Testing the UK's newest circuit in a Porsche Cayenne Turbo GT

99 porsche cayenne turbo gt dovenby hall circuit m sport drifting

Porsche Cayenne Turbo GT is surprisingly well suited to track driving

Malcom Wilson’s M-Sport firm has created its very own test track. We went for a few laps

There’s a brand-new racetrack just outside the office window at the Dovenby Hall headquarters of British motorsport engineering business M-Sport in the Lake District.

Strangely, the boss says he hasn’t driven around it much. That’s hard to believe when the boss in question is former British rally champion Malcolm Wilson, who just happens to have a collection of cars that would thrive in regular track exercise.

He’s currently more concerned with who else might like to come and use his 1.7-mile, £25 million investment than roaring around it himself, but he shouldn’t worry: I reckon plenty will.

Today, Wilson is taking a couple of hours out to give us the dime tour in a 632bhp Porsche Cayenne Turbo GT we’ve brought along. He’s not really a fan of the marque, he says, but his better half is – and funnily enough, she’s about to take delivery of a Porsche Cayenne Turbo S E-Hybrid. It will replace her Porsche Panamera, to make life ferrying around their grandchildren easier.

So what does a motorsport engineering company mostly concerned with rallying want with a race circuit?

“Seventy per cent of the rallying in which our cars now compete is on Tarmac,” explains Wilson. “We’ve developed racing cars as well over the years. So it’s a very useful thing.”

But the new track isn’t intended solely for M-Sport. It’s a key business asset being offered, along with M-Sport’s technical facilities, to the wider automotive and motorsport industries for vehicle engineering and development, as well as events.

It has been more than a decade in the planning and making, as part of a project that also includes a sizeable paddock development in which there are world-class workshop and fabrication facilities, just yards from the circuit barrier. Some of these will be M-Sport’s own manufacturing hubs, but others are there for the use of anyone who wants them.

It’s very much a ‘come along and let us help you make your next supercar’ type of offering – and once you’re done developing it, M-Sport could probably build your supercar for you as well.

“The germ for all of this was sown a long time ago,” says Wilson, before we head out for any driving. “It goes back to 1990, when Alex Fiorio and I were both driving rally cars for Ford. We finished the recce for the Monte [Carlo Rally] that year just around Christmas time, and I stayed with Alex and his family in Italy for a few days. During the stay, we ended up visiting Ferrari, because Alex’s father Cesare was sporting director for the Ferrari Formula 1 team, and I had a ride in an [Ferrari] F40 with a test driver around the test track at Fiorano.

“I already had my rally team at the time, and I left amazed at what it might be like to be able to go straight from the factory out onto the test track and all the advantages that would bring.

“It wasn’t until around 2010 that I mentioned the idea to the guys who had built the first phase of our facilities here at Dovenby Hall. They had never built a circuit before, but said they liked a challenge.

“At that time, the business was doing really well and we were already beginning to outgrow our existing facilities, so we pressed on with planning and preliminary work. It took what seemed like forever to get the planning permission, which we had to take through a judicial review. It was six years, I think, from committing to the idea to digging the first sod of earth. The track went down first, the paddock development thereafter. Now here they both are.”

The circuit was laid out by Apex Circuit Design, the British firm that recently also completed F1’s Miami street circuit. It is designed to FIA Category 2 standards; is eight metres wide throughout; has a 750m straight; has 18 possible circuit configurations; and has a constant-radius slip pad with sections of varying grip levels.

“We wanted to get some industry-standard features into the layout and have plenty of configurability, but I never got into designing particular corners or copying others from elsewhere,” says Wilson – clearly a man who’s happy to let experts do their jobs – as he pulls out through the paddock barrier and turns onto the anti-clockwise lap.

He shows us around with some gently paced laps at first, letting the changing gradients of the track unfold gradually.

The circuit has an unusual mix of open bends and fast kinks and tighter blind corners that either rise or drop as they arc around, with a couple of big stops and hairpins chucked in for good measure. It doesn’t feel like a long or complicated lap, as clean-sheet circuits like Ascari and Bilster Berg sometimes can. From a driver’s perspective, a good repeatable pace wouldn’t be hard to hit. But the topography could only be man-made in the way that it swells and descends in just the right places. It’s ostensibly a full-size version of a racetrack in a sandpit.

This clearly isn’t a track wrought into an existing valley, like Cadwell Park or Oulton Park. It’s not flat, but it’s not a natural amphitheatre either – and since M-Sport’s licence for it doesn’t extend to motorsport anyway, that’s just fine.

Wilson hopes in time to be able to open it up to the public on special occasions, a little bit like the hillclimb at Goodwood, although on a much smaller scale.

So what about those regulatory hurdles? Well, inevitably, the circuit has noise limits and a regime carefully policed by the local authority, as part of which it can’t operate two noisy ‘A’ days in succession (or even in the same week). As part of a compliance regime more complicated than any I’ve come across elsewhere, average recorded noise levels are as important as peak ones at Dovenby Hall. But, says Wilson, those noise levels haven’t caused problems with the neighbours so far: “We’ve got a special exhaust for our Ford Puma Rally1 cars that allows fast running without even going beyond our normal operating ‘C’ day classification. The standard exhaust on my Ford GT is within that level too.”

“This thing can pick its feet up, can’t it?” Wilson says of our Cayenne, as he gives the SUV its head through third and fourth gears, showing flashes of his former vocation. Then he slows down to let our photographer size up some photos, before moving over to let us do some fast laps and leave a few black territorial markings of our own on the mostly pristine bitumen.

Back in the paddock building, Wilson walks us around the many and various workshops, assembly halls and garages on the ground floor, as well as the meeting rooms and entertaining suites on the first. Right now, the place has a slightly empty, bereft vibe about it – and clearly not by accident.

“We planned this place out before the pandemic,” he says in a resigned tone, “and then we lost a big contract for a luxury manufacturer and Jaguar cancelled the I-Pace eTrophy that we were running. And then Brexit hit. These have been the toughest few business years I’ve ever known, and they still are.”

Wilson gestures to storage rooms intended for axles, engines and body panels, which he explains are instead – for now, at least – storing Crocs plastic sandals and chocolate bars. Whatever pays the rent.

“This is like going back to the beginning for us in so many ways, like starting again,” continues Wilson. “Now we have proper permanent fabrication and assembly facilities independent of the rally team workshops that can operate year round if needed. It’s a big leap for our capabilities. We just need people to know about them.”

Apex’s other circuits

Miami International Autodrome, USA

New for this year’s Formula 1 calendar, the Miami circuit is a temporary one (it’s designed to be constructed and removed around each race weekend) built on top of existing streets. With 19 corners over not quite 3.5 miles, it’s twice the length of Dovenby Hall.

Luanzhou International Circuit, China

This FIA Category 2 track is being built at a disused quarry near Luanzhou in Hebei province. It has a 3.5-mile length to combine fast-flowing bends with fast elevation changes and a long straight of more than 1000 metres. The site will also include a 0.75-mile karting circuit.

Bangsaen Street Circuit, Thailand

One of Apex’s earlier projects, having been opened in 2017, Bangsaen is one of very few FIA-certified tracks in southeast Asia (Category 3). A street circuit similar to Macau in its theme and 2.3 miles long, it hosts the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia and TCR tin-top saloon racing.

Source: Autocar

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