You may think you are a great driver. You may think that you are lapping a track as fast as it is possible to. But then, there always comes a moment where someone else somehow, frustratingly, is just plain faster than you. You know how to go faster, you know the correct lines to take, but need help putting it into practice. This is where instruction such as that given by experienced racer, Telegraph Motoring writer and Circuit Driver magazine owner Mark Hales can help. He is a calm, modest and very personable fellow who aims to help you teach yourself to go quickly, on any track, in any car.
Two of us signed up to be shown the enlightened way on his one-day course at Anglesey in North Wales. As a disparate pairing, myself being 23 and with no track experience but a good background in kart racing, my colleague a somewhat older gentleman with a lot of experience in historic racing, we would get the track to ourselves for the entire day, which is rare and almost invaluable, allowing for an informal and flexible course.
In fact the course is so informal, we didn't even know what time to arrive. So after a night in a lovely converted barn hotel on Anglesey, we arrived bright and early to a deserted circuit, save a couple of Welshman circulating in a JCB and tractor.
We probably could have used this quiet moment to go out on track and sneak in a few early practice laps without anyone noticing, but thankfully due to our method of transport -- a Passat Diesel Automatic Estate -- this temptation was easily resisted. Perhaps this was a wise decision anyway, as the aforementioned JCB may well have left us standing.
As we admired the stunning view out into Caernarfon Bay, Mark arrived, appropriately, in an old Mazda MX-5. Although not his, it seemed fitting, given its rating as a great yet understated driver's car. After introductions, we entered Anglesey's racing school and were taught the most important skill we would have to grasp throughout the day: visualising your way through a corner well in advance of going through it. This is quite different to the typical unsmooth, steps of waiting for your braking point, braking, looking and turning for your apex, hitting it, then looking at your exit and taking it, whereby you are always a step behind, only ever reacting to the car and track. Instead, we would learn to build up a bigger picture of a corner, helping us stick to our line better, whilst stripping out the thinking and reaction time in a corner, including the time taken for the car to react to your inputs. Done properly, it feels incredibly satisfying, with the car rarely doing anything unwanted or unexpected.
We set out onto the track to put it into practice. I had already spotted the bright red Vauxhall-supplied Astra VXR we would be using on track and was keen to sample it. I grabbed my helmet and headed towards it. On doing so, Mark pulled alongside from nowhere in the grey Renault Laguna we would actually be using. You imagine how my face fell. Even though this was the most sporting GT205 model, I thought a Renault Laguna on a racetrack would work like a Lamborghini on a sand dune -- but this point actually proved poignant.
The track is twisty and undulating, every corner bringing its own unique challenges, After blind crests, a hairpin, and double-apexes, comes a rapid-entry late-apex bend at the end of the main straight, approaching which you are rather aware of the sea looming closer, only perhaps 40 metres away behind the tyre wall. Best not to get that one wrong then. With Mark in the passenger seat advising me, on each lap I built up a stronger overall picture of each corner until I could naturally enter each one, knowing my line and taking it as the car would allow. It was incredibly satisfying, and on the occasions where I found myself working against the car, blaming it for being front wheel drive, too softly sprung, or the ESP for activating too much, I knew that really it was only exaggerating a driver error because I had lost concentration.
After a casual lunch we touched upon such theories as the traction circle, weight transfer and gearchanging and put them into practice on the track, spending hours lapping either in the driver's seat, or the back seat from where you can learn just as much. Towards the end of the day, we lapped the track the other way round, applying these newly developed learning processes to learn what felt like a totally different track. Within a few laps we were lapping quickly and smoothly - it was immediately obvious how much we had developed in just a day, and particularly relevant that we were now doing this ourselves, with little instruction from Mark.
As the sun came down, I was really enjoying lapping in the Laguna. The lessons came to a close and I had the impression there was still plenty to be learnt, but from this one day we both went away with plenty to think about, apply, and continue to improve our road and track driving with for the foreseeable future.
That left us feeling more confident and happy to jump into any car, on any track, and satisfyingly get the best out of both.
For more information about the Mark Hales Masterclass, visit http://www.markhales.com/
Photo (c) John Rowlands (Lakeside Photography)