Friday 25 November 2005

Fast Cars

Penny bought me a Red Letter Day for my birthday in March, a driving day at Thruxton Racecourse, Wiltshire. I was of course thoroughly looking forward to some seriously fast cars to play with.

Rachel Elnaugh (the only female dragon in Dragon's Den on TV) made her fortune by starting up Red Letter Days. The company offer a range of once-in-a-lifetime gift experiences.

Half way through the summer, the news came that Red Letter Days was going into liquidation. We waited with baited breath for any news. Finally some came. Peter Jones and Theo Paphitis (Rachel's fellow dragons) stepped in to rescue the company.

I'm happy to report that they honoured my voucher.

The day started with a briefing that lasted longer than usual as the drivers were out on the track to drive the smattering of snow off the track. This allowed us a little more time learning the track and the passing rules that make it safe to drive different types of car together.

It wasn't long before I was heading out in the Mazda RX-8 for my first laps as a passenger, then as a driver. The Mazda is quite a car, with a rotary engine producing 230bph. The track is straightforward apart from two tight corners near the start and a chicane just before the entrance to the pit lane. After a few laps I'd started to learn the right entry and exit points for the corners.

The driving from this point on was almost non-stop, straight into the Mercedes SLK, a larger similarly powered car for a few laps. The Mercedes is pretty easy to drive, but the extra size helped pave the way toward next car. I found myself straying a little close to the cones on the left, as I'd got straight out of a smaller car.

Next up was the Ferrari 360. I've loved Ferrari's since I was a kid (who didn't?) and this for me, was what the whole day was about. It's a phenomenal car, just ten days out of the factory. The engine sounded like an angry tiger when I touched the accelerator a little incautiously.

Kat in the F360 Modena

The laps whizzed by. I was as amazed by the braking into the corners and the acceleration out onto the straights. I'm no less enamoured of Ferrari's than I was and it's still an ambition to own one.

Stepping out of the Ferrari, I didn't think that the experience could be topped; but it could, by the Formula Renault, a single-seat, rear engine racecar. Sitting a couple of inches above the ground, fully kitted out with balaclava, helmet, rubber gripped gloves and booties, the steering wheel is slotted in after you've been fitted into the car like a tailored suit.

It's like having an engine strapped to your back and wheels to your feet. Huge amounts of grip stick you to the road and the car reacts instantly to acceleration and steering. The six laps in this car felt more like a race, with the pumping adrenalin and wind in your face. You get out of the car exhausted and exhilarated.

I had to be reminded by the debrief instructor about the last drive - one fast lap with a professional driver. Gone in seconds, this lap lets you know just how incredibly slowly you've been driving so far.

At debrief I was delighted that I'd scored higher than average for my driving. What a day! I wholeheartedly recommend it.

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