Marcos Diary - Trials and tribulations of living with a 25 year old car!

Subj: Day at Brands Hatch Racing School, 1996

When I visited the C&S classic car show at the NEC in May, I idly dropped an entry form for a competition in my wife's name into the box and promptly forgot about it.

I think I noticed the prize at the time, but had completely forgotten it by the time Mandy called me at work to tell me that she’d just had a phone call from Brands Hatch to say she’d won a day at the racing school, courtesy of Auto Express. This was good news, but the better news was that she’d decided to give me the day as my wedding anniversary present - what a wonderful wife, as I know she’d dearly love such a day herself - clue for a future present.

The prize was a Super-trial with the Nigel Mansell racing school on the Indy circuit at Brands Hatch (this includes Paddock, Druids, but returns across McLarens to give a 1.2 mile circuit).

The course consists of 3 laps driving an instructor around in a BMW 318, being assessed, followed by 2 laps of the instructor driving you around to see how it’s supposed to be done. Next is 8 laps in a Formula First. After this you get 20 minutes further instruction in the BMW followed by another 12 laps in the single seater, during which you aim to better a target time on at least two laps.

I was pleased to find that most of the other participants were a little nervous as we were given a briefing on the lines, the flags, the cars and the rules. We were told that we would only be allowed out in the single seaters if we better a 60% rating in the BMW, although we were assured that this was fairly easy to achieve.

After lunch, we were allocated a BMW and instructor and set off. As we pulled off up the pit lane exit, the nerves seemed to evaporate and with the instructor reminding me now and again where the line was supposed to be I did my 3 laps, becoming more comfortable with the lines and the car as I went. I was relieved to find that I’d achieved 78%, plenty to get me into the single seater. When the instructor took over, he showed just what separates the racing driver from the ‘wannabe’ as he threaded the car around at a much faster pace than I’d been doing, although it’s fair to say that the 4000 rpm limit imposed on the students was comprehensively broken by the instructor. On a couple of occasions the car was locked up as we approached corners, but it never felt dangerous. On returning to the control tower, we were congratulated on passing the assessment (no-one in my group of around 25 failed) and allocated a single seater. I think it's fair to say that the first 8 laps with the single seater are nothing but a blur. I had no idea how many laps I did and aside from being passed by an instructor pedalled BMW and having to slow almost to a stop as a fellow student totally missed the braking point for a corner, the session is just a cloud of excitement. The £85 ‘initial trial’ stops here, but if I’d paid for it I’d’ve felt very frustrated. Luckily, my prize promised more time on the track.

We returned to the BMWs next, with me driving and an instructor assessing and attempting to correct faults. This session was supposed to last 20 minutes. It may have done, but it felt like about 5. The instructor allowed me to use 5000 rpm, so the 318is was exhibiting some power and I was soon lapping much faster than I had been in either the BMW or the Formula First earlier in the day. I passed loads of people in BMWs and single seaters in this spell and felt very confident afterwards. The experience of exiting the downhill Paddock, with the foot hard down on the accelerator and the car drifting out towards the run off, was probably worth the £155 they charge for the Super-trial alone and the satisfaction of getting the Graham Hill bend, Cooper straight, Surtees/McLaren/Clark stretch right was a great bonus (when I did...)!

I got a report on my driving after this session which rated my performance as Good and the comments noted that I had ‘a very good drive’, but shouldn’t ‘bully the car’. I obviously had no problem being accurate and fast, but I need to be smoother before Frank Williams beats a path to my door!

However, there was still one challenge awaiting me. I returned to the Formula First (the bottom of the single seater ladder they may be, but with XR2 power in a tiny, lightweight chassis, they aren’t slow and 4000 rpm in fourth is reputed to be 90 mph) for my 12 timed laps.

The time set for the lap of the circuit on the dry, sunny day was 74 seconds. My fellow students and I wondered how we’d know how close we were to the time, but in the event we needn’t have worried. The responsiveness of the steering and lack of bulk of the single seater makes them a real pleasure to drive and after just 3 laps I got the green flag to indicate that I’d done two laps under the 74 second target time. However, the time was irrelevant as I strove to improve my lines and remember to push the throttle all the way down to maintain a better pace. By now, I was familiar enough with the car to get the line right about 75% of the time and my laps were pretty consistent around 70 seconds (the lap record is 50 seconds, but bear in mind we were honour bound to the 4000 rpm , which is below the power band on the FFirsts), except when I encountered slower traffic in the slow corners. The only slightly tense moments came when I had to pass another single seater on the right into Druids (against the rules, but he’d clearly almost stopped to let me past - This earned me a furiously waved yellow flag the next time I passed the pits) and then when I went 3 abreast with a couple of BMWs on the Brabham straight.

Like all good things, though, it had to come to an end and after the 12th laps I got the chequered flag to call me in. I had a last lap blast through Paddock, Druids, Graham Hill, Cooper Straight and Surtees before backing off for the pit lane entrance.

The only down-side to the day was that there seemed to be a lot of waiting around. Many of the other participants had bought wives, girlfriends, husbands, boyfriends, babies, parents, etc, but they must have been bored stiff for long spells whilst their partners waited for their next spell on the track. Mandy didn’t come with me and I’m glad she didn’t.

As a free prize, the day was an absolute winner, and I don’t think I would’ve felt disappointed if I’d spent the £155 cash. As well as being a fun day out, the Super Trial acts as the first step in a course towards attaining a racing licence and I’m already working out when I’m going back for the next step which is 2 sets of 10 laps at 5000 rpm in the single seater aiming for two lower target lap times.

I don’t suppose I’ll ever be rich enough to go racing, and doubt I’d ever have the desire to risk my Marcos (or any other car) amongst other, better funded, drivers, but the experience of driving fast on a race track is quite unlike that of driving on the road, even at high speed, and I’ll be trying to find an opportunity to do it again as soon as possible!

Most circuits run similar schools, so there’ll be one near to you. So, if you’ve never tried it, I’d wholeheartedly recommend it!

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