Handbrake turns, J-turns . . . they're the stuff that spy films are made of. Alistair Weaver learns to do them

We have all seen the movie. Our intrepid hero flees the baying mob in a beaten-up old banger, performing precise stunts without ever threatening his $1,000 hairstyle. It's a make-believe world, but behind every Tom Cruise is a stunt driver with genuine ability. When the director shouts: "Action!", it's they who must dip the clutch, grab the handbrake and thrill the fans.

Getaway driving is a black art worthy of further investigation, which is why I find myself at a banger racing circuit near Newport Pagnell. This unlikely venue is the home of Spy Games, the company established in 2001 to allow humble punters - you and me - to experience some of the thrills of extreme driving.

The company specialises in corporate events, but the skills are real enough. The project was the brainchild of Dave Thomas, a counter-surveillance expert who learnt his trade while serving as a reservist in the SAS. "Too many of the so-called James Bond experiences are about sipping vodka martini in black tie," he says. "We give people the chance to experience some of the skills associated with being a real spy. They get a brief insight into another world."

As well as teaching City types how to spin cars, Thomas works as a private investigator and has also advised the film and TV industry. His credits include Alien 3 and Soldier Soldier.

His instructors also learnt their skills in Her Majesty's service and my tutor for the day is Cliff May. "In the forces we were taught close-protection chauffeur work," says May. "You had to be trained for every eventuality." The Official Secrets Act stops him talking about his past, but he admits to "having used the skills under fire".

May ushers me into the passenger seat of an ancient Cavalier. This tatty Vauxhall is about as far removed from Bond's Aston Martin as it's possible to get, and the Northampton International Raceway is not exactly Monte Carlo.

"Most counter-surveillance work is actually quite boring," says May. "It's one per cent adrenaline and 99 per cent perspiration." Thomas reckons he was inspired to establish Spy Games because "I'd eaten too many McDonald's while sitting in my car."

I spend the first half-hour performing handbrake turns in the central area of the track. This involves approaching at speed, then pulling sharply on the handbrake while making a brutal steering input. Get it right and the car pirouettes neatly through 180 degrees. Get it wrong and you'll look like a prat, or crash.

It's outrageous fun and appeals to my hooligan instincts. The more aggressive I am, the more I succeed, although the car takes a frightful beating. "We destroy 20-30 cars each year," says May. "Most are sourced from scrapyards."

The handbrake turns are a build up to the pièce de résistance, the J-turn. In essence, this is a handbrake turn in reverse. "It's used when the threat is in front of you," says May. "You must turn the car and then speed away from the danger in a single motion."

My instructor admits that it feels counter-intuitive. "Most people aren't used to using the power to control the car. People tend to feel a mix of adrenaline and terror, which we need to overcome. Speed itself is not a danger, its inappropriate speed that causes problems."

The J-turn technique sounds horribly complex to perform. You place your left hand on the gearstick and your right at 4 o'clock on the steering wheel, before accelerating hard backwards. When you want to turn, you lift off the power and slide the gearbox into neutral, while simultaneously turning the wheel anti-clockwise from 4 o'clock to 6 o'clock and back again. The car will then spin of its own accord and, when it's rotated sufficiently, you choose a gear and drive away.

We swap to an old Vauxhall Senator and prepare for action. Senators used to be popular with the police, which make my antics all the more amusing. J-turns are less tricky than they sound. It's only the speed of the turn and the aggression required that needs some acclimatisation. As May yells "turn now" and "power now" from the passenger seat, I start to feel heroic.

"We've never failed to teach anybody how to do a J-turn," says May. "I even managed to teach a guy who spoke no English." He reckons that women make better pupils than men - "they listen more".

At the end of the session, May describes a set-piece scenario that requires me to use all my new-found skills. It's impossible not to feel an adrenaline rush as I handbrake turn, wiggle through a slalom and perform a J-turn to escape the make-believe baddies.

It's all riotous good fun, but I can't help wondering whether it's irresponsible to teach the public such extreme driving skills?

May is dismissive: "We are only teaching people to a very low level," he says. "As we say to everyone before they leave: 'If you have aspirations about joining MI5, don't use us as a reference.'"

Alistair's trip was part of a promotion for the DVD of Tom Cruise's latest movie, 'War of the Worlds', which is available now. www.spy-games.co.uk

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