Coastal road

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The coastal circuit at Anglesey’s Trac Môn will be the first place I drive a Formula Vee with a full grid of cars for company. After studying YouTube videos of last year’s race, I decided that it would worth heading to Wales in advance for some local words of wisdom and a lesson on the track.

The staff were incredibly generous and arranged for me to have time on the coastal circuit, despite normally only doing tuition on a shorter layout. Me and my brilliant local instructor JJ ended up having the track all to ourselves.

What a track it is. YouTube videos don’t capture the speed of the corners, the banking and camber, nor the absolutely stunning view of Anglesey’s coastline framed by distant mountains.

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JJ guided me through the lap. The first corner that radiuses more tightly than you expect before opening into the banking of turn 2. Exiting here leads onto the entry to the fast Church corner, and then onto a long kinking straight which ends abruptly in a hard uphill braking zone at Rocket. After feeding through two right-handers, the track then begins to tumble back down the hill and into a Laguna Seca-stye corkscrew. A tricky last corner involves waiting to put the power down and avoiding a nasty exit kerb to complete the lap.

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The Elise I was driving felt fantastic through both the fast and slow corners. Over-enthusiastic entries were punished by understeer, and I could occasionally feel the weight in the back of the car urging it to break away.

In the Vee, I know each straight will seem shorter and each apex will come sooner. Despite being still nervous of keeping it together and staying out of the way of faster traffic, my lesson here will allow me to enter next month’s Friday practice with the confidence of knowing the track. I will try to keep JJ’s voice in my head, to remember to check my mirrors on exits, and to try not to gawk too much at the view.

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First test

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Yesterday I had my first test in a Formula Vee. And… Wow.

I went up to Bruntingthorpe to meet the brilliant Alan Harding and his engineer Dan. We first took to the track in an MX5 to learn the lines and braking points for the Vee, which felt rather strange in the road car. Alan put up with my rather slow start to the day as I adjusted to a different style of driving. My brain was a bit slow to process learning a new track and not using engine braking.

After finally improving a bit, we changed over to the Vee. I was slightly nervous as I settled into the lower seating position and felt the rather strange H-pattern box.

But once on track – wow. I enjoyed the first lap so much I totally forgot to box and went around for a second. I’ve never driven anything like it, and I could instantly tell it was going to hook me in.

I had to keep an eye on revs – not exceeding a certain amount and not dropping below a set limit either. On the straights I had to check the oil pressure too. It sounds simple, but that mixed with counting laps, learning a totally new type of car and a new track had me pretty close to my mental capacity.

The speed was astonishing, it munched up a road car that was testing on the straights. It accelerates wildly fast, and it is by far the most agile car I’ve ever driven.

In my stupidity, I was braking unnecessarily for the corner before the home straight – something I only realised at the end of the session. Even so, I was within 0.1 of the top target time Alan set me, which I was pretty happy with. After a dodgy start in the morning, I had settled in and started to improve fast. That’s the first time I’ve worked on overall speed rather than just basic lines and technique, and it feels like the start of another enormous chapter of learning.

I’m truly hooked, and can’t wait to get back in the cockpit. For now, I still have a massive grin on my face.

Getting a grip in the wet

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“If you choose to race in the UK, you are going to get wet,” warns the MSA’s Go Motorsport video for novice racers. My last session at Silverstone may not have been in the rain, but the track was soaking wet and slippery following a downpour the night before.

This was my first experience learning wet lines. The dry racing line is polished by the passage of thousands of cars, meaning the surface of the quick dry line becomes like an ice rink in the wet. Add rubber oil and grease to the picture, and the familiar line becomes an unwelcoming place to be.

My instructor, Anthony, demonstrated the difference in grip levels by starting me on a normal dry line. The Megane I was driving understeered for what seemed like an eternity through Copse and Luffield, and twitched nervously coming into Maggots and Becketts.

Next, wet lines. He got me to avoid turning in where you normally would, going deeper and round the outside of corners to avoid the apex and pick up the less-used tarmac. The difference was extraordinary. There was so much more grip available that the understeer vanished, and braking in the middle of the track reduced the nervous back end stepping out. It was almost like driving in the dry in comparison to the normal racing line. Crossing the racing line makes you really feel the difference in grip. As I began to push more, I had a few moments – a slight tank-slapper coming out Brooklands and a few eye-widening slides coming back onto Club Straight. But my confidence increased as I began to attack Copse and improved my line through Maggots.

It was almost a dream track day – apart from one first-timer in a Porsche Boxster, the track was empty. As I left, Sky Sports were preparing to film a feature on the ARDS test which will appear in their F1 coverage soon.

Overall, another fantastically fun day, another great lesson and another eye-opening step on my journey to learn to race.

Silverstone’s National Circuit

Taking it to the edge

In last week’s sweltering heat, I took to Silverstone’s historic international circuit in a blissfully air conditioned Toyota GT86.

I was back for some more 1:1 tuition. This time covering heel and toe, trail braking and lines.

Silverstone’s historic international circuit omits the chicane at Vale for a fast kink. After a few laps getting used to the different entry, it was a lot of fun guiding the car in and out of ‘fast Vale’. The historic circuit was being prepared for the Silverstone Classic, where Denis Welch was to tragically lose his life on Sunday.

I took several things away from my time on the historic layout. The first: Corner entry. I’d been slightly nervously avoiding getting right to the edge of the track on corner entry, with the effect of creating a much tighter corner than is necessary. Jack, my instructor, showed me the difference of taking the car to the track limits: The corners become straighter, exit speed is increased, time is saved.

The second point was controlling the weight of the car. There’s a lot of inertia in a one-tonne car travelling at speed. I’d already covered using a balanced throttle to balance the car, but this time I learnt to use the brakes to transfer weight forward and over the front wheels. This allows them to grip better, and consequently helps the car turn in. If the weight is too far back, the front tires skid pointlessly and the car develops understeer. Instead of coming off the brakes before turning in, the technique is to gradually bleed off them before getting back on the throttle.

These two points, along with a little more experience with heel and toe have helped to increase my confidence. Thanks to the great instructors at Silverstone, I still feel like I’m learning a huge amount every time I get behind the wheel.

On to the next lesson.

Baby steps: Heel and toe

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Over the last few months I’ve been edging closer to my short-term aim of being ready to sit in a race car for the first time. Every time I get on track my confidence increases, but there’s still a long way to go and a lot to learn. Then again, that’s what makes this such an exciting process. My latest lesson focussed on heel and toe, and despite some fumbling and frankly, nervousness, the difference it makes is instantly astounding: It eliminates the back-end twitching on a downshift and makes the car feel more stable.

This was the first time I’d had a lesson on it, having attempted to teach myself the technique. Unsurprisingly I was making a few rookie mistakes, including trying to shift too early and being blipping the throttle too much. Tension from over-thinking also led to missed shifts, but when I relaxed into it and got a nice blip on a downshift before clipping the apex, it started to feel much better. My vision through corners is starting to improve, but is another area that also needs a lot of work.

Anyway, a few more lessons and I’ll be suiting up ready to go testing. Cannot wait.

Some inspiration:

Are gamers the untapped resource motorsport needs?

Gran Turismo 6

While Formula One still attracts huge crowds and big-ticket sponsors, sponsorship is still hard to come by. Teams racing in smaller competitions have an uphill battle to meet costs, and when title sponsors leave, the gap in funding must be found elsewhere. Many teams are fantastically entrepreneurial in their efforts to keep their cars on the grid, with perhaps no better example than the BTCC’s Rob Austin Racing.

Sponsors are of course interested in successful teams in popular, visible competitions. It seems to me that many such competitions are missing out on the captive audiences offered by the expansive world of racing games.

If we take the British Touring Car Championship as an example, the BTCC is enjoying undoubted success on ITV4, reaching an estimated 646,000 people at its peak last season. That’s a lot of eyeballs, certainly. But consider this: Console racing titles such as Gran Turismo and Forza have shifted around a million copies each in their latest versions, yet British racing leagues are totally absent. NASCAR, WEC and DTM are all represented, and this can only benefit the teams and their sponsors through exposure to international audiences. Instead of trying to lure studios to bid for the rights to create the next TOCA game, perhaps Alan Gow could offer up the BTCC’s technical expertise in exchange for high profile exposure in-game. If successful, this strategy could lead to increased international interest in broadcast rights for the series proper.

Just a thought…

Monza

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I attended my first ever F1 race this weekend, and it was a good one: the Italian Grand Prix at legendary Monza, north-east of Milan.The circuit staff were fairly relaxed, making it easy to get really close to the cars and the track (see above).

The track is set in a genuinely beautiful park – a far cry from Silverstone’s grey fields of tarmac. Highlights included inadvertently bumping into Alonso in his road car, being greeted by the affable Davide Valsecchi and finding half the paddock in the EasyJet queue on the way home (including John Surtees, Max Chilton and Johnny Herbert)

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Watching from Parabolica, it seemed evident that Vettel took a different line from the other front-runners. Perhaps able to carry more speed in, and certainly with visibly better turn-in (he seemed to oversteer rather than understeer through the turn for most of the early part of the race), it was fascinating to see the one of the details marking out his fourth season of dominance.

Despite the boos and whistles of the Tifosi, it is difficult not to admire the clear superiority of the car from Milton Keynes.

Did it make for a ‘boring’ race? No, no, no. Vettel may need to part ways with Adrian Newey to truly test himself against the field, and perhaps 2014 regulations will bring a freshening unpredictability to the grid, but for me it didn’t matter this weekend.

The smell of carbon brakes, deafening engines and the truly stunning craftsmanship of the drivers made it one of the best events I’ve ever seen in person.