big, heavy car it's incredibly agile, but its crushing ability is delivered with a degree of aloofness and lack of interaction. And that's a shame when you're at a circuit where many of the corners are designed in homage to some of the best bends to feature on circuits around the world.

There are hints of Copse at Silverstone, a mini Eau Rouge from Spa and a left hander that's pure Mount Panorama in Bathurst. There's a testing chicane, high-speed curves and undulations and dips that compress and rebound the car, testing the nerve of the driver and the skills of the engineering team behind the car itself.

The GTS performs very admirably indeed, though no owner will ever drive it in such a manner. It's just good to know what it can do. Even the wealthy clients here are unlikely to ever roll their Panamera GTS through the beautifully finished pit garages and head out on to Klaas's track. They'll have something tucked away in the locker room: a more suitable, enjoyable car for the circuit.

The Panamera GTS does a great job of getting you here though, but you would have just as much fun doing so in one of the lesser Panameras -- particularly if you're brave enough to specify it in rear-wheel drive S guise with a manual gearbox. I like to think that the people who enjoy Race Resort Ascari in the brief free time in their busy lives will do exactly that, as enjoyable driving isn't always necessarily about being the fastest.

Even when you're lucky enough to have a circuit at your disposal.

Twitter: @Kyle_Fortune

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