I was fortunate to be able to spend a day this weekend with the Lotus Driving Academy on site at the Lotus HQ in Hethel. They in turn are very fortunate to have the recently re-designed and resurfaced test track available for instruction of advanced driving techniques to the likes of me. It turns out that a fair few of the 15 people on the course were making a weekend of it and had completed the Licence Level 1′ on Saturday and were upping their game with my Level 2′ course on Sunday and a young lady from Kuwait was also with us taking advantage of the one-to-one training they also offer in the Evora S, nice!
Our day began early at 8am so ideally you’ll want to find somewhere locally to stay if you’re attending and not local. In hindsight, heading off at 5:30am wasn’t the brightest of moves on my part despite the very early night. Shortly after arriving at the gate we’re taken to the newly refurbished club house, this used to be and in part still is the Lotus Sport building, the old control tower which last saw active service in WW2 when bombers graced the area the track now occupies with the “Mansell Main Straight” now exactly on the site and route of the old runway. Conveniently this building is located next to the track and track entrance so serves as a very handy base throughout the day and LDA’s Suzi is on hand with cold & hot drinks (excellent coffee) and food whenever needed. Again, recently refurbished to a high standard the club house has comfy sofas and chairs, classy decor and a balcony to view all the other on track action from between sessions should you wish. The TV either has Lotus videos or music throughout the day and the new Lotus magazine makes sure there’s never a moment where you ponder what to do next!
The Level 2 course is completed in the Elise S, the 134bhp baby of the current Lotus lineup, but don’t let the power output fool you. The Elise really does come into its own on track and you leave the day wondering why any car would need more bhp after a day exploring the outer limits of its performance. We’re given a safety briefing including wild animal avoidance techniques (it’s a very rural location surrounded by wood and farm land) and our instructors for the day introduce themselves. I’m very lucky to have been paired with Jay Bridger, the 24 year old ex-F3 national champ and BRDC ‘Rising Star’ with more experience on a track than I’m ever likely to have! Jay has been instructing for some 3 years and was joined on our day by fellow instructors Russ Munns, Ed Morris, Shawn Taylor, David Brise and Ben Devlin.
The cars are assigned to each instructor and each instructor takes 3 pupils. This means that you’re in the car for around 15 minutes per hour overall if memory serves, giving you enough time to relax between sessions in the clubhouse, rehydrate and take in what you’re learning. More time in the car would be very intense with the level of concentration required and this seems in line with other courses I’ve attended. First off we’re off to the new turning circle in the middle of the track which has just been thoroughly dampened by the built-in sprinkler system. Here Jay demonstrates then explains the cause, effect and recovery from both oversteer and understeer in the Elise, important lessons when you’re driving through corners at the edge of traction later in the day. This is followed by a series of braking exercises on another part of the track showing how effective the brakes are by coming to a complete stop from 60mph next to a placed cone in something less than 10m and using the cars ABS to turn and steer at the threshold of available grip. We then went on to a slalom course to learn about the weight transfer through corners and under acceleration and braking. This is the morning’s training in a nutshell, you’ve got used to the car, how it handles and what you and it can do.
The afternoon comprises of 3 sessions out on the full track stringing together the morning’s exercises into real driving. The track is very technical in places with plenty to keep your mind busy and the real benefit of the day comes here. Every corner the instructor analyses and feeds back on your braking point, use of the brakes, turn in point, where you begin to re-apply power from and by how much as you start to unwind the steering through the apex. As you complete more laps with this level of detailed advice the braking is getting later and harder, the corners are being taken better and exit speeds increase gradually until you are, hopefully, getting all that you can from the car and more importantly, yourself. Over the 3 sessions which last around 20 minutes each the improvement and confidence you gain start to show as lap after lap you reapply the training. When the driving strings together well, there’s a lovely feeling of satisfaction as the tyres let you know you’re on, or at least getting closer to the limits of the car and everything feels just right as you evolve your technique. This is exciting stuff, proper adrenaline-inducing driving and very good fun.
Finally you then get knocked from cloud 9 as your instructor takes you out for a change showing what can really be done. They’re very talented, very experienced drivers and drive beyond grip levels with the cars struggling to keep up with their demands as they tear around the track at huge speeds. Respect to those skills, one day…
An end of the day debrief with your instructor gives you a real insight into how you’ve progressed through the day, where you are strong and what areas need more work and we’re presented with appraisals, attendance certificates and a nice goody bag. Leaving the factory at close to 6pm means it’s been a long day but around 2 hours solid in the car has really been an intense time. Jumping in the Evora to head home I’m thinking more about the next time I’m going to get out on track and put some of these skills to the test, the excitement of the day is buzzing around my veins still!
The Lotus Driving Academy is being overseen by the hugely experienced Robert Lechner and run by the very friendly Alex Richard Eberl and Alex Brake. I think a testament to the quality of the instruction these guys are offering is shown by the fact that the people this weekend had travelled from around the UK, from Germany, Sweden, Belgium, Romania, Switzerland, the USA and Kuwait and that all instructors have come from a racing background and are long-term with the LDA. If you’re looking to find out what you and your car can achieve and improve on your technique (often the best upgrade available), book yourself in! As I did, you can visit Hethel however there is now an Academy in Budapest at the Hungaroring and Abu Dhabi at Yas Marina.
More info is on their website or call them on +44 (0)1953 608547.