Monthly Archives: May 2009

The Art of Driving

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All of us are great drivers. We must be, because we all believe we are better than the next bloke.

Then why is it that there are so many bad drivers on our roads today? You will not believe the buffoonery I have to witness on a daily basis, whether I am driving to the shops or just out looking for a nice road, there will be some idiot doing something daft. I’m sure you have seen it too, and grabbed the moral high ground with a resounding toot on the horn, a yell out of the window or even a dramatic (but intended, for more visual impact) swerve or screech of brakes.

But I wonder what separates driving skill? I am not immune from yelling and screaming when behind the wheel, I have been known to let an almost dangerous situation develop, just because I am in the right and the other bloke was being an idiot. I have realised the error of my ways, don’t worry there is no preaching in this column, just observations, but I think I am a ‘better’ driver than I was because now I see these things and try and avoid them and get the car out of harms way. I say better, but better than what? I think better than I was, not better than anyone else. This, and the trip to the track last week has got me thinking.

Spa Eau Rouge 2As you all know, I have a very good friend, who expertly drives various cars very quickly. In getting a car round a track, or indeed round a twisty bit of road he stands head and shoulders above me in ability. To my knowledge he has had no training in driving fast, he hasn’t been driving that long but can handle a car with such mastery it makes me feel like a total novice. Is it innate ability? Is he naturally talented? I don’t think that’s possible as there is no way he can have a natural talent for driving, killing a mammoth or making fire is instinctive, 100mph exiting Eau Rouge is skilful or just plain brave.

I think bravery and faith play a big part in it, the car is technically capable of cornering, braking and holding together at such speed but will only actually go around corners as fast as the driver feels comfortable. I thought it could be that this friend of mine has only been brought up on a diet of newish, well maintained sporty cars, mostly ones with Gti or ‘R’ as initials after the badge, but handing my old everyday hatchback with its weak engine and knackered suspension, he was still able to corner at speeds that made me feint, then turn to me and grin “The double wishbone suspension on this car is awesome, look how the car turns in to the corner…” Same car, same engine same road but it just wont do it for me.

But there is hope. At the track another friend, with a very fast car that has has an absolute fortune spent upgrading it to a serous contender, offered some advice to this bloke and pointed out some errors and correct lines to take. I found he was then able to take corners faster, not kill the brakes and put in better lap times. All of this advice was based on technique, applied correctly, made for a quicker and safer drive (the brakes worked!) To us less brave souls that have a dollop of life preserving fear in our make up this is all very good news, because driving well can be taught. drive l plate cutI am not referring to the bloke in a Micra with a plastic ‘L’ on the roof that enabled you to prove to another bloke in a polyester suit you could parallel park without killing someone, I’m talking about driving a car safely and quickly, whether on track or on the road. Knowing the limits and recognizing the hazards.

Like minded people can help so can well organized track days where there is expert advice on hand, but beware of the know it all loud mouth that can out do just about everyone and shows no consideration as he sticks his poor car into another bend and just about makes it out alive… This time.

Drive fast, drive safe, drive well.

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Track Days, Spa and Nurburgring

I have learnt a lot over the past few days, a very good friend has spent the bank holiday weekend educating me on  some very important lessons. The first one related to driving.

A few years ago, I was visited by my wife’s American grandparents who thought it would be ‘neat’ to go visit Paris. ‘Great idea’ I said, ‘go by coach, or train or even plane’ So you can imagine my surprise when I found myself in Calais at the wheel of my very knackered Ford Orion with only an outdated AA map of Europe to guide me, no sat nav in those days oh no, and 3 expectant Americans in the back.

A word from one who has experienced it, Paris is not to be taken lightly. It was my first experience of continental driving and I vowed it was to be my last. I drove to Paris, found myself in some weird underground road system that resembled the London Underground, then, in desperation, found a sign for Boulogne and like a drowning man after a fun tube bolted for the coastal town. Only to find that there are in fact TWO Boulognes… the one I was heading for was going deeper and deeper south. Halfway back the brakes gave out.
So I swore that I would never ever go to Europe, and if I did I would never ever drive, but there I was at 4am behind the wheel of a very smart Honda Integra belting down through France, into Belgium and heading for the Nurburgring, having the time of my life. Lesson one, never say never.
DSCF0276For those who don’t know, the Nurburgring is a large (14 or so miles long)  track in Germany, and  for 22 euros you can drive your car around. You will notice I didn’t say ‘race’ as the ‘track’ obeys German road regulations, passing on the right is prohibited and if you crash you pay for the barriers to be fixed. Its basically a 14 mile one way loop with only 1 speed restriction, which is rarely adhered to , in the village section. Its bumpy, confusing, has a lot (over 100) corners and is very narrow in parts. Also, it gets very busy, and from what I saw, there was no control on how many vehicles were allowed on the track at one time, worrying and potentially dangerous. But all this I think is part of the appeal, people hurl £30,000 of car around it chased by people in cars that cost a lot less than that at speeds that make the most hardened petrolhead need a change of pants.
I’m not going to get into the ring here, but I can report it is terrifying, amazing, sickening, brutal, awe inspiring, fascinating and stomach churning all at once, and the cars in the carpark are to die for. I was lucky to have been with someone who is familiar with the ring and has driven it a few times so I made it back with out a scratch, but almost minus my breakfast.
DSCF0293Continuing my education, my friend then took me to Belgium, where we were to participate in a track day at Spa Francorchamps. The day had been organised by the Mitsubishi Lancer Register, MLR. It was my first track day for cars (I have done a few on motorcycles, Paddock bend IS that scary I can report) It was a brilliant day, well organised and fun. Safety was paramount and with the exception of a few offs and crunched wings everyone had a good time. Spa is a great track, fast and very exciting totally different to the bumps and grinds of the ring. We had access to a pit garage, yep the ones that are used by the F1 boys, I can say with some pride that I might have taken a whizz in the same bog as Mr Shoeymaker! There was some  spectacular metal on track, the Lancers were fast and agile and I was amazed at the level of skill at which they were being driven, indeed that was another of my lessons, DSCF0353without doubt my favorite car there was an old, slightly shabby E30 BMW stripped, caged and lowered but running on a stock engine with over 100,000 miles on it but was driven expertly and very quickly round the track, thank you to the driver for an education! (I managed to grab a ride)
So what were the lessons learned? Belgium is truly beautiful. Northern France isn’t. Don’t let one bad experience ruin things. Buy a good sat nav, the one we used was brilliant, lane guidance and speed warnings are a great help. Nurburgring is not to be taken lightly, so go with experienced friends, don’t think you are a good driver out there because you are not. Track days are awesome. Driving on the continent is easy if you avoid Paris. You don’t need a bucket load of cash to have a great time at a track day. Take loads of pictures, because when you get home you will wish you had taken more. Last point, find a good hotel, we stayed in what can only be described as ‘castle colditz’ who reminded us on the booking form ‘Please note, we do not supply towels or beds’ and they were right!
Big thankyou to my friend for letting me tag along and for driving so expertly. Thank you to all the others in the group who made me feel welcome, and yes, Leffe is a very nice beer! Thank you for the ride in the E30, the car is amazing and boy can you drive! and last but not least, thank you for the offer to ride in that amazing Subaru, but I need to find a bit more courage!

Integra for the weekend? Yes please!

Integra for the weekend? Yes please!

Nextime I want a ride in the Subaru...

Nextime I want a ride in the Subaru...

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