Lotus Elise Sport 135: PH Fleet

Good sense would suggest that, on first receipt of a notoriously tricky mid-engined sports car, prioritising some sort of driver training would be a good idea. And if that notion does not immediately leap to mind, the avalanche of advice from whichever owner's forum you decide to join should help illuminate the appropriate light bulb. Mostly this advice will take the form of a simple directive: do a Walshy day.

An airfield in November; not glam but illuminating
An airfield in November; not glam but illuminating
Walshy, for the uninitiated, is Andrew Walsh, ex-Benetton F1 test driver and head honcho at Car Limits driver training. A man with an almost wizard-like status among Lotus owners. Of course as the consummate over-confident, pig-headed male, I mostly discounted this advice, made a loose promise to try one, and blundered straight into Elise ownership. It was a course of action that inevitably led to a few moments along the way but, probably more by luck than judgment, the Elise and I emerged from these formative years completely unscathed. Indeed, although it's been a real rollercoaster of confidence, I've now built up a strong bond with the car and a fair understanding of its personality and handling traits.

With the passing of my, ahem, 40th birthday, I figured the time was ripe for a self-indulgent splashing out. But, loath to fritter money away on a driving 'experience', I decided instead to book a Car Limits day. And so earlier this month, four years into Elise ownership, I finally pulled onto the patchwork of sodden tarmac at North Weald Airfield in Essex.

Winter roads hopefully hold no fear any more
Winter roads hopefully hold no fear any more
The learning began immediately. Now I like to think I have a reasonably sensitive touch, treat the brake and throttle pedals with progression and have mastered the art of heel and toe. Well, it turns out this was mostly fantasy. After a quick appraisal Andy had highlighted a binary approach to pedal applications, a stranglehold on the wheel and a propensity to catch the accelerator with the outside of my foot under hard braking.

The first exercise is known as the high-speed left hand bend. The idea is to head into an imaginary bend (actually just a cone where a service road joins the runway apron), and turn left, avoiding an imaginary wall (a metal gutter running perpendicular to the service road). Begin slowly and keep upping the pace until you either spin, or hit the wall. It didn't take long before I was pirouetting like a Strictly contestant. The reason? I had too tight a grip on the reins, meaning that I was effectively fighting the car. Equally, I would back off the throttle when the car began to understeer, and get back on it too hard during the resulting oversteer.

Matt Becker already demo'd Elise's sliding abilities
Matt Becker already demo'd Elise's sliding abilities
For subsequent runs, I was told to take my feet completely off the pedals at the turn in point. As if that wasn't enough, Andy said I had to approach the corner at the same speed, but steer using just one finger on top of the wheel. This was an attempt to cure the tension in my steering inputs. Naturally I just dismissed this request as the ramblings of a lunatic, but agreed to try it anyway.

Approaching the bend at 60mph, I placed one finger on top of the wheel and focused on the fast approaching cone. To quote that much underrated contemporary poet and bard, R Kelly, my mind was telling me no, but my body, my body was telling me, erm, yes. To my great surprise, the car twitched, the steering wheel writhed, but with just my finger guiding it, we negotiated the corner perfectly without spinning and with plenty of space to the wall.

As the morning progressed I took on increasingly mad drills. Easily the most freaky of these involved waiting for the oversteer, then completely releasing the steering wheel mid-corner and letting the car straighten itself out. I was starting to learn though! And so by lunch, although the heavens had well and truly opened, I was correcting some pretty big slides with just my left thumb at the 9 o'clock position on the wheel.

Look ma, no hands!
Look ma, no hands!
The problem with tuition is that, often, instructions come so thick and fast that there's not enough time to digest the feedback, let alone put recommendations into practice. But on the Car Limits day there was never any shortage of time to concentrate on one particular aspect of your technique or the car's handling.

In the afternoon we moved on to understanding and experiencing the effects of slip angle and the traction circle. We looked at braking through the corner and adjusting corner radius using the throttle alone. We finished with the Car Limits circuit, a kind of figure-of-eight autotest, which was yet another revelation, even if only for the fact that I would never have believed negotiating four cones in an empty car park could be so much fun. Once again, progress was rapid, and by the sixth and final lap I was starting to feel more like an integrated component in the Elise than an unreliable spare part.

It had been a day of invaluable education and unexpected entertainment, with the result that I left that car park a far wiser Elise owner than I had arrived. Proof too that the best upgrades are always to the driver. And, just occasionally, it's actually worth listening to the advice posted on an Internet forum.

Car Limits driver training vid

Fact sheet
 1998 Lotus Elise Sport 135
Run by: Danny Milner
Bought: October 2010
Purchase price: £9,500
This month at a glance: Danny learns the true meaning of fingertip control

Previous reports
For speed add lightness, to wallet in this case
Suspension fettling brings results, just in time for the alternator to go pop
Scottish road trip answers 'should I sell?' dilemma
Is it time for the Elise to go?
A cry of alarm from the Lotus - just drive me!
To Goodwood in the Elise
Why is the Elise slower on its new suspension then?
Nitron suspension upgrade for Danny's Elise
Elise shows its displeasure at winter weather
Pilgrimage to Hethel and a lap with handling guru Matt Becker
New wheels on and roof off; to Spa!
Spending looms, but on what?

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (16) Join the discussion on the forum

  • K2iss 25 Nov 2014

    I want to do just that. This Sport 135 looks sublime with hardtop. I bet you can't get one for nine and half grands anymore.

  • mgbond 25 Nov 2014

    I've done this in my old Elise and it was great fun, there is a training video also.

    Write up also missed that Adrew races in an Elise series (well he used to). The moment he got in my car he pointed out from just the feel that some bushes were warn he also called his team to get the Spax suspension settings and we adjust the car on the day.

    The best bit was Getting Andrew to take my dad for a spin and show us how it's done.

    My dad had been filming all day in the cold so this was his treat:

    Also did a Noble owners day there (not for training) but for fun.

    Andrew giving one of the (back then) most powerful Nobles a beating.



    Edited by mgbond on Tuesday 25th November 11:37

  • PistonBroker 25 Nov 2014

    First time I've read a review of some driver training and thought 'I need that in my life'.

  • SpudLink 25 Nov 2014

    I've watched bits of the training videos and though 'that won't work'. I really need to gone on the course and learn how to drive properly.
    My fist resolution for 2015.

  • gavsdavs 25 Nov 2014

    Walshy day - best value improvement to road use bar none.
    Cannot recommend these highly enough.

    Andy driving mine.

    It looks easy, but it is far from it.

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