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Virgin Territory - A Beginnerís View of Track Days

by Bob Larcombe

I really canít remember who first suggested that I try a track day. Iíd seen a piece on Top Gear, Iíd read an article in EVO around the same time and chatted at length with other F owners of varying track day experience. Everything seemed remarkably straight forward and reading between the lines of what was said, very rewarding. What no one told me was itís thoroughly addictive as well.

6am at Toddington Services. This is the arranged point for a group of us to meet and then head to Donington Park Race Track near Nottingham. Itís a clear morning, just cold enough to see oneís breath, a little mist lying in low fields, a bright early-morning sun casts long shadows across the empty car park. Potential alone for a great top-down drive. Several MGFs, a new-shape MR2 and a bright yellow Elise return to the M1 and point north.

Finding Donington is easy enough but on arrival the place is a little chaotic yet static. A small army of Elise owners have already arrived and a crowd is hanging round the sign-on office with that aimless look that says theyíve been rooted to the same spot for at least thirty minutes making that early breakfast so worth while. They donít know quite what theyíre queuing for but everyone else is, so they are too. It soon becomes apparent this would be the perfect event at which to get totally lost, not just geographically, so I quietly shadow a couple of those F owners who have seen everything before. I feel a little intrusive when we deposit our cars in one of the pit lane garages, I mean, surely some cigarette-sponsored pro with a uniformed pit crew, pop star girlfriend and air conditioned trailer-home belong in here ? Apparently not, they are up for grabs for the day, and having staked our claim we too wander over and join the ranks of drivers waiting to sign on. The cross-section of people here is as wide and varied as that of any randomly selected group of drivers on any motorway, the commonality being ownership of an F/TF, an MX5 or an Elise. Iím guessing the youngest are late teens, the oldest, retired teenagers-at-heart. And itís not all blokes either.

Disclaimer forms are distributed. This is the first taste of things to come and as such the mood and anxiety elevate one notch and although said forms are signed I have little doubt no one actually read them in depth. Besides, I think itís assumed any track will inevitably expose a car to risks insurers would happily dine-out on for a year. After signing-on, we return to the garage to pick our cars clean of the motoring equivalent of navel lint. Spare wheel and jack, interior mats, road atlas behind the passenger seat, CDs in the glove box, anything not bolted down (even in the boot) is removed, as much for safety and ďtrack cleanlinessĒ as for a few kilograms off the vehicleís weight. I kid myself the latter will actually make a difference.

Next stop is another queue after which we receive an in-depth brief on how the day will run, a few top tips for making the most of it, some dull stuff about safety and coloured flags and, slightly alarming this, what to do if your car conks out on track. Terms like ďventing fluidĒ, reference to tyre walls and gravel traps, and the suggestion we try and ďlimpĒ home to the pit-lane rather than leave a car on the track ignite a spark of worry at the back of my mind. Itís not a huge bonfire-sized spark but I was hoping my car wouldnít vent anything today, and if it ends up limping anywhere Iíll be cycling to work on Monday. Briefing over weíre each wrist-banded (according to our group) like weíre about to enter Disneyworld, except Disneyworld is all looking and no touching.

We return to the garage with less than half an hour until we are due on track. The first group of cars is already out there and conversation is frequently overcome by the boastful howl of Elises blurring by on the other side of the pit wall. The spark of worry is now developing in to a flickering flame of anxiety as other drivers don helmets, gloves, and serious expressions of total focus and Iím positive my inexperience is a little too evident is such company. Start time is nearing, engines are fired and drivers settle in their seats. Iíve heard it said the eyes are the most expressive facial feature, and with a helmet on they become framed. Any underlying emotion is magnified and more evident to the on-looker and despite driving mid-range cars with what is in all honesty ďaverageĒ performance, a mixture of anticipation and trepidation is causing eyes to narrow and pupils to widen all round.

Rolling out in to the pit lane I tentatively creep forward to join the line of about fifteen cars waiting to go out. There are a couple of ďAfter youĒ , ďNo, after youĒ moments, and I have an excited nervousness more commonly found in the waiting-lines of roller coasters. As we all roll forward itís like nearing the top of one, knowing that gravity is about to take command and send us on our exhilarating way. In front of me, one by one, cars disappear on to the track in their own roller coaster moment. Two more to go...the car in front goes...I floor the accelerator and go over the top...

The first thing I notice is just how wide the circuit is. In the pit lane, itís as narrow as a country by-way, courtesy to other drivers is everything and, in a way, itís comforting to be in the claustrophobic presence of other cars and their more experienced drivers. Out here, it feels vast. From one kerb youíre lucky to pick out the other edge across the track. I am truly on my own and the only advice available now is that offered from within. The thing I forgot about roller coasters is that once youíre going, you ainít stopping, and the same is true here. In my naivety Iíd hoped for a couple of slower laps to get to know the track, ease the car in to this madness and generally get a feel for things. Not so and barely am I out of the first corner and an MX5 is seemingly all over me, filling my mirrors, wanting some leeway. In my mind the track has gone from being a runway to a towpath and thereís simply no where to go to let him pass. I bias my line to the right (as briefed) and my shoulders sag as the Mazda vanishes in to the distance with no obvious effort. The problem now is returning to a reasonable line without blatantly blocking someone else as other cars, seeing a chance to keep their speed up, flow past.

Somewhere towards the back of the group, gaps appear and I take up a faster line. Despite studying a map of the circuit, the huge field I now find myself circumnavigating bears no resemblance to it. During my first few laps every last drop of capacity is consumed simply by learning the layout. As a result my technique, which was weak at best, is now non-existent. I brake early for sweeping corners, with cars racking up behind me, and by contrast I go storming in to sharper bends only to brake half way, upsetting the balance of the car which, even with a complete novice at the helm is clearly enjoying itself. At least one of us is. Session over I return to our pit with mixed feelings. Exhilarating yes, but enjoyable ? I really canít decide. I wasnít fast by any means, and I wasnít even that good at integrating with the other cars. Just twenty minutes out there and I think Iím ready to go home.

Like aircraft returning to a carrier after a mission, one by one cars and drivers return to the garage. The atmosphere is equally excitable and I learn I am not alone in feeling desperately inept at times, which makes me realise that in actual fact, Iím not. Even the track-day aces of our little squadron admit to errors and accept room for improvement will always be there. According to some, I hold my own impressively well for a new-comer. Confidence restored, our time to go again has come round sooner than one-in-three sessions per hour suggests. This time, I hold the racing line with more resilience and stubbornly refuse to yield to some of the other cars. Those that are blatantly quicker yes, thereís no point holding them up, but during this session, and in particular towards the finish line, it becomes refreshingly clear the only edge a lot of the other cars have is driver confidence and on the straights at least the car matches those around it. Now all I need to do is pilot the thing better. As each lap passes I brake later and later into corners and hug the inside edges closer and closer, and as a result can feel more speed being carried through. In one bend an MX5 glides sideways in front of me, declaring itís release from captivity with a light stream of smoke and a quiet but lengthy bark from the rear tyres. This indignant loss of control is shrouded in earthy dust as it leaves the tarmac for the dry grass run-off. Iím reassured, firstly that the F is better behaved, and secondly that Iím obviously making a reasonable pace to the point where others are caught out. Progress both around the track and in terms of technique is now being somewhat hampered though by a trio of supercharged fully race-prepared Sierra Cosworths who have infiltrated our session. How and why theyíre here isnít clear. We are in their way, they intimidate us as they maraud through the pack of roadsters like sharks pestering a colony of seals whoís only superiority is in their numbers. Official complaints, mostly on grounds of mutual safety, are forthcoming and the great whites quietly skulk away to fight somewhere else.

Come mid-afternoon my earlier misgivings are completely gone. This is, quite simply, a brilliant day out. The car is performing superbly, my confidence and technique are growing all the time and to cap it all the social aspect of the day has no barriers. I am a little concerned by the condition of my tyres though. The rears were due replacement anyway but several laps of hard graft has reduced them to virtual slicks. Other cars with newer tyres arenít suffering as much but their owners seem envious of my older, stickier rubber. Contingency plans are made to put my own and a borrowed spare on at the end of the day.

Late afternoon and Iím starting to feel weary, physically and mentally. Through one corner the car too signals it may be time to call it a day with a suggestive but subdued wiggle from the rear end. With perfect timing our final session is waved to itís chequered flag conclusion. The assorted items of road-clutter are returned to our cars, restoring them to more mundane boundaries before a rendezvous at a near-by pub to casually de-brief the dayís events.

As at 6am, a brilliant sun is now low in the sky. As I drive away from Donington everything else on the road seems so very slow and road-driving takes a few miles to get used to again. Thereís oncoming traffic for a start and far more to take in than just keeping to a line and as a result, initially I feel as wary as I did when I first took to the track this morning.

So was it worth it? Definitely. I feel pleasantly jaded but my knowledge of the carís limits is greatly improved and the need to drive fast on the way home was satisfied hours ago. Apart from two new tyres that I was planning to get anyway, the car is unmarked and so am I. Track days might appear to be dangerous or reckless, but statistically I doubt there is any lesser danger on public roads, the track advantage being that everyone is more aware and alert.

Expensive? Well, Iím lucky in that Iím unmarried with no children so can do pretty much what I please for entertainment. When you consider people pay £35 per head to listen to Robbie Williams for two hours from the A1, £99 for a whole day at a track is really not so bad. Look at it as a day out catching up with friends, lunch with like-minded enthusiasts, the chance to really use a venue as opposed to simply watching. Itís not just seven twenty-minute track sessions. Itís infinitely more involving and rewarding and ultimately itís YOU that makes the entertainment. The only other cost is petrol and any damage to your car should you be that unfortunate. Helmets are required on track but these can usually be hired for around £10 for the whole day, although I always feel this is like wearing someone elseís socks. With this in mind Iíd bought my own the day before. An entry-level approved helmet can be yours for around £100 from any good motorsports supplier.

So will I be going again? Ask me at Goodwood on November 5th!
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