My first trackday

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My first trackday

Trackdays. They’ve been around for a while now, roughly 68 years in fact. Arguably, first ever trackday was in 1947. At Silverstone. Maurice Geoghegan, a local car enthusiast who lived in Silverstone village got together with 11 of his mates, sneaked into the abandoned WWll bomber base over the fields from his house and set about the perimeter road. Tearing around the 3 miles of concrete roads, originally laid to take the bulk of Wellington bombers. It all ended in tears when Maurice himself hit a sheep. Known affectionately now as the Mutton Grand Prix, it could be viewed as the forefather of the trackdays we know and love today. It took a while to catch on to be fair but they got going again in the 90’s when race circuits had realised that they needed new ways to keep money coming in. They started to look outside of the closed world of motor racing and testing and towards the spectators who were coming to watch the races with dreams of getting on track themselves. Initially they were the reserve of expensive sports cars like Porsche 911’s or maybe the odd Subaru Impreza Turbo. Back then of course, there were only a handful of cars that were quicker than the road. Now though, even a fairly average family hatch back would leave the hottest of the 90’s hot hatches with a slightly embarrassed look on its’ grill.

It’s a fact that the full potential of a modern sports car cannot even be sniffed while abiding by the laws of the highway. And nor should they be. Sure, you could pop over to Germany and drive really fast in a straight line but that soon gets boring. And someone with a caravan might pull out on you, which wouldn’t be great. It’s not just about straight line speed anyway, a true sports car comes alive in the bends, cornering right on the edge of it’s limit of grip.

We spend a lot of money on these cars and to not use them properly is in effect wasting your hard earned cash. You’ve worked hard for that money, so use it. Go on a track day and drive fast, have an awesome time and possibly pick up a lucrative racing contract that will see you on your way to F1 in 3 years time. Guaranteed.

What is a trackday?

A track day is very simply an opportunity for members of the public to pay to take their own road or track car out on a race track and drive as quickly as they can. In general, there are very strict rules with regards to overtaking and general standards of behaviour, but there is no speed limit. Also, there is no element of competition. Timing is banned.

So, I want to do a trackday, but where do I start?

We are lucky in the UK to have some of the best tracks in the world. There isn’t a track in the UK that I wouldn’t drive or coach on. That’s not to say some aren’t better than others, but essentially safteywise, they are good. Increasingly there are ‘trackdays’ taking place on airfields: rough courses marked with cones. I’ve never been on one of these days so I can’t comment on what these are like, suffice to say they will be at the low cost end of things. Geography will play a part in your choice of track as will status. You might not want to travel more than an hour to a circuit or, you might want to drive on a full GP track. Almost every UK circuit does trackdays but some have more dates in the diary than others.

The real difference comes with who is running the trackday. Back in the late 90’s when trackdays really started to get popular, there were a huge number or organisers. Now, I’d say there were roughly 11 organisers, including the circuits themselves catering for every level of experience and budget. Rule of thumb, if a trackday is at a circuit you’ve not raced around on your Playstaion and the full day cost is £99.00, don’t expect to see any La Ferrari’s or Porsche 918’s there. Expect to see a few Clio 182’s, MX5s and the odd M3 with bolt in roll cages and any number of well-meaning but ill conceived ‘go faster’ accessories. These grass roots days can be great value and if your expectations are right, it is a fantastic way to get on circuit and learn what it’s all about. Of course, at that price you wont be the only one who thinks that and the track will be busy – think supermarkets – pile it high, sell it cheap. On a nice summers weekend, expect to be sat in a queue in the pitlane, waiting your turn to get ontrack.

One thing that has evolved over time is the almost no existent ‘sessioned trackday’. Most trackdays now run an ‘open pitlane’ policy which means that you can go out when ever you want. However, all tracks will have a limit as to how many cars can be on track at one time. As a rule, roughly 40% of the cars will want to be on track at any-one time. That’s fine if the track limit is 40 cars and the organiser sold 100 places. But if they sold more then you can see there will be some waiting involved.

At the other end of the scale you have the high end organisers who will be charging in the region of £250 to £350 for a day, depending on which track they are running at. On these days you will maybe even see the ‘Holy Trinity’ of super cars and in fact, any number of full on race cars too, along with a varied selection of sports cars and fast saloons. These days are not ideal for a novice, regardless of what car you are driving. Typically, the machinery around you is fast and so too are the drivers, not to say they are any good, but they can tend to be quick. When you first get on a track there is so much going on that it’s easy to miss a GT3 race car in your mirrors and when you do, one can get spooked, knocking the confidence. You’ll spend the rest of your laps looking in the mirrors all the time, turning the whole day into something other than enjoyable. The plus side is that there will be fewer cars out there so track time is almost guaranteed. In theory, although not advisable, you’ll be able to do as many laps as your fuel tank will allow.

If you opt for something in the middle of these price ranges, then your experience will be somewhere in the middle as well. You’ll find good track time with a varied mix of cars and experience levels.

There are a number of websites that have a central calendar of almost all trackdays throughout the year, so you don’t have to chase around the 11 or so organisers individually.

I’ve got a car, but is it OK for a trackday?

Chances are, yes. As long as it’s not an open wheel single seater race car, pretty much anything goes. I’ve seen almost everything out there on track. From cars that are in the millions, right down to things that cost less than a tyre for one of the cars that costs millions. It all depends what you’re trying to achieve. One of the best sessions on a track I had was at Castle Combe. I was racing there in Formula Ford the following weekend and I needed to learn the track. So, I took my 8 year old Volvo S40 out and drove around. A friends who at the time was winning F3 races was there coaching a client, he jumped in with me for a session and gave me some tips. It was invaluable. It’s not an uncommon thing for pro race drivers to take hire cars out to learn tracks. But typically, you’re thinking about doing a trackday because you have a sporty car, so to answer the question, yes, it will be fine. Keep in mind though, that the more road orientated the car, the more compromised it will be with regards to handling, braking etc. so make sure you drive it with a good level of compassion.

You can also hire trackday cars from teams. This is a good way to go if you feel your car isn’t appropriate, or you don’t want to risk your own pride and joy out on the circuit.

There are a handful of companies out there who will insure your car for trackdays too. It’s definitely worth considering that.

I’ve chosen my trackday, what preparation should I do to my car?

First and foremost, make sure your car is in good condition. When car manufactures test a car on track, they count each 1 mile on a track as 22 miles on the road. Simply put, the wear rate for components on track is 22 times that of your normal every-day driving. So check tyres, brakes, engine things (I’m a race driver not a mechanic) and have someone check them who actually knows what they are doing eg. not me. Fill up with fuel at the last petrol station you get to before the track. It will be roughly 15p a litre cheaper than the fuel station on site, though there is no grantee there will be one. Make sure you put that fuel station in your satnav because you will need to visit it again at some point during the day. Expect to see about 4 to 5 mpg from your time on circuit. If you see better figures than that, you’re not driving fast enough.

Tyre pressures? As long as they are within the manufacture’s guidelines you’ll be OK. There aren’t many experienced racers who can actually tell you the difference between 28 psi and 30 psi and it’s really not going to make a load of difference for your first day anyway, so just check they aren’t too high and they aren’t too low and it will all be fine.

Get rid of everything from the car that moves. Loose things in the boot, coins, sunglasses. Everything. It’s really distracting when something is noisily rattling about and in a crash potentially dangerous. Only take with you what you don’t mind leaving in an open, cold and windy garage. That includes friends and girlfriends/boyfriends.

If you want to record your laps, so you can impress all your friends with your god like driving skills, there are a number of small cameras available now. Just make sure it’s secured properly. What tracks don’t like is anything that isn’t mechanically secure. Suction mounts are not mechanically secure.

You might be able to reserve a garage. It’s the UK, having shelter available is never a bad idea.

What preparation do I need?

An early night with a cup of camomile tea. Although I’m sure a number of people will have their own ideas of a night cap, alcohol it not ideal. To my knowledge, no trackday organiser currently breathalyses their clients. Aside from the obvious things like being really dangerous, irresponsible, feeling awful and not being as good at driving, if you have a crash and hurt someone else, don’t be surprised if you get taken to the cleaners by all parties involved. You will be checked and if there’s any trace of alcohol, you will be done. It’s not big, it’s not clever and you’re not James Hunt. Also strongly consider getting a hotel for the night before if you have to travel far. All too often I hear of drivers turning up to sign on, having been up since 4am, driven for three hours then expecting to perform to their best over the 8 hours of potential track time ahead. They get tired after lunch, concentration drops and they are heading home by 3.30. It’s a false economy. Plus, you’ve got that three hour drive home in rush hour to deal with.

Do I need any training before I can go out on track?

No, you don’t. However, that is most certainly not to say you shouldn’t have some professional help.

I’ve written a number of articles about driving in this magazine so, I strongly advise you spend a bit of free time with a cup of tea reading about some of the key things you need to focus on in order to get the most from yourself while out on track.

The Association of Racing Driver Schools (ARDS) licences professional instructors, who are trained, tested and insured to teach the skills of circuit driving. Make sure your instructor has this licence.

It might seem like a step too far, on top of the other costs involved but I can assure you that paying for their experience will be the best money you spend. I know of regular trackday drivers who will tell me they don’t need any help because they’ve been doing it for 5 years. I went in car with one of those guys and it turns out he’s been doing it wrong for 5 years.

An instructor can sit in the car with you, work with video equipment to look back at your sessions. Help you through each part of the day and effectively be your guide, so you will be safe and have the best time possible.

Do I need to look like the Stig?

You’ll need a helmet. Good helmets aren’t cheap. But then neither are new heads, so it’s your call on that one. If you don’t have a suitable helmet, you might be able to rent one from the organiser on the day. A motorbike helmet is ok, but check it’s vintage, anything too old will not help you so don’t risk it. Motorsport specific helmets are the best for the job but they are also costly, so make sure you like driving on track before you invest.

It’s a good idea to find some narrow shoes with a thin sole. Running shoes are almost the worst type of driving shoe imaginable. They are designed to cushion your foot and spread the load when running, so they have thick, wide soles. You want to be able to feel the pedal and not risk catching your foot on two pedals at the same time. You don’t need fireproof race boots, karting boots are cheaper. There are some pretty good ‘race style’ shoes in sports shops now. I buy these to coach in, so I can recommend that they work just fine. You can wear gloves, but if your wheel is anything other than suede, you’ll lose out on grip and feel. You’ll possibly need to cover your arms. Don’t wear shorts. Your work rate in the car is high so make sure you don’t have too many layers on.

How long will it take to learn a new track?

A great way to see the layout and character of a circuit is to pop onto Youtube and search for ‘in-car at (insert the track you are going to)’ to see onboard footage of the circuit posted by fellow trackday drivers. A word of caution though. Do not take any notice of how they are driving, the lines, their general technique or indeed any advice provided by their mate in the passenger seat. They are probably doing it wrong. They might be doing it right, but you won’t know that so don’t take the chance. If you want to see how easy it is to get it wrong and what can happen when you do, search for ‘in-car at (insert the track you are going to) crash’. Also, if you have a computer game with the same track on, have a few laps around that. Some games are much better than others, but you’ll get the general gist as to the layout. And you can push a button to get a new car once you’ve rolled yours into a ball.

Will I need to take my driving licence, passport, library card and utility bill?

With the exception of Junior race licence holders, all drivers must have a full UK driving licence to get out on track. Check with the organiser before you turn up though. Make sure you take it with you. If you don’t it’s possible you won’t get out on track and you won’t get a refund. Once you’ve signed on, you’ll get a wristband that will prove it. This will be one of two wristbands which you’ll need to show to the marshal at the end of the pitlane when joining the track.

How should I plan my day?

Keep things relaxed. Remember, you’re there to enjoy yourself. The only things you absolutely need to be punctual with are the signing on and drivers briefing. Check all the info the organiser has sent you in advance. If you’re late and you miss the start of the briefing, the doors will be locked and the day will happily go on without you. You’ll have to wait until the briefing instructor has time to see you and you’ll be the one missing out on track time.

What’s a drivers briefing?

It’s essential for everyone to know what the rules are, so that everyone can have an enjoyable and safe day. So, the chief instructor for the organiser will hold court and tell everyone what the deal is. Everyone must attend. I’ve seen ex F1 drivers in them, so don’t imagine for a second you don’t need to go. Over time the rules for trackdays have evolved to the point where pretty much every day works in the same formatted way. That’s not to say if you’ve done a number of days you don’t need to listen to the briefing of course, certain tracks might have specific rules or indeed new points might need to be adhered to. The drivers briefing will last around 30 minutes and will cover things such as flag signals, overtaking rules and when lunch is. They won’t tell you how to drive your car. Some organisers do them better than others, but it’s essential that you know what is happening on that specific day. At the end of the briefing, you’ll get a wristband that will show you’ve attended the briefing, the second of the two required to get out on track.

What’s next?

Typically, you’ll be required to go out on track for some ‘sighting laps’. These are not ‘exciting laps’. These are slow paced laps with no overtaking. It’s a chance for you to get out and see were the corners go, the condition of the track (dry/wet/greasy), where the marshal posts are and where any gaps in the barriers are in case anything happens and you need to pull over to safety. Check to make sure your car is in full working order and there aren’t any funny noises.

As you approach the pitlane exit, you’ll have to display your wrist bands to the marshal at the end of the pitlane, as you will each and every time you go on track during the day.

You’ll normally do two to three laps, then come back in and wait for the green light at the end of the pitlane for the lapping session to start.

Great. I’m ready to go!!!!

Easy Tiger. Firstly, you need to get comfortable with being on track and make sure you are following the rules and not getting things wrong. If you don’t know the correct procedure while out on track, at best you could be a cause of frustration to others at worst you could be dangerous. Take the first session easy, make sure you’re aware of traffic in your mirrors and try to get into a nice rhythm. Spend maybe 10 to 15 minutes out there to start with. After a little break, start to build you sessions up in pace, but don’t do more than your car can do comfortably. Sessions should be no longer than 20 minutes, with at least a 30 minute break in between. This is a nice balance for both car and man/woman. Longer than 20 mins and brakes get hot, they stop working quite as well. Engines will be revved higher than ever before, you’ll be working it hard. You as a driver will struggle with concentration after about 15-20 mins. But, your confidence will go up the longer you’re out there. This is a truly terrible combination.

It’s possible to be on track, flat out for over 4 hours and cover over 300 miles. There aren’t many pro racers that ever need to drive that far in a race.

As mentioned, your fuel economy will be similar to that of a Jumbo jet on take-off. Check your fuel after every run. Most track days will fine you if you run out of fuel, the earnings of which normally go to the Volunteer Marshals Fund. If it doesn’t it should.

What should I have achieved by the end of the day?

It sounds cheesy, but you should have been safe and you should have enjoyed it. Your car should be almost entirely the same shape is was when you first turned up and you should have some great stories with which to impress your friends down the pub. The other thing about trackdays, is that you’ll make new friends. There is, if you choose to get involved, a really strong community spirt. Everyone who does a trackday is a car person. You’ll see the same faces from track to track and there are any number of car clubs to join. There are opportunities to head over to Europe and make a mini break out of it. Some peoples’ social lives revolve around the trackday scene. Of course, you can be an enigma if you choose, maybe doing one or two days a year. There is really is something for everyone, for every budget and for every aspiration. If you want to come and have fun and find a new hobby, if you want to see if you’ve got what it takes to race or if you just want to discover what the real potential is of the car you have sat on your drive, then there is a trackday for you. Enjoy.

The dos and the do nots:

Do – Turn you phone off in the drivers briefing. And also pay full attention.

Do – Make sure you get a bacon sandwich and cup of tea as soon as you arrive. It will start the day off on a positive note.

Do Not – Think that absolutely everyone else knows what they are doing and you shouldn’t be there.

Do – Make sure you are fully comfortable with the rules on over taking.

Do Not – Jump out of the way of faster cars trying to intimidate you around corners. You’ve all paid the same money and you all have the same right to be out there. Let them past on the straights.

Do – Make sure you check you mirrors exiting a corner, down the straight and before braking for the next corner, so you always have an awareness of what cars are around you.

Do Not – Try to look for traffic in your mirrors as you are driving through a corner. (unless you know for sure there is something there)

Do Not – Accelerate as hard as you can while pulling over to let a faster car by. They might be quicker round the corners and slower than you in a straight line. Accelerate to 50% to let them through.

Do – Try to get some professional instruction as early in the day as is possible.

Do – Go out for session lengths of 20 minutes max.

Do Not – Focus on what other drivers are doing and how they are driving. Focus on building speed gradually.

Do Not – Get out of the car if you break down while on track, or stop to help your mate.

Do – Get out of the car if it’s on fire.

Do Not – try to race anyone.

Do – Relax and enjoy it. You’re there to have fun.

March 23, 2016 / Coaching Corner

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