Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Going dizzy

The horizon rotated around and around as I catapulted across the wet tarmac. I’d just got it wrong on the high-speed turn again. Although not that high speed in the grand scheme of things - about 80mph in the streaming wet - the corner in question was showing up inherent flaws in both the car and the driver.

I’d tried Andy Walsh’s techniques for high speed cornering with mixed success and it was rapidly becoming obvious just how much skill it takes to pedal a car with the same panache as the wry Welshman. Whatever I was doing wrong it was still immense fun, given more than enough run-off to pirouette to my heart’s content and a group of like-minded individuals who were all doing much the same thing. Admittedly, being principally cocooned in edgy mid-engined Lotuses, they had more of an excuse.

Come the afternoon we switched to a different approach. Two circuits were set up on opposite sides of the airfield and we were free to move between them. At each, people queued to hurtle round a succession of cones which marked the track from the grey expanse of tarmac that forms North Weald airfield. The Lotus drivers were seemingly all regulars who knew Andy, not to mention each other, well. They’d set up camp on the slightly longer circuit and the handful of newbies present were recommended to try the shorter sprint.

In the streaming rain my first run came in at a less than impressive 1:03. I went out again, determined to break the one-minute barrier: Out, round the tight infield section, onto the long fast service road, braking hard to a 180 degree loop around the far cone and then back, retracing my route and sliding to a halt in the finishing box. After a couple of immensely enjoyable attempts I finally crept into the 58s and I was grinning like an idiot. What’s more something strange had happened – on those slightly slower turns the TVR was pure joy to drive. After the merest hint of well-telegraphed understeer it would go into eminently controllable, deeply flattering power oversteer. Bargain.

And so, buoyed by the experience, I decided to try the main track. After joining a long queue of drenched Lotae I finally got a run at the new loop only to find it involved roughly the same track time as the circuit I’d just left. It had roughly the same number of corners, just considerably longer straights between. The competition was fierce amongst the Lotus boys, but I scraped anonymously onto the bottom of the leader board merely labelled as ‘TVR – slowest so far’. Time to head back.

On the other side of the airfield the crowd had thinned down to three other cars, dropping to two after a few minutes. And it was simply fantastic. Everyone was in good spirits, the car was feeling better and better, and I eventually summoned a time of 56.3 seconds. This put me well into Lotus territory (although not in the case of the guy with a supercharged S1 Elise who was a clear four seconds faster). What’s more, with virtually no waiting time in between the runs, I could afford give up on the stopwatch and stage my own mini drift tournament on some of them. Again the car impressed, but I couldn’t believe it was due to a dramatic increase of skill since lunchtime. It seemed likely that something in the setup (or indeed my technique) inherently favoured low speed corners - the difference was night and day.

Whatever the reason, the Car Limits activity day had been tremendous fun and fantastic value for money. It may not have quite given the track time of a conventional circuit day, but it cost a fraction of the price and still offered far more than a corporate driving experience would. It provided an excellent taster for Andy’s (much more intense, two or four person) driver training days and left me eager to book a return visit. Maybe next time I’ll finally be able to drive the car as flamboyantly at high speeds as I can while slithering around the cones. Maybe.

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