Lars Kern is the guy who drove the new 2017 Porsche Panamera Turbo around the Nürburgring Nordschleife in 7 minutes, 38.40 seconds. He’s wearing Porsche corporate “casual” clothes and is being largely ignored at the official unveiling of the Panamera in late June during a bizarrely overblown event in Berlin. On a vast stage and beneath a complex light show and pounding music, ballet and street dancers perform together; the idea is to reinforce the dual character of the more luxurious yet more athletic new car. It’s all slightly baffling and highly amusing, but I have to admit you can’t help but be impressed by the event’s sheer scale.
Anyway, Kern is chatting to a few friends when I ask if we can have a talk about that lap and the Panamera in general. He’s pleased to help and soon I’m very happy I’m not talking to a well-prepared suit trotting out the company line. With Kern, I can truly get an insight into what this car is like. He’s driven it extensively on racetracks and roads, and can describe its character and dynamics brilliantly without the usual spin.
By now you probably know all about the new 2017 Panamera. You’ve seen the more elegant roofline, the 911-style rear end, and gorgeous interior with touches lifted straight from the 918 Spyder. You’re well versed on the new 550-horsepower, 4.0-liter V-8 twin-turbocharged engine featured in the Turbo and the 440-hp 2.9-liter V-6 twin-turbo in the Panamera 4S. Both utilise a new eight-speed PDK gearbox, with top speed reached in sixth, while seventh and eighth are geared for refinement and efficiency. The 4S hits 60 mph in just 4.0-seconds with the Sport Chrono package and tops out at 180 mph. The Turbo lowers the acceleration time to 3.4-seconds, and the V-8 will push this 4,398-pound machine to 190 mph.
There’s more, too, from re-engineered air suspension for the Turbo to the optional PDCC roll-control system that now utilizes electric motors rather than hydraulic pressure to stabilize the car. There’s an optional rear-wheel steering system that can turn the rear wheels up to 2.8-degrees, of course, to further aid low-speed agility and high-speed stability. That’s a powerful tool. On the 911 GT3 the steering angle is set to a maximum of 1.5-degrees, and perhaps this is a hint Porsche has exaggerated its effects here to counter the Panamera’s sheer weight and size. The list of new ingredients is typically thorough and highly impressive, but what about the finished dish? Until we drive it, Kern is about our best hope of trying to understand just how the new Panamera performs.
You’d like Lars Kern. He races at the Nürburgring, tests Porsche’s road and race cars, owns a 997 GT3 RS, and loves manual gearboxes. He’s also not one for toeing the company line.
“I was driving the car for the first time about one year ago and we’re always discussing things, asking me to do more laps,” he says. “Our chassis and development guys are really, really good drivers as well and really know what to do. But they always like a second feeling about the car so they ask me to do some laps and I gave them some information, what I think as a race driver.” So what did he think? “I think one year ago the car wasn’t really driving. It’s like this. In development, you always have cars that are shitboxes at this time. But you can feel where it is going. I felt at this time that the car was quite understeery, but we’ve now made it much more neutral. Also now with PDCC—it’s not hydraulic anymore, it’s electric—you get a much better initial reaction, plus it’s faster and lighter.”
Faster and lighter it might be, but the lack of body roll can be problematic for those things so prized by Porsche—feedback and driver enjoyment. Most engineers look at you like you’re stupid if you dare to suggest that suppressing weight transfer to such an extent can create an artificial and detached driving experience, but Kern admits as much.
“At the beginning you lose the feeling for the car, where is the limit,” he agrees. “Because even with race cars, although they are stiff they are rolling, behaving as you expect. So this was quite difficult at the beginning. But if you really do go to the limit, the car still has some roll and it really gives clear feedback. It’s not dead, you can really feel the limit, whether it’s the front or the rear.”
Even with such locked-down body control, the 7:38.40 lap time is incredibly impressive—as fast as a Lexus LFA and faster than a Cayman GT4, for example. How did the Panamera do it? Kern explains, “Like in all Porsches it’s the drivability. You jump in and feel comfortable and you know the car is exactly doing what you want. That’s the key part. We also have some things that help you, some systems. For example, rear active steering. It’s such a big car that this is important for areas such as Hatzenbach (a complex series of lefts and rights near the beginning of the lap). There the car is really strong. The rear-steer really rotates the car but not over-rotates. It’s exactly the way you want.”
Later in some of the faster sections of the track, the rear-steering setup once again receives praise. “Actually I felt the car more in the end: What the car needed, how much steering angle, throttle,” he says. “Especially in the slow corners with the rear-axle steering, it really kicks the car, and through the fast corners like Flugplatz and Schwedenkreuz it’s really stable. I think the minimum speed over the crest at Schwedenkreuz is [126 or 127 mph], which is f***ing fast. I looked down and thought, wow, that’s cool.”
Kern’s enthusiasm really bubbles through as he speaks, as does the surprise at just how effective the Panamera Turbo is around this most testing of tracks. “Although you’re driving such a big car, it really feels like a sports car,” he reiterates, almost like he’s still trying to come to terms with it himself. “But still there’s luxury. For example, at Antoniusbruche (the flat-out kink on the long, long straight) you’re doing [183 mph] but really like this:” He then mimes loose-limbed relaxation on the steering wheel. “With a 911 Turbo or GT3 you’re more like this,” and his arms stiffen and his hands fight back the imaginary bumps and wheel fighting in his hands.
Kern set the killer lap in June. Porsche tried initially to nail the time after the 24-hour race at the ’Ring back in late May, but the attempt was scuppered by mixed conditions. The company returned and in the end, it came down to five individual laps recorded over a four-hour exclusive test session. At the end of each lap, the car would get a new set of the Yokohama Advan Sport tyres. “[Stability control] was off,” begins Kern. “We always turn PSM off because with all our standard cars we are doing lap times [at the ’Ring], but normally we don’t promote them. We are doing it for ourselves, to see where we are if you like. So PSM off as we want to judge the car and not the systems. And the lap time was done in [automatic mode]. I was not shifting myself. At the beginning I was but the guys told me to leave the car [alone] as it exactly knows what to do—just concentrate on steering, throttle and brakes.”
Kern had done a series of 7:41s in that first week of testing and felt the car wouldn’t go any quicker but better conditions helped on the second attempt. He was happy about that. “For me it was the maximum I could do but the licence plate said 7:38, that’s what they made, so I knew my task,” he says. No pressure, then. Lap four was close. “I did a 7:39 but had gone through the Karussell [and made a mistake by going] up and out of it and then back in,” he remembers with a chuckle. “So I said ‘OK, give me one new set and I’ll do the 7:38.”’ True to his word the time came. A lap completed in 7:38.40.
So what, right? Who needs a big luxury saloon so capable on a racetrack? Kern is unequivocal in response to the question. “To me the lap time is still relevant and important,” he says. “It shows how sporty the car is. Everyone knows the place, everybody tries to set a good lap there, and I think the next competitor for this car is a minimum of 20-seconds away.”
That yawning gulf is obviously a source of great pride for everyone at this Panamera launch and a personal triumph for Kern. “We are driving other [manufacturers’ cars] for sure, but we don’t need to benchmark. We are somewhere between an S Class—that’s the luxury benchmark—and an M5 or something similar. The [Panamera] is what it is, it’s unique and special. We’ve seen the Alfa Giulia there testing with Pirelli Trofeo R tyres. This is something we don’t want to do as it’s not relevant for a client. We’re doing it for marketing too, but really it’s to prove how sporty the car is, not to cheat on our clients. Normally I’m the hardcore guy. I love having a 997 GT3 with manual gears, I don’t give a shit about touch displays…but this car is really great. Even for me.”
Of course he would say that. He’s here on official duty. But in the short time I spend with this guy I get the feeling he speaks the truth. Or at least what he believes. One thing’s for sure: I can’t wait to drive the new Panamera Turbo now, and that’s got a lot to do with Lars Kern and nothing to do with those weird dancers and the flashy light show.