Lars Kern: Feeling Your Way to the Limits

When you meet a development engineer and test driver from Porsche, you wouldn’t really expect the first thing that he says to be that he goes easy on a new car when he’s breaking it in. But that’s exactly what Lars Kern does. He holds himself back. And he can explain quite clearly why he does it that way.
Text Michael Köckritz
Photo Matthias Mederer · ramp.pictures

Mr. Kern, how do you become a development engineer and test driver at Porsche?
I hadn’t really planned on things ending up like this. But a lot of people thought I was pretty good at describing how I think a car should drive. And what’s more: My way of looking at things and assessing them overlaps quite well with how the general buying public and the motoring press see things too.

How do you familiarize yourself with a new car? How do you go about understanding it?
I drive all different kinds of Porsches – historic race cars, the four-cylinder Macan, the 918 Spyder. Each car has a different character and a different purpose. So it’s not about projecting your own driving style and attitudes onto each car, but first looking at what the car can do and what it wants. The first time I drive a car, I treat it with kid gloves to get some feedback. That’s especially true for the steering. I often say to people, “When you grip the steering wheel, don’t squeeze it to death. Be gentle with it and the car will communicate much better with you.”

That way you’ll get some answers as to where the car’s limits are and how you can experience them. I think I developed this level of sensitivity because I haven’t raced go-karts from the age of three and I never really developed my own driving style. When I get into a new car, I probably take longer than usual to get up to speed. That’s because I have to get a feel for the car, I have to get used to it. Whereas a lot of other professional drivers get in and do their thing. But I don’t really have my thing, if you will.

I often say to people, “When you grip the steering wheel, don’t squeeze it to death. Be gentle with it and the car will communicate much better with you.”

Lars Kern

Could you say that you are trying to get a feel for the car’s personality?
That’s one way of putting it. Most road cars aren’t designed for hard input in terms of digital steering or digital acceleration and braking. That works for a race car, but not for a road car. Road cars from Porsche are a compromise, they straddle the line between sportiness and daily-driver capabilities. Of course, you could push every one of our cars hard toward sportiness. But in my opinion, that would defeat the whole purpose, nor would it really be in Porsche’s interest to do so.

Is there a checklist you work through, or is the process intuitive?
As far as the seating position is concerned, for example, you first look at the shoulder line, of course. I want to sit in the car, not on top of it – which means the seating position has to integrate me into the car. But with a Porsche, that’s never an issue anyway. You’ll always find a position that works. When it comes to driving, I’m the kind of person who feels more confident if the car communicates a sense of stability, especially when approaching a curve. That’s essential for me if I want to drive fast. Here’s another example of how I’m different from a professional driver. For them, that’s nice to have. But I need it.

"Most road cars aren’t designed for hard input in terms of digital steering or digital acceleration and braking. That works for a race car, but not for a road car."

Lars Kern

Does every Porsche promise you a typical Porsche driving experience?
Of course, it’s difficult to say this for all model series, but we do try to maintain a consistent level of handling. In other words, we try to ensure that the car behaves safely when entering a corner, especially so when changing lanes. And once we’ve got the safety aspect covered, we bring as much sportiness into the car as possible in order to keep the car feeling spirited and dynamic.

You also drive old cars. The feeling there is probably different than with a new car, isn’t it?
Old cars are more honest, simply because they have fewer systems. But that’s exactly why they’re also slower. For me, the mixture, taking the best from the modern age and the best from the past, is what we should strive for and what we always look at. That’s why we still have a Carrera GT and a GT3 standing around here in Weissach, and every now and then, when we’re dealing with certain issues, we say, “Come on, let’s take a look at it on an older car.” Of course, first and foremost it’s just nice for me to drive a car like that, especially an old race car.

What does the Carrera GT mean to you?
I used to have a poster of that car, it’s like a holy grail. It still is today, because there is no better car in the world.

What makes the car so special?
A big attraction is certainly the sound. Besides that, I think it’s just a beautiful car, everything is just right, every corner and every edge. I may not have a clue about design, but I find it to be very aggressive-looking, yet not intrusive as far as the lines go. I must admit that I didn’t drive the car at its limits today, but simply enjoyed it. That also has something to do with respect, plus the tires were still in delivery condition. So I thought I’d go a little easy on it.

Do you have another favorite car right now?
The 981 Boxster Spyder. There are certainly better cars for the racetrack, but the Boxster Spyder, the old one, 385 hp, manual, six-speed, is a super-light car with street tires and street suspension, so it’s not particularly hard. And it has such a nice, predictable ride. You can just play with the car.

"I’m not really allowed to say this out loud, but I’m someone who always turns everything off – except for the safety features, of course."

Lars Kern

You talk a lot about getting a feel for the car. Don’t all those assistance systems deprive the driver of a more intimate relationship with the vehicle?
That’s definitely true. I’m not really allowed to say this out loud, but I’m someone who always turns everything off – except for the safety features, of course. But I like to concentrate on driving, so I don’t need anyone to tell me what line to take or some system that takes over the steering.

I understand that if you’re just using the car as a means of transportation to get from point A to point B. That’s fine. But when I drive a car, I want to be involved. Features like chassis control help push the average customer closer to the limit, of course. But sometimes I think it would be better if we included driver safety training with every car, instead of building more and more systems into them. But as I said, the systems help make the cars go faster.

"But sometimes I think it would be better if we included driver safety training with every car, instead of building more and more systems into them."

Lars Kern

Power is not so important for you?
You can never have enough power, but it’s the mix that counts. The 385 hp Boxster is perfectly adequate for my purposes on the road. For me, less is more. Less grip, less power, less weight. I was once offered to drive a Lotus Elise Gen 1 at the Track Days, and I thought, “Oh my God, no roof and nothing, that must be awful.” But I didn’t have more fun with any car that day than with the Lotus.

Because it was so honest?
Extremely honest. I don’t even think it had ABS, but that was completely beside the point because the car was so transparent. By the way, this transparency is becoming increasingly difficult to implement in electric cars. Lots of people just want (…)

→ What old cars have to do with honesty, why Kern doesn't like noisy cars in inner cities - and what advice he gives to every driver? Read Michael Köckritz' exclusive interview in rampstyle #26.

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