Gaining a licence to be let loose on the tracks has never been easier. Even for the lowliest form of wannabe racers…
Journalists who race are common: journalists who are genuine racing drivers less so. We can only dream of imitating Paul Frère, a Le Mans winner no less, or The Autocar’s pre war scribe and Bentley ace Sammy Davis. Today, there are a clutch (a suitable collective noun) who attempt to get somewhere close and I know of about half a dozen who can hold their own as racers.
But none of them work on the staff at Motor Sport. Our intrepid Ed Foster dabbles in the family MGB and the odd club race, dep ed Gordon Cruickshank still exercises his Jaguar MkII in classic road rallies, but it’s all a long way from hanging off a motorcycle sidecar with Eric Oliver or sitting beside Stirling Moss on the Mille Miglia.
There’s little more grating than self-indulgent journos who rate themselves as racers, and say as much in print. Nevertheless, the sweet taste of competition, the adrenaline pump of sitting on a grid waiting for the lights to go out, to be pitched into the cut and thrust, to have a go yourself… It can only improve your ability to write about the sport and better understand the drivers’ eye-view.
I was saying as much to Jackie Oliver after a passenger run around Goodwood’s rally stage in an MG Metro 6R4 in March. He nodded and suggested I head to Silverstone to get my licence. Foster had been egging on art editor Damon Cogman and I to join him in some club racing high jinks, so… we took the plunge. All for the good of Motor Sport, of course. And where better than Silverstone to earn our spurs?
To claim our national B licences and cut our racing teeth, we would need to pass the Novice Driver Training Course administered by the Association of Racing Drivers Schools. The ARDS test, as it is known, can be taken at just about every race circuit in the UK. The Silverstone Driving Experience offered us a half-day of tuition and the test, so we jumped at the chance to escape from the office.
Now, at this point I should admit I’ve got a bit of history with both Silverstone and the ARDS test. Twice before I’ve been through the process and held a licence, only to foolishly let it lapse on both occasions. That was largely down to the shuddering experience of my only previous race start, on the old Silverstone ‘International’ layout. Just over 10 years ago I allowed myself to be pitched into a Ford Fiesta BTCC support race, with too little preparation. From the moment I looked in my mirrors on the first lap and saw Silverstone Sid’s familiar Jaguar fire tender trying hard not to pass me, I knew it had been a mistake. My confidence was duly shot.
All these years later, it’s high time I banish those memories. Our guide for the morning is Andrew Bentley, a familiar face on the UK national scene and one of Silverstone’s most experienced instructors. We meet him in the impressive Driving Experience centre situated between Hangar Straight and the Stowe circuit.
Before we jump in a car, we head for the classroom to watch the Motor Sport Association’s ARDS video presented by another familiar face, Steve Deeks, and a pep talk on vehicle dynamics from Andrew. We reckon we have a good idea about the pitch-and-roll physics of a car in motion, but to hear it described so eloquently focuses the mind. Andrew’s words will filter back as we approach Copse, Maggotts and the rest later on.
We’re on the national circuit for our sessions. A lap each in the passenger seat reminds us once again how racing drivers always seem to bend reality by appearing to have so much time when they’re at speed, and then it’s our turn in a hot little 2-litre Renault Mégane. We’re given three short runs each, the last being the one that counts for the test.
Andrew’s patience and calm tuition helps us both improve our lines and technique, and Copse, my old nemesis during that dim and distant Fiesta race, soon becomes much less daunting. To pass the test, speed is of no relevance. We need to show we’ve listened to the tuition, that we have good awareness (in other words, keep an eye on our mirrors as we share the track with other school cars), and an essential one – don’t spin. The speed will come later. Apparently.
On our test run, Andrew keeps quiet until we head for the pits, and tells us we’ve passed. Exams have never been so much fun. But it’s not over yet. We return to the classroom for the written test, checking our knowledge of lag signals and racing procedure.
In our jobs, it’s all stuff we should know, and anyway that smooth talker Deeks has given us all the answers in the video. No pressure then. Fortunately, our blushes are spared and we’re told we’ve passed this bit, too.
Our gratitude duly proffered to Andrew, I sit down with the school’s director Chris Ward, who I irst met about 15 years ago when he was a promising Formula Vauxhall racer. To run the country’s biggest racing school is clearly a full-time job, but Chris is still very much an active racing driver. “We like our instructors all to be current racers because it’s good for the credibility of the centre,” he says. “Some of them are high-profile, too. As you might have seen, [Le Mans and sports car racer] Danny Watts was here today.” Instructing during the week and on non-race weekends has long been a handy earner for young and aspiring professional racers.
“We have a core of 30 instructors but we draw on a pool of 80 to 90,” says Chris. “The benefit of Silverstone is that we can run three circuits all at once, and we can put 900 drivers through the Driving Experience on a weekend. On the single-seater course, we can get 140 drivers through in a day, each with 40 minutes of driving time.”
Talk to a racing driver for any length of time and it won’t take long to hear tales of cheeky instructor shenanigans. But as Chris explains, now more than ever instructing is a serious business, and must be considered so by the young drivers the school employees. “We start them at a lower level and build up their experience,” he says. “It takes a year to train a good instructor.”
The choice of courses and ‘experiences’, in a wide range of cars, is deeply impressive at Silverstone. Competition between the circuits, and particularly Jonathan Palmer’s MotorSport Vision, is rife, so courses must cater for all levels of experience and price. As long as everyone leaves with a smile on their face, Chris is happy.
As for Damon and I, what happens next is anyone’s guess. We’ve passed the first test, but the bigger hurdles are still to come. It might be a bit late for that Le Mans win though.
Our thanks to the Silverstone Driving Experience. For more information on its range of courses, go to www.silverstone.co.uk. For more on how to get started in motor sport, visit www.gomotorsport.net