When? Saturday 5th August
Nominated by: Alex
Alex, a fellow petrol-head, once mentioned to me how much he’d love to try drifting, which is essentially hurtling round a race track largely sideways with massive opposite lock, a lot of tyre smoke and loud squealing (of wheels). It’s a bit like rallying on a circuit, if you like. Sounded awesome, so it was win-win in suggesting drifting would make a great #ChallengeKate. Alex took the bait.
And so it was I found myself in the middle of nowhere on the outskirts of Hemel Hempstead at 8.15am on a thankfully neither wet nor overly chilly Saturday morning. Several eager participants were already parked up and staff were manoeuvring a variety of mud-splattered performance cars, supercars and other vehicles towards what I guessed was the circuit. Lots of guys, there for one of the various driving experiences on offer, were strutting about or peering out eagerly from their cars, all subtly sizing each other up. Make no mistake: this was Male Territory; the testosterone and the ‘I’m going to be better/faster than you’ undercurrents were palpable. ‘Girl Power’, I oozed in response.
Alex arrived and we duly signed our lives away, gave up our driving licenses and tried to ignore the four-figure write-off liability surcharge listed before heading into the briefing room. Driftlimits offers a variety of experiences; alongside Drifting, there’s a choice of supercars you can race round a track. The performance car/circuit driving briefing was first. This was familiar territory, as I’d devoted a large part of my early 20s to racing a variety of single seaters and tin tops at Brands Hatch and the like. It’s an addictive sport – but ultimately one reserved for the wealthy or technically minded. Preferably both.
Drifting, on the other hand, was something I knew very little about and I had no real idea what skills I’d need. But I’ve done skid training, been through various rally schools (albeit many years ago) and am confident of my car control. I’d be fine. Nevertheless, the drifting part of the briefing seemed very short in comparison to the supercar part; I didn’t finish the briefing much the wiser…
Time to get a helmet – always a challenge for me; the smallest size they had was a Medium and with that on, I could turn my head 45 degrees and the lid didn’t move. Probably not the safest piece of kit… Luckily they managed to dig out an XXS. Ready!
As Alex and I stood outside waiting for our turn, I confessed I was now wavering hugely between being super excited and eager for my go, but also really quite nervous. Lots of talk of hay bales and extra insurance premiums hadn’t helped. Alex looked a little awkward. ‘Um,’ he started. ‘I have a confession…’
‘I’ve done this before. I wasn’t sure whether or not to tell you…’
‘What! What do you mean you’ve done it before? Are you actually some kind of semi-professional? I thought drifting was new to both of us!’
Turns out a friend had bought Alex a Drifting experience for his birthday a couple of months earlier. So not only had he broken his Drifting virginity, it had only been a matter of weeks ago! This ‘competition’ wasn’t really very fair, was it?!
Pretty much straight after this revelation, Alex was called for his turn, so I had no real time to grill him for information. Instead, I headed up to the viewing platform to watch. Shame, though, that the drifting circuit was a little way off. I knew Alex was in one of those Mazda MX-5s but I had no way of telling which one. Still, that said, they were all pretty hopeless (sorry, Alex, but it’s true!).
When he got back I had limited time to pump him for information; I had a gazillion things I wanted to know…
‘Make sure you let go of the steering wheel’, was his one most important piece of advice. What?! I hadn’t even been expecting that one!
With no more time to think about it or press Alex for extra tips, my name was called. I was introduced to Dave, my instructor, who then chauffeured me off to the circuit. My adrenaline spiked. I was ready; let me at it!
Not so fast. ‘Erm, I think we have a flat tyre,’ Dave said, pulling into the pit area. He got out and looked around the car. ‘Nope, they look OK.’ He then set about performing two demo laps to show me the circuit layout, marked by painted lines and cones indicating turn-in points, and tell me what to do when and how to do it and what not to do and what gear to be in and… and… and… I was supposed to remember all this?! Dave’s third lap was the ‘hot lap’, where he really let rip and threw the MX-5 round the track. Impressive!
Still it wasn’t my go. Dave drove back into the pit area. ‘I think I will change those tyres,’ he said. Cue even more more opportunity for nerves to build as he jacked the car up and put on two fresh rear wheels.
At last I was in the driving seat. It’s very easy to get the back of a rear-wheel-drive Mazda MX-5 out of line as you throw it into a corner. And it snaps back into line very quickly once you release the steering wheel. So lightening reactions are imperative. Hey, I can manage this! As I went round the track, Dave was shouting instructions to me – primarily, ‘more power, power, power!’ Seems I was far too light with my right foot – which might come as a surprise to some of you.
As I completed more laps I slowly started to get the hang of it. This was fun! Yes, I did end up doing more than a few pirouettes. Yes, I did end up in the field once (maybe twice). But to be fair, the edge of the circuit was very close to the field – see for yourself in the pictures. But yes, I also managed a fair few ‘drifts’ rather successfully, although linking from one turn to the next was still not quite happening.
After 10 laps we returned to the main waiting area, where I caught up with Alex and we headed in search of refreshments. This was thirsty work! Steaming cup of tea (Alex) and cooling bottle of water (me) in hand, we headed back out… just as Alex was called for his second stint. He looked longingly at his full cup of tea. ‘Or Kate can go back out first,’ offered the instructor. A little more time to process my first stint would had been good, but who am I to separate a man from his hot cup of tea? I passed my water to Alex and hopped back in the car. I’ll take one for the team.
This time I had a different instructor: Bill. At first I thought it was a shame not to have continuity. But I quickly discovered Bill had a different way of explaining things and, actually, it made a lot more sense. What I’d been doing was feeding in the power; what I actually had to do was stamp hard on the throttle – all or nothing. And my turn-in needed to be a lot sharper, not smooth as I’d learnt on a race circuit. The clarity made a Big Difference. And with each of my 15 laps I got more and more feel for what to do when and how. I was drifting!
Fifteen laps went far too quickly. Just as I was really building a rhythm and even starting to link two corners together and slide from one pretty neatly into the next, I was being told to pull off the circuit and trundle back to base. What a shame!
I was tempted to buy more laps. I was also tempted to have a go in one of the performance cars on the other circuit – although doing that immediately after conditioning myself to throw a car into a corner sideways was perhaps not a great idea. Alex was tempted to drive the Lamborghini. In the end we both agreed we’d probably spent enough money (motorsport doesn’t get any cheaper). Still, it’s always good to have something to go back for, huh?!
Unfortunately (fortunately?) there had been no timings or scoring or anything, so Alex and I had no way to compare how we’d each got on. Obviously, I was the better driver. Now, just remember not to floor it and force the car sideways on approach to that roundabout getting back onto the A5…
Thanks for a fab #Challenge, Alex. Let me know when you’re ready for a rematch!