School Lessons

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Dear reader,

Recently, in club circles, there has been some unrest over the question of discipline at speed events, especially at race meetings. The RAC Motor Sports Association, who are responsible to higher authority for all our sporting activities, from driving tests and treasure hunts to championship hill climbs and national racing, issued a warning at the beginning of the year that discipline among competitors was not good enough. It was not a question of not wearing proper crash helmets or overalls, but of discipline out on the circuit while actually racing or competing. There are certain things you don’t do that are not necessarily written down as a hard and fast rule, but they have derived from people with years of experience and mostly involve common sense and logic applied to the very dicey business of driving a car (or a motor cycle) up to its natural limits of performance and adhesion.

In discussion with various friends it was generally agreed that anyone starting racing, no matter what the level, would benefit from a session with one of the many race driving schools. (Indeed, it is now compulsory to attend — and pass — a trial before you are eligible for a licence.) They will not teach you how to become a world champion, but they will instil into you some of the basic differences between driving on the public roads and driving on a specially prepared circuit. The mere fact that there is no centre line down the road, and you are on a one-way system with the guarantee that nobody will be coming the other way means the basic instincts of road driving have to be put to one side. The whole width of the track is yours to use, providing there is nobody out there at the same time who might want some of the space.

The mere act of driving on a circuit will instil in you a sense of discipline and attention to the law-and-order of using a racing circuit. Every minute of the day will provide examples to read, mark and digest, and the quicker you do this the quicker you will progress to better things. Many people have a session at a race driving school purely to find out for themselves what it is like to drive a small single-seater racing car. They have no intention of taking up racing and have only driven normal production saloon cars, but they have watched racing in all its forms and are curious to know what it is like to drive a car where you are almost lying on your back and your head is barely at the height of the tops of the wheels, and added to that you can see both front wheels quite clearly. I have met a number of people who have satisfied their curiosity at such a school and been very appreciative of the opportunity.

The more ambitious want to progress to an actual race, with other competitors on the grid, and most schools provide this opportunity with private races, all run strictly to the normal racing rules. Those who pass with flying colours can then set off for the great outside where racing is more serious. As I said earlier, discipline is all-important from the very beginning, and at every step there are examples that show the necessity of discipline, especially in the early stages.

One friend I was in discussion with explained how he had progressed onto single seaters and reached the stage of being allowed to take part in a school race. There were no prizes to be won, merely the satisfaction of actually racing against fellow pupils to serious standards. This race was to be the climax of his training, as he had no aspirations to go any further in the world of motor racing. A session of practice under racing conditions came first and during this, or more exactly after practice, he learnt a very big lesson on discipline. These little Ford-powered racing cars had a specific limit to the rpm to be used on the engine, the rpm instrument having a telltale that registered the highest figures used. Overcome with the excitement of practising to get a specific lap time to decide his place on the starting grid he forgot to observe this limit. As a salutary lesson the instructor cancelled his lap time (which had been third fastest) and made him start from the back of the grid. A simple matter of discipline.

Another friend, who had a day at Silverstone with the John Watson Performance Driving School, came back impressed by the air of smoothness that had been put into his driving. He had already been doing some racing and felt he wasn’t doing very well on his own. The two things that impressed themselves on him were smoothness and the nicety of line through the corners, making what had been a series of jerky corners, into a series of bends that flowed from one into the next.

It was smoothness and line that impressed more than anything. To some people smoothness of driving is a natural instinct, and such a driver seldom looks fast. By and large, all the great racing drivers have this smooth touch on the controls and a smooth progression with the car. Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, and Niki Lauda personified the smooth driving style, with the added bonus of speed as well.

Watching my friend race his car in a Silverstone club meeting after learning ‘the John Watson line’ through the corners I saw a glaring fault appear, not in his driving but in the school system. It was a handicap race and my friend was going well and caught the car that had started ahead of him. As he moved up a place they came to the series of corners at Woodcote. My friend moved into position to take the perfect ‘John Watson line’ through the next three bends, but as he aimed for the late apex he was completely put off by finding the unruly fellow he had just caught and passed arriving at the apex slightly out of control, having gone down the inside and done a death defying late-braking act that got him back in front again!

It occurred to me that what we need now is an advanced racing school, to teach you how to race as distinct from how to drive fast and tidily. My thoughts went instinctively to drivers like Keke Rosberg and Gerry Marshall. They could teach you such a lot of track craft, which is necessary if you are going to win when the going gets tough.

Yours, DSJ.

This month’s Memorable Moments come from Peter Cope, of Tunbridge Wells, who has been glued to the TV since an early age:

1 . In 1957 Moss/Brooks winning the British Grand Prix at Aintree. Even on a nine-inch black and white television it was a wonderful day for a nine year-old viewer.

2. In 1961 Moss again, winning the Monaco Grand Prix in Rob Walker’s Lotus, all the better for seeing it on a 14-inch TV.

3. Silverstone 1987 seen on a 22-inch full colour screen with the luxury of remote control, sitting on the edge of the seat as Nigel Mansell won with the Williams, down to the last drop of petrol.