19 Nov 2013

Taking to the track for the first time

A few weeks ago, Graham King had his first experience of track driving. He expected big things. Was he disappointed?

I recently went on a driving experience at the Thruxton circuit in Hampshire. Big whup, you might think. Well, big whup indeed because it was the first time I had ever driven on a race track.

As you might expect, I was a little apprehensive when I arrived at Thruxton on a decidedly damp, autumnal morning. But not about the driving. I’ve spent the better part of 20 years studying the principles of track driving and practicing them as far as is sensible on the road. I wasn’t even perturbed by the fact that Thruxton is the fastest track in the whole of the UK. I knew I’d be lucky to see 130mph, which isn’t really all that fast.

So why the apprehension? I was afraid I would get found out.

You see, I labour under the delusion that I’m a good driver. As I’ve said, I know the principles of fast driving intimately, but I’ve only ever practiced them on the road. Relatively slowly. In low-powered, front-wheel-drive hatchbacks. Cars that are rather more forgiving of idiocy than a high-power, mid-engined sports car.

My belief in my ability is not entirely without foundation, however. I’ve never had complaints from passengers when I’ve been on it. In my other life as a coach driver, I’ve had so many compliments on my driving that I don’t grin inanely when I get them any more. And more importantly, people whose opinion I value have told me I’m a good driver. But if there were any gaps in my skill set, the track would show them up.

There was more than dumb pride riding on the day too, since it would be the first step in realising my life-long ambition of becoming a racing driver. Only an amateur racing driver, but even so my competitive streak wouldn’t let me tool around as a Tail-end Charlie. If the day showed me to be a no-talent no-hoper, it would be the end of that.

So it was with all of this swimming around my head that I took to the track. And you know what, I didn’t too badly at all.

A couple of laps in a first-gen Porsche Cayman got my eye in. Thruxton is actually a pretty simple circuit. You only brake twice, for the complex near the start of the lap and the chicane at the end. The rest is one giant corner. For a really fast lap you do need to be on the right line, but I wasn’t going quite that quickly, so I didn’t have to worry about it too much.

Just as I was thinking I could go quite a lot faster in the Cayman, it was time to come in. But never mind, as next was four laps in an Audi R8. This was much more confidence-inspiring, despite the steering getting incredibly heavy around Church, the fastest corner on the track. I got quicker every lap, managing to find sixth gear on the run up to the chicane on the last. Unfortunately, that was the lap I worked out I could probably keep it just about flat-out from the exit of the complex to the chicane. I didn’t mind though, as the big finish was still to come.

It may have been twenty-odd years old and only have a 130bhp, 1700cc engine, but the Formula Renault single-seater is by far the most exhilarating car I have ever driven. The immediacy of its reactions and the purity of its feedback were on a different planet to anything else I’ve ever experienced. Again I got quicker on every one of the five laps, but again I ran out of time just as I worked how to drive it properly. Which was pretty annoying - that competitive streak starting to make itself felt.

I learned several things from the day. First, I felt I could have gone quicker sooner with some goading, so I need either someone yelling at me to go faster or a stopwatch. Second, and most importantly, I still think I have at least a modicum of talent, so the racing dream lives on.

But there’s still a long way to go and skills I need to acquire. And since my only experience of oversteer involves a handbrake and snow, I think a drifting day is in order next.

Article by Graham King