Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Day driving tuition with Ian Ashley (ex-F1 driver) – Supercar Lifestyle

I’ve recently become a bit frustrated that whilst I like fast cars, I don’t really know how to drive them fast. Having been to Supercar Lifestyle before, I decided to return, but this time not for a supercar experience, rather high speed driving tuition.

I found a one day course on their website for £450, although fortunately due to late availability I managed to get it for less than that. It was due to be from 9am to 5pm at Mira Proving Ground and the tuition would be a mixture of classroom and practical, shared between three ‘students’.  Fortunately for me, I got the rare treat of having one to one tuition with Ian from 12pm to 4.30pm instead – something to do with it being very last minute.

Firstly, Ian is a great guy – very likeable and has a huge wealth of driving experience. His tuition was immediately focused on the style of driving that race drivers use – not the style of driving you are taught at experience days.  So, we talked basics of car control, weight distribution, practicalities of how to shift weight and tyre contact to gain maximum breaking, turn in and traction for acceleration. We talked car set up, and how to get the most out of different car types, such as front or rear wheel drive, and depending on whether the car is prone to understeer or oversteer. The basic techniques we focused on mainly were trail braking, controlling the momentum of the vehicle, and getting the car positioned correctly for fastest acceleration out of the corners. I would say that half the time was theory, half practical. You will also get some amazing stories from Ian about when he was racing in F1, F5000 and various other forms of motorsport.

Don’t use this course if you want to drive a supercar. Tuition is (correctly in my opinion) in much slower cars. That’s because it’s about learning techniques – and that’s far easier done doing 70mph than it is 110mph! So we did a few laps in a Mini Cooper S – Ian showing me how to do it first – and then me. But as Ian admitted, we needed to get into a RWD car as early as possible as FWD cars aren’t as well suited to high speed driving (because they’re trying to do too much with the front wheels). We switched to a BMW 3 series – couldn’t tell you which one – not an M3 – I’d guess something like a 325i. Not fast , but with enough power to help me learn what I needed to.

I found the tuition fantastic. We did lap after lap, and admittedly it took a while for me to snap out of the tuition I’d received before (eg get all breaking done before the corner and then use a balanced throttle to get around it) and get into a more aggressive style of using the ‘free’ grip that can be gained by braking into the apex and forcing the weight of the car onto the front tyres (for grip) before pushing the weight to the rear to get as much traction out of the corner as possible.

I largely got there in the end, but it was obvious that now I needed to practise, practise, practise. It was also pretty obvious that I need to learn how to left foot break, and if I happen to buy a manual car again (I currently have DSG) then I’ll need to learn to heel and toe. So, next step is track days, and then I think I’ll book half a day with Ian to further develop my skills. If at any point I was in doubt as to how much faster the car could go when driven properly, Ian would demonstrate how it should be done and OMG, it’s fast. Really, really fast, even in a standard 3 series.  I couldn’t imagine him going flat out in a 911 or something similar.

One thing you will experience is overtaking a lot – even well below Ian’s limits you will drive that little BMW so much faster than the supercars being driven on the day. I was only overtaken three times – twice by an Ariel Atom on hot laps, and once by a Nissan GTR – either on a hot lap or being driven by someone who had done this kind of thing before. We were regularly flying past R8s, GTRs, GT3s, F430s, and I can only apologise to the drivers for being in a 3 series!

At the end I asked whilst I was there to have a go in a GTR. There was a mix up and we went for three laps in an Audi R8 (which was fine by me!). Ian wanted me to practise my new techniques but I will admit that throwing an R8 into corners at speed when it had just started to rain and I wasn’t familiar with its limits was a little daunting! Still, it was fun, and it’s nice to add an R8 to my little collection of supercars I’ve had the privilege to drive.

I would highly recommend the session with Ian. I left with a huge desire to keep learning and it won’t be long before I get myself to an airfield track day to practise my new techniques in my own car. Just to be clear – don’t expect to drive a supercar, or get any in-car footage, but do expect to learn how to drive a lot faster than you currently can.