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On track with Pat - A day of firsts // A driving experience at the Thruxton circuit

Published by Pat W

For my 21st birthday I was given a certificate for a 'driving experience' at Thruxton circuit in Hampshire. I was keen to use it but couldn't find the time until much later when it was in danger of expiring, so it came to be that I found myself at Thruxton one cold morning in early December 2001 to drive a Formula Ford 1600. (This rest of this post has been adapted from a series of posts I wrote for the F1NGers newsgroup in the days afterwards.)

Arrival

I arrived at the circuit for the 8.15am sign-in. The butterflies in the stomach had already been present for many miles, but increased dramatically on the narrow lane leading from the main road to the circuit, and especially when I turned a corner to see a Formula Renault by the side of the road next to a barn!

After signing on it was time for the driver's briefing in the building opposite. There were about 15 of us for the 8:30 session, where an instructor explained what would happen during the day, talked about racing lines and told us what to do if you spun. We also watched a video with a voice-over from Tiff Needell explaining the basics.

The racing school was running four sessions at once which meant sharing the track with the people doing 'experience days' in Formula Renaults (more powerful than my FFord), Ferrari 360 road cars and a few other things. I was in the Introductory group and given the designation Red 10 on my name sticker. If only it were five lower!

Learning the ropes

When the briefing was done we headed to some waiting Rover 25s. Instructors would be taking us individually around the track for 3 laps, progressively getting faster each lap. For the first two laps he explained the racing lines and about the cones that had been placed around the track at each corner. Mostly these indicated the braking point, the turn-in point, the apex and the exit point (where you let the car run out to the edge of the track). Basically you have to get as close to the cones as you can, he was almost driving over them! There were certain coned zones we had to run through slowly on pain of being brought into the pits early, these were the pit straight until clear of the pit exit, and the ultra-fast Church corner. I was also told to watch for traffic and wave it by if it was faster, but only when I was ready.

It seemed fairly straightforward yet I was worried and excited at the same time - could I remember it all under pressure at speed? What if I forgot and someone hit me and it was my fault? I soon forgot all these worries because even in a normal road car that third lap was fantastic, he was going all-out for the whole lap! And yet he was only using third and fourth gears even along the back straight where the engine was screaming for him to change up. This was my first time on a track other than karts and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

This is a good point to tell you about Thruxton. It can be described in one word: FAST. This is the fastest road course in the whole of the UK by average lap speed, the only place faster is the little-used Rockingham oval. After an opening sweeper there's a switchback 'complex', leading into several fast sweepers, up a long hill and into a chicane on to the pit straight. It has barely changed since the 1960s and pit facilities are rudimentary. It is so fast the BTCC needs to bring a different spec to their usual control tyre, and still suffers from punctures.

Here is the track layout from the paperwork I was given.

Track Map
Track MapCredit: Thruxton

Check out this onboard video of a Formula Renault on a very similar track day. It is faster than the Ford I'd be driving but not a lot. You can see the cones laid out all around the track, the slow areas, and the strictly-enforced rule about not passing unless waved through. Safety comes first when rookies are on track. This is exactly how it was when I drove except it was dry for me (but just as empty and windswept).

My turn

My instructor dropped me off in the pitlane and it was here that I had my first proper view of the race cars all lined up waiting. Now the nerves kicked in!

Next on the agenda was a drive in an MGF with another instructor. I was directed into a nearby pit and told to put on one of the open-face helmets on the rack. There were a group of about 5 people hanging around when I got there, when the instructor came along for the next person nobody went with him - so I did! Kind of felt guilty about queue-jumping, but what the hey, they had their chance!

So we walk over to a car and he says to get into the drivers seat. Okay. Butterflies. I'm in a sports car! Okay it is 'only' an MGF not a Ferrari but still, this would be the fastest thing I'd driven in my life until that point. A bit cramped in here, maybe that's because of this crash helmet.

He asks me to try the pedals. Wow, they're hard. Are you sure that's the clutch, not the bulkhead? "Okay, start her up." Me? Oh yeah, I'm in the drivers seat. I turn the key, and force the clutch down to move into 1st. Release the handbrake. Away we go. I slowly turn the car into the pit road from its position by the wall. A man is wheeling a FFord along in my way so I slow down, but in trying to find the brake I accidentally rev the engine, causing the man to stare at me. Oops. He moves out of my way, and I accelerate out of the pits. Here we go, my first time on a real live racetrack with me at the wheel. Quick look right to see if there is anything coming. There is, I let him by.

It's odd using the entire width of the track, especially since Thruxton is at least the width of two wide carriageways of normal road. This is a great car to drive. Good power, good acceleration. There is a lot of wind noise, but nothing I'm not used to the little Metro I drove at the time. This is a soft-top after all. The instructor talks me around the track.

2nd lap, more of the same at a higher speed, I'm getting the hang of this.

3rd lap, the instructor shuts up and lets me drive.... wow! I power around the track using all the lines as best I can. I go a bit too far on the inside of Church and clip the rumble strip a bit. No problem, just floor it out to maintain a good speed. I love this! 4th gear up Woodham Hill toward the chicane. I want to go into 5th but I'm aware that I'm not meant to, and there is a 3rd gear chicane ahead.

All too soon, it's time to come in, and I pull into the pits and park up alongside the pitwall.

Pat's MGF scorecard
Pat's MGF scorecardCredit: P. Wotton

Once parked the instructor compliments my driving abilities and hands me a report card, so I was feeling very smug when I got out of the car. "Good use of power" it says, I like it!

You get quite hot with the helmet on, so it's a bit of a relief to take it off. But it means I'm not a racing driver any more. I return the helmet and am told to go to the blue pit for the FFord drive...

And so it was time

I made my way over where a bloke called Stan took my card. I put on a full-face helmet and grabbed some gloves from the box so that I didn't freeze my f1ngers to the wheel.

"Put him in number three" said Stan. A large bloke with a beard took me over to a small yellow machine with '3' on the side and prompted me to get in, saying "just like getting into a bath".

I'm a shower person, but I climbed over the side of the car and proceeded to sit down. And down. And down. This is a long way down. Err, foot stuck. I get up again and try to manouvre my size elevens around the pedals. It took a while but I got there eventually. Hey, these pedals are hard too, harder than the MGF. And the accelerator is small. And there is no speedo, just a rev counter and a temperature gauge. I was asked to try the pedals. Okay. No, hang on.. I'm too far back. He goes and fetches padding to put behind me.

This is just like being in a comfortable bath, you could sleep in here. You barely feel the cold. You know those onboard shots you sometimes get with the camera just behind the drivers head? Not on the rollbar but just behind/alongside him. Well the view from the actual seat is exactly like that. I really felt at home there! Padding 'installed' it was time to get going.

"Okay then, start her up by pressing this button."

He pointed to a small, unmarked, innocent-looking black button behind the steering wheel. I pushed it. "Eruhuhuhuhuh". Nothing. Again, same thing. Third try with throttle this time. ROAR! It burst into life. I love this noise! Chugga-chugga-chugga-chugga-chugga. Right behind me too!

He motions to me to put my visor down. I close it all the way. He says something I can't hear over the engine. He comes closer and says I should leave it open a little. Next thing I know he is telling me to go!

The gear lever is on the right hand side, opposite to the UK road cars I'd been driving for 4 years to that point yet I took to it straight away. I force the clutch in, it doesn't move far, and move the lever to 1st. Clunk. It clunks! It's an H-pattern configuration with four gears.

Check the tiny wing mirrow, nothing there. I release clutch and the car lurches forward and into the pit exit directly ahead. I apply some power and clunk it into second. Cruising along the pit exit road slowly, I'm grinning like a madman. It dawns on me that I'm approaching the track and that by this point in the other car I was well into third. I clunk to third and floor it! Well, you have to try the acceleration... The car vibrates wildly and the engine makes a terrific whine as you accelerate. Up to fourth, more vibration!

Nothing coming around the track as I join, I head to the middle of the track to get ready for the Complex. The first major corner after pit exit is Campbell, a 90-degree right-hander you take in 3rd. I brake. Hard. Too hard as it turned out, so I let it roll toward the red cone denoting the turning point. I turn the wheel, and am surprised at how little it needs to be turned to get the car around the bend. You can really feel the slicks gripping the road so it has a heavy feel to it yet at the same time requires delicate positioning. Racing cars are so contradictory.

Once through the complex I'm into the long fast section. After a couple of laps I gain the confidence to put my foot down and I'm soon flying around the track, or it feels like it to me. I have to say the most fun corner on the track is also the fastest, Church. You approach far to the left, very close to the edge, in 4th gear at full whack. Just lift a little, move over to the inside to just miss the cone on the edge of the right-hand side, before accelerating away toward the left again.

I did five laps before receiving the "in" board. As I was rounding Allard, the first corner, for the last time I decided to make this a flier so I absolutely went for it on that last lap, if they wanted a pre-pitstop in-lap I'd give them one, I only wish they'd been timing us.

At speed you could really feel any gusts of wind, you got buffeted about and I felt the need to correct the car everso slightly at times. What it would be like in a car with wings I can't imagine. The noise from the engine and the wind is just incredible - that whine from behind you as you clunk a gear in and put the power on! Because the visor was open a crack the wind made my eyes water, but blinking a little more than usual solved that. Keeping it fully closed meant it started to steam up.

As I said earlier, as well as dealing with the position of the car on the track and how fast you were going, you had to keep a good eye on what was happening up ahead of you in case you needed to pass, and also in the mirrors in case a faster car caught you. That's easier said than done when the mirror is very small, vibrating violently and your eyes are watering...

I want to go back. Afterwards I had this overwhelming compulsion to install TOCA2 Touring Cars and drive the track again and again! I'd played that game so much before coming to Thruxton that I already knew which way it went, an instructor even joked about it.

So that was my drive in a Formula Ford 1600 car. I thoroughly recommend an open-wheel taster to anybody!

Bonus

The final activity for the day was a ride in a new Porsche Boxter on a hot lap. I very nearly didn't do it, not wanting to spoil my own run in my mind. I'm glad I did. After a bit of a wait for him to give others a ride I put on an open-faced helmet and got into the front passenger seat.

We set off slowly out of parc ferme to the pit exit lane, where I got a taste of the power! He accelerated hard up from practically nothing to pitlane exit speed at ease. In no time at all we reached the second corner (the first after the pit exit).

This was one hell of an exhilarating lap, I tell you. Being thrown from left to right and back again through the complex, powersliding through Church - getting the tyres squealing a little - this guy was sailing past any other car as if they were just cruising! And so close to those cones! It gives you a whole new respect for the qualifying lap. It was just the one lap, as we passed the chicane for the first time he dived back into the pits and it was all over. Easily the fastest car I'd ever been in and the best driver I'd sat alongside.

Since then I've not been able to follow it up with more track days due to the cost, which is a shame as after this I'd really hoped to do some more. What a superb day.

Pat in the F.Ford1600, Dec 2001
Pat in the F.Ford1600, Dec 2001Credit: Thruxton

A few atmosphere photos are available on my Picasa site although I had an awful camera at the time.

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