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Infrequent glimpses of life on the South coast with the Mayo family.

Tuesday, May 30, 2000

A day at thruxton

So, what does a loving wife get a trendy young man-about-Fareham for his 32nd birthday?

What better, a day's driving at Thruxton, about an hour North of us.

Bid had persuaded me to book the day's holiday using some deceitful ruse about her parents winning a competition and the two of us being invited along to share the prize with them -- as if I'd fall for that!

The day consisted of a 30 minute briefing about the layout of the track and the etiquette on the track (how far to hand your elbow out of the window, etc). They also slipped in the fact that Tiff Needell (Top Gear) was an instructor there until two years ago. Of course it's a pity he moved on, I'm sure I could have given him a run for his money - particularly in the laps where it's compulsary to have a pasty one hand, a diet-coke in the other, and the phone trapped between your shoulder and your cheek -- now there's the true test of a driver!

During the briefing the drizzle started, of course, so my thoughts were "Hmm, I'm sure if this continues they'll cancel it and get us to come back on a nice sunny day, with perfect grip" No such luck, they just reminded us to be careful, and reminded us that any damage to the cars meant that the day was over for the driver - with no refunds!

Anyway, here we go - the driving was structured like this:

Rover 25 This was 3 laps of the course with one of the Thruxton instructors driving. He started off at around 30mph, talking us in detail throu

gh the turns and how to handle other drivers. We took the next two laps at about 50 then 90 mph - this was a bog-standard Rover 25 but it was flying around the course.

3 laps with me driving - with the instructor scoring me on the final lap. As in all of the cars, this was my first time in an MGF. The roof was down because of the rain, and you can't imagine how difficult it was to get in wearing the crash-helment. The seat doesn't slide backwards, so all the instructor could offer was for me to slouch down in the seat - Hey, I do already! Here are the marks he gave me:

On the final lap the assessor didn't say a single-word, he just sat there marking, so I didn't really get any feedback on the areas where I lost marks. Oh well, they seem ok overall.

Formula Sport 2000 Next it was down to the pits to get the waterproofs and full-face helmet ready for the single-seater racer. It used a Ford two-litre engine with a four-speed gearbox. I'd never been in a car like this before, so it was all a great unknown.

It took a couple of stalls to get the car going, the clutch was so aggressive (later in the drive it became apparent that once racing I didn't need to use the clutch at all). Anyway, as I came out of the pits in 2nd, changing into 3rd just as I was coming into the chicane, everything was really clumsy and difficult. Spray from other cars which were sailing past me was going all over my visor - this was no dream-car.

Anyway, as I passed the apex of the last turn of the chicane I put my foot down and changed into 4th, expecting the car to drift out a little - ooh no, as I accelerated the downforce (and the drag) increased and the car was locked to the road, so that's how it works! By the end of the first lap I was flying around the circuit - the faster I could travel around the course the better the grip I had. Suddenly I was in one of the fastest cars on the track, with only a couple of Ferraris and the psycho in the Boxster overtaking me. It was just heaven - flying around the course just about gripping the road - having to keep wiping the spray from my visor every second or so - for long periods I was just holding to the steering wheel on for grim death (it's only 1 turn from lock-to-lock, so you never have to take your hands off anyway), and also having to remind myself to keep on breathing, honest!

Ferrari 355 This was definitely intended to be the high-point of the day. The car I drove was the furthest yellow one in the diagram at the top of the page - it was an N-reg with 52000 on the clock. Getting into the drivers-seat was just sooo exciting: adjusting the seat in a Ferrari, putting on the seat-belt in a Ferrrari, adjusting the rear-view mirrors in a Ferrari, checking we were in neutral and starting the engine in a Ferrari - it was just so cool. Of course as I started the engine I over-revved it a little, just to hear it growl and watch the rev-counter race upwards. Setting off though, I was less comfortable.

The car was left-hand drive, and whilst I've driven left-handers before they've all been american automatics - the coordination needed to weave the gear-lever through that famous stainless-steel gate was just so difficult - I had to keep looking down at the gear-lever. This wouldn't normally be a problem but the way Thruxton is laid out there are only two places where you have to change down - each time it's just as your sailing into one of the hair-pin complexes ("Campbell" and "Chicane" - see the chart) at around 90mph. There's a fraction of the second to change gear, and the last thing you wanted to do was look away from the ooh-so-slippery road.

I drove four laps in the Ferrari, I only tried to change gear without looking down on entry to the chicanes twice - on both occasions I slipped into 6th instead of 4th - received no engine breaking, and was left skidding around the bend in the £85000 monster.

So, overall, it wasn't that much of a buzz, particularly not compared to the single-seater racer (where I was going totally hell-for-leather). Sure I did try to floor it on the home straight, and got up to 175 kmh (around 120 mph), but there was none of the antics we see on Top Gear. Still, it's an experience. On reflection I wish that for the first lap I'd just sat there changing gear continuously - to get the natural feel for the layout of the gearbox - I'm sure then I could really pushed it - really though, it would need about a dozen laps to get use to the size, weight, balance of the car.

Porsche Boxster Here we both had a lap as a passenger in a Porsche Boxster (2.7). It was driven by this chap who first raced at Thruxton in 1968 and has worked there as a professional driver for 30 years - did he know the course or what? All through the day the instructors had stressed how smoothly to drive: "never do more than one of Brake/Turn/Change Gear at once or you will spin out instantly" - this chap however couldn't care less, we were skidding around all of the bends, cutting up the learners in their racing cars - then slamming the brakes on as we screeched into the turn - what a laugh. Here's a picture of Bid having a go:

(Yes, of course she was more scared than I was)

Formula Renault The Porsche was the last car of the day, after which there was a quick debrief and certificate collection. It was only about mid-day and I had taken the full day off, so I decided to blow some of my own cash (�50) and pay for 5 more laps. Sure I could have paid to another 5 laps in a Ferrari, but it seemed a gamble whether I would really enjoy it, and there would be an instructor in the car with me. No, what I wanted was another go in a single-seater. The Formula Renault was the fastest single-seater available through the company (although they were rev-limited to 4000 on days like this, about 110 mph).

It was a bit of a squeeze getting in (the mechanic has to remove the steering wheel to let you in), and a really cramped driving position, but as soon as I was in it I was starting to get excited. Again it took a couple of stalls to get out of the pit lane (I ended up pulling away with the engine screaming, but isn't that always the case with racing cars in the pit lane?). It took about 3 turns to get used to the grip and the gearbox - the grip was even better than the Formula 2000, thanks to the front and rear wings.

This time I was easily the fastest car on the track - by now I'd done nearly 20 laps and knew the circuit quite well. Not a soul overtook me for these laps, I got five "SLOW DOWN" warning signs waved by the marshalls (this told me it was time to level off a little), I had the engine screaming around the Church bend and the 1/2 mile back straight.

After 5 laps I was flagged back in and returned the car, oooh.

Can't wait for my next birthday

Seriously, it was an incredible day out, I can recommend it to anybody. Unless you get to do lots of laps in a Supercar though, I'd stick to the single-seater races, they're a million times more fun.


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