A Testing Day
Today was the "ARDS day" for my group, i.e. the day we take the "Association of Racing Drivers Schools" test. Quick spoiler: I passed! (as did everyone!)
I'm now a qualified racing driver, able to take part in competitive motorsport events in the UK. That feels quite odd, but I'm sure I'll get used to it.
The day was actually great fun. I did have to get up at a horrible time of the morning, due to Caterham's insistence that we all had to report to Castle Combe race circuit at 8am sharp (which we didn't, in fact). Other had to get up at worse times, though. One strong mug of coffee later and I was able to understand the concept of signing a bit of paper to say I was there.
We were then divided up into four groups of about 6 or 7 per group. My group was sent off to the skid pan - an unexpected element to the day. We then spent half the morning sliding an E36 BMW sideways on a ridiculously low-friction surface, getting the hang of under- and over-steer, and learning how to control and to end both. To be honest, the easiest way to end understeer seemed to be to provoke the car into oversteer instead, and then deal with that instead. Once we had got the hang of that, we learnt avoidance braking and cadence braking - aka, how to avoid an object that you are skidding in a straight line towards. It's actually easier than you might think, the main problem is that the step you have to take (let go of the brake pedal) is so counter-intuitive that it is actually quite hard to force your foot to lift.
That was great fun, partly because the car that started my semi-obsession with nice cars was an E36 BMW, a 1998 323i that I owned for 3 years from new and put 95,000 miles on. These cars were 4-cylinders as opposed to my lovely straight six, and were definitely showing their age, but they brought back nice memories all the same.
We left the skidpan feeling sorry for those who were to arrive there right after lunch...
After that, off for a briefing from Caterham as to the various post-IVA mods we need to make to the car for racing. I've done most of these already but there were a few points to note. We also had a demonstration of (and some advice for) the harnesses fitted to our cars - exactly how to put them on and where all the straps go.
Lunch then followed, and a chance to chat to the others and to Simon Lambert, Motorsport manager. He offered a useful insight in to the reason why our cars have a plain (non-LSD) differential and rubbish tyres; he made the point that this makes our car worse, quite deliberately, so that we have to learn to control it. That makes for better racing, prepares us better for whatever step we might take on the racing ladder after the Academy, and is a lot safer. Whilst better tyres might hold on for much (much...) longer, they also tend to let go rather suddenly, so a high level of skill is needed to catch the car before it meets the Armco.
On reflection, I now realise that this could be summarised as "It's because you're all rubbish drivers and can't cope with anything better". I'd be upset if it wasn't completely true.
After lunch it was our turn to do the serious bit of the day, so we went to be shown the official MSA video again in case we've forgotten it. That was followed by some hot laps with the instructor in the school's Ford Fiestas; our instructor was a wizened old chap who drove in a very non-OAP manner!
Then (whilst others were with the instructor) I was sent off to pee in a pot and meet the Doctor, who proclaimed me unlikely to die suddenly over the next 12 months. Good-oh, will try to remember to sue him if he proves to have been wrong.
Then my turn at the wheel - good lord the Fiesta is rubbish. A cramped and uncomfortable interior is matched by an accelerator pedal that seems to float freely, unconnected to any part of the engine (assuming that Ford did indeed fit one under the bonnet). That fitted the exercise perfectly though, as the instructor merely wanted us to demonstrate that we could circulate consistently and safely around the circuit. I just about managed.
And finally, the written test! A series of questions requiring us to know all the flags that are used to warn race drivers of incidents on track, and a series of multiple-choice questions about safety matters, race organisation,and general racing matters. All the answers are in the video or in the talking-to that the instructors give you, so if you have working ears and some common sense, they can all be worked out quite easily.
Someone clearly has a sense of humour, though. One of the questions on the written exam is:
When are you required to produce your racing licence?
(a) when signing on at the start of an event
(b) when you need to impress your girlfriend
(+ three other options I've forgotten...)
What should you do with a helmet that has been involved in an accident?
(a) Put tape over any cracks so they can't be seen
(b) Throw it away and replace it with a new MSA-approved helmet
(c) Sell it to another competitor
All fairly easy to work out, meaning that we all passed.
Then back for tea and certificates, and (finally) it was time to set off home as qualified race drivers!
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