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Chris Ratcliff
09-03-2010, 12:13 AM
Say Ďdriving experienceí and two thoughts pop into my head, high end, high cost corporate days such as Palmersport or the Porsche Experience centre at Silverstone where your every motoring urge in indulged, and lower cost sessions with two laps in something interesting across a cone-ridden airfield. As a result, Iíve always looked upon the racks of boxed, carefully priced Ďexperiencesí at Debenhams with a sense that they might not offer the best value.

Then thereís single seaters. Yes, Palmersport has the rather delicious Formula Palmer Audis which Iíve wanted to drive before Justin Wilson first turned a wheel in anger, and thereís somewhat vintage F1 machinery if your pockets are deep enough. For the more ordinary wallet, the single seater experiences are somewhat baggy Formula Fords and Vauxhall Lotusís (if theyíve got wings) snapped up for a few shillings a piece, right?

As the calendar clicked over to indicate 30 years of my existence, I was presented with a Silverstone Single Seater Experience voucher. I was happy as I knew Silverstone had recently updated their cars to something a bit fun looking, plus for any motorsport fan itís certainly hallowed turf. Ok, itís not the F1 track, but even the Stowe circuit has seen itís fair share of Grand Prix rubber!

Early on a Sunday morning, my girlfriend and I made our way to Northamptonshire, with a sense of excitement not really felt since, well, the last time I drove to Northamptonshire to thrash some expensive metal thanks to PorscheÖ Entering the circuit, and following the perimeter road round, stopping briefly to admire the sheer number of Porsche Boxster Spyders lined up for what Iím guessing was either a launch event or press hoon.

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We crossed the hangar straight to a surprisingly busy carpark for a Sunday morning! The Silverstone Experience Centre was busy, and full of things to do. Themed almost as though itís an Alton Towers attraction, drivers were signing up, there was seating, a cafť, a GT5 machine (probably left behind by Nissan from when they pitched up with their Race Academy), and stands selling DVDs and photos.

All signed up, and having shelled out for the DVD because how often do you get to play in racing cars, we went into our briefing room. The instructor was somewhat brusque, but then our briefing was important. We were going to be on our own from the first second to the last. Going through the circuit corner by corner, then trying to learn the lines, braking points, then trying to teach vehicle dynamics in about 6 minutes. Thereís a lot to take in, especially if youíre not well versed in such things already. The important lessons though were; donít spin or youíre out, donít hold each other up, enjoy it.

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We all jumped into our road cars, and made our way down to the temporary paddock as the pit buildings for the Stowe circuit seemed to be undergoing a large scale renovation and expansion. There was also a large track being carved into the dirt too, either for Rage buggies or motorcross bikes! Now thatíll be tempted to try out!

Into a portacabin for helmet fitting Ė many still with GT5 branding, as well as names and flags of Academy competitors Ė before making our way out to the cars. Instructors are often racing drivers themselves, so the painted helmet in the cabin was no surprise. Iíd love to display my dazzling knowledge, but all I could work out was that one of his names was Leighton, he was in the BRDC Rising Stars programme, he drove something for 888 Racing, and judging by the square of Velcro on top, he did some sort of endurance racing. And judging by his grubby Alpinestars gloves and Prada sunglasses, he was a racing driver.

The cars are roughly set for different heights, and only a limited number have recording facilities. I was allocated blue 1, so I made my way over before jumping in and being belted up. My first impressions were that it was cosy, but not overly tight, even for someone of my height and broad shoulders. The pedals were at quite a steep angle and somewhat uncomfortable. Another click back on the seat would have helped there. Also a four point belt meant Iíd come out with both testicles in the normal position.

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Iíd read a few posts and comments about getting used to the controls. The brake pedal was almost solid, and the clutch incredibly highly sprung. There was little movement in the clutch pedal, and even trying to let it out slowly was difficult as the spring was so strong. The biggest challenge I had all day was the gearbox. A proper, old school, racing Hewland four-speed with a linkage under my left arm, and a lever which moved no more than about an inch in any direction. It was also a dog box. Thisíll be fun! With the car rocked back and forth by an instructor, I slotted each gear into place. Even without the engine running, it took a few goes. Gulp. It's not unlike trying to undo a bra; you can't see what you're doing, it's an unfamiliar action, and when it goes wrong there's a horrible noise.

One of the Renault pace cars (a hot Megane, with a cheeky Focus RS badge on the grill) made itís way to the track edge, and one by one we were waved off. The throttle buried, revs upto 3k-4k, and trying my best to let the clutch out slowly was rewarded by the clutch spring flinging my foot towards the bodywork, and a jerky getaway without stalling.

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First couple of sessions is following a pace car. You canít let the car build up too much speed, but you do get a feel for the unassisted brakes and the line Ė not to mention the frozen puddle to avoid. At slow speeds you canít really get used to the gear change though. Without really punching the lever and stamping on the clutch, itís just too hard to balance all the elements to make a smooth change. Linger on the clutch and suddenly all your revs have gone, followed by a graunchy noise somewhere behind you.

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Finally we were allowed out for real. Out the pits, through the first couple of corners, then hard on the gas. Itís got some poke! Itís not the same surge I got in the 911 Carrera S, but with each change slotting home, and brakes that really haul, it was such a visceral experience. The steering heavy, but not like a kart. More movement at the wheel, but still incredibly direct. A lot more sensation through the thin steering wheel too. The brakes were barely tested, but needed real attack on the pedal to get good stopping effort. They felt very proportional, the direct hydraulic connection making it easy to feel the pad working. The biggest challenge was the gearbox though. Fast shifts, when landed, were such a heroic feeling. The gearing too through 3rd and into 4th was so short, you barely held 3rd for more than 6 seconds. You really banged through the box. Coming down, an unconscious heel and toe again made a good shift feel amazing, but any mis-timings were brutally, nakedly, obvious. The grip was immense, and I only had two moments where either end of the car felt overwhelmed. Partly the cold temperature (Someone had seen minus five on their car dash on the way to the track) I think as the tyres still had plenty to give through the faster West corner.

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The car was sensational for sure, but all was not perfect. I was in a fully booked session so there were 15 cars out on track. The range of experience went from the keen to those wanting to try something new. Given the layout of the track (including the new esses and long right onto the main straight) overtaking is only allowed on the two straights, as a result bunches of cars soon form through the slower corners which take time to clear over a couple of laps. The freezing cold also made for painful hands as only thin gloves were provided, despite them being right in the airflow from time to time. I had a problem to, as my visor seemed to frost up. Iíd open it a click to get air in, but then at speed itíd snap shut, and a couple of laps later the fog and frost would set in meaning Iíd be trying to open it again. I also found the gear change a real challenge. Not being used to it a fluffed change from third to fourth, trying to slot second instead, would leave me lost, searching for a gear, and scrubbing off speed quickly. Not a fault of the car mind, just an indicator of the challenge involved.

So out the car, a cursory debrief, then back to reception to pick up photos and DVDs. I reflected on the day. The amount of time I had in the car, I was happy with. After 15 mins behind the safety car and 20 mins of free lapping, my shoulders were starting to struggle. My overriding memories though were the sensations from the car. The surge of acceleration paled against the texture of every control surface, the precision required, and the feeling of joy when everything came together just so. Itís a real treat for drivers who really relish a driving challenge.

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Tony
09-03-2010, 12:56 AM
Good effort Chris - good fun aren't they? :thumb:

I had an afternoon in a Formula Vauxhall Lotus - wings and slicks job - a few years back. Great fun but I'm not really designed to fit in something that small :whistle: :shame: :D

I'll look forward to the photos in due course then eh?!

Chris Ratcliff
09-03-2010, 01:07 AM
Funny you should say that Tony... ;)

There's a video uploading as we speak too, which you should be able to see soon by clicking here! (http://vimeo.com/10022163)

The password - for my driving is that bad! - is racingdriver

Tony
09-03-2010, 01:19 AM
I'll look at it in the morning - still uploading onto Vimeo ;)

Would you do it again? I enjoyed mine, but actually preferred sliding around in the Caterhams that were also part of the package I did :fish:

Chris Ratcliff
09-03-2010, 01:28 AM
Right now? Yes, absolutely. In fact, I could happily drive those cars hour after hour, pushing the limits, improving my technique.

There's a time and place for hooning (and I'd love to give it a go!) but these cars are so demanding of you as a driver, a real challenge of technique and finesse.

Nige
09-03-2010, 04:10 AM
Really get a great feel for what you experienced on the day from that report. Lots of detail and emotions. Sounds an interesting one for sure. :thumb:

Thank you for taking the time to write it up and share it :thumb:

Video still uploading :(

Chris Ratcliff
09-03-2010, 07:41 AM
Ok, not sure why the video isn't uploading. I've had to knock it off during the day, so hopefully I'll have another go tonight.

BTW, anyone who uses Vimeo free, when you upload a vid does it rocket through the progress bar, then you just have to wait with no progress indication?

Marty
09-03-2010, 08:48 AM
Sounds like a top day, Chris, nice writeup!

I remember doing my wet weather session at Silverstone and watching the single seaters go round in the freezing cold - didn't look like as much fun as your session.

Must admit, I've never been tempted to do one of those sessions myself. I know how bad I am at karting, so put me in a single seater and I'll probably be twice as crap!

M

orsonbuggy
09-03-2010, 09:02 AM
Great that you enjoyed it and thanks for an interesting write up. Brought back memories for me from yonks ago when JP ran his days at Bruntingthorpe. My lasting memory of the single seater was having to trust the downforce and turn into corners at speeds that were, in my mind, impossibly fast :D Brilliant fun :thumb:

Chris Ratcliff
09-03-2010, 09:03 AM
I wouldn't worry Marty, it's not timed in any way, in fact they encourage co-operation between drivers to aid overtaking, and use cones to limit braking areas to avoid hero moves. The last thing they want are cars interlocking wheels and getting airborne...

Like the Porsche day we did, the emphasis is on personal driving skill and finesse, not speed in any way.

Marty
09-03-2010, 09:05 AM
Wasn't thinking so much of the speed or racing, more the fatigue of driving unassisted steering - my last two karting races have been enduro events and my arms have died after 20 minutes. Give me something with wings and more power and they'll probably wilt after 10 minutes!

Note to self: get down gym more often, puny weakling.

Trevor
23-03-2010, 11:00 PM
Not read full report, will do that in the morning ...

I did that day last year with Joe. Great fun. Didn't use cones to show braking areas though! I managed to overtake all the cars, just, before time ran out. Awesome speed and great fun.

Glad you had a good day out.

Simon
24-03-2010, 07:38 AM
A great read, Chris. Sounds like you really enjoyed it :thumb:

Gary Kinghorn
24-03-2010, 08:03 PM
I need to try one of these sometime :thumb: