Driving fast involves more than just driving fast, as Ben Griffin found out after spending a day getting tips from ex-racing driver and F1 trainer, Rob Wilson, and a trusty Vauxhall Astra.
When people pay you to eke out the extra one per cent of ability and speed from the top one per cent of drivers, you would expect the training to take place in an exotic bit of machinery. Something light with a big engine and carbon fibre coming out of every mechanical orifice.
But racing driver turned coach, Rob Wilson, prefers to use a road car. In my case, a 1.4-litre Vauxhall Astra SRi with standard tyres, standard suspension – standard bloody everything, in fact.
The reason, he tells me, is to keep things simple and because a standard car highlights what is going on better. You can turn up in a high-powered runaround, but it is going to be sitting in Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground car park where Rob has been teaching for decades.
It is also because the Astra is just fast enough to intimidate, decent in the braking and handling department and able to live on its limit without falling to bits. Because, as I would soon find out, perfecting your technique means doing the same thing, over and over. Again and again.
The 65-year-old New Zealander, who smokes more than an oil refinery chimney and is a keen musician in his spare time, shuns advanced telemetry systems and computers so his pupils can focus on the feel of a car, the mechanical empathy that is difficult, if not impossible, to teach.
It’s a point Rob is really keen to stress. He explains that there is a generation of engineers so keen on looking at graphs – which only paint a part of the picture (particularly if averages are drawn from relatively few data points) – who understand very little about how a car reacts. Some have never even driven one.
You may be forgiven for being unfamiliar with Rob Wilson. But he is kind of a big deal, because at one point he had taught over half of the drivers on grid in Formula One, including Kimi Raikkonen, Bruno Senna and Michael Schumacher, not to mention a number of rally drivers and bike supremo Valentino Rossi, who at one stage wanted to switch to car racing.
He also raced at Le Mans and other endurance rallies and scored some rather good results across a lengthy racing career that finished in 2007.
Exactly how much tuition he provided for each F1 driver is unknown, but it is clear that a lot of professionals value his opinion. And although Rob never received the funding to make a serious foray into F1 himself, he can routinely upset the best of them on an airstrip in Leicestershire, with a runway longer than anything at Heathrow.
In fact, by Rob’s own admission, only one driver has ever beaten his lap time right off the bat and that was a certain British racing driver called Lewis Hamilton – you may have heard of him. The other to make a big impression was Raikkonen, who was about equal in time on the first lap and faster on the second.
The not-so-boring basics
In an age of computers, teaching about feel is obviously of use to Rob because he makes a living from taking an analogue approach to gaining speed. Soon he is whittling on about why slow to fast inputs make sense and what the underlying principles are that make a car react the way it does.
Turns out, even the most seemingly inane task can be broken down into serious amounts of detail. Racing is just a series of drag races broken up by corners when you boil it down, yet something as basic as braking has a complex theory and understanding the process is a big part of it.
Rob begins by explaining that slamming on the brakes is unwise due to the braking bias (typically around 60:40) is more front-heavy in reality because the brakes at the back reacting that tiny bit slower than the front – an issue F1 cars get around with electronic braking systems.
So already the brake balance is less than favourable before you consider that braking causes the front end to drop, reducing the weight over the rear tyres. That means the rear brakes are even less effective and the braking bias has adjusted significantly. All in a fraction of a second.
The answer, Rob says, is to begin with gentle pressure to effectively pre-warn them about what you plan to do, which keeps the car balanced and paves the way for harder braking.
There is only a group of four of us and we have a generous section of Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground to play with, with only the two-mile straight removed. Given the trouser-soiling entry-speed into the penultimate corner, we are glad we aren’t in an Ariel Atom.
Rob takes us for a few laps to demonstrate the course layout, the most difficult section of which features a full-throttle slight left into a small straight and then into a tight right before you have to man-handle the wheel into navigating around a road cone that sends you virtually back on yourself.
On the last lap, Rob sets a time for us to aim for (1:52.8) with such ease you would think he was off to buy milk, red-lining in third before a slim right between two cones and then into a fast chicane as easily as using the indicators.
We then approach another slim cone gap, which he negotiates with the smallest of steering inputs, that leads into another straight, a 45-degree right around a cone, another 45-degree left very shortly after and then you come up to the fastest and second-most exciting part of the course.
Even with five people in the car, Rob is making the Astra hit aviation speeds. We enter the penultimate corner so fast I find myself searching for an imaginary brake pedal but we survive. Tyre scrub and other physics do their bit to reduce the speed before a final long-ish right-hander ahead of the finish.
“How the hell do I beat that?” I wondered. Well, I didn’t. After a long wait, my turn for a practice lap is up and – with just myself and Rob in the car – I manage 2:03.9. I may as well have walked.
Walking the walk
Like many people around my age, I ‘learned’ the basic principles of the racing line in Gran Turismo (and to a lesser extent, Micro Machines). Since then, having driven probably hundreds of cars, I can now confidently tell what a car is doing so I know when to ease off or brake before things go wrong.
Rob’s method goes against what I want to do, but it is one said to have been used by Jackie Stewart. A keen eye can detect some modern-day drivers using it in Formula One although the sheer speed of them makes it hard to perceive.
Essentially, the system involves “shortening corners”, he tells me repeatedly, having grabbed the steering wheel for the umpteenth time. The key is to maximise the number of straight sections and how long each one is, which is best achieved by doing a sort of ‘V’.
In a car that is hardly the last word in acceleration (no offense, Vauxhall), he has a point. Recuperating speed lost in a corner is best accomplished by creating a path of least resistance for the tyres – in other words, a straight line.
This was going against my usual system of easing out the throttle until I end up nudging the outside of a corner. Instead, I was having to steer a little then a lot to keep the body roll to a minimum and it all felt less smooth, less natural.
We break for lunch at a local pub and I feel somewhat defeated. I’d come here to learn to drive like an F1 driver, not get worse.
As luck would have it, my brain had been digesting the theory while my stomach was taking care of the sausage and mash because my next lap time came in at 1:57.1. Not bad, I thought, but one of the other participants didn’t drive cars for a living and he was still faster. My pride was at stake.
More laps go by and suddenly Rob is intervening less, I’m making fewer mistakes and I can feel an increase in pace. My confidence increases as I decrease my lap times.
Suddenly, things are clicking into place and what was a headache-inducing effort starts to become enjoyable. It felt like that bit in the Matrix where Neo starts to see code running the world. Minus the sunglasses and leather trench coat.
The final countdown
With everything to lose, I decide to brake as humanly late as possible, bury the accelerator for as long as possible and relax my body as much as possible. This is my last lap and I was damned if I was going to head to my next driving event (the 2017 Honda Civic Type R at Rockingham) without bringing home gold.
Rob, who has been manning the stopwatch as he does with everyone to prove you are, in fact, improving, gives me some words of encouragement, that I’ve “got this”. By now the Vauxhall and I had built up a bond and what felt impossible at the start of the day became achievable.
Entering the last straight before the non-existent chequered flag, I deliberately use Rob’s technique of keeping the car in third gear to cruise across with maximum speed. The whole lap felt faster than before, more assured.
“Your time was 1:53.2, well done”, Rob tells me excitedly as we let the brakes cool down for a lap, his enthusiasm infectious. “You can have the job of telling the other bloke you beat him,” he jokes.
I knew I still had more in the tank, but I was happy. Proud, too, and now better able to see why racing is so addictive. The small lap time improvements, as they do in Gran Turismo, feel even more rewarding in real life yet it is never quite enough to satiate that insatiable desire to go faster.
I ask Rob about what is feasible around this custom circuit, just to get an idea of where I sit in the racing driver pecking order. “1:46 if you’re Lewis Hamilton, that’s feasible,” he states, before adding that with enough training it would be possible for me to get there given a few days of training.
Unfortunately, like many wannabe race drivers, I’m way too old to go toe-to-toe with Hamilton or any F1 driver – ignoring the obvious talent deficit. Nor do I have the funds to get into the lower echelons of racing, which is what Rob dealt with back in his younger days.
But I did come away with a newfound respect for the Vauxhall Astra and with a vastly more confident mindset to driving on a track, which, as it turns out, is half the battle.