I rocked up to the legendary Silverstone circuit at 8am on Sunday morning, and immediately the nerves set in. As I drove over the bridge which crosses the Wellington Straight, it suddenly dawned on me that I would be about to learn to race in the footprints of every driving legend that has walked (or rather has driven) the planet.
Having checked in we were called to our first briefing. There were only about ten of us, and with applicants ranging from experienced middle-aged men through to a fourteen-year-old karter who had only driven a car for the first time seven days previously, every single one of us had different aims and ability. We started with forty minutes of the basics of car control and balance, discussing the theories of under and oversteer, weight balance, and the misconceptions surrounding the illusive 'apex'.
Split into two groups, we were first out on the circuit and were paired with our instructors. I had the pleasure of being put into the hands of an experienced racing driver who has under his belt such credits as driving LMP2 at Le Mans, as well as being multiple British and European Champion in both sports cars and single seaters. This guy knew his onions, and jumping into the passenger seat as he began taking me round the National Circuit on a series of sighting laps, it was clear that I'd done well to be in his car.
Very quickly, the teaching became more intensive. "Brake here, down to third, let it run out, on the power, brake, turn in, power, fourth". Just a few corners in and it was already blurring into a haze of instructions. The more he said the less I remembered, and before I knew it we were back into the pits and swapping seats. "Your turn" her chirped. I could barely remember where the pedals were, let alone which gear to be in as I was braking and turning into Brooklands.
As I began my initial laps behind the wheel of the bright yellow RenaultSport Megane, I began to question if this whole process had been a massive mistake. My driving was appalling, and I just couldn't match the instructors words to my hands and feet. "We haven't hit that apex yet, and what are we doing in fifth here?" he reassuringly said as I came out of Copse. This was terrible. Back into the pits we went for a breather.
I stood chatting with other guys from the course whilst we waited trackside and thankfully we'd all had similar experiences. We vocalised our problems to the instructors, and with a little help from a clipboard to demonstrate weight shifting, were talked through solutions. We were itching to get back in the car and try it all out, but were all made to wait and mull over our thoughts. When we eventually jumped back behind the wheel and rejoined the circuit it was clear that there was more to the break than just tech talk. Having fifteen minutes out of the car refocused the mind, and my second session was markedly improved. A fair few more laps and before I knew it the first chunk of track driving was over, and whilst I knew I was improving, I was a long way off being good enough to be given the ARDS stamp of approval.
From the track we were taken to one of Silverstone's huge car parks and were handed over to another experienced instructor who was to teach us the witchcraft of skid control. The four of us squeezed into another Megane, this time on a skid cradle with the rear wheels hoisted in the air, and were treated to a delicate glide around his complicated course of miniature cones. Each of us took our turn to drive with the others in the back, and demonstrated quite how difficult it is to get a car sideways and to keep it there. I was definitely not the strongest in the group, but it was a valuable insight into advanced car control.
After lunch came the dreaded theory. To fail the driving would be understandable, but to fail on the theory would be devastatingly disappointing. Twenty-eight questions split into three parts. In order to pass you have to score one hundred percent on the first two parts, and at least five out of eight in the last. The first fifteen were to attach the correct marshals flag to the description, something I could comfortably do with my eyes closed after extensive revision. The second was focused on safety with notorious questions such as "What should you do if you drop your helmet?" (Top tip: The answer is not 'paint it'). The last section, a series of more general questions. I was convinced under the pressure of the exam I'd fail, but we wouldn't find out until the end of the day.
Silverstone Circuit: Brooklands and Luffield
After this it was back to the track. I knew we'd have another circuit session before the practical test, but was somewhat shocked to hear that they'd be back-to-back. With nerves now running high I was back behind the wheel and flying around the circuit. Miraculously, somewhere in that first lap back out, something clicked and I was managing the all important consistency. Suddenly the instructions of "brake, gear, turn, power" were coming without thinking and I was hitting apex after apex. The bridge I'd driven over on the way in that morning was now the one I was driving under at well over one hundred miles per hour, and I was hitting the brakes and flicking down to third with a bit of heel-toe at what felt like just the right spot. The fleet of birthday present Ferrari and Aston experiences which had been hurtling past me all morning were now just dots in my mirrors. It felt good, but just as I was settling in I was told "Back into the pits on this one". That was it, practice over.
After a signature on the paperwork and a last few words of advice, it was time to begin. I was subjected to silence from the moment we exited the pits, and for five laps I was on my own. My one chance to prove that I can drive consistently at ninety percent of race pace - Leave the track once, spin, or miss the racing line and that would be it, all over in an instant. I focused hard, looking through the corners not at them, planning ahead, managing the weight of the car as I approached the bends. Thankfully everything came together and I was getting it right. I knew I wasn't out there to break track records, just show that I was a competent circuit driver, and I was pretty happy with my performance.
As we returned to the pits, I was told I'd passed the driving element of the day. To say I was chuffed would be an understatement. My instructor told me how much progress I'd made between the morning session and my test, and although this was just the beginning and I'd have a long way to go, had reached the required standard to pass. We sat and chatted in the pits whilst we waited for others to finish, and with everyone back in, I quickly worked out that it was passes all round.
Before returning the classroom for the theory results, we had one last exercise. Another car park, but this time going solo behind the wheel of a staggeringly fast and nimble Caterham. The aim of the session was to learn to drift a rear wheel drive car around another circuit of cones, but having completed both elements of the test, my only intention was to just go crazy. Sod the cones, I was just stamping on the throttle and enjoying myself. Our instructor fully endorsed my decision, and stood back and let the madness happen.
The brilliant Caterham. Some of the most fun I've had on four wheels
After the excitement of the Caterham, we returned to the Brooklands Suite classroom and awaited the results. Chief Instructor Mark gave us a de-brief and was able to present everyone with a stamped application form. The whole group had passed both the theory and the practical elements, and despite my earlier worries, I'd managed full marks in the questions. That was it, official, I'd passed and was now the holder of a National Competition B Licence.
Three months ago I wrote that 'failure is not an option'. When I walked into this process however, I wasn't naïve enough to think that success was guaranteed. As is repeatedly drummed into you, motorsport CAN be dangerous. No chances can be taken, so failure is very much a reality of this world. Despite this, and regardless of the rumours of Silverstone's strictness, somehow I've done it.
Whilst I may be at the end of this initial process, I am still very much a beginner, and the real journey begins now.
MSA novice cross