In track instructing on public days, there are several mantras that any track instructor has to learn very quickly to survive, remain safe and still deliver a worthwhile driving experience to the clients. I won’t go into all of them here, instead I will pick just two elements. The Shit Drivers and The ‘Good’ Drivers Who Try and Kill You.
People ask me how I was able to sit alongside people in a variety of Ferraris and Lamborghinis as they drove with widely differing ability on track for more than a decade. The answer is empathy and perhaps a little telepathy.
You have probably less than 120 seconds from the driver stepping aboard to make an assessment on what they might be like.
This assessment starts when they first greet you, how much they’re paying attention to your own in car briefing which, in my view, sets the tone for the drive and establishes my authority in the car.
And whether they’re a cocky git or whether they’re actually gently shaking in their shoes as the urgent idle of a V12 Lamborghini thrums away behind their shoulder blades.
So, there are generally two types of driver. The ones who are shit and the ones that seem to be quite good.
The ones that are rubbish drivers may sound like the hard ones.
In fact they are easy. It becomes apparent early on that they are in over their head, they cannot comprehend what is happening and they really need you to drive the car through their head from the passenger seat simply to get them to achieve a half decent, remotely safe lap of a track.
The safety kill switch in my hand is used often, the secondary brake pedal under my foot is also exercised as I step in to help stop the damn thing and also, the odd reach over from my side to take off the prodigious amounts of steering lock they seem to believe is needed to get around a simple corner.
“Let’s just take all the body roll out of it chap”, as I reach over and tweak the lock off and level the car, almost feeling it breathe out and relax onto its four contact patches.
No, they are not the ones that will kill you.
It’s the ones that look OK. The ones that seem like there’re actually quite good.
They try and kill you.
Longcross Proving Ground, must be around five years ago now as I write this. A formidable place for a track instructor, tree lined and with little to no run off for errors. You kept a sharp eye on the drivers and didn’t tolerate anything even remotely risky. It was difficult, though perfectly possible and safe as long as everyone on the instructor team is sharp and things are contained.
Forget Palmer Sport, with wide open spaces. This requires a different approach.
This guy is a nice feller, an enthusiast with a good attitude and genuinely interested in driving. We are in a huge Lamborghini Murcialago LP640 and it’s a three lap drive.
He’s doing well, two laps in and I make that fatal thought in my head, “He is actually not too bad.”
The back straight has a slight kink left where it goes into what is called The Snake. There’s a slight bump in the road transition and my routine instruction was as follows:
A slight lift off the power, a little brake, then steadily back on the power to balance the car and drive it over the bump and into The Snake. As the wheel comes straight, a big stop on the brakes, with me always covering it my side in case they don’t.
The kink is in fact, flat if you are confident and familiar with the track and prepared to really use the brakes hard to stop it for the next right hand bend. But I don’t trust people to do it properly as the penalty is massive if they get that wrong. So that was my routine, safe and predictable.
And he’s been utterly fine.
Final lap, the same chat from me.
“Brakes, off the brakes, look through the bend feller and pick up the power, keep looking through the corner, pick up on the power, drive it through…”
And for some fucking reason, he took a lift off the power.
Fifty feet earlier, fifty feet later and it would not have mattered. At that precise moment, the car was on its toes for a moment as the weight shifted, the car had a little roll in it and it crossed that small bump.
Not good. Not good.
The Mucialago has a huge V12 behind my shoulders. It sits high up in the chassis and really needs to be kept in check with positive throttle to keep the weight on the back tyres. Lifting off the power is a bad, bad thing. Especially with a little steering angle in for left kink at 90 mph.
The back steps out.
Now it’s feeling like the engine is trying to climb over the top of the car and the right front corner decelerates and that huge V12 weight starts swinging like a pendulum and the car slides into big oversteer.
On the left we have trees on the right we have a grass golf course area and more trees.
The car is worth around £200,000.
To this day I remember distinctly thinking “This absolutely cannot go off here.”
The consequences just didn’t bear thinking about. Quite apart from the monetary damage of almost certainly writing off the car, the chances of injury were massively high.
This is all happening in fractions of a second, yet it is as if it’s being filmed in slow motion in my mind. I can recall every moment.
My right hand is reaching over, grabbing the wheel and as the tyres howl I am dialling in the opposite lock..
I feel the tyres beginning to grip and know what‘s coming. It’s going to snap back the other way. Dialling off the lock with my hand is a frantic thing and I remember and one point biffing the driver in the face with my elbow as I fought it, reaching over and bringing my other hand into play, desperately trying to predict when it was going to snap back the other way and try and fire us into the scenery.
In this scenario, I knew my kill switch and brake pedal were of no use. I needed the engine running to supply any traction control assistance it may decide to casually offer (the Murcialago has rubbish stability systems) and hitting the brake wouldn’t lock the wheels to scrub speed as the ABS would trigger and we would simply veer off to one side.
I wasn’t fighting for actual control. I was simply trying to keep the gigantic bloody thing on the track, any part of it. The alternatives simply weren’t worth considering.
Each wag of the tail from side to side, a real tank slapper, meant that the car was slowing, losing energy and in the back of my mind I was thankful that the friction of the huge tyres slipping sideways was scrubbing off speed. We roll to a halt, or walking pace.
My driver is sitting like a rabbit caught in car headlights.
“I am so sorry”, he started to say.
Me? I am looking in the mirror as I figure that we are now almost stationary on one of the faster parts of the bloody track. Behind me, a Ferrari 599 GTB is standing on its nose as it howls to a stop behind us, having had a grandstand view of our ‘moment’.
“Forget it chap, it never happened. Into first, come on, off we go, let’s move.”
We finish the lap, my driver still apologetic and stunned. Me concentrating on getting us back to the pit lane, aware that his head is in chaos.
I reassure him, “It was no big deal, just one of those things, don’t worry, it happens. Are you OK?”
I take a moment, a long gulp of my water bottle and reflect as I wait for the next driver.
The instructor from the Ferrari 599 GTB that was behind us comes over.
“Fuck me, feller I thought you were off there. You should have seen the fucking tyre smoke!”
Sure enough. For the rest of the day, I was able to study in great detail on each subsequent lap the set of wide, snaking tyre marks that drew a perfect series of S shapes into that section of track.
They were still there three weeks later when we returned for another driving day.
To this day, I do not know how I managed to keep the car out of the trees. A combination of self preservation combined with sheer pride. At that time I was one of the more senior guys in the company and generally worked hard to give customers a great experience, keep them safe and always brought the car back in one piece. No mistakes.
It’s a save I am proud of and yet I often think that I should have done something to stop it getting to that point.
In reality, I know there was little I could have done, it was one of those things. You have to let paying customers have a degree of freedom and yet always, always balance that against safety. It’s a constant balance.
Had the guy displayed an attitude in the car or had not been listening to my chat, he would have had the hard word.
In fact, he was a nice guy, genuinely apologetic afterwards, as he realised his error and that a second pair of hands had reached into his bucket of skill and topped it up.
If you’re starting out as a track instructor, please remember this.
The ones who are shit are easy. The ones who seem like they’re ok will try and kill you.