Thursday, 19 April 2012

A Taste of Rallying

These seats were in the reception building. The other seat says "Nicky" on it underneath the hair net.
Last Saturday was an educational day for me, despite it still being the Easter holiday (just). I finally used the last of my gift experience vouchers - the other of which was something of a dream come true - and went to drive a rally car on a nice muddy course near Chipping Norton. Sure, it was front-wheel-drive, but they're hardly going to let amateurs let rip in a Subaru Impreza STI, are they? Besides, I didn't miss the lack of driven rear wheels at any point, what with all the oversteer I was enjoying...

The scene was Tracey Farm in Great Tew in Oxfordshire, near Chipping Norton. Despite being near Chipping Norton, I didn't happen across Jeremy Clarkson at any point, which was as disappointing as it was completely unsurprising. After a little wait around for the other two participants in what was a group of four (it doesn't work in the same way as the supercar thing where you turn up and hop in), we were taken to the track, featuring enough chicanes and hairpins to try out the techniques we were to be taught, while being compact enough to mean that you basically get into second gear and stay there. The map below lies, by the way; the road is coloured in grey, but it's actually covered in dirt that's sprayed heavily with water if it's getting too dusty. Perfect for sliding!

Said techniques were lift-off oversteer (shifting the weight to slide the tail out) and handbrake turns (self-explanatory), but before all that we were introduced to our instructor, a nice man from the West country whose name I've forgotten, who told us to forget everything we know about driving off-road - that should be easy, as I know nothing about off-roading - and that we don't really have to brake. Sounds good to me! We were each given a helmet and a blue hair net thingy so that we all look fabulous for hygiene reasons. In the group, we each get two three-lap sessions with the instructor in the passenger seat telling us what to do, after which we get a high-speed thrill ride with someone who actually knows what they're doing taking the wheel and trying to scare the bejeezus out of us with some expert hoonage.

I was third in line for a go. I was told by the guy who went first that it's imperative to listen to the instructor, but also that "listening to the things he tells you to do and actually doing them are two very different things". Having never done anything like this before, I decided he was probably right. The closest I'd ever got to sliding a car around was accidentally braking on some snow and slithering onwards at a T-junction (thankfully no-one was coming), so I wasn't sure how good I'd be at this...

Some cars stayed parked, either resting or just broken
The second guy finished, and so, my chariot awaited. After a nice lady whose name I've forgotten did my helmet up properly (it made no sense!), I folded myself in half and inserted myself through the rollcage and into the bucket seat of a rally-prepped Ford Puma. While there were other ones out there, piloted by professionals giving others a treat, we used cars 5 and 10. The five-point harness was done up for me, and the seat was adjusted so I could reach the pedals. Once you're harnessed in, you can't move. This is good for safety, but meant I couldn't shuffle backwards a little bit in my seat, so I wasn't entirely comfortable first time round. Nevertheless, the stripped-out Puma was now mine to control. *Gulp*. You can tell these are worked hard all day - the gear change felt vague and very stiff, as the stick seemed not to want to move into gear, and because it just kind of disappears into the floor, you only know if you're in gear when you take the equally-vague clutch up, which you have to do with lots of revs to avoid the great possibility of stalling it. The brake pedal had no travel at all and I'm not sure it even helped slow down the car, and cheap-feeling handbrake was no easier to use, to the extent that I couldn't even push the button in at first. Damn my weak arms! No matter though... it's go time.

I set off on the anticlockwise circuit (which starts where the S-bend at the bottom left of the map is), moving up into second gear, and before long I was told to use more throttle. I was wired up so the instructor's words were fed electronically into my ear, but even so, I struggled to hear him quite often, thanks to the rattly, un-silenced cabin whose only luxuries were a full rollcage and a heater that probably doesn't work. The steering was direct considering the surface, it changed direction when you told it to, but the ride was quite hard on some of the less forgiving bumps on the formerly-concrete track, where it made horrible crashing noises as it shook us around a little. But hey, it's not a road test of a Ford Mondeo. The car just needs to allow us to do what is right.

It does. The instructions were to keep the throttle on for about the first half of the corner - which I found very counter-intuitive - lift off and throw on a quarter-lock of steering. The rear end did as instructed and slid calmly outwards. It was surprisingly easy to do. Sadly, because my twice-broken left arm is still a bit flimsy, the first hairpin was slightly less easy, as it meant yanking hard on the recalcitrant handbrake. As a result, I must've looked a bit pathetic the first time struggling to lock the rear wheels and just kind of floundering round the corner. But no matter, the next hairpin (the bottom corner on the map that exceeds the tree line) is much better-suited for handbrake turns. Here we go!

Nope, pulled it too slowly and made a bit of a mess of that one as well. Surely that's to be expected though? I haven't even exploited the recent snowy winters in my own car yet, so these were my first ever handbrake turns. Hence, they lacked technique, felt awkward and ended a little too soon. I'll get better with practice, right? Well, the third handbrake turn in a row was fast-approaching, so we'll see...... nope, third time wasn't a charm. Happily, the next right just required some lifting off... but then a fourth HB turn approached, a wide sweeping hairpin. Too much oppositelock. Always too much oppositelock. It's just a natural overreaction, I heard later. You feel the car go sideways and immediately try to stop it as a survival instinct. It took me all three laps to realise the instructor was actually telling me over and over to keep my hands glued to the wheel, because I only needed a quarter turn at any given point, and more was just going to throw it further out of shape. Not listening to this ultimately resulted in me spinning around 270° at the bottom hairpin and stalling it. Ugh, this is hard......

I had some time afterwards to think about it and agree with people about how hard it is (as well as spend time looking silly killer in a blue hair net as I enjoyed hearing things sans-helmet for a while, at which point I picked up on the whining supercharger of an Ariel Atom on the nearby runway track). It turns out we were all in the same boat, getting to grips with it and repeating the same mistakes a number of times. In that way it was good to do this in a small group. What wasn't so good was failing to decipher how my bloody helmet fastening worked and asking someone to release my head for me. At any rate, I would need to concentrate much more on what I was actually doing if I was going to improve in the second and final run. The weird thing about it is - either because of the helmet-limited hearing and loose surface or simply due to being a bit flustered, I reckon - that I somehow felt one step removed from what I was doing, like my arms and legs were doing things and my head was just kind of watching. I don't know for sure what caused that feeling, but I knew my head needed to more than watch next time. I also learned to appreciate how patient the instructors must be to deal with this all day.

Next time came along, and I made sure to get properly comfortable this time before I was harnessed into position. As you may expect, it was easier to get to grips with it this time, as I knew what to expect. The corners where you just use lift-off oversteer became easier and easier, aside from the double-left-hander (top left of the map) which I continued to mess up due to not looking into the corner - I was still focusing wholly on controlling my arms and legs (and subsequently the car) and not so much on forward planning, something that happened when I was originally learning to drive. What does that say? Well, it says that, like normal driving, you have to do this a lot until the arms-and-legs stuff isn't a series of processes to follow and is instead just second nature, so your brain can then focus on everything else. Unfortunately I didn't reach that point in the second three laps, even though the instructor was now helping me use that hateful handbrake after I mentioned my pathetic arm (well, anything to stop him telling me I "really have to pull hard on that handbrake", which I thought I was doing...), but I certainly improved a lot compared to my first go, which is progress. The final hairpin was getting particularly good, which was pleasing considering it's in direct view of the spectators!

Now that I was getting faster and faster, a new problem arose: I wasn't steering fast enough. It took until the third and final lap before I got the steering about right, keeping my hands in place and turning harder and earlier, but my throttle timing was still lacklustre in places. The last thing I learned was something I technically already knew from games and this video, but had never experienced through the seat of my pants. When you're sideways in a front-wheel-drive car, accelerating pulls you straight. I learned this on the last hairpin of the last lap. If I was allowed a third go now, I'd be awesome at it. Probably...

If you look closely, there's actually a car in this picture...
After climbing out of car #10 for the final time, I only had to wait a couple of minutes before inserting myself into the passenger seat of another Puma whose number I've forgotten, driven by a professional hoon. I actually do remember his name, but only because it's the same as my name. Once we'd established that, he said "OK, so we're gonna start off with a couple of tricks, namely left-foot braking and the Scandinavian Flick". The latter trick is braking in slightly the opposite direction of a corner and then lifting off and throwing it in to change direction very quickly, whereas the former simply allows you to brake with your foot still on the throttle. This'll be good then!

It was indeed. Not three seconds after getting it into 2nd gear, we were sideways, then suddenly sideways in the other direction, then powering on to the third corner. My head was effectively acting like a gyroscope already! A perfectly-executed handbrake turn later, we were at the corner where I'd spun out and stalled it earlier. Mike showed me how it's done, throwing it in, swinging it round with a firm tug on the handbrake, gliding round sideways and finally bringing it straight with a measured squeeze of throttle, towards the left-right-left. This was effectively a dance and the first time I thought "he's driving like a racing driver". I checked his feet for left-foot braking, but it was hard to tell how much there was because, as I've mentioned, the brake pedal hardly moves, but both feet used the middle pedal for sure.

As we got into the top section, it struck me that the difference between being a passenger and actually doing it all was profound. I was just following instructions, going in wide and on-throttle so I could turn hard, lift off and get the tail out, whereas he was doing all that anyway, but following the racing line, sliding through apexes and setting the car up properly before each corner. I can do all that on Gran Turismo, but it never even occurred to me that I should be following any racing line (perhaps a late-apex line seeing as I needed a wide entry) when I was dealing with instructions and oversteer. It occurred to me in the passenger seat as I was being thrown around by a pro, though. My obnoxious mental checklist of things that he should be doing - I say obnoxious because I wasn't doing any of it myself earlier - was being ticked very efficiently. He was very impressive, finishing by gliding it into the pit lane... sideways, of course. I didn't make a sound at any point, partly because I was lost for words, only managing a throwaway "That was very good" before thanking him and exiting on looser legs.

In the end it was a very fun day, but in an entirely different way to the Nissan GT-R experience I linked to atop this article. In the supercar (of sorts), you had time on the long straights to sit back and marvel at the car itself as it shot unrelentingly towards the horizon, whereas the Ford Puma was just a tool for learning with. I couldn't honestly say that I got home and started browsing the classifieds for a Racing Puma for sale. It was much more about the driving you were doing, and learning the basic lessons of hoonage. I like to think I did learn said lessons by the end of the day, as well as - finally - how to work the helmet fastening. My skills just need more real-life practising. Of course, sadly, there's no chance to do that on real roads, and trying to combine the two by sliding a GT-R around next Christmas would end up in a hugely expensive accident, but come winter, snowy car parks had better watch out!

At the end of the day, we all got certificates grading our skills. The winner scored 90 points with no penalties, whereas I got 89. A closer finish than the Chinese Grand Prix for sure!

As a day out, it was great fun. If you heed the patient instructor's wise advice, you'll pick the skills up pretty quickly and start to improve quickly as well. I was almost surprised how much better I was at the end of the sixth lap than at the start of the first one actually. It was certainly a thrill, even if it requires a lot more effort than driving a supercar on an airfield. If you've read all this and want a go, I highly recommend it. As the certificate shows, the venue I went to was run by Vision Motorsport, who were all very nice. The guy in the registration house was quite cool too - he used to work at the Transport Research Laboratory near where I live, testing "anti-skid braking". I never knew early ABS's were hydraulic! He also had a job where he had to take apart a car, see how it all works, then work out what his employers (possibly Ford, IIRC) could use without breaching any patents. Apparently "reverse engineering" still happens these days!

So yes. Hoonage 101 - lift off and turn hard mid-corner to get lift-off oversteer, but if speeds are too low, wrench on the handbrake as hard as you can until the tail is out. Never use too much steering (the rally car's steering was probably quicker than a road car's, so more than 1/4 turn may be necessary, but not too much), but most importantly of all is this: Always Hoon Responsibly. Let's just say it's a good thing my dad was chauffeur, or I may have ended up backwards in a ditch somewhere in Oxfordshire that evening!

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