creative car control with don palmer
if you've ever felt your driving skills have reached a plateau, why not try a course that encourages you to take them to the next level. andy enright reports
Until this point, the six words I've always dreaded when out on a vehicle photo shoot were the casually dropped How about some tail out shots? the photographer asking for some action photographs of the car rounding the corner with the back end sliding. Enthusiast magazines thrive on this sort of picture, the driver holding the car in a perfectly controlled slide with an expression of sheer insouciance on his face. Trouble was, I was lousy at it. Expensively lousy too, as a £80,000 supercar wrapped around a Welsh Armco barrier would attest. Remedial help was required to avert a potential career ender.
Step forward Don Palmer, a driving coach who specialises in advanced car control. Hugely experienced as a tutor, Don's curriculum vitae also includes management of racing teams and direction of fleet training schemes. A small investment in training, Don indicated over a cup of coffee, could reduce the frequency that fleet drivers crash by a factor of four or more. The figures bore out his claims. The sort of driving we'd be undertaking, however, would likely cause any aspiring sales rep to be looking at a P45 before he exited the company car park.
Over a mug of coffee in the cafe at Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground, Don asked what I wanted from the day. It basically involved exploring the grey area that existed between a mere twitch from the back end of the car and a full-blown spin. Using a spacious section of Bruntingthorpe's two-mile runway would allow us plenty of space to explore the handling of the Vauxhall VX220 I'd brought with me as well as Don's rather special Noble M12 GTO-3R, a development car that was packing more than 400bhp. Driving out to our section of runway gave me the opportunity to consider quite what an odd place Bruntingthorpe is. Located a few miles out of Leicester, this old US Air Force base is temporary home to thousands of Vauxhalls, Fords and Peugeots that await delivery on the taxiways as well as all manner of esoteric aeronautica, much of which will never again leave the ground. Hawker Hunters, an Avro Vulcan, even an AeroSpacelines Super Guppy transporter sit around in various states of oxidization. For an anorak like me, this would be worth the price of admission alone.
As Don coned off a tight course, I chatted to Rob Rackstraw, a veteran of Don's 'The Wetter the Better' course and another VX220 driver keen to hone his skills at the limits of the car's handling envelope. From the initial discussion with Rob, it was soon apparent that I was the novice of the bunch. Despite this, the pace of the teaching was never too much but, by the same token, Don's style of coaching won't allow you to switch off for a moment. There's no magic formula to this sort of driving. Although much of it involves classic learning by doing, Don encourages his pupils to think their own way through the various thorny issues. There's plenty of 'What happened there?' and 'What do you feel now?' so you need to have your brain engaged and come up with some answers.
The course itself is a twisting affair that includes a couple of emergency lane change gates, as well as a number of successive sharp corners that set the car's tail in a pendulum motion. The first lesson concerns steering feel. So many drivers grip the wheel so hard they lose all subtlety and feel for what the front tyres are doing. We're encouraged to drive circles with almost fingertip lightness on the wheel, feeling the 'sweet spot' when the car is balanced, exceeding it and then drawing back to the near side of this spot again. What we're exploring is understeer, that moment when the car ploughs on no matter how much more steering you wind on.
Don explains what the front tyres are actually doing when the car understeers using physical props to help us visualise the processes at work. With a little more confidence that you can control the front end of the car to a far better degree than before, we take to the circuit and feel our way through each of the turns, finding that sweet spot when the front tyres are working best.
Next up, my nemesis - oversteer. This is the technical term for that moment when the rear of the car steps out and which prior to today was shortly followed by me giving the dog a phone. As we feel the sweet spot at the front, a swift close of the throttle drops the car's weight onto its nose, relieves the rear end of weight and thus grip and. we spin in a cloud of acrid black smoke. Old habits die hard. Another try and a slide develops that lasts a few feet before I correct it. I'm encouraged to push harder, to try steering into the slide with one hand for added accuracy. Astonishingly this works, Don constantly giving tips and advice on how to accurately wind on just the right amount of corrective steering. I have a moment of clarity. This isn't rocket science. Anybody can do this.
Still, as Don demonstrated in the Noble, there are degrees of anything. Although I was enormously satisfied with the progress I'd made, Don's demonstration of how to balance a 400bhp car sideways on the throttle through a corner at 80mph was rather humbling. The cynical phrase 'those that can, do; those that can't, teach' most certainly does not apply here.
Don's goal from the course is that you take away solutions that you've thought through rather than a menu of instructions and a whole bunch of 'do this, don't do that' admonishment. The course has certainly made me think more about the way that I drive. Whereas before I'd try to manhandle the car, brutalising the front tyres with great armfuls of steering lock and bootfuls of throttle, now I'm thinking more about how the car feels and how settled it is on its tyres. The acid test was during a photo shoot at a racetrack the following week. 'How about some tail out shots?' elicited the reply 'Just let me get my camera set up.'
For more information contact Don Palmer on 07769 911911 or visit www.donpalmer.co.uk