My Thruxton driving experience day!! (Thing #37)

My wonderful family surprised me with an amazing 40th birthday present back in January – a driving experience at Thruxton race track, where I’d get to take not one, not two but THREE cars round the track – a Porsche Cayman, a Lamborghini Gallardo (all £165,000 of it!!) and a Formula Renault single seater race car. Wow!!!!!

I’d originally booked it for a Saturday in September but managed to put my back out the day before, so it was rearranged for Sat 19th November – the very last driving experience day at Thruxton this year. I was hoping the weather would be okay …. but wasn’t too positive …

Anyway, we – me, Steve, Katie, Dan and my mum – piled into the car on Saturday morning and drove the hour or so down to Thruxton. After a misty start the sun came out and we were blessed with a lovely warm day – hurray!

We arrived early so had coffee in the Goodwood Restaurant and then I went off to register. All of a sudden I started feeling really nervous …. major butterflies!! I signed in and ordered DVDs of two of my drives – the Lambo and race car – and a passenger drive for the kids, just so they’d get a feel for the track. TV presenter/racing driver Tiff Needell was there, taking people on extra fast laps of the circuit, but at £145 a person they had to make do with the basic passenger ride!

Then it was time for the briefing – a very well run session with an instructor talking about the track, and an instructional video presented by Tiff Needell that demonstrated the racing line and showed where the cones were that acts as prompts for you to brake or turn in. It all kind of made sense …. but I was beginning to think I’d bitten off more than I could chew here!

Before I was put in charge of a car I was taken round the track for two laps in a Mazda something or other … the driver/instructor pointed out where the cones were and gave advice on how to tackle the track. Thruxton has NO straights – it’s just curves all the way round! The first part of the track is a complex section with three very close tight corners; then there are some long fast sweeping curves, and then a tight chicane at the end. It didn’t look that difficult, I thought ..

OK so into the first car, the Porsche Cayman. I have always been a Porsche fan – the 911 is my dream car – but I have to say I was really disappointed by the Cayman. OK to look at but inside it felt really cramped and not very special at all. My instructor talked me through all the controls and we started the engine and were off. Big problem though – the Porsche has a manual gearbox and I have been driving an automatic for the last year! When you’re in an unfamiliar car, going quite fast, trying to work out where you’re meant to go on a race track AND battling with a clutch and gearbox, it’s no fun! I completely messed up 3 of my 4 laps in the Porsche – I couldn’t work out where the racing line was, kept missing vital cones that told me to keep right or brake, struggled with changing gears and at one point managed to crunch the gearbox from 4th to 1st on the chicane – eek! The more I struggled the more I panicked and I really think the instructor thought I was a bit hopeless! (Mind you, he didn’t do much to help calm me, and I felt I needed a bit more instruction in where to brake and so on). By the end of the lap I was feeling quite despondent – though I enjoyed the 4 laps, I’d also not felt comfortable, actually felt like I was out of control of the car- and I didn’t much like having everyone else overtake me, either! I also managed to stall it when we got back to the paddock ….. oops!

Dan complained that I’d driven far too slowly – there was a bit of a wait before the Lamborghini drive began so I sent them out on their passenger lap, and when they got back I think he understood a bit more about how tricky this track was to drive!

I was more confident about driving the Gallardo – I knew it was semi-automatic, with the gear paddles on the steering column and no clutch, so at least I wouldn’t have that problem this time! Getting into the Lamborghini, it felt a lot more special than the Porsche, you can sense that this is a really cool car! My instructor this time was fab, and as we took off on the first lap he was really helpful in letting me know where to break, where to turn and what gear I should be in. I still managed to mess up on the first set of corners and the chicane, but with each lap I felt more confident, and I even got the car up to about 100mph! It was great fun – the car was a lot easier to drive than the Porsche and REALLY powerful, and I loved the experience. I still wasn’t happy about my own driving though – I just couldn’t find that racing line.

Then we came to the Formula Renault. One of my concerns was that I wouldn’t fit in it – after all, the single seater is a diddy little car, and I’m not exactly the diddiest of people. But luckily, they had what I jokingly called the “fat” version – a wider chassis so that wider/taller people could drive as well as the skinny ones! Yay!! Now I had been really excited about this, but having failed miserably to get round the race track on the racing line in the other two cars I was quite scared – because now I was completely on my own – no instructor here to help me out. Eek! I was kitted out with helmet, gloves and racing boots and strapped into the car. Back to a manual gearbox – so I have a clutch, and a fairly rudimentary-looking gearstick on the right hand side of the car. Yup, the right …. something else to confuse me! At this point I was feeling really worried, and I even told the guy strapping me in that I wasn’t sure I wanted to go out any more. “Give it one lap, and if you really don’t like it come straight back to the pits, ” he said. OK ….. I guess so.

He started up the engine and …. I stalled it. LOL! (Apparently Steve said that most people stalled them, so I wasn’t the only one!) He started it up again, eased me onto the pit lane, got me to rev it a bit … OMG! The engine noise was incredible and it made my bum tickle, because of course you’re only a couple of inches off the ground in a single seater!! I edged up the pit lane and out onto the open track, and started to talk myself through the first tricky set of corners. Yellow cone, brake. Red cone – turn in now.Keep right keep right keep right …oops,missed that turn …..ok, over to the left, power down, straight on, round to the right, more power … go go go!!!!! I missed one of the turning points but made it round the corner and then picked up some speed going into the next, wide corner. Wow this was amazing!! The car only has four gears and I managed to get round most of the track in 4th and then just come down to 3rd for the chicane and tricky complex, so the gearbox didn’t seem too much of a problem, and as I grew in confidence I got faster and faster. Second lap, third lap – I continued to talk my way round the corners and managed to get the racing line right every time!! And when I got to the long sweeping sections I put my foot down and whooped and screamed my way round. It was, quite simply, the biggest adrenaline rush I’ve ever had!!!! As I started the fifth lap the steward put the “IN” board out, signalling that I was on my final lap. “Noooooooo!” I shouted. “Come on girl, make this the best one yet!!” I put my foot down and really went for it. No idea how fast I went – there were some dials in the cockpit but no time to look at them – but I hit all the corners and even overtook a Lamborghini! In fact, the only time I got blue flagged was when Tiff Needell overtook me – I guess I can cope with that!

Once I was back in the pits and out of the car I was out of breath – the Formula Renault really did take my breath away! I went to my debrief and was given a certificate and ranking for my driving in the Porsche and Lamborghini – 70%, not bad I guess! I also collected my photos and DVDs – except it turned out the Gallardo one hadn’t worked, damn! Anyway, I have the Formula Renault one – the engine noise drowns out my yelling and shouting, but it’s a great memento of a day that I am never going to forget!!

(Silly me left the DVD at my mum’s when we got back …. will upload it for your viewing pleasure in the next few days, once I’ve retrieved it!)

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