Posted: June 24, 2016 Read time: 10 Minutes
A journalist & petrolhead view of advanced driver training.
The act of learning is a never-ending process. Yet there are some areas in which we assume that what we’ve learnt already is enough. Some of these areas can even extend to potentially lethal activities that we undertake every day. But most people would never think of driving in that way. As dangerous as normal roads can potentially be, driving a performance car on track is even more fraught with peril, so wouldn’t you want to try out some of the techniques in a safe environment before you head trackside?
It’s all too easy to think of driving as just three pedals and steering. In a nutshell, that’s what things boil down to, but there are so many nuances to not only your physical actions, but also the state that the car is in and the effect that they can have, that there are many things to learn. It’s a dynamic, fluid system. Four small contact patches of tyre tread on tarmac are all that connects you and your vehicle to the road, yet there are many small changes to both the driver’s inputs and the car that can affect the overall picture, both for the good and the bad. Few are born with the skill to maximise a car’s potential - most learn it through practice.
This is where CAT Driver Training come into play. With fully qualified instructors who have extensive backgrounds both in motorsports and teaching others, you know you’re in good hands. Colin, the Chief Instructor, has a background of working for Rolls Royce, a Porsche specialist and Nissan, including testing on the legendary Nürburgring. Having been in a car piloted by him on the Nordschleife, I can confirm there’s no doubting his driving abilities! I’m booked in for the day in my own car, a Mitsubishi Evo VI - there are cars that you can borrow during your time but my interests lie in getting familiar with my own car’s limitations. And of course, my own!
The lessons start off as all good lessons do - in the classroom! Before heading off on track in your pride and joy, a number of key principles are introduced which underlie pretty much every activity you’ll do throughout the day. The first is of minimising driver input. It’s no coincidence that when you see a professional racing driver, they make it look easy. The less input the driver has, the more work the car can do. There are some basic ways of putting this into practice on the track, including straight-line braking and single input steering: where the driver uses one angle of steering to complete an entire corner, moving from the entry, to clipping point and out to the exit.
Others include the importance of a good seating position, staying relaxed at the controls, responding quickly on both the wheel and the pedals (something referred to as ‘fast hands, fast feet’) and always trying to think about the weight transfer that is going on with the car and how it will be affected by your actions.
Critical to going fast is the skill of stopping. It may seem counter-intuitive at first, till you realise that the quicker you can stop, the more time you can spend at the opposite end of the spectrum: going fast. Modern brake set-ups are a far cry from older systems, but do you really know how to make the most of them?
While you might ease on and off the brakes on the road, it’s a different matter on track. The only braking that has any place there is full-on, maximum braking. This should be achieved right from the first touch of the pedal. The harder you can brake, the shorter the distance you will travel while braking, therefore giving you more time to keep on the throttle. This makes it one of the major areas to save time during a lap. But with the high capability of modern braking systems, the issue becomes achieving maximum braking without the ABS kicking in. As soon as it does, the rapid pulsing of the brakes means that the overall braking distance increases. The technique of achieving the minimum braking distance without the ABS kicking in is known as threshold braking.
At Millbrook, the mile straight provides the perfect location to practise any braking skills. With an entire mile of dead-straight tarmac to not only allow you to get up to speed, but to practice - and sometimes get wrong - the lessons you’ve just learnt. Things start off slowly, from 40mph - the first stabs at the brake pedal are accompanied by Colin questioning if you can brake any harder, and next time round, yes, it seems you can. Too hard though and the ABS starts to kick in, so you now have a limit to gauge things by.
Then the speed increases. With every 20/30mph jump, it becomes increasingly hard to get the ABS to kick in to start with. But as the car’s speed lowers, again comes the familiar locking-up sensation. At this point, Colin jumps in and advises that the speed dips, you should roll your toes up off the pedal. This lessens the pressure just enough to prevent the ABS jumping in but still keeps the maximum brake pressure. The session is rounded out with a number of stops from 120mph. After a while, you start to get a good feel for how hard you can get away with - it will be a critical lesson on track.
The next braking lesson is left-foot braking. In my AWD car with its tendency to understeer, going into a corner too hot is likely to mean running wide of a corner. As a tool in my belt to combat this, Colin explains that left-foot braking mid-corner will transfer some weight back onto the front end, helping the front tyres to grip and helping turn-in. It’s something that takes a bit of getting used to though! Your left foot is very used to the full-on pedal down action of the clutch, so when adjusting it to the fine action of braking, let’s just say it’s a good job you have the mile straight to yourself! The brake is fed on by the left foot whilst the right foot keeps on the accelerator - this prevents transferring too much weight and unsettling the car, and also allows you to keep the revs up. For a turboed car like mine, this is essential to keep the car in the power band where the turbo is spooled up, and therefore for a speedy corner exit.
After the work on braking techniques, it’s time to head over to the high speed bowl. Featuring five lanes, with the outer lane being banked at an intimidating 35 degrees, here it’s possible to test out not only the top speed of your car but also get familiar with some of its characteristics.
We start off in the bottom lane; first up is a double lane change. Completed at 30mph, the aim is simply to transfer to the next lane and back again as quickly as possible. The first thing to notice is the effect it has on your speed. As the car - and passengers - move around, your foot increases and decreases pressure - by a small amount granted but this is just at a low speed. Now conscious of this variation when changing lane, Colin explains that you should tense your thigh muscle. The tension eliminates any variation in pressure and we’re soon able to change lanes without any change in speed. Now it’s time to quicken up the lane change. Constant practising soon had my wrists aching from the effort, but then came time to evaluate. Which is moving quicker - the front or the rear? Reading feedback from the car and putting it into words has never been my forté, but Colin is patient as always and my eventual answer pleasantly proved to be correct. He then goes on to explain that this is a good way of evaluating a car’s core handling characteristics. Done at such a slow speed, it’s unlikely to cause any major drama but will allow you to see if the car is prone to understeer, oversteer or feels reasonably balanced. We up the speed to 40mph, along with a caution that it will likely cause a spin, but the Evo outwits us both and switches lanes with only the merest hint of slip.
Dropping the speed back to 30mph, the next technique to practise is increasing the throttle in the second part of the lane change. As the weight rolls to the outside of the car in the turn, using extra throttle lifts the nose slightly and permits greater turn-in than a constant throttle. A quick try and lo and behold, the car tucks in beautifully. It’s a perfect example of a technique that would have been difficult to stumble upon as it runs counter to the classic 4WD understeer correction. A few more practices swiftly follow, but there’ll be the chance to put it into proper use later on the track in compound corners.
For now, it’s time to increase the speed and climb up the lanes to lane five. With a minimum speed of 100mph, this is not a place to hang around. On my previous trip, this lane was used to demonstrate how to control the car with the accelerator, by the rather terrifying act of removing both hands from the steering wheel entirely. If barrelling around a steeply banked circuit wasn’t enough, removing any contact you have with the steering wheel is unnerving to say the least. The first hand is easy; the second is completed finger by finger, with the last one lingering for an inordinate amount of time, before lifting to hover over the wheel. The car thankfully continues round the circuit at around 100mph and as I come to terms with the fact that we’re not going to die horribly, both hands are eventually placed on the roof lining. The only control over the car now is through the accelerator. Press the pedal and it moves up the bank, come off it and it moves down. It’s entirely possible to steer the car in this way. It’s a very surreal experience though!
This time round, the idea is to look out for a few steering characteristics of the car. The first is compliance steer. This is a characteristic built into the majority of cars which means that the car will tend to track in a straight line. The imperfections and bumps in the road cause the suspension components to move, occasionally moving the car in one direction or another, but as a whole, they will work together to bring the car back onto the original path. As a driver, the object of this lesson is to note that you don’t need to work unnecessarily to try and combat this. Any adjustments will only mean further adjustments down the line and as always, the aim is to try and minimise any inputs to the steering.
Many people tend to grip the wheel tighter at higher speeds, yet it’s not necessary and will only cause undue strain. With a light grip and relaxing of the shoulders, you can feel the car moving around underneath you - sometimes an inch or two to the left, sometimes to the right, but it always comes back to the same lane with minimal intervention.
Next up is bump steer: where the act of the wheel moving up and down over bumps can cause a steering effect. This is due to the suspension component set-up - it can be an issue with heavily lowered cars - but is luckily something that my car suffers little from. Colin informs me that Lotus owners are not so lucky, but the Evo does me proud.
Coming off the high speed bowl, there’s one part of the day left: putting everything I’ve learnt into practice. The handling circuit is a small track featuring minor elevation changes, cambered sections and a variety of corners, including double apexes, compound corners and long sweepers. The surface is two lanes wide, lined by a strip of gravel and marked by bollards. Although you want to get faster, you don’t want to go too wrong here! Things start off slow enough, taking a few sighting laps to check out the corners, mark turn-in points, camber and corner severity. Once the track is clear in my mind, it’s then time to start upping the speed. One thing is critical on circuit - to look far ahead. Colin insists that you’ll go where you look, so all attention is focused on what’s to come. It brings a range of benefits, from allowing you to judge turn-in points better, to allowing to pick the right point to start feeding the throttle back in after the apex.
As I drive the course, the techniques I’ve learnt throughout the day all come into play. Threshold braking is required to scrub off speed before corners, and through each turn, it becomes addictive to try and hit the perfect single input steering angle. The compound corners are tackled by applying more throttle and all the time, looking further ahead and being fast on the controls can be practised. Round and round we go, the speed gradually increasing. It’s a huge confidence boost to have Colin sitting beside you, reassuring you that actually, yes, you can take that corner just a touch faster. With the short length of the track, you soon get to try it out for yourself, and let’s just say, he’s yet to be wrong. Soon the tyres are letting out tortured squeals as they scrabble for grip and the car tiptoes ever closer to the edge of the track. Before long, Colin confirms that the corner just gone was perfect and could not be taken any faster. It’s a real sense of accomplishment.
Soon, Colin pointed out the Evo was running close to empty and we called it a day. It was only after slowing down that it begin to dawn on me how demanding the driving was - it requires your utmost concentration and with your arms and legs poised for action, is taxing, yet exhilarating. It makes it all the more impressive that some drivers do this for six hour stints!
After heading back to the CAT DT HQ and having a re-cap of the day’s lessons, it’s soon clear just how much I’ve picked up in one day. The techniques will no doubt prove invaluable, but equally as important was the clear and patient manner in which they are always explained. Questions are welcomed and Colin has a way of being able to explain even complicated principles in a manner that suits the individual. This relaxed approach leaves you feeling at ease and able not just to absorb information, but also to thoroughly enjoy yourself as well. My head was whirring with the new lessons we’d covered, but a quick re-cap really helped to cement the day’s work and also to answer any remaining questions. By the end of it, there was only question running around my brain though: when can I next get on track to try it all out?!
Thanks to Colin and Jo for the fantastic day. At the risk of sounding like Arnie - I’ll be back.
Pictures with thanks to Jonathan Moore
"Performance Driver Track Day Course I participated in the course arranged by Porsche Club GB and very happy to give 5 stars all round. The team has put a huge amount of thought and effort into making the facilities and training Covid-secure, which is indicative of their professionalism. I found the whole day both fascinating and a lot of fun, in briefings, on the various driving segments, and chatting with the team and other participants. I was genuinely in awe of how much Colin moved my theoretical and practical driving on, and what he got me to get the car to do in the space of one day - always building confidence, encouraging me to explore my limits, while not pushing me beyond them. Can't wait to return!"
"I have had a reasonable degree of driving training over the years as am ex police officer and advanced police driver. I took the performance driver driver training to learn about track driving, and found it excellent. My instructor was Paul who was fantastic. The training built up during the day and I learnt so much about the capabilities of my own car and although I was nervous about using my own car realised afterwards it was the best thing for me to do. The instruction was extremely informative from an engineering perspective coupled with driving, friendly and tailored to your individual needs and abilities. At no time was I encouraged or pushed to do anything I wasn’t comfortable with. It was extremely professional throughout. I would thoroughly recommend this to anyone whatever your standard of driving."
"Truly exceptional In my experience, driving instruction has generally consisted of being repeatedly told that you are 'doing it wrong' accordingly to some unknown standard or principle that you had hoped to learn about by taking said instruction. Then there is Colin. It is not that common to find an individual who genuinely understands both people and engineering. It is incredibly rare to find one who can actively apply both to deliver a sustained behavioural change. Colin adapts his teaching style to the way you learn. For me, he lead with the WHY of the learning point, grounded in physics and engineering. We'd then put it in to practice, often doing several variants of an excercise to explore how the car reacts to differing inputs, providing valuable context for what good feels like and reinforcing the learning point. Each point built on the previous ones, layering up and coming together in to a whole, one far greater than the sum of it's parts. Subtle changes to huge effect. I was concerned on the day that the learnings would rapidly fade, but I have found that because Colin has taught me an understanding the lessons have persisted, even if I do still need some more practice (48 laps of the Silverstone GP circuit last Thursday definitely helped!). Add to this the fact that Colin is great company and an absolute pleasure to spend time with, and you have one of the most positive learning experiences I've ever known. Truly exceptional. I could not recommend more highly. Thank you!"
"Superb day with calm knowledgable and professional guidance from Paul. Thank you Paul. The course is so well structured consistently building ability and knowledge in complete safety. I fully recommend anyone wishing to increase their knowledge, confidence and experience to attend."
"Far better than any track day you can imagine! There is a massive difference between a typical driver experience or track day events and CAT driver training. The main difference is that you drive your own car to the full extent of it's capabilities, and your own, while being given expert one to one tuition by brilliant trainers Colin and Paul, who come from a Motorsport and auto engineering background. Their combined domain knowledge of engineering and competitive Motorsport allows them to explain the physics of why the car behaves as it does and how you can exploit the cars characteristics for maximum performance., in a safe fun environment. The frankly brilliant experience on the track is matched by the quality hospitality hosted by Jo, and classroom training, which prepares you for what you will experience on the next stage. These stages include such delights as the ring, where you will drive with no hands on the wheel at 100MPH, providing you with a clear understanding of the fact the car finds its own balance , and my personal favourite the alpine stage, with hairpins a plenty and 'character building' drops and rock faces. I have to admit to being slightly 'corner shy' before the training, however after some brilliant coaching from Collin urging me to 'stay on the gas, stay on the gas!' I am now far more confident and safe in the twisty stuff!"
"I don’t want to make this review too long and detailed, so I think the best way to summarise it is this: I think I possibly learnt more in one day that I’ve ever learnt before and the skills are relevant to all driving and can be practised daily. On the way home, I drove the ‘long way’ just to practise and feel the difference in the attitude of the car. I used to do this now and again because there are a few good straights and it’s nice to give the car a ‘blast’. This time, I drove that way home because I wanted to drive round the corners properly."
"Extremely professional driver training. Period. I wanted a course that would deliver a very high level of training, in an organised and professional manner. The course exceeded my expectations in every way, I wish I had started working with CAT Driver training years ago. There is no doubt that if you are looking for absolute top level training, there isn't anywhere else to look. Somehow they manage to follow a very tried and tested course structure, yet it is tailored all the way along to meet your requirements and current skill set. very impressive. I cannot rate this company highly enough. I have more dates booked already."
"Very structured training Paul was very clear and methodical in his coaching. The training technique was built up in various sections during the day and all came together like a jigsaw puzzle in the end for a great result."
"It's hard not to be enthusiastic about the lasting impact CAT Driver Training will have on your approach to driving. I spent a day with Paul exploring the potential of my new vehicle. The coaching is clear, methodical and structured to allow you to go on learning for a full day without overload. The training venue is superb and quiet enough (on the day I attended) to allow uninterrupted driving. Brilliant admin team too. Absolutely 5 Star!"
"Everything you read about these people is true and i cannot really add anything apart from clicking these five stars and to say they are truly incredibly knowledgeable, professional and nice. I did the Performance Driver Track day in my amazing six-month-old 911 GTS 4 and I now know so much more about my car and myself. I was in a group of six people all with different driving skill levels from the complete novice (me) to regular track day enthusiasts and the day was a journey of discovery for everyone. I am so pleased to have done it."
"First class performance car training day. Many thanks to Paul & your great team for a really enjoyable training day at Millbrook on Friday. I learnt a lot more about the capabilities of my F430 and found many new limits! The attention to detail in the delivery of the training was exceptional. I would recommend this to anyone with a performance car who wants to fully understand and enjoy their vehicle."
"An amazing day. If you drive you should go to CAT. If you have a performance car you MUST go to CAT. A day with CAT will transform your driving, you it be safer on the road in any situation and it will be the biggest performance upgrade your car will ever get. I learned so much in one day without any pressure, effort or stress. Colin's coaching is world class, he makes it simple / interesting to understand and easy to absorb / remember. The whole day and and everything leading up to it are well organised by the team. They REALLY care that you have a great day and TOTALLY deliver. You owe it to yourself to go."
"Absolutely Brilliant! The best advice I can give: believe every one of the glowing reviews on CAT! I approached CAT because I wanted to feel more comfortable with my newly-purchased BMW, the first rear-wheel drive car to be used for every-day driving after decades of FWD cars. I wanted to find out what the car's capabilities are, what it would feel like in extreme conditions, understand what it was telling me at the limits and, generally to get advice on my own technique. I wasn't a novice, having done plenty of track days and laps of the Nordschleife but I just knew that there's always plenty more to learn... A day's Performance Driver session met every one of my targets, and then more! Paul was a patient, logical and technical instructor who took time to explain what would happen in each manoeuvre and then fully debriefed that stage so that I not only knew what the car was doing but also understood what effect on the car my own actions were having. The proof of the pudding was in the final stage - setting consistent timed laps of the handling circuit. I'd worried a little about this all day as I'd have described my driving as enthusiastic but perhaps not consistent. The results were close to unbelievable to me! By remembering all that Paul had demonstrated and explained to me I surpassed my wildest dreams. Fantastic! As a result of this day, I now have more belief in my ability to read what my car's saying to me which brings confidence and relaxation. The car and I are now a team, rather than me just sitting there making it go down the road. I can highly recommend the whole CAT experience. Professional, friendly, patient, technical when required and not afraid to challenge when necessary. Oh, and the lunch is good too! I wish I could afford to go back every month..."
"Achieve your driving goals here! Can't ask for more than that! The entire experience was a positive and pleasant one. Everyone I met at CAT Driver Training contributed positively to the day, regardless of the role, so thank you to Jo, Lynne and of course, Colin! CAT have existing programmes for teaching anyone the fundamentals and advanced techniques of how to drive fast, but Colin can identify really quickly what you can and cannot do, and is quick to understand how to best use your time. I went in with my own unique set of requirements which slightly 'broke' the programme, but it was no problem at all and the most impressive thing was that I achieved my goals by the end of the day! I wanted to understand my car, be able to find and drive at the grip limit, and also understand how to be a faster and better driver. A lot to fit into a day, but Colin managed it in the most efficient way possible, and we achieved them all! Colin has great insights into vehicle dynamics, as well as the human machine behind the wheel. He understands why we sometimes don't function as optimally as we would like! His ability to listen to you, translate your input and isolate what is not working with your current technique helps focus the day on exactly what needs attention. This focus, along with Colin's 'feeling' of how the package of car and driver is behaving, makes him uniquely qualified to provide great direction and input to help you become the best driver possible. A lot of people talk about it, but very few can translate the inputs to a specific process for you to follow as a driver. The process is all about starting with foundations and building on them. It doesn't always seem to make sense, but trust the system - it all comes together in the end! The time is not cheap, but it will help you achieve your goals, so how do you put a price on that!? Thank you CAT Driver Training!!
"Best In Class Driver Training The training provided by Colin at CAT Driver training is superb. I am lucky enough to attended training days with Porsche, Lotus, Aston Martin and the day with a Colin at Millbrook has topped them all being informative, challenging, practical and above all delivered by a true Petrol Head. Thanks again and I will be back with the 911."
"Reminding how to drive fast A day with Colin on a 'One to One' basis is almost essential for anyone who lives on a small rock in the middle of the English Channel or lives in a city. We don't drive fast and don't get the opportunity to drive fast unless we are on a track. Colin spent the day reminding me how much fun it was to have 'fast feet' and to make the Tyres 'squeak' as they reach the sticky limit. I think I lost about 7kg in weight during the day as I was worked so hard but oh what a day. Thoroughly recommended to anyone who had a petrol head. Best bit was the 'Alpine Loop' at the end of the day. Full gas on the exit with all four squeaking. 👍😃"
"Excellent! Colin, Jo, Paul and the team are amazing, professional and have a unique ability to cover all areas of driving properly. My driving capability has been enhanced beyond measure. I highly recommend them and the CAT Advanced Driving Academy Programme. During the course it became clear to me that CAT Driving are one of the very few on the planet with such experience and capability. They have designed a brilliant dedicated package focused on working with you and delivered with an attentive caring personal touch."
"Paul was amazing: awesome teacher with a great brain. Made me realize my Mustang has actually way more grip and better and better handling than I thought. Top notch facilities in Millbrook. Totally worth it."