Catch my drift

Kate Best-6
No, I didn’t spin off into a field. The photographer is in the field. I’m on the tarmac. Honest.

#ChallengeCompleted: Drifting

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!

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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…’

Go on…?

‘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!

Kate Best-4
Yes, this is the direction my wheels should be facing and yes, I am looking in the direction I’m going. This is a Perfect Drift. Trust me!

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!

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Gentlemen (and lady): Start your engines

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#ChallengeCompleted: F1 Race Simulator

When? Sunday 12th February

Nominated by: Jon

This Challenge was right up my race track. Appealing Big Time to both the petrolhead and the F1 fan within me, the opportunity to ‘drive’ a Formula One car round a Grand Prix circuit was super-exciting.

I was under no illusions I’d beat Jon, my Challenger; he does a lot of karting and, by all accounts, is pretty handy round a race track. It’s also been a long time since I’ve put pedal to the metal in gritted determination. Mike, a fellow F1 fan and also a karter, was joining us and I fully expected to be beaten by him too, although I at least hoped I might give both boys a run for their money.

We went first into a briefing room to learn how to get comfortable in the cockpit and adjust the pedals (there are only two; no clutch. I’d rapidly have to learn left-foot braking). We were shown how to attach and remove the steering wheel, what the various buttons on the wheel did (I was relieved it wasn’t covered in buttons and switches like Lewis Hamilton’s is – there were only four, three of which I probably wouldn’t even need), and how to change gear – flick the paddle on the right to change up and the paddle on the left to shift down.

Hungary for success?

The facility offers all the current Grand Prix circuits; we’d be driving Hungary’s Hungaroring, a twisting circuit with only one real straight. This, we were told, is a ‘middling’ circuit: not overly difficult for the first-timer to get to grips with, but still offering challenges for more experienced racers.

I know the Hungaroring. Well I say ‘know’; I could probably have picked it out of a circuit line-up. When the lap diagram came up on the screen in the briefing room, yes: I recognised it. I also knew each and every one of those corners  would come as a surprise as I drove round…

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I was actually quite nervous as we entered the Race Room. Ten F1-esque monocoques lined up across two rows; no wheels, noses or wings but realistic enough nonetheless. Each car had three wraparound display screens. Getting in was a lot easier than I imagine it is squeezing into a ‘real’ F1 car and I virtually disappeared as I submarined into the cockpit. I’m not tall and the virtually supine driving position left my head all but completely below the rim. Surprisingly, it didn’t bother me nearly as much as I thought it would. I guess I’d have felt differently in a ‘real’ car on a real circuit.

We now had a 15-minute qualifying session, then a short break to receive personal telemetry that would potentially help us see where we could improve our performance. Then we’d be back for a 30-minute race.

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My heart was thumping as the lights dimmed and qualifying was go, go, GO! Cars streamed past my garage as I flicked into first and gingerly pressed the throttle, hoping nothing else was coming as I joined the pitlane. Safe! Changing gears seemed straightforward enough; I even remembered (eventually) to deactivate the speed limiter as I joined the track. Tentatively I approached the hairpin. The brakes were super-sharp so not only had I braked far too early, I virtually stopped before getting off the brakes and navigating the corner, past several cars already scattered in the gravel traps pointing in various directions.

Before I had time to be smug I’d joined them. I’d spun. Someone hit me (or did I hit them? It was all a bit of a blur, really) and I barrel-rolled (thankfully the simulator was limited to vibration only), ending up nose-on into the barrier. Where’s reverse? How the heck do I get back on to the track? Where even is the track? I spent a good while repeatedly crashing into the barrier and spinning in an attempt to get going before the computer apparently took pity on me and put me back in my garage to start again…

This time there were no cars to hit/be hit by, so I successfully (eventually) got round the first corner. From now on I didn’t have a clue what bends were coming next. Sometimes there were boards counting down to the corner, which helped. Sometimes I was in a corner – or, more accurately, the gravel the other side of it – before I’d realised. I did find a lot of gravel traps.

Fifteen minutes flew by. I was learning nothing about the track but had become proficient at driving through gravel traps. I was also good at selecting neutral or reverse at inopportune moments. I kept missing gears by not pulling on the paddles strongly enough. Hey, I could at least brake hard with my left foot!

Seventh heaven?

I managed a feeble five laps, with a best time of 2:07.475. To be fair, three other drivers also only managed five laps, the rest doing six. And that said, if the fastest lap was a 1:40.690 he must have had some serious ‘offs’ if he was that much faster yet only managed one more lap in the 15 minutes!

I’d qualified seventh. Out of seven. On the plus side I was the fastest girl. I’m taking that.

The most useful thing I learned from my telemetry was that there are, in fact, eight gears. For some reason I thought there were only six so I’d stopped upshifting at that point. I also saw my braking was either fully on or fully off. Is that a bad thing? I didn’t appear to have completely floored the accelerator at any point – I could certainly resolve that. At least my telemetry implied I was roughly accelerating and braking in the right places. And while I’m sure not one of my five laps was free of some kind of excursion/spin/crash, I don’t think it’s obvious where I struggled. Other than, erm, everywhere…

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Blue line represents me; red line represents the fastest lap set

The break was swift. Quickly we were back in our cars, lined up on the grid. My tactics were obvious: hang back and let everyone crash on the first corner, then tiptoe through the debris and hang on…

Lights out! I hesitated… but quickly realised the car in front (Mike) was going really slowly so I floored it – passing him and a further car (two cars?) as we headed into the hairpin. Hey, I can DO this! Predictably, the exit of the hairpin was carnage; cars off all over the place. Equally predictably, I joined them in the gravel…

The race was long. At one point it got quite dark and ‘rained’. Should that make a difference? Should I go slower? Brake earlier? One thing I shouldn’t have done was put a wheel on the grass as I floored it down the straight; instant spin and crash. Doh!

Sometimes I came up on another car (usually recovering from an incident). Sometimes I even drove past it… but I was re-lapped pretty quickly.

I never did manage a clean lap. The most frustrating moments were when I was actually going quite well, then simply bashed from behind or barged off the side. Yes, I swore out loud on more than one occasion.

The hardest part was the lack of any impression of speed or deceleration beyond the visual display. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t looking to experience the incredible G-forces F1 drivers endure, but only the onscreen speedo and selected gear display gave any real indication of what was happening in terms of traction. I’m also thankful that virtual tyres are apparently a great deal more resilient than Hamilton and co’s Pirellis, because I appeared to spin my wheels a lot, mainly by being in the wrong gear and using too much throttle.

Steering was tough on my arms – especially when trying to manoeuvre back onto the circuit. I felt a small kick every time I changed gear and there was a definite bump when I hit the barrier and a jolt when I went over the kerbs, but nothing even approaching uncomfortable, let alone painful. I certainly wasn’t experiencing the physical thrill of F1 driving, although the adrenaline rush was definitely there.

I was almost relieved when the half-hour race finished as I was starting to get frustrated at my lack of progress. But I was disappointed it was exactly on the 30-minute mark that my display suddenly cleared; I didn’t even get to finish my lap and take the chequered flag.

Scores on the doors

So how did I get on? Sixth. Yes, I beat Mike. There was a good reason for that, but I’ll spare (more of) his blushes on that one. I’d managed 11 laps, finishing three behind the winner – my Challenger, Jon. On the positive side, I had improved my lap time by a whopping seven seconds. Not many F1 drivers find that much speed between qualifying and the race!

That said, I don’t think Lewis Hamilton – let alone the back of the grid – have much to worry about… Hey, I finished the day the fastest girl. I’m taking that.