A lot of people think they can drive well. Most would also believe they would know what to do in an emergency situation, when everything starts to go wrong. But as I found out one cold Friday afternoon it is when you are metres away from a wall of cones and travelling at 50 mph in a Mercedes E-Class that you realise perhaps you don’t know it all. So how did I find myself in this situation? I had booked myself in to a driving course at the Transport Research Laboratory in Crowthorne to brush up on my skills behind the wheel. The course in question is the Ultimate Car Control Driving Dynamics Day, run by ex-BTCC champion Robb Gravett.
It was an early start and after some much needed coffee I joined the group of around ten students in a small hut at the side of a large area of deserted tarmac. Gravett then started going through the basics of what happens to a car’s weight when it goes in to a corner. Simple enough stuff, but crucial all the same as it explains where the grip will and won’t be when you turn into a corner. Gravett explains that by having a greater understanding of the effects of braking, accelerating, understeer and roll-oversteer we will be able to change direction even in the most difficult and challenging situations. He says his approach to driving and car control is unique and he claims some people have told him it has saved their life.
He also has different theories on the safest line to take in a corner, which he explains throughout the course. Then it is time to head out for a go ourselves. The course is sponsored by Mercedes and there is an impressive selection of cars, including a few CLK’s, a B-Class SLK, a C-Class Sports Coupe and the E-Class, giving us a feel for both front and rear drive, auto and manual. The cars, I’m told, go through a new set of tyres and brake pads every week.
Gravett says which wheels drive the car matters little as the technique he teaches applies to all cars. For the next couple of hours we spend our time driving quickly through a series of cones, each time with a dedicated tutor sitting alongside. The idea of the exercise is to reach the end of the cones at high speed then turn 180 degrees as tightly as possible, without understeering or oversteering. By balancing the car correctly with the brake and throttle this can be done safely and efficiently, and with a suprisingly small turning circle, says Gravett.
After practicing the technique a few times I was starting to feel confident that I was mastering Gravett’s special technique. It was shortly after this that I found myself in the E-Class – one of the hardest cars to drive quickly due to its bulk – nudging 50 mph, heading for a cone chicane, and
waiting for the instructor to instruct me to do something. After the point when I thought it inevitable I would hit the cones he shouted for me to brake and use the technique to get around the obstacle without losing control of the car. Somehow I made it round the cones safely, which were designed to simulate a stationary lorry on a motorway, amazed the car actually got me to the other side. This, the instructor told me, was down to what I had learnt throughout the day and would hopefully become instinctive on the road.
It was now time for lunch and I ate from the buffet efficiently and instinctively as well, confident in the fact I was starting to get the technique. I also had a chance to quiz Gravett as to what it all meant. ‘The ethos behind the day is safety,’ he tells me. ‘This course gives the individual an awareness you can’t get anywhere else in the world and it makes you a massively better driver. It becomes a subliminal reactive process – if you have to think it’s too late. Once you have control and awareness you can extend that to going fast on track days.’
After lunch a track was laid out in cones and we were treated to a ride out with Gravett, where he showed us what we should and shouldn’t do. Then it was our turn to try the new
techniques on the track, using a different line to extend your braking time. I had to agree that the technique may well be safer but whether it was ultimately a quicker way around the circuit, I wasn’t convinced. Without trying a number of different ways to go round the same corner, using a stop-watch it was difficult to tell. What Gravett teaches does seem unique and slightly unorthodox. However, the course does put you in an emergency situation, where you have to think fast to avoid a big accident, and allows you to find out in safety how you would react. Unlike in real-life you then get a few more goes to work out how you would deal with the situation, which of course is very useful. The team know their stuff and the tuition is virtually one-to-one. So if you want to find out how you would react in an emergency situation it may be worth a look. If anything you might get to find out what you don't know rather than what you do know about driving.