Circuit training

Trackdays give Average Joes a chance to free the speed demon within, writes Tom Stewart
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Cream teas, real ale, gardening, holiday camps and fish'n'chips: all quintessentially British. But we can now add "trackday" to that list for it was invented here and, remains an almost uniquely British event. What exactly is a trackday? Essentially, someone hires a motor-racing circuit from its owners or leaseholders for a given day and then invites others to pay a fee to bring their car or bike along on that day to drive it around the circuit. This differs from conventional motorsport in that a trackday isn't a competitive event - there's no official lap timekeeping or racing as such, so consequently there are no winners or silverware.

Cream teas, real ale, gardening, holiday camps and fish'n'chips: all quintessentially British. But we can now add "trackday" to that list for it was invented here and, remains an almost uniquely British event. What exactly is a trackday? Essentially, someone hires a motor-racing circuit from its owners or leaseholders for a given day and then invites others to pay a fee to bring their car or bike along on that day to drive it around the circuit. This differs from conventional motorsport in that a trackday isn't a competitive event - there's no official lap timekeeping or racing as such, so consequently there are no winners or silverware.

The trackday is enjoying a rise in popularity: in 1997 there were 156 trackdays held for cars in the UK. In 2000 there were 314 and the following year that figure grew to 564. In 2003 there were 644 "days for cars" plus 715 for motorcycles, which equates to an average of 3.8 per day, and those totals looks like rising by around 10 per cent for 2004.

But winning isn't the point. The purpose of a trackday is to drive reasonably speedily around a circuit, perhaps to extend your personal driving abilities, or your vehicle's, at close to its dynamic limits, without the constraints of the public road. Importantly, the trackday provides an effective way of engaging in the art of circuit driving - a very different discipline from that of everyday motoring on the Queen's Highway - but without taking the bold step of committing to official competition.

The term "trackday" entered biker parlance about 25 years ago, but similar events have been held since the dawn of the purpose-built motor racing circuit. These were initially organised by individuals, clubs or dealers on a non-profit making basis but in the early Eighties they grew in frequency and popularity - especially among the two-wheeled fraternity - such that commercial companies soon formed to handle the business.

Today the Association of Track Day Organisers (www.atdo.co.uk) has over 50 members, while Circuit Driver magazine (www.circuitdriver.com) currently checks through 160 trackday organisers to compile its monthly track day "what's on" diary. The website www.trackdays.co.uk the best place to start.

Obviously circuit driving is potentially very satisfying as well as exceptionally good fun but, according to Circuit Driver's editor Steve Bennett, the recent surge in popularity can be put down to the ever-increasing wherewithal of the modern performance car and motorcycle which on the road can really only be exploited by criminals with a death wish. Britain also has a particularly rich tradition of amateur, club-level motorsport, but Bennett also reckons the trackday remains on the rise due in part to this country's increasingly draconian motoring laws and enforcement methods.

Generally speaking Trackdays start at around 8am and begin with the admin - you'll need to show your full UK driving licence - followed by a mandatory driver briefing which outlines the dos and don'ts. Some comprehension of track etiquette and the marshalling flags is also expected. You'll hear words about when and how overtaking is permitted plus stern mention of the penalties for any inconsiderate or reckless driving. If you're a first-timer, or in any doubt, it's recommended that you take some instruction from one of the pros who'll be there on the day. A few laps alongside an instructor followed by a few more with the instructor alongside you will certainly help, as even the most confident and capable road drivers feel all at sea when venturing out on a track for the first time.

But what a huge thrill it is. My first trackday was at Goodwood in the early 1980s. I'd brought along my overweight Kawasaki GT750 which, though having ample engine, did fall some way short on chassis and wasn't really best suited to the rigours of the circuit. Approaching the long and complex Madgwick Corner the bike began weaving right on the very cusp of a full blown tank slapper, lap after lap. Another lad there was so impressed he insisted I take out his brand new Kawasaki GPz1100. Boy that thing felt quick, and was quick, but after about three laps the gear selector completely rogered itself. I returned to its owner rather sheepishly whereupon he said it'd done it before and then apologised profusely to me! Nice guy.

Bringing me right back down to earth are the times when genuinely fast men have also been present. My best trackday riding has at one time or another been completely humiliated by a number of world class racers; Troy Bayliss, Christian Sarron, Neil McKenzie, are three I recall most clearly, while my circuit driving has been put firmly in the shade by most of the BTCC stars of the 1990s. I tell you, when these guys go past it almost makes you want to stop and give up.

Any initial nervousness or apprehension should soon be overcome. As you accelerate out of the pit lane you'll be filled with an unmistakeable feeling of freedom; freedom from traffic lights, junctions, traffic coming the other way, bus lanes, speed bumps, police, speed limits and more. Before long you'll begin to feel those brakes really working and the tyres hovering on the edge of traction with a whiff of understeer here and a touch of oversteer there.

But it isn't about demanding the most from your car or merely "getting your knee down". Trackday driving, indeed all circuit driving, should have far more to do with being on the right line, at the right speed while always being in the correct gear. It's about knowing the circuit intimately, knowing almost instinctively precisely where to brake for each bend and where to turn in in order to just clip the corner's apex before reapplying the power to take you back to the outside of the track and on, like a speeding bullet, to the next braking point.

To help, most circuits have marker cones placed at the turn-in, apex and exit points and though it might look simple you'll initially find it quite a challenge to steer toward them both quickly and smoothly. At the same time you'll be aware of quicker vehicles behind you, but the onus is on them to get past cleanly and safely. Before long you'll be neatly slipping past slower vehicles and, with a few days experience, you should attain a better command of both vehicle and track, a time when the racing line and the driving become intuitive.

Most trackdays cost between £90 to £200 and attendees are usually split up into novices, intermediates and advanced, depending on experience. (I wouldn't advise any fibbery - you'll soon be found out.) Assuming all goes to plan, each group will get 20 minute sessions in rotation until the lunch hour, after which the sessions continue through the afternoon. By the way, 20 minutes on the track is equivalent to at least two hours on the road so you'll be ready for a break at the end of each session. And don't be surprised if it doesn't all run like clockwork: there's usually a buffoon or two who'll crash and the resultant clear-up delays proceedings.

Speaking of crashing, your regular motor insurance won't cover trackday usage though special insurance is available but isn't compulsory. Check the score before you go on protective clothing too, crash helmets are usually mandatory for car drivers and passengers, as well as full leathers for bikers.

As for what to drive, well, pretty much anything goes so long as it's well maintained and the glass lenses are taped. Some organisers welcome fully fledged racing machines (noise regulations permitting) while others don't, but unsurprisingly most trackdayers use vehicles with a sporting bent. Contemporary sportsbikes are made for the job, but pretty much anything with decent ground clearance will more than suffice, so long as it isn't too noisy. (Noise has become a major issue in recent years with trackside noise meters now a permanent fixture at some circuits.)

Cars are generally a little less well suited to hard track use, supercars included, as they can wear tyres and brakes pretty darn quickly, though this has given rise to specialist lightweight trackday cars such as Radicals, Ultimas and certain Westfields, not forgetting the evergreen and omnipresent Caterham of course.

And the very best UK tracks? Brands Hatch (long circuit) followed by Donington and Cadwell Park. And the world's best track? Unquestionably the Nürburgring's 12.9 mile Nordshleife near Cologne. Be prepared for total addiction.

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