Motoring-The verdict: Grand day out;

Four intrepid readers vie for pole position with Michael Booth at a Grand Prix training school. Photographs by Teena Taylor
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Should you ever happen to be at my house on a

Sunday afternoon when a Grand Prix is on,

this is the kind of commentary you can expect. Pre-race build-up: "Oh come on Hakkinen, smile for god's sake, you're earning a bloody fortune!" The start: "Villeneuve you imbecile, how can you stall the car on the grid?" During the race: "How good can Schumacher be? Just overtake him on the inside, Hill ..." and so on. Next season will be different. I now have an entirely revised appreciation of the skills of professional racing drivers. Even Damon's.

There are several racing schools around but Auto Express recently voted the Ian Taylor Racing School at Thruxton in Hampshire the best. It offers a drive in Formula Renault single-seaters, as well as the usual Formula Fords and, for a few extra quid, it will even let you loose in a Ferrari 355.

We began in the rather more prosaic Rover 200. After a briefing on negotiating the track - where to brake, how to take the corners, where to pull the David Coulthard face - came the first few laps with an instructor driving. From there it was straight into the driving seat of an MGF, still with an instructor beside you to calm the nerves. After this, the instructor, in my case Benedict McLoughlin, a championship winner this year in a Caterham 7, talked me through my faults and awarded marks out of 100. Mine was an above-average 75, with which I was thrilled, until I found out that both Dominic and Linda had scored 77.

The next dish on our menu was the Formula Ford 1600, and it was all I could do to keep the thing under control. It's not that the car, capable of around 90mph, was difficult to handle - in fact, the steering and turn- in on bends were dramatically quick and stable - it's more that the all- out assault on your senses leaves you dumbstruck as you are shaken like maracas, and deafened by a wailing engine.

Clearly our testers were getting to grips with things a little better than I was. Back in the pits Mark told me he had been having the time of his life. Mark, a volunteer marshal at Silverstone, had spent many races imagining himself behind the wheel and the reality, to judge by his grin, had far exceeded the fantasy. Linda, however, found the lying- in-the-bath seating position and vibrations of the single-seaters too much. "I much preferred the Ferrari," she said.

Before my own brief, euphoric laps in the Ferrari I had five in the Formula Renault (pictured with our testers). Resembling a scaled-down F1 car, it has superior aerodynamics to the Ford and even more grip thanks to slick tyres. Ground-effect spoilers mean that the faster you corner the stronger it grips, making for more fun than a hot tub full of All Saints. The Renault was the thrilling, terrifying highlight of my day and if it is even a taster of the F1 experience, my admiration for modern Grand Prix drivers and the speeds they achieve is unbounded. Sunday afternoons will never be quite the same again

Ian Taylor Motor Racing School: 01264 773511. Introductory course (Formula Fords), pounds 120; super course (Fords, Formula Renaults), pounds 165; Ferrari course, pounds 180 (Fords, Renaults and Ferrari).

Linda Smith, 30, from Basingstoke, Hampshire. Currently drives a Volvo 940

"The briefing was very good, there was a lot to take in but when you went round with someone in the car they repeated all the important parts," observed Linda. "I didn't like the single-seaters, I was a bit scared to go in them, they were very uncomfortable, freezing cold and very noisy - I thought I was going to blow the engine up at one point, and I couldn't find the gears. I would definitely recommend this to men more than women. I don't think I'd make a good racing driver."

Dominic Harman, 27, ski instructor, from Lindfield, West Sussex. Currently drives an Audi A8

"My instructor was very critical of my driving," said Dominic. "Mind you, I did stop in the middle of the chicane to ask him which gear I should be in - he pointed out that on a racing track you don't generally stop! But that was a good thing, I have a reputation for being a bit of a reckless driver. There is an awful lot to take in. I stalled the Formula Ford three times before I got going but after three laps I was going quite fast. The Formula Renault was by far the best car. I soon realised that no matter how much you put your foot down it wasn't going to skid."

Mark Manuel, 38, London Underground train driver, from Chesham, Buckinghamshire. Currently drives a Rover 100

"I'd wanted to drive a race car more than anything else," beamed Mark after his laps. "The instructors prepare you well but once you start it's quite a shock, you have to start very slowly and build up speed." Because of his height Mark could only fit into the more powerful Super Sport racer. "It felt like I was taking off, it was so fast. I was a little bit scared because the speed just keeps coming, I was gritting my teeth all the way round. As a tube driver I drive cautiously, but I found that talking myself round corners helped. What I've learnt will make me a safer driver on the road. It was the experience of a lifetime."

Pauline Provost, 41, laboratory technician, and her children, Emily, 13, and Mark, 11, from Aveley, Essex. Currently drives a Ford Sierra

"I think the idea of starting in the MGF and working your way up is a great idea," enthused Pauline. "You get a real sense of progression of power and ability. When I was driving round on my own in the single-seaters it was a little nerve-wracking, but once I'd done a couple of laps and learnt the circuit it was really good fun, exhilarating. With the Formula Renault the faster you pushed the better the handling was. I would do it again definitely, and recommend it." Mark said: "I think it's great that you can drive the same cars as professionals."

Road test If you would like to take part in a test drive, write to The Verdict, The Independent Magazine, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, giving a contact phone number, your address and details of the type of vehicle, if any, you drive. For most cars, participants must be over 26, and have a clean driving licence.

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