Take it to the limit (well, almost)

DSC00858_4a09e05e7e6a5-lightboxHowever, like many people I found that every car I bought was more capable than speed limits allow and I decided it was time to find out what the Corvette could really do.

For a relatively big, powerful car like the ‘Vette, a fast, open circuit would be ideal; fortunately my local circuit is Thruxton which is one of the fastest circuits in the UK. Track days at Thruxton are few and far between, but Thruxton Motorsport Centre offers personal instruction sessions, and at £150 for an hour on track it wouldn’t break the bank. Luckily I delayed booking a session just long enough for my lovely girlfriend Wendy to buy it for me as a surprise Birthday present!

It may have been a personal instruction session, but I wouldn’t have the track to myself… There would be people on supercar experiences, single-seater experiences (with the dreaded 100mph limiter) and a few others also on personal instruction sessions. Being paranoid I decided to take out track day insurance cover; at £145 it seemed more sensible than risking a huge bill if something unfortunate happened.

On the big day I checked all the fluids and pressures. There seem to be two schools of thought on tyre pressures: some recommend higher pressures to reduce sidewall flex, others say lower pressures are better to maximise the contact patch. As the ‘Vette has run-flat tyres, with pretty rigid sidewalls, I decided to split the difference and stick with the standard pressures. It’s also worth mentioning that Thruxton has a very strict 90db(A) static noise limit, but I was confident my almost silent standard exhaust would be fine (although as it happens it was never actually checked).

At the circuit, I signed in and waited for my time-slot. To kill time I helped Wendy find some good vantage points in her role as official photographer. At the allotted time I was introduced to my instructor, Bradley Ellis (who I’ve since discovered races a Jaguar XKR-S in the European GT3 Championship and has previously raced Ford GTs and Dodge Vipers) and the one hour session began.

Before we set off, I hit the traction control button a couple of times to switch into Competitive Driving Mode, which disables traction control and allows a little more slip-and-slide before the active handling kicks in. Bradley drove the car for a few laps to show me the lines (and probably to make sure it was roadworthy before he put his life in my hands!) before heading back to the pits so I could jump into the driver’s seat. He explained that we’d go out lapping for 15-20 minute periods broken by a few minutes in the pits to give the car a chance to recover, and to give Bradley a chance to explain how I was doing.

On my first stint we started slowly and then built up speed. It was odd: when I’d driven karts I’d never had any problem driving it like I stole it…but here I was finding it hard not to drive as if I was still on public roads (braking too early and not using the full width of the track on the exit being the main issues). With encouragement from Bradley I started to show a bit more commitment, although a rain shower slowed things down a bit before we came in for the first de-brief.

I’d also been relieved that I wasn’t being told to hold back (quite the opposite!) unlike the folk on the supercar experiences. This meant we were comfortably the fastest car on track with the exception of the pro in the RX-8, to the extent that we were signalled to run with our headlamps on. I started to push harder in the second stint and into Noble and through Village could feel the car starting to feel light and drift a little, but it was clear that the car’s abilities comfortably exceeded my nerve; it was getting to the point were I didn’t want to push much harder as I knew if I bottled and lifted, things could get way too interesting and expensive!

We were also pushing harder in the run out of Church through Brooklands and up Woodham Hill and braking later into the chicane. After a final de-brief we went back out for the last stint and I managed to string together a few decent laps, but I don’t think I ever went beyond nine-tenths. Even so, we were cracking 130mph (correcting for speedo error) before braking for the chicane which was good enough for me.

Into the pits for the final time, we inspected the car and I was relieved to see some graining on the left-hand tyres but nothing too serious, so I knew I’d tried reasonably hard but could still drive home!

So how was the car? Apart from the tyres, it didn’t really break into a sweat! It had more than enough power to be interesting, and the flappy-paddle box worked beautifully – particularly the rev-matching on downshifts. The steering was a touch light but gave plenty of feedback, and the balance was nicely neutral (as evidenced by the similar graining on the front and rear tyres). The brakes felt strong, although the only real braking was into the complex and the chicane so they had a bit of time to recover during the lap. Strangely, I’d felt that the seats weren’t holding me in place as well as I’d expected…and it was only after the session that I realised Bradley had move the seat back a couple of notches when he drove it and in the excitement I hadn’t moved it forwards. D’oh!

I’d recommend the session as a first venture on track. It was good to have an instructor riding shotgun, and to know that most of the other cars also had instructors in them making sure slower cars stayed out of the way. I think I was also lucky having Bradley as my instructor; he gave me great guidance and encouragement, and was very tactful about my (lack of) speed and commitment!

Would I go on another track day? Immediately after the session I’d have said no as I felt I’d satisfied my curiosity, but now all I can think about is all of the ways I could have improved my laps…so watch this space! Having said that, if I do venture out on a track again it won’t be at Thruxton. Not that I didn’t like the track, but 3 days after my session I’d be getting a rather more aggressive exhaust system fitted which most definitely wouldn’t pass the noise test! Read my next entry to find out more….

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Gary Walsh