Diane kindly bought me a PalmerSport driving day for my 30th birthday. What’s that then? I’ll let them explain:
In one perfect day you will drive a selection of the world’s greatest track prepared road and racing cars, and you will be encouraged to push yourself – and our machinery – harder than you may have imagined possible, and all in outstanding safety. It’s the experience of a lifetime.
So this Thursday I was up at 5am, ready to pilot the M5 to Bedford Autodrome. An interesting place!
I arrived to find myself 1 of 30 participants – a mixture of individuals and small corporate groups. While all very informal, it was to be a competition, with awards for each car driven. Some other attendees had their own lid and racing boots – all rather intimidating! A glance around the car park saw the M5 in good company – M coupes, 911s and the odd DB9. Even more intimidating! After a quick cooked breakfast, I was delighted to discover that the track was damp, and my first car was on slicks. Time to jump into a romper suit and pixie boots!
First car of the day was a Formula Jaguar single seater, billed as “a window into the world of F1”. I can certainly say I’ve never driven a car which requires the steering wheel be removed to get on board before.
Some stats on this car. A 3 litre V6 generating 250bhp. The car doesn’t weigh very much, so it does 0-60mph in just 3.1 secs. The brakes are magnificent: no servo assist, but given plenty of beef they offer eyeball squashing deceleration. It has a clutch pedal, but gear changes were all applied through paddles on the steering wheel, and with the exception of setting off in 1st and returning to a standstill, there’s no need to use the clutch pedal. The throttle can be mashed to the floor, and the car manages the upshifts perfectly. Changes are fast, the steering is fast, the car is fast. It’s the perfect go-kart!
This certainly woke me up! I could tell I was doing well – despite some hairy slides I didn’t spin and I’m pretty sure I was in the minority there – but one or two others were certainly moving quickly. I can’t think that I’ve ever been in a faster car, and given how badly I cope with G force at theme parks, I’m a bit surprised I didn’t notice any issues when nailing the throttle, or on the brakes.
Interestingly – perhaps because we weren’t accompanied – the organisers chose not to rank our performance on best lap times (as they were to on most other cars), but instead on lap data. Needless to say I didn’t win this, but I can’t tell how well I did compared with my competition.
So we moved on. Mainly for a bit of fun to fill some time before the next real car was ready, we indulged in a spot of karting. Single engined, but in good condition, outdoors (wet), with enough room for the odd overtake. I was pleased to hear I obtained the 4th quickest lap time across the day (from that field of 30), just 0.96 seconds behind the quickest man.
Next I hopped into a Palmer Jaguar JP1 two seater, for my first experience with one of the trained instructors.
Now the trouble here is that I’ve never really been particularly interested in going fast. I am especially interested in driving fast machinery at least a little bit sideways. So here I had to put that to the back of my mind, and focussed on being smooth, studied my lines, and above all listening to someone who really knew the car and track. I quickly realised I could have driven the single seater considerably faster in places! Another 3 litre V6, but a slightly heavier car – still a 0-60mph time of 3.5 seconds though. Like the single seater, plenty of grip, plenty of power, loads of brakes and that fantastic paddle gearbox.
Certainly the quality of my competition became painfully apparent: I posted 18th from 30. Again I hadn’t spun, but I soon realised I had to try harder!
The 4th car of the day was one of the two I have been particularly been looking forward to – a Caterham 7. A traditional H-gate gearbox this time, but still a far cry from any car I’ve ever owned. Here’s my kind sponsor Diane modelling with a road prepared Caterham.
Fast, and grippy to a point, but then – the tail would wag. This led to a strange first lap while I got used to the car and my instructor got used to me. But then, we all clicked together and we were off!
Once my instructor had the confidence to shout “keep the power, keep the power” while we’re oversteering at goodness knows how many miles an hour, I had a whale of a time. Afterwards my instructor was most enthusiastic, telling me it was a great drive and a decent lap time. I came 14th. Hmm. Interestingly the 13 who were faster than me ran in the other session (we were divided into 2 groups of 15 for the day), so I wonder if there was a subtle change in the course, or perhaps if the track was dry for the other session.
Finally before lunch, we moved to the first normal car of the day: a race prepared Jaguar XKR. A 4.2 supercharged V8 producing 420 bhp, with paddle shift gearbox. So it should have been a lot more fun to drive than the M5, right?
Wrong. There were two main reasons for this. Firstly, I just didn’t gel with my instructor. He was enabling and disabling the car’s traction control system to keep things in shape. I wasn’t trying to power slide everywhere (really, I wasn’t), but when he was bellowing “more power” while effectively engaging and disengaging the throttle like a digital switch it made it rather hard to control.
But significantly more irritating than this was the car’s woeful, awful, and frankly retarded automatic gearbox. That’s right – while it has paddles like the Formula Jaguar cars, this was just a remote control for the pot noodle that appears to sit between the car’s engine and the prop shaft. As such I concluded that the car was rubbish – the M5 was significantly better – at least a league ahead.
All this said, I came 6th, so clearly everyone else had similar issues.
After a sumptuous luncheon we arrived at the moment I’d been looking forward to most of all: the Porsche 911 JP3. This was the first time I’d ever driven a rear engined car. These 911s had the 3.6 litre flat six that delivers 320bhp, gifting a 0-60 time of 4.5 seconds. I thought this was going to be great.
It wasn’t. Same story as the Jag XKR really. An instructor that I didn’t gel with (to be clear, all the instructors were good, but some more on my wavelength than others), and another shonky gearbox. I don’t like changing gear by appointment, especially when the engine is, most unnaturally, behind me.
A really interesting exercise certainly, but it did quench my thirst for a Porsche. I posted another 18th place. What a shame.
Without pausing for breath, I was straight into the next car: a Renualt Clio cup racer – the only FWD motor of the day. With a 2 litre four-banger and a 0-60 time of 5.2 seconds, it should have been fun.
It was! I got on well with my instructor, and the gearbox, and we scrabbled our way to an 8th place. More interestingly, we ran the Clio on the same course as the 911, and not only was I faster in the Clio, so were most participants.
Moving on, we encountered what transpired to be the best part of the day: a Caterham 7 pursuit challenge. Put simply, we got back in a Caterham, and had to punt it around a tiny circuit in a manner that required sideways action, culminating in a donut into a parking bay. I came 3rd! What luck – it seems that a smooth, calm driving manner escapes me; yet when yanking all the controls like an organist on speed is the order of the day, I excel.
Finally, an off road challenge. I’ve always fancied a spot of green laning, so I was looking forward to this. The course involved vehicle position tests, loose surfaces, insane gradients and towering ramps. Really good fun, and a 6th place to boot.
Overall, a stunning day. I really hurt for the following 48 hours – chest, back and shoulder pains which reminded me that while I didn’t really notice at the time, I had subjected my ageing frame to considerable forces. I’m very happy that I learned plenty more about driving, and about various vehicles that I would not normally have the chance to sample. I loved the Caterhams, but they’re not something I’m hardcore enough to own. I was disappointed by the 911, hated the XKR, enjoyed the Clio and really would quite fancy a proper 4×4. I can’t express enough thanks to my wonderful wife for not only making this happen, but so diligently documenting proceedings with the camera.
Despite my varied results, I came 6th overall – perhaps a sign that if nothing else, I’m more consistent than most.
The best thing about it though? It reminded me how much I love the M5. With the exception of the off-road challenge and the karting, I could have done all the other events in the M5, and I strongly suspect I would have done better in most. It’s an exceptional car – the super saloon indeed.