LONG gone are the days when the family saloon could only wheeze its way up to 75/80 mph with acceleration to match. Nowadays the flow of traffic on even congested motorways reaches this speed while a three figure speed is not that unusual on a clear road and out of sight of police patrol cars. Where such high speeds years ago would have put too much strain on the car and its components, the relentless pursuit of perfection by the motor manufacturers has meant that cars which cannot reach 100 mph are now very much the exception rather than the norm.
The efficiency of modern cars is not just reflected in its top speed and the time it takes to get there, but in all its aspects, whether it is better fuel consumption or an all-singing and all-dancing computer which does everything from managing the engine to sending a reminder that the next Barclaycard payment is due.
While most are aware that today’s cars are better performers than their predecessors and offer a greater degree of comfort and provide better driver information, fewer know, or probably care, that the dirty bits underneath have also undergone their own development over the years. Suspension systems and tyres are a vital part which if they were not up to par with the car’s potential would turn a road-burner into a floundering heap.
So while all this progress has continued over the years, there is one vital part of the equation which has been omitted from the designer’s pen — the driver.
Do as he can to limit the driver’s input into what would otherwise be the perfect automobile, wretched humans do insist on messing everything up. In an exercise of damage control, many manufacturers, along with a number of independents, have created driving courses in an effort to bring the lowest common denominator up to par with the car. One such course MOTOR SPORT has been able to attend is Volkswagen’s GTi
Driving Course which is designed to cater to those who own its high-performing saloons and hatches, although owning a Volkswagen product is not a necessity.
Coached by a team of professional racing drivers, the courses take place on different racing circuits such as Castle Combe, Oulton Park and Snetterton using 16 valve Golfs and Jettas. The course we attended was based at Goodwood, the difficult circuit near Chichester, Sussex.
Attending the early morning session with a slightly apprehensive group of men and women of all ages who were wondering whether they had, after all, made the right choice, we were given a lecture on vehicle dynamics and a reminder as to just why we had gathered there that day.
Suitably briefed, it was off to the circuit. Above all, safety is the watchword. The cars may be travelling in excess of 100 mph on occasions, but such is the rigorous control exercised by the instructors that no two cars share the same part of the track when travelling at speed.
Four to a car, one instructor and three passengers, and four cars altogether, we were obviously going to be on a very personal and intensive day’s driving. With Vic Lee, winner of the 1986 Munro saloon car championship as our mentor, we took to the track.
To begin with there was a ‘get to know you’ session where each of the three pupils was given a spell with Lee sitting quietly alongside, only occasionally dropping in hints as to where the driver might improve his lines, his braking or his gear changing.
Everybody was initially uncoordinated and some of the manouevres were erratic to say the least. The rest stop for lunch could not come quick enough so as to take stock. As hoped the break with proceedings settled everybody down, the shock of driving at far higher speeds than normal and the novel sensation of driving on a wide, one-way road, evaporating with the steam from the coffee at the meal’s end. Returning to the track with renewed fortitude, we found that the wick had been
turned up. The clear road of the morning was now inundated with cones dotted around as if the M25 engineers had gone barmy during the lunch break. If that was not bad enough, however, every lap of the circuit would find them in a different pattern, to be negotiated with care and yet without time to slow down to a more comfortable speed to weave through them. It was then that one began to appreciate just what a car could be put through and that braking was not after all the answer to everything.
A final solo session with the instructor whereby each and every member on the course was individually assessed saw the driving part of the day draw to a close.
What might at first be regarded as an excuse to go tearing about on a circuit, free of other traffic and without fear of the law, was in fact a most useful exercise in learning about car control. For pretty well everybody on the course, it was the chance to experience driving situations which would never be encountered under normal conditions, unless in an emergency. Coming upon hazards at high speeds and having to manouevre around them surprised everybody not just at the cars’ capabilities but at their own innate skill which the situation brought out. There was even the exceptional circumstance during the day when a tyre blew out with a pupil behind the wheel while going through a high speed corner and yet he was able to bring the car to a halt as if he experienced such happenings every other week. For myself, I took the journey home a wiser man than when I had set out. More importantly, though, I felt more confidence not just in myself, but in the machine I was driving. £335 for a one-day course is expensive, even if the driving is over twice the length of a Grand Prix and it includes personal insurance, meals, a written assessment and certificate, but it is small beer when one takes into account the extra weapon in your armament in the quest for better and safer driving. WPK