Playing the Game: Faster than you can say Damon Hill

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The Independent Online
Damon Hill beating all-comers at a Formula One grand prix is just the very top of a pyramid of British motor sport with a very broad base. More than 100,000 people across Britain take part in some of the 5,000 events every year organised by the 750 clubs.

And while the Williams-Renault team might spend millions every year on designing the correct shape of a wheel nut, motor sport is remarkably easy to start, even for the dedicated couch potato bred on the manic moments of Murray Walker.

If you thought you needed famous parents, you would be wrong. "You can do it with no background whatsoever," says Colin Wilson of the RAC Motor Sports Association, the governing body for all four-wheeled sport in the UK. "Just because Damon Hill is the son of a famous father does not mean it is normal or obligatory. It is not necessarily even a help."

The best advice is to start young - and that means eight and upwards - but even bus-pass holders can try.

"If you are talking about getting to the top, then you do need to start early," Wilson says. "You can start as soon as you have a road traffic licence and carry on for as long as you want.

"There is organised karting for drivers as young as eight. A lot of the top drivers made a name for themselves in karting. It does help to have a track record.

"Everyone thinks they are the world's best driver," Wilson adds. "It looks easy and the pay is attractive, but there are hundreds chasing each drive."

Even money, or at least large amounts of it, is not obligatory, according to Wilson. "In any sport, money is needed. You cannot play golf without a set of clubs, even if you are brilliant. If you like it, you will have to buy some.

"Motor sport is not really any different. What is different is that it is a car we are talking about. But there are plenty of second-hand ones and some parts of the sport are intentionally severely limited to make sure people can afford it."

Auto tests and trials are the cheapest forms. Both use standard road cars but demand a lot of driving ability. In auto tests, the driver must negotiate a set route around obstacles, while trials are not even against the clock. The competitive element is the ability to climb sections of varying difficulty and gradient. "These are entry-level parts of the sport and very cheap," Wilson says. "In auto tests, the good drivers always win, even in inferior cars, and in trials people are still using Hillman Imps."

Racing in a single seater car on a track like Silverstone, which is probably the most popular idea of motor racing, is more expensive.

A special car, different tyres, safety equipment and a separate licence are all necessary. But even then Wilson has a solution. "It is much cheaper to do it at a racing school," he says. "A day costs a few hundred pounds. It is a good idea to try it, to see if you like it.

"You get to drive someone else's car. You know the car will be right and if you are six seconds off the pace, it is because you have no ability. I tried it and saved myself thousands. I know I have no aptitude."

Circuits where you can get behind the wheel

Ian Taylor Motor Racing School

Thruxton, near Andover, Hampshire SP11 8PW

Telephone: 01264 773511

Founded in 1982 at what is now one of the quickest circuits in Britain. A half-day course costs pounds 99 and involves three of the 2.4-mile laps in a Rover 200 coupe driven by an instructor and then three driven by the client. Then there are five laps in a single-seater Formula Ford 1600. For pounds 140, the single seater is a more powerful Formula Renault. The school is also accredited by the RAC to hold courses for the National B Licence.

Jim Russell Racing Drivers' School

Donington Park, Castle Donington, Derby DE74 2RP

Telephone: 01332 811430

Founded in 1957 at Snetterton in Norfolk, it was the first school in the world. Moved to Donington in 1988. Graduates include the double Formula One world champion Emerson Fittipaldi.

Courses range from two hours to a week. A half-day super trial costs pounds 195 and involves a briefing, one-to-one instruction in a Vauxhall Astra touring car, laps in a Formula Vauxhall single seater and a visit to circuit museum. Week-long course costs pounds 2,250 and ends with a race and, all being well, a National B Licence.

Nigel Mansell Racing School

Brands Hatch, Fawkham, Longfield, Kent, DA3 5NG

Telephone: 01474 872367

Relaunched as Nigel Mansell School 18 months ago. "Initial trial" (pounds 85 weekdays, pounds 105 Saturdays) consists of five laps in a BMW 318i with an instructor and five in a single-seater Formula First. In the "super trial", there are 20 minutes' personal tuition in the BMW and 12 timed laps in the single-seater.

There are also schools at Snetterton, near Norwich; Oulton Park in Cheshire; and Cadwell Park, near Louth.

Knockhill Racing Drivers' School

By Dunfermline, Fife KY12 9TF

Telephone: 01383 723337

Both a circuit-racing and rally school, the only full-time one in Scotland.

After a briefing, the half-day racing course (pounds 69 weekdays, pounds 89 weekends) starts with laps in a Ford XR2 racing saloon round the 1.3-mile circuit, then two laps driven by the instructor, followed by five laps in a single- seater Formula First.

For the rally course, the school uses a Toyota Corolla and the tarmac stages of the Scottish rally. Each driver has 12 laps, including two timed, and demonstration laps by an instructor.

More information can be obtained from the RAC Motor Sports Association, Motor Sports House, Riverside House, Colnbrook, Slough, Berkshire, SL3 OHG; telephone 01753 681736.