Motor Racing: Fast-moving toughs of the track: Guy Hodgson is taken for a ride by Eric van de Poele in the Belgian's Old Spice Nissan Primera

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The Independent Online
THERE are some things you should never do to a racing driver. Suggest he is not fit to clean Ayrton Senna's hub-caps is one of them, trying to beat him at the traffic lights is another. But, above all, do not crush his hand as you get in beside him.

To do so is like bringing the lid of his instrument down on the fingers of a concert pianist. Damage a driver's hands and it threatens his livelihood more surely than putting sugar in his fuel tank. It is, you could say, in pole position in the list of undesirables.

It's a funny thing what can happen when you are nervous, though, isn't it? Eric van de Poele smiled politely as I scrambled into the bucket seat of his Old Spice Nissan Primera, or he did at least until I squeezed his fingers between my shoulder blades and the harness-like seatbelt he was helpfully trying to get out of my way.

Pain raced across his eyes and mechanics raced even quicker to preserve their man's precious digits. 'That will add a few miles per hour to your drive,' one of them said evilly. He had been the same man who had removed all pens and keys from my pockets 'just in case something goes wrong'. Very reassuring.

Van de Poele, it should be explained, was sitting at the wheel in the car he will be using in the British Touring Car Championship, an event that entails driving at unnatural speeds along with other like- minded lunatics who do not seem to have too much regard for the welfare of their vehicles or their own physical well-being.

At the worst of times they drive with their feet only a paper-thin gap from the floor, but when they take journalists on board for a spin, and when they have the track virtually to themselves, they take sadistic pleasure in putting the fear of God into their passengers.

And Van de Poele is faster than most. So quick he raced in Formula One in 1991 and 1992 for the Modena and Brabham teams, which put him in the same races as Senna if not quite in the same league. In short, if anyone can in a Nissan it is the quietly spoken, unassuming Belgian.

Appearances can be deceptive and none more so than with him. The almost vigorous understatement of his manner was transformed into a raging bull of a man as he pressed the accelerator leaving the pits at Donington Park. The shock was as profound as for footballers who met the shy, short- sighted Nobby Stiles off the pitch and then were kicked into the air when they encountered him again on it.

It is the stomach that acts as the human Richter Scale registering the first quake with a lurch for the throat. A thump hits it with the full growl from the Janspeed engine and then monitors the after-shocks as you defy gravity round the circuit. You keep your breakfast down, but only because your mouth is gulping as much oxygen as possible.

The first corner was taken at an unnatural angle and a wholly inappropriate speed and, when I did open my eyes, the grass bank appeared the only logical place where we would end. 'Driving these cars demands different skills,' Van de Poele had said once he had got the feeling back in his hand. 'In Formula One the faster you go the greater the downforce, in these the equation is opposite.'

Wreckless Eric can do his sums though. The car may have been trying to tear itself from its mountings and the corners were coming at you at such a rate you thought he could not stop in time, but for him it was like a Sunday afternoon spin in the country. 'Sorry we can't go round more than once,' he said. His passenger nodded regretfully while privately thanking his maker. 'Why are you shaking?' one of the Nissan team said as I got out. Just the cold, I replied. Just the cold.