A Lesson from Paul Swift: Becoming Britain's Best Precision Driver
At the 2018 London Motorshow, I needed to catch a few shots of the Paul Swift precision driving display, but I didn’t get a single shot. Not because I wasn’t set up or didn’t have my gear together - I was just so captivated with the action that I forgot to do my job.
With my tail between my legs, I reached-out to Paul through the platform and we got chatting - after a quick phone call I was booked-in for my first ever stunt experience day, where Paul would impart his precision driving wisdom and I'd hopefully get some photos to boot.
Arriving at Silverstone I was very aware of the trickling rain and greasy tarmac. Assuming this wasn’t going to hinder my ability to handbrake-park a car, I wandered over and met Paul’s team. The first thing that strikes me is Paul’s ability to genuinely entertain: Before he even turned a key, he had the crowd laughing and joking. However, his real party tricks come after the key is turned. We’re told to expect training in the five key areas of car park hooliganism: Drifting, autotesting, J-turns and handbrake parallel parking. Taking it in turns to try each event, I sampled drifting first.
Immediately, I was disappointed. I was directed to a Focus ST with suspiciously-hard rear tyres. I was hoping for a RWD masterclass, but in the interest of keeping an open mind I hopped-in and met Mark, the instructor. Mark shakes my hand, calmly starts the car, and savagely catapults us sideways at ludicrous speeds towards the coned-off drift area, instantaneously changing my mind about the fun involved in FWD drifting. The car is fitted with frankly hilarious nylon over-tyres on the rear which facilitate long drifts at pedestrian speeds. When my laughter died-down and I loosened my grip on the roof handles, Mark explained the principles behind the FWD drift and pointed at the cone I should drift around. With an audience of another two lads in the back I took the reins. I was feeling the pressure.
I completely sacked it. I was awful. Mark reminds me it’s the complete opposite of RWD drifting and I need to disregard everything my career as Gran Turismo Drift King has taught me, but I fell short again on my second attempt. I could sense that Mark wanted to slap my wrists as he deployed some sage advice, which was essentially: "stop being an arse and actually listen to what I'm telling you." Low-and-behold, on my third attempt, I grazed that cone with the front bumper in neat circles for about 8 laps. I’d love to take credit for it, but really it was all down to the instruction of Mr. Miyagi in the passenger seat.
Next up I was shuffled into a Focus RS for some J-turn instruction. Mark No. 2 describes the actions involved in the manoeuvre, notches the car into reverse and accelerates the car rearwards. The RS is not a slow car: 40mph is achieved quickly. It's at this point I realise how fast 40mph is whilst travelling backwards. With my eyes flicking between the speedo and the rear-view camera display, Mark wrenches the wheel through 180 degrees. Before my neck muscles have even had time to catch up, he catches the car, slots it into 1st gear and casually meanders away.
Now my turn, I take the Captain's chair. It’s at this point I suddenly grasp I'm finally getting to drive the new RS... And the very first time I drive one I’ll be executing a J-turn. Acting under clear instruction, I’m amazed at how easy a J-turn is to perform. I found 90% of the challenge was overriding what I call the OS reaction (“oh shit!") - braking, accelerating, counter-steering or interfering in any way will ruin the slide after the initial steering input. You just need to trust the car will do its thing and then be quick enough to catch it at the right moment.
Parallel Parking with a Twist
From one RS to another (not a bad company car fleet, right?) I prepare to execute my first handbrake parallel park. Right off the bat, instructor Willy warns me this RS is fitted with an electronically-actuated handbrake à la Ken Block. Operating the machined aluminium lever with one finger is enough to completely lock the rear wheels and send the car spiralling. Which I learn the hard way...
Of all the attempts I had, I never really mastered this. It's easily the most difficult trick up Paul's sleeve (of which I was allowed to perform, at least). Speed, timing and foot control all need to be precisely controlled to achieve the perfect result. Even breathing on the brake pedal activates the ABS, stopping the slide and sending you ploughing through cones with maximum grip and a red face.
Arguably Paul's bread-and-butter, a small course is carved into the tarmac with cones. The course is technical and challenging. This is multiplied by the mustang factor - not the most agile of cars, which actually serves to make it more challenging and fun. Expert Andy gives me a quick demo and goes over the ground rules: A harsh five-second penalty is applied for any contact with cones. Obviously, I grazed a cone and had to hang my head in shame.
With the action over, I caught up with Paul for a bit of a Q&A:
What was the most memorable ‘gig’ you’ve ever done
"I think the most memorable gig was a commercial we did for Audi back in 2010 called Beauty and the Beasts. I choreographed a sequence with 22 precision drivers in Hot rods and stock cars and had to drive brand new Audi R8 through the chaos of cars followed by a camera tracking car. I employed some of the best drivers I know for the job and the end result looked incredible."
What did you do for a living before starting your own precision/stunt driving company?
"I did an apprenticeship in Engineering after leaving school and worked as a mechanical engineer until I was 24 when I had the opportunity to become self-employed. "
So how did you go from that to stunt/precision driving?
"My dad Russ was organising the live action entertainment at the British Motorshow, he asked me to be part of the team of stunt drivers performing the Mini Adventure Live. I needed 3 weeks off work but they wouldn’t allow it so I took a huge gamble & left my job."
Has it been a relatively easy ride, or have you faced difficulties along the way?
"It's certainly been a lot of fun, I’ve been very lucky to have travel the world and meet some amazing people on the way but behind the scenes myself and the team have worked tirelessly preparing for events & building the business. We worked as the Top Gear Live Stunt Team for over 10 years until 2015 but this all came to an end when Clarkson left the show. Since then we’ve had to reinvent our business and become much more diverse."
What advice would you give to someone looking to pursue a career/passion in the automotive world?
"I’m very lucky to have a driving job that I love doing but I spent years doing it as a hobby before I was able to do it professionally. I would suggest to anyone looking for a career in the automotive world should mix it up with like-minded people. Obviously we didn’t have DRIVETRIBE 20 years ago.
My first step was to join my local motor club age 15. I competed in various forms of motorsport such as autotesting & rallying. This pitched me up against many amazing drivers from all of the UK and I learnt from the best in the business. This gave me the platform to gain skills & make many useful contacts within the industry."
Thanks to Paul & the team for such a genuinely exciting day out.