I recently spent an afternoon with Colin Hoad of CAT Driver Training at Millbrook, Bedfordshire, England, to learn more about car control at the limit of adhesion. Not because I want to be able to slide a car around a track but because I’ve had a nagging doubt for a while that I’ve been driving to my limits, which have invariably been lower than those of the car. Without finding out how a car handles in extremis it’s impossible to assess how it will react on when you inadvertently enter a corner a bit faster than is prudent.
The session started with a classroom briefing on how and why a car behaves in the way that it does due to driver inputs. The usual stuff, understeer, oversteer, weight transfer; all those things we keen drivers thinks that we understand but rarely do. Colin was succinct and linked theory to practice in a way that only a truly gifted engineer with a lifetime of driving cars professionally can. It made absolute sense and gave me a head start in understanding why I was getting it so wrong, so often, on the track later.
Moving to the circuit I was introduced to the Caterham Sevens that I’d be using. One was a dedicated ‘drift’ car and one was a race-winning competition car. The idea was that by learning to slide the car deliberately – or drifting it – under control, I’d be better placed and more confident to deal with it when it happened accidentally.
Colin started the practical element by demonstrating how to drift the car around a series of cones in a continuous slide. He made it look fluid, calm and easy but, as I was to find out, it isn’t.
The Caterham is a tight fit if you’re tall but once ensconced it offers an immediacy and fluency that only a small, lightweight, rear wheel drive car can. Throttle response was urgent, yet even, so my first few attempts ended in humiliating understeer. Colin called me in and told me that I was being too gentle, too hesitant, and that I needed to be more brutal and confident; counter-intuitively, more throttle would make the car easier to control here, not harder.
He was right. Within an hour I was sliding round the figure-of-eight circuit in a continuous riot of noise and smoke. It was huge fun and utterly addictive. The key to the technique is to always look where you want to go. Once this had sunk in, my driving improved hugely, although it took a conscious effort not to look at what I thought that I was going to hit…
We then moved on to the race Caterham to learn how to control a car when it oversteers on a bend. Colin’s demonstration again made it look far easier than it actually is and my first few laps were punctuated by a series of spins. I was starting to think that I’d never get it right.
Colin’s patient analysis showed that I was giving up too early; I was trying to correct the skid and when it didn’t work first time, I was just holding the wheel still and resigning myself to a spin. Safe on an empty track with lots of run-off space, but potentially lethal on the confines of a public road.
“Quick hands will save the day,” he said. “Never give up. You’ll be amazed at how often you can recover a car even after you think that it’s too late.” With his advice ringing in my ears I tried again and found that he was right. By using two or even three small, rapid hand movements when necessary, I was soon catching every slide and, for the first time, driving at the car’s limits rather than mine.
It was a revelation to discover that a car is rarely completely out of control and that experience and confidence mean that, as long as you don’t panic, you can control a car long after you think that it’s too late. It has also meant that in my day-to-day driving I have been able to concentrate more on what’s going on around me. My training has made me a safer, more analytical driver, not a more rowdy one.
Professional driving tuition isn’t cheap, but when you see what can be achieved in even half a day you’ll realise that it’s priceless. CAT Driver Training offer a range of courses for drivers of all abilities and can tailor your day to meet your needs rather than sticking to a rigid timetable.
The session was much harder work than I’d imagined (I actually ached the next day) but infinitely rewarding. I found it so helpful and useful that I’m going back in September for a full day’s tuition on the road.