Lotus Driving Academy

20 Jul 2013

After my PhD viva I swore to myself I’d never sit another exam again. Clearly a fib, but then at the time I didn’t think they’d be as fun as driving small cars around fast corners fast in deepest Norfolk…

Yesterday Laura and I took a day out from our hectic work schedules to do part one of Lotus’s driving school, over at their factory and test track location in Hethel, just outside Norwich. I love playing Forza Motorsport, and wanted to see what it was like for real, but in a way that was unlikely to get me in to trouble – so a day’s basic track tuition in a car that is famed for handling seemed just the trick: a Lotus Elise.

The level one course is just your basics of car control on a track – no technical trickery, just getting used to handling a car at speed around a twisty track. And it’s the corners that are the things that terrify you at first. Anyone can go fast in a straight line – it’s carrying that speed through corners, or shedding that speed so that you can come out of corners fast, that is the trick, and this is where the real learning for the day was.

As a motorcyclist, you might expect that this is something I’d be used to. I’ve done the advanced motorcycling test, and a lot of that focussed on flowing your corners to maintain speed, but a bike behaves so differently in corners to a car you just can’t compare the two.

On a car I have (or rather, had) no understanding of how far you can push a car around a corner, and as such was quite apprehensive. It’s hard to articulate, but fundamentally it’s about a level of faith that what you’re doing will work before you do it. The idea of doing a tight hairpin at 50 mph is not something I trusted a car to do. But thanks to a safe space in which to learn and an expert to guide me, I now know better.

The north loop of the Hethel track superficially looks quite dull, but when you’re flat out in a car the 1.3 miles vanish quite quickly and you’re left with a series of quite tight turns: a twisty chicane, a wide hairpin, and a series of flowing corners at Clark that all need to flow well for you to take the incredibly tight Windsock.

The day was split into three sessions. Session one was mostly getting used to the car and the track, and the idea of travelling quickly through these bends. For the last six years I’ve mostly drive a semi-automatic car, so I was also getting used to using a manual shifter again: I have nothing but the deepest of sympathies for a little Elise with plate LDA 2 having to suffer my mangled shifting. I should probably send it a card or something.

But by the end of that first session I felt quite good. I’d even squealed the tyres in some corners. I was learning new things about the limits of how you can push a car in these circumstances (albeit in one that was designed for exactly these circumstances!). I was still struggling though with that trust in the car thing – at the speeds you’re going and the way you have to react you don’t have time to look at the dial before every corner to set your speed, you have to just feel how fast you’re doing. I know for a fact that the Elise dashboard has lights telling you the optimal time to shift, but that’s only because I’d read it before; never once did I see those lights on the track as I was too busy watching the road for my break/corner markers and reacting – I entered some weird tunnel vision where all my brain took in was the track.

Session two was very ragged. My gear changes were just all over the places, and I was messing up the very tight Windsock turn by going from 3rd to 4th rather than 3rd to 2nd, over and over. Terrible. The problem is everything happens so fast at that point – you need to turn, break, change, turn all within seconds, all with someone shouting advice at you at the same time. 3rd to 2nd for the chicane was not a problem, as there I had more space to think.

In session three I discovered part of my problem in session two was that having got used to a fast exit on Rindt, I was getting up to 5th rather than 4th on the long straight that followed, and this to me felt like progress. But actually, although there’s three corners between the end of that straight and my nemesis Windsock, the extra cognitive load of coming down that extra gear set me up badly mentally for that series of corners, leaving me feeling rushed all the way through to the end, and causing me to fluff it. By making a more relaxed entrance to that series of turns meant that at the end of it I was nailing Windsock every time, flying out of the tiny hairpin with a squeal of tyres and a big grin.

At no point in the day did I get a perfect lap, far from it. But by the end of the day I’d managed to get to a point where each part of the course I could do well several times over, and I was starting to be able to understand where coming on power early or late was upsetting my next state of the course. After three sessions, thanks to my instructor Tony, I’d gone from abject terror to only mild terror at flying up to Rindt hairpin.

But alas session three was the end of the day. We had one last lap though, this time with our instructors showing us how they took the lap. There the terror was back, though I had every faith in Tony not to leave us in a field of potatoes, but he was halving the breaking distances I’d used quite easily, and generally tearing up the track a lot faster – even with a similar top speed. Clearly I still have a lot to learn :)

The day as a whole was greatly educational, and greatly entertaining. Those little Lotus Elises may only have 134 bhp, but they let you wring their necks quite well, and dynamically they were wonderful. Now to work out where in our busy lives we can fit in the next two levels!