I’m not a great driver, I’m barely average in fact but like many blokes, fast cars that outstrip my talent hold a strong and beguiling appeal.
In 2012 I bought an M3 CSL; “a tricksy’d up, hunkered down road racer that’s come amongst us, shaved and spruced” as someone once said. The CSL’s a car so far above my then (and still) limited driving ability that I felt if I was to unleash even a part of its potential, and keep the car and myself in one piece, I needed help. Serious help.
A brief hunt around the forums followed by a brief email exchange and I was booked onto CAT Driver Training’s Academy course. The reason for choosing this, apart from the glowing reviews by past attendees, was that the company is based within the Millbrook Proving Ground facility and has the whole place at its disposal to really get down into the nuts and bolts of performance driving. There is the Alpine Route, a twisting, turning circuit full of grade changes, the high speed Bowl, the handling circuit, a vast straight for braking learning, grip circles and skid pans and of course CAT’s classroom back at their base camp invisibly nestled within the Alpine Circuit itself. Not only are all these facilities available, students have them to themselves so it’s not like training within a track day where there are numerous other cars on track crowding each corner. The training is eight or so hours of one-to-one with the company’s founder Colin at your side on empty high-speed tracks. What’s not to love?
From now on, I will refer to Colin rather than CAT as he becomes your co-driver for the day. I have no hesitation in saying you will not only respect Colin, you will like him immensely; this is so important as he is not only your guide through a very dangerous activity but because a lot of the training is based on the exchange of information regarding the car, the technicalities and the circuits. His huge laugh, equally huge patience and ability to build rapport and get the ideas and goals across help immensely bringing confidence and surety to the sessions. Believe me, there is no holding back and make no mistake, this is full on high speed training and having someone calm and reassuring at your side is very welcome. I’d liken Colin to a great ABS system, cutting in only when needed but staying in the background otherwise merely giving you the confidence to push as hard as you can, as hard as you dare and then some.
“Right, we’re at 100 mph on the high lane of the Bowl – please take your hands off the wheel” . . . “errr . . . yeh . . . ok . . .”
So I have the perfect circuit at my disposal and one of, if not the best possible trainer at my side and of course my CSL. How many days in my life will be like this?
Anyway enough waffle and on to the experience itself.
A small caveat is that this is an article about training rather than a training article so I won’t attempt to explain the dynamics, the tips and tricks, the techniques and strategies that come with instruction. In common with Colin, I believe these nuances must be felt first hand rather than absorbed through print, I believe you have to feel the G yourself and you have to feel the fear generated from being at the helm of a car on the edge of its limits or perhaps just slightly beyond.
To start, there are the necessary safety elements, do and don’ts and the mess about and you’re out type stuff. There’s a quick discussion on what the trainee wants from the training and then outside to check over the car for the task ahead, geo set-up is checked later on the grip circle – these are tyre pressure and condition, oil leak type checks. There’s a choice of CAT car or own car and for this, I chose my own car. I’d shod the CSL with new Supersports for the sessions and as a rule, Colin is looking for a minimum of 3mm of tread (I went through 1.8mm on the first day). I would have preferred fresh Cups but the weather was unpredictable. I also put on a fresh set of Pagid RS-29s (fully bedded in). On following days, I forced my frame into CAT’s crazy Subaru for the most part of the training but today it’s me and my CSL. Colin took me out in one of CAT’s cars for a familiarisation trip around the circuits to give an indication of what’s ahead and also to add a few moments of calm before the impending storm enveloped my world.
I’ve been in the car with a number of “real” drivers now; Colin, a few demos here and there with racing drivers on track and drift days, recently some IAM drivers and of course with Supercar Driver’s resident expert, Ollie and they all have one thing in common. They make progress effortlessly, the skill of balancing a car around a circuit is making it seem like you’re drifting around on a cloud and the silky-smooth progress almost belittles the skills these drivers have built up in their racing DNA across the years; it seems so easy yet their lap-times are so inexplicable fast that you have to rub your eyes in disbelief – surely the clock is lying; they were hardly trying? The point here is that it’s almost as if the training is designed to hide itself and as with many things, once you have a little knowledge the task ahead becomes ever taller as reality dawns. Looking back, on the first morning, I couldn’t pedal a car if my life depended on it; I was a complete novice on the start of a long journey.
Day 1 is Performance Driving. It starts as one might expect with braking. This starts slow before quickly reaching threshold braking at three-figure speeds on a long straight with a small bowl at its apex. Because of the circuit layout, there’s a chance here to grasp single-input steering and the importance of observation i.e. looking to the absolute limit of where you want to go and scanning back. This is quite un-nerving at first.
Following this, there’s a session on a wet and semi-wet track comparing cadence braking and ABS braking. I was recently caught on a snowy road and used cadence braking to great effect; these are not just track skills.
After braking, it’s car balance on the high-speed bowl using snap single and double-lane changes. This takes practice in keeping throttle constant and the car level as you literally throw its bulk across the bowl’s lanes but once you get it, it sticks and your slamming the car around at 50-60 mph and beyond. Still on the bowl but now in Lane 5, we look at some serious speed stuff; compliance steer, bump steer and again looking at where you want to go rather than holding a fixed gaze at the unfeasibly small barrier a foot or two to your right. Here’s where you pray to the automotive gods as your hands come off the wheel at eye-watering velocity.
After a lunch break in a local pub, there’s a session on the local roads to give Colin a chance to assess your road driving and look at how a few of the track techniques are used on the roads in particular making smooth progress. This has helped a lot in my recent IAM training where balance and limit points on bends are very important.
The afternoon sessions involved the grip circle (or centripetal circle as it’s more properly known) outside the iconic Millbrook buildings. For me, this was the toughest part of the day as I explored under and oversteer together with rear-wheel drifts, and for the first time was feeling and hearing the CSL beyond its grip limit as we pirouetted across the tarmac and it was nothing short of brutal. Perhaps using a CAT car might have been a good idea!
Following this, we’re back on the Alpine Route for more work on observation and single-input steering, as well as strategies for hairpins and how to take crests and dips at speed plus some sessions on the tight handling track where for the first time Colin started to look at timings.
It was on the handling circuit that there was a realisation, a revelation, a dawning perhaps and I’ll try to explain it as best I can. The culmination of the day is to get three consistent laps of the circuit complete within 0.5 seconds of each other on a roughly sixty second lap – so realistically, I felt I hadn’t a hope in hell. A mere few hours ago, I was an average driver with little or no skills other than mis-placed bravado but I found at the end of the three lap task I’d completed two laps at full race pace within two tenths of each other and the final lap, although I’d missed the 0.5 sec window just slightly – I was on right side of the clock and I’d gone a lot faster. The whole day distilled into those laps and the result of the training, the outright proof of its efficacy was there on the stop-watch and I was absolutely speechless; shocked would be an understatement at what I’d just achieved with Colin’s help.
Interspersed during the day were a couple of classroom sessions looking at the mathematics of vehicle dynamics and grip which also gave a chance for the car and I to cool down and a cup of coffee.
I went on to do another couple of days with Colin to improve my driving. A full morning blasting CAT’s race-prepped Suburu through 300m of cones sounds dull on reiteration, but it’s one of the most addictive things I’ve done as my times eeked ever closer to a 24 sec target; this was followed by single lane changes (dare you keep the foot firmly planted?) and an afternoon of race pace training on Bruntingthorpe’s tracks first in the Subaru and then in the CSL looking at turn-ins and trail braking. On the third day, it’s eight hours of consolidating my new skills on Millbrook’s circuits in the CSL once more. The final task on Day 3 being back on the handling circuit where I smashed my previous time from Day 1 at race pace with the CSL’s track mode switched off.
In conclusion, the days spent with CAT were very expensive on the surface, people look at me in disbelief when I say how much they cost but you get what you pay for. Costs can be reduced by using your own car where possible and if necessary, by sharing the training. The choice is yours but I have no regrets that I took the days 1-2-1 and if possible, that is undoubtedly the way to do it. They were and remain three of the toughest yet most enjoyable days of my life so far.
Rick Heard – Supercar Driver Member & CSL Enthusiast