In a bid to improve trackday driving standards, Johan Dirickx has prepared a trio of 944s - and issued the Sideways Challenge! We take an oblique view of the project…
How they miss one another I will never know! Two drift kings pirouetting their 944s in unison for the benefit of our lensman, full-tilt, sideways around Abbeville’s 13 tight turns - and a spillage seems inevitable. Supremely talented as they are, it’s just a matter of time before one or other overdoes it and the tormented tyres cry‘enough’ – and as Quinten’s car rotates, Johan ducks behind him and disaster is narrowly averted by a whisker. Things we do to get the money shots – and both 944s are frequently dodging Antony’s camera car by the width of a Rizla paper.
This is all very well as a spectacle, but it does have a practical aspect too. Johan rents Abbeville circuit twice a year as a venue for giving his RS treasures a blast, and he’s invariably joined by a great bunch of Benelux Porsche owners who chip in, equally hell-bent on extracting the max from their beloved Porkers. Johan also races his 993 GT2, 3.0 Carrera RSR and SCRS in historic events like Goodwood, Daytona, Laguna Seca and has also done Classic Le Mans in a Batmobile. In a bid to share some of his experience and enhance fellow Porsche fans’on-track proficiency he’s prepped four 944s appropriately. They are set up so they come unstuck easily and, with guidance and practice, the driver can tip the car into controlled and prolonged sideways motion. ‘People who want to go out on track with a Porsche and have fun with it and do some drifting can hire one of these 944s for the day. But I will only rent them out on an event that is under our control - you can’t just say, “hey, I want to rent a car for a trip to the Nurburgring,” I’m not doing that for obvious reasons. Only yesterday we rented one of the cars out and the gearbox got trashed already!’ That meant that Johan’s trusty spannermen Mike van Dingenen and Joe Pinter beavered away for most of the day in their Abbeville Nissen hut garage to rebuild the transmission.
Another reason for choosing 944s is that they are much less expensive than 911s, yet more powerful than 924s, and also easier to drift at low speed than Boxsters. ‘They cost between €8,000 to €12,000 euros,’ says Johan, ‘though we have done quite a lot of work to the mechanicals, put in the seat harnesses, the race seats, the roll cage, fire extinguishers, so we’ve made them into race cars effectively.’ All have equipment attached to the passenger-side transmission tunnel consisting of an independent handbrake lever and brake bias lever, so that the rear wheels can be locked at will, all calculated to enable the drift procedure. ‘I would guess that the values are now up to €18- to €22,000 euros,’ calculates Johan, ‘but for that price I cannot prepare a 911 for people to go out and thrash around a circuit.’ We have three cars at our disposal here: a211bhp3.0-litre 944 S2 and two 220bhp 2.5-litre 944 Turbos – and there’s another prepped Turbo back at base. ‘The original idea was to have one Turbo for the instructor and three normally-aspirated ones for the clients, but it didn't pan out quite like that,’ laughs Johan. ‘The extra power of the Turbo makes it easier to drift, and it means we can play around more with tyre sizes on the back wheels to facilitate the drifting.’ They run the same width front wheels all round so the rear tyres are narrower than they would be normally. Certainly, of my outings with Quinten in the S2 and Johan in the Turbo, the latter was the more vivid experience – and that’s not to decry Quinten’s abilities as he’s a hugely qualified circuit driving instructorwith experience on a number of European tracks – just that the Turbo is the sideways specialist’s star car.
In any case, the 944 is an inherently well balancedchassis, so it’s not apt to snap back, and once tweaked into a slide it can be balanced on throttle and steering wheel and the drift maintained all the way around the corner. As Johan says,‘The 944’s handling is more predictable and, for a novice, it’s an easier car to drive. A 911 is a handful if you don’t know what you’re doing, whereas with a 944 you have 50/50 front-to-rear weight distribution, so basically you put it into the corner and give it a flick and it starts sliding and it’s very easy to catch, whereas you have to be ahead of the game in catching a 911. What I want to achieve is for people to start in the morning with no sliding experience, and by the afternoon they can say, “hey, I know how to slide a car!”’ Punters don't just arrive and drive. For the first hour it’s mandatory they sit in with an instructor - in this case Quinten - so he can demonstrate the lines through the corners, and show how to modulate the car’s progress around the circuit by juggling the steering wheel and accelerator. Driver and passenger swap over, and the instructor can then assess the pupil’s level of ability and prospective talent. As Johan says, ‘he can visualise how you drive, are you hard on the clutch, are you hard on the brakes, are you hard on the gearbox, and then he will give you some advice. Quinten is very good at instructing people, and they feel confident when they drive with him and get better and better. And afterwards he follows you in another car to see how you get on, so he can tell you what you got wrong. People improve quickly, and even if they’ve never tried it before, by the end of the day they have much better control than they had in the beginning, and they feel wonderful about it because they’ve done something they never did before, with a reasonable degree of success.’
Johan and Quinten’s near-miss flags up a practical aspect that has to be taken into account. Most people here are regular trackday participants and they all fancy their chances with a bit of drifting, though Johan takes the view that the majority will prefer to rent a car rather than risk pranging their own car into the barriers. ‘We have a bodyshop back in Belgium, so even if they total the car, it will never be entirely written off because I will always be able to get some parts back. As we do everything ourselves it’s only labour which is expensive, but it’s not the same as if you were to trash a 911. I’m working with an insurance company to produce a policy so we can insure our clients, but it won’t be an annual thing as we only do two or three events a year at the moment. Otherwise, the client hands me a deposit and if nothing happens to the car the deposit is returned at the end of the day.’
And how many sets of tyres do they get through in a day? ‘How much do you want to drift your car?’ counters Johan; ‘if it was me I would probably need four or five sets in a day.’ Sounds like a promotional gift for a tyre manufacturer. ‘I think for normal clients just the one set will be sufficient, maybe not today because it’s getting very warm and we might get some extra wear on the tyres.’ And since a car slides more easily in the wet, does that mean the customer will be hoping for a rainy day? ’Yes, if he’s not afraid of the rain, and also if we do it on a wet day there’ll be much less tyre wear, much less fuel consumption, so for me it would be better to have it wet.It’s also fun to drive in the rain. But I have noticed lots of people hate the rain for one reason or another, which is one reason why I think we should get people accustomed to driving a car that’s drifting.’
Johan gives a demonstration. I clamber into the 944 passenger seat and buckle up. I thought he would do one, maybe two laps to warm the tyres up - but he goes for it straight way, blitzing the tarmac with sideways attitude and pluming more smoke than the Red Arrows. ‘When I’m drifting my aim is that, after the second turn, I need to have got the feel of the car, understood how it works, maybe not always perfectly, but there or thereabouts.’ There are other visceral sensations to drifting. Second time around, I can see the spent rubber literally smoking on the corner - and we’re certainly smelling it! The soundtrack too is something else: imagine those TV documentaries where dog-sled teams cross the Antarctic in a raging blizzard;well, the wailing, tortured tyres of the sideways 944 sound just like the banshee polar wind screaming across the ice-sheet.
He’d be a shoe-in for Strictly: twirling the wheel this way and that while dancing the Quickstep on the pedals, Johan elucidates: ‘We have a brake bias to the rear, so whenever you come into a turn you use the transfer of the mass of the car to get the momentum going, but if you then press the brakes a little bit they will help you set up the car. It would be almost the same as using the handbrake to lock the back wheels, but I’m not keen on using a handbrake, so putting the brake bias to the rear helps put the car into the slide.’ ‘And why not the handbrake?’ I blurt breathlessly. ‘Because when you do drifting you should make it happen with the transfer of the mass of the car and not with the handbrake. I know there are different theories; for example in their drift challenge the Japanese always use the handbrake to set the car up, and it’s much easier setting up the car with the handbrake, that’s for sure, but I don’t like it.’
The prominent easy-access handbrake is also a safety feature so that the instructor can retard a wayward pupil or client if things get out of hand. The instructor – Quinten in this case – also has the kill switch on his side too. Johan believes this is a neater solution than the more extravagant expedient of a second set of pedals. ‘I think this is a neater way, so when you hand the car to a client, he’s driving all by himself, otherwise he’d always have the impression that somebody else is in control; it’s all about building confidence, and I want them to feel as if it was their own car and it’s their own experience.’
Johan goes into the corner pretty deep with more power on than really necessary, then he’s effectively hauling off that power on the steering wheel, all the while modulating it on the throttle pedal. ‘You use the transfer of the mass,’ he explains, ‘so you come into a corner and you’re turning in, and the weight should be on the front axle, so basically your rear axle is lifting, so the car will then go into a slide. Depending on the configuration of your car, you need to counter-steer, and, for example, with a 911 you have to counter-steer before the car starts sliding so you have to anticipate that, but with a 944 you have more time to play with. So unless you go to the extreme with your slide, your steering input is very limited, because once the car is sliding you take over with the accelerator. So you get the car into the corner, start counter-steering with opposite lock, and then with the accelerator you create the angle of your slide. Those are the two factors that govern your slide, the steering wheel and the accelerator, and they should play together. The more you counter-steer the faster your slide will be over, the more you accelerate the longer it will go on for, but at a certain moment you will be going so fast, you’ll be going so wide in the corner that you won’t have the possibility of getting it back, so it’s always having a nice balance between steering and acceleration.’
That’s all very well, getting the car set up and sliding, but what happens once the end of the corner comes up? ‘The thing that people forget is that at the end of the slide you’re still counter-steering, your car is still going sideways, and most people are doing that right, but then they are not fast enough taking off the lock with the steering wheel. In which case they could be in the barriers maybe 200 metres further down the track. So basically, the most difficult thing is not setting up the car, it’s not the power-side as such, but it is getting the power-slide back into a straight line, and that is what most people tend to get completely wrong. You want to set it up, slide, power-slide, then get it back in line, and then once you can do that you have to go a little bit further and try to slide on the ideal line, trying to get the nose of the car onto the apex when you’re in your slide with complete opposite lock, and that is the nicest thing you can do. Your aim in a right hand corner would be to have your left-hand rear wheel on the kerbs when you leave the corner, but it’s very hard to do.’
That’s the theory! But minor factors are always changing, ranging from tyre wear – Quinten’s car threw a hunk of tread one time and he pulled up so as not to get a blow-out – and tyre pressures fluctuate, the track surface is changing as it rubbers up or rain falls, or there’s midday heat warming it through. The amount of ‘ball bearings’ on track is incredible: when Johan and Quinten were pirouetting in unison and my passenger side window was open, in lefthanders a hail of rubber granules was bouncing off my face and helmet. ‘You have to adapt,’ counsels Johan, ‘no two slides are the same; you do one fabulously well, you do the second one a little better or a little worse, and there is always something different about it, and that’s what makes it so interesting. You can try different lines, you can go to the outside or the inside, you can go to the apex and you can start playing.’
A lifelong love affair with Porsches blossomed after Johan graduated from university in 1989. ‘My father didn’t want me to go racing, and he always said if you want to race you’re going to pay for it yourself and he regarded sliding and track-driving as racing, and he didn’t want to spend any money on that. So the first thing I did when I was working was to book a course in France with the Peugeot drifting school nearParis. It was a three-day course, and the first day the only thing you were doing was just sitting in the car, hands on the steering wheel, being shown the correct manipulation of steering wheel, gearbox and pedals, including heel-and-toe stuff, and for a whole day we didn’t even drive one metre. The second day we started putting the cars into a slide, and then only the third day we could take them out of the slide. It was actually very sensible, because it taught the essence of good driving, from the seating position, hands on the steering wheel, how fast you can pick up your steering wheel when you’re working it, and you must always know where your wheels are pointing - if they are right or if they are left, or straight ahead. After that I started doing ice driving, and I’ve been doing that for 25 years now, going up to Finland for anything up to a month, and just doing nothing else but sliding.’ Aha, so now we know where the Sideways Sorcerer acquired the black arts!
I sense that he now regards the ice driving sessions run by the manufacturers as a soft option. ‘I first went with Audi and then with Porsche, using winter tyres, not studded or spiked tyres. In a Porsche on ice with winter tyres you’re going all over the place, but on the ordinary roads they’re all right. And then they decided to go onto studded tyres, which means you do have some grip. Whether that’s a good thing or not depends on how much you like to be on the limit of sliding. The last time I went on the ice was with the Turbo S, which is such a fantastic car that you don’t even have to know how to slide because the car will get everything back, and that’s very comforting for all the people who are on a one day course because they come away satisfied.’ So, if you fancy learning to drift authentically hook up with Johan’s 944 Sideways Challenge. Next session is likely to be at Abbeville next April, but watch this space.
There’s always a musical analogy to be drawn, and you don't have to look hard for this one:The Drifters’ Tamla Motown harmonies are an aural delight, and our drifting pair here aboard the 944s at Abbeville – Johan and Quinten - are a visual as well as a physical delight – provided the aroma of burned rubber doesn't repel you. And now, like Dobie Gray, it’s my turn tofree my soul anddrift away, and I’ve got my Peltor helmet on,and super-comfy Piloti driving shoes and Sparco racing gloves for good measure. I’ve moved the seat quite close to the dished steering wheel, and it’s easy enough to buckle myself into the four-point harness.I notethe red ignition turn-key, push-button starter, normal 5-speed shift – plus the apparatus for the erect handbrake lever and smaller brake bias lever mounted adjacent on the passenger side of the transmission tunnel. I ease out onto the circuit, and as I turn into the first abrupt right-left I know it’s a very forgiving car. From the outset it invites sideways action, quite uncannily. There are marker cones strategically placed to aim at for optimum turn-in, so you’d think what could be more simple than to aim the car at the cone, turn in, aim at the next cone, but the reality is that the faster you go the more difficult it is to hit the cone to get the line absolutely right.Even on the first lap I’m going quickly enough for the car to be working its tyres overtime, and it is significantly different to normal track driving where deliberate drifting is not of the essence. I’ve got Quinten in with me calmly issuing instructions, saying,‘yeah, turn in here, turn in there, accelerate here, 3rd gear there,’ and whilst we are indeed drifting, I can see only too clearly where I’m making mistakes by turning in too early or going too wide, and I concentrate on refining and honingmy lines and fine-tune where I change gear, figuring out what gear works best in which corner - mostly 2nd and 3rd, though I hit 5th momentarily on the main straight as the turbo bites. It’s satisfying when I get it right,though quite exhausting by the end of it. I’ve done 10 laps, and I’m quite hot, not to say a little sweaty as I cruise back into the paddock and switch off. And now, as the adrenaline rush subsides, I’ll slide off to the bar for a stiffener.