Porsche Experience Centre Le Mans
A few years ago, the idea of a new Porsche Experience Centre – like the one built at Silverstone – was floated by Porsche France to those in charge at Zuffenhausen. In principle, the board agreed with the plans. However, there was one sticking point.
Starting in the late summer of 2014, construction would have to be completed in just ten months. “Impossible” was the response from Germany, who had previous experience building such facilities at Silverstone, Leipzig and Atlanta. Why did the work have such a short turnaround?
The plot for the new Porsche Experience Centre was not in just any old location. It was at Le Mans, the setting for the world-famous 24-hour race and Porsche’s spiritual second home. After the 2014 running of the race was done, there would be less than a year until the circuit needed to be prepped for action once again. The race was on.
By last August, the ground had been prepared and, come January, the main structure had been finished. On 12 June this year – the day before the 83rd 24 Hours of Le Mans – the new Experience Centre was officially opened in a star-studded ceremony starring Wolfgang Porsche (who would help cut the ritual red ribbon).
Less than 48 hours later, there would be further celebrations as thousands of Porsche’s guests watched Nick Tandy, Earl Bamber and Nico Hülkenberg take the chequered flag in the number 19 919 Hybrid, giving Zuffenhausen a historic 17th victory at Le Mans. As opening weekends go, it was pretty much perfect.
More so than anywhere else, Le Mans holds a special place in Porsche’s history. Since its first appearance in 1951, the brand has always been represented in the legendary twice-round-the-clock endurance race, a record for any manufacturer.
That it was able to build a PEC at such an iconic venue speaks volumes for the relationship that Zuffenhausen has built up over the years with the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, organisers of the 24 Hours and owners of the land that the centre is built on.
Not only did the ACO loan out land but, led by president Pierre Fillon, they also contributed a significant portion of the €8 million budget required to create the 3,000-square-metre facility, proving that not only is Le Mans a part of Porsche, but Porsche is an intrinsic part of Le Mans.
Built on the site of the old Maison Blanche, the PEC provides an incredible view of the Circuit des 24 Heures. From the roof-top terrace, the cars at this year’s race could be tracked from the exit of the Porsche Curves all the way through the Ford Chicane until they disappeared for the Dunlop Curve. However, as is suggested by the name, the facility does not merely allow Porsche fans to watch from the sidelines.
Like the triumvirate of other completed Experience Centres, Le Mans offers the chance for customers and enthusiasts to get behind the wheel of Zuffenhausen’s latest and greatest. As at Silverstone, the centrepiece is the handling circuit, measuring 2,817 metres.
Unlike any other PEC though, this tarmac track includes a portion of the actual 24 Hours circuit, utilising the chute between Corvette Corner and the Ford Chicane. This is joined by a kick-plate area (used to demonstrate the effectiveness of PSM on icy surfaces), a skidpan and an off-road arena.
Even as a dyed-in-the-wool 911 fan, the latter was surprisingly impressive, especially when balancing a two-ton Cayenne at around 40 degrees (all while driving around in a circle).
However, the pièce de résistance is the Porsche Sport Driving School, the French arm of which was based at the Circuit de Magny- Cours (ex-home of the French Grand Prix) until moving to Le Mans in 2011.
With various courses for different experience levels, the PSDS at PEC Le Mans has access to the Circuit Bugatti, a 4.3-kilometre permanent track that includes the run through the iconic startline and Dunlop Chicane, as used every year by the 24 Hour racers.
As a taster of what’s on offer, we were able to jump behind the wheel of the new 911 GT3 RS for a few laps, instructed by Dmitri (one of PSDS Le Mans’ expert team of ten instructors). Getting to push any 911 to the limit is a fantastic experience in itself – one that makes the PEC concept nearly invaluable.
However, to do it at one of the most evocative locations in motorsport is mind-blowing. It is one of the reasons why since opening to the public on 1 July, PEC Le Mans had nearly 4,000 visitors through its doors in just a few months.
Another reason for this is Porsche France is projected to sell 5,000 new cars in 2015 and, like at Silverstone, every new Porsche customer gets a free half-day session at PEC Le Mans, valid for up to two years after purchase.
This includes time on the handling circuit, as well as a road test around the full 24 Hour track and a lunch at the new ‘Maison Blanche’ restaurant, housed inside the centre and manned by Michelin-starred chef, Olivier Boussard.
Yet, while Le Mans is a fitting location for exploring the dynamic limits of Porsche’s creations, the Experience Centre is not just about getting behind the wheel. Inside the cavernous facility, the ground floor features a display of the latest models alongside a concession for the Porsche Drivers’ Selection.
One story up, half of the first floor is dedicated to a Porsche Exclusive Lounge, where customers can personalise their dream car, all while getting in touch with Zuffenhausen’s history via a display of classic cars (rotated with the Museum’s stock every six months).
Here, the idea is not necessarily to sell; it is to build. ‘Social acceptance’ is the buzzword that is being thrown around, with the PEC concept designed so that anyone can visit and get in touch with the values that Porsche embodies.
On a day-to-day basis, the Experience Centre will also play a more utilitarian role. With the nearest Porsche Centre around 100 kilometres away in Tours, a workshop has been constructed into the building so that local customers have somewhere to get their cars serviced.
Le Mans will also be used as a training centre for all Porsche technicians in France, ensuring that all mechanics throughout the country are always up to date with the ever-improving technology on offer in Zuffenhausen’s offerings.
Many of the services at PEC Le Mans are, if you have read issue 128, not unique. However, thanks to its incredible location – a “legendary place for a legendary brand,” as Director General of Porsche France, Marc Ouayoun, put it – the centre is one of a kind.
For the French division, the building is a landmark undertaking that underlines its relationship with the ACO. Yet, for Porsche at large, the Experience Centre has a much bigger resonance. It is a symbol for all of the company’s best traits. For that reason, it should be firmly on any 911 fan’s places of pilgrimage.