Driving Ambition

An article in Japanese Performance, published April 2004.
Words by Phil Royle and photography by David Wigmore.

Nissan 300ZX

Before any of us buys our dream high-performance Japanese car, we like to think we give consideration to several important factors: peformance, handling and braking abilities, tuning potential, purchase price, insurance costs, image... But one thing I'll bet most people don't put on their pre-purchase checklist is the skills of the person who's going to be driving it - that means you!

Let's face it, if you've attended numerous trackdays and lapped the Nürburgring a hundred times, you don't need to be told how to drive. Or do you? It may be a cliché but, as far as I can see, driving is one of those skills that you can never truly perfect. It's such a variable art, dependent to a large degree on your state of mind, the car you're driving, the track conditions and what's going on around you, all of which means there's always room for improvement. Even drivers of the calibre of Colin McRae or James Thompson still practise, don't they?

I went to Palmer fuelled by a desire to understand what my car can do but, more significantly, what I was capable of. Despite owning a Japanese rice rocket, the times I’ve been in skids or slides matches Baldrick’s sexual conquests, but at least I had a cunning plan to find out what it’s like to lose control and emerge both unscathed and enlightened by the experience.

Don at the wheel of the WRX Impreza

The Cars

So, I found myself at Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground, in Leicestershire, in my Project WRX Impreza, along with Paul Cowland of TSL Motorsport, who brought along his recently purchased nissan 300ZX and his well-known, well-modified Impreza 22B.

We deliberately chose these three cars to provide a decent spread of handling characteristics to test - or, rather, to learn about. The Project WRX handles much like a front-wheel-drive car but with 4wd levels of grip, thanks to its permanent 60:40 front-rear torque split.

Being rear-wheel drive (and more torquey), the 300ZX has a tendency to power-oversteer on the throttle, giving an added element of driving control - but we'll come back to that. The 22B, with its driver-adjustable centre differential, is perhaps the perfect halfway house between 4wd and rwd, as various percentages of power can be channelled to either the front or rear wheels, resulting in more - or less - rear-wheel bias.

Morning meeting in the cafe

The Aims

Before we get started, it's important to understand why both Paul and I were there - what we wanted to learn and at what level we started - as the day's tuition is a bespoke process. As Don Palmer says: "Driving is a head thing. I simply help people to develop appropriate beliefs about their driving. I get people to focus on what really matters to them and, crucially, we start wherever they are and go wherever they want to go."

As far as Paul was concerned, he knew what he wanted from the course: "I wanted to learn more car control in different driving conditions. I want to be able to take TSL customers out on a test drive and impress them, because driving well sells cars and products."

As for me, being a fan of trackdays and having spent too much time picking up bad habits as a journalist, I wanted to learn how to eliminate my known weaknesses. Turning-in too early to a bend is my worst habit, not winding off lock (or corrective understeer/oversteer lock) quickly enough is another, but driving smoothly is perhaps the one I really wanted to master. Smooth, I am reliably informed, is best.

View of Don in the driving seat

Our Coach

So what's the story behind the man who was going to act as our teacher? After leaving school at the age of 15, Don Palmer started his working life as a professional diver off the west coast of Scotland. He then did an engineering apprenticeship, before studying automotive engineering at university. This led to a series of engineering jobs in the field of diesel engines and work for British International Combustion Engine Research.

Then, 15 years ago, he was forced off the road in a convertible E-type Jaguar and his life changed for ever. He woke to find himself upside down in a ditch, with a doctor commenting how his head wound was hurting because there was petrol leaking into it.

Following a spell in hospital, Don decided it was time to do something different with his life. And he did, teaching at on-the-limit driving training courses for American chassis engineers with Grand Prix ace Jackie Stewart. Since then, Don has honed his own driving skills and improved his coaching skills - with an interest in neuro-linguistic psychology, which he uses extensively in his coaching today. Think driver training, mixed with therapy and a good dose of schoolwork, and you're not far off.

Sounds dull? Then look at the pictures. Make no mistake, Don's driving days are about handling a car at the limit, as his last course title, 'The wetter, the better', clearly shows.

Incidentally, one of Don's former clients is Simon DeBank, WRC guru, Scoobynet creator and holder of the world record for power sliding a production car - a UK-spec Impreza - for an incredible 2 hours, 18 minutes and 11 seconds. I think Paul and I would have been more than happy if we could hold our Scoobies sideways for just those 11 seconds by the end of the day!

The Imprezza 22B driving past

The Lesson

"When coaching 'on the limit' driving, you have to take people right to the edge and get them to explore what that's like," says Don. So, the first thing we do is go out around Don's DIY-designed coned-off circuit in our own cars. The aim? To get round the course as quickly as possible - in our own 'pre-Don-instruction' style.

The circuit consists of a straight to allow you to build up speed, then a quick right, left, right lane change manoeuvre, which leads into a heavy braking zone and a long, 180-degree, slow left-hand bend. Exiting that, you join a giant slalom, first left, then right, then left again, before heading down the runway for a second right, left, right lane-change manoeuvre. Then it's back round for another spin (sometimes literally...) followed by another lap - and another.

Then, after you've driven the course, Don takes over, after which it's question time and a game of 'spot the difference' between your run and his. Don says any mistakes and errors should be considered as 'opportunities to learn,' so the inevitable spin or two is all part of the learning curve.

Don reckons that, "If you don't spin, you aren't discovering the limits of your driving or those of your car," so, when one occurs, no one feels a fool. As a consequence, the competitiveness between pupils that could creep into a day like this never really emerges. We're all here to learn in a relaxed, non-competitive environment. After all, it is really a personal development thing, not a competition.

Coaching in between drives

So What do you Learn?

Well, there are a lot of differences between a Don Palmer day and the type of brief driver training many of you will have had at a trackday, for example. At this sort of event, you tend to get a short, sharp shock, with instructions fired at you as if from a machine gun while you're busy trying to negotiate an unfamiliar track, with other cars all around you.

But, with Don, it's all very different. First of all, you have virtually a whole runway to yourself, so the risk of collision with another vehicle while driving on the limit is removed. In other words, there's space to make mistakes (or rather, 'create opportunities for learning').

The main difference between a trackday lesson and how Don works is that he doesn't bombard you with tips on how to drive, or even tell you directly what you're doing 'wrong'. Instead, he encourages you and asks questions of you - over and over again. It's a bit like being back at school. And our brains are stretched to find answers for what initially seem like rather unusual questions.

For example, we're asked why the steering wheel rocks back to centre if moved when the car is stationary; how it feels in your hand; what's happening to the tyres when you move the wheel; how they relate to the wheel; what is grip; what happens to the front end of the car - or the rear - how and when does grip start, and when does it end...?

Gone are the usual driver-training hallmarks of shouting unclear instructions at you while your mind is occupied elsewhere. Don's way is like his driving - smooth, quiet, unassuming, as if on a drip feed.

And somewhere between wondering what all the questions are about, answering them and driving round and round this course, it suddenly all starts to make sense.

So, subtly, but very quickly, both Paul and I start to make significant progress - lapping the course quicker and quicker. Don asks us to create 'movies' in our head when we make a mistake - going through the pictures, sounds and feelings again and again, in an attempt to work out where we went wrong. And, using this process, both Paul and I start to work out where and why we are making those mistakes.

Don believes: "In order to drive fast, first you must know the road or track well. Then you must be capable of car control and be able to rescue a car from a 'situation' and, third, you must manage your own internal state - how you feel. Only then will you be able to understand what makes you fast. It's a series of beliefs."

So, how do you go about gaining that control and developing the ability to rescue a car from what Don calls 'a situation'?

Closeup of the wheels of the Impreza in action

The Techniques

"In order to drive fast, you need to be aware of the early indicators which will help you to control the car on the limit," says Don. So how do we do that?

Well, it's back to basics, really. That means tyres and getting to know, feel and understand what they are up to - using feedback from the steering weheel. Now, we all know that the tyres are the only point of contact with the tarmac and that the steering wheel is our way of communicating with them. But how much do you really think about that while driving?

This is what Don's questions force you to do throughout the day. You're encouraged to think hard about what is happening to the tyres while cornering: what messages are coming through the steering wheel to you, where the grip is and when it's going to increase or decrease. And, as soon as you understand this and get a feel for the messages coming through the steering wheel, massive improvements are made to the way - and speed - at which you drive.

Four-wheel Drive or Rear-Wheel Drive?

Don is keen to point out that, even though there are differences between front-, rear- and four-wheel-drive cars, the processes of understanding and mastering the basics of car control through understanding tyres, grip, steering and throttle control are the same for all cars. And it's mastering these basic skills that make you fast, not your choice of car.

He says that, generally, four-wheel-drive cars have a tendency to understeer, much like front-wheel-drive cars. As mentioned above, counter-acting this is simply a question of winding off some lock and slowing your entry speed into the corner - this is often the key to driving faster.

The main difference between 4wd and rwd - in fact, the only real difference that matters - is what happens at and beyond the limits of grip.

Nissan 300zx sliding past

In a front- or four-wheel-drive car, oversteer can be achieved (usually by lifting off the throttle), but it's not a condition that's as easy to control as it is in a rwd car. In a rwd car, like the Nissan 300ZX, for example, the car can be steered using the throttle. More gas will increase the rear slip angle (stepping the back end further out), necessitating a change in the angle of steering. Less throttle will bring the back tail in, reducing the slip angle at the rear. At the same time, the weight transfer to the front of the car makes the steering more effective, requiring a sensitive input to compensate. On the limit, this allows greater control of the slide's angle and intensity.

Don says: "To me, when driving over the limit, rear-wheel-drive cars are the epitome of everything fun, as you can steer using the throttle, moving the weight distribution around the car for a perfect drift. Choosing when and how you get on or off the throttle is critical - allowing you to choose the yaw angle as the car drifts in the desired trajectory. You can only really exploit this in a rear-wheel-drive car."

He highlights this superbly in the 300ZX, which is an incredibly well-balanced machine on the limit - in his hands, at least - offering oversteer on tap and steering on the throttle aplenty.

Not so with the Project WRX, where inducing big power slides is a lot harder, requiring higher speeds and harsly lifting off, or briefly yanking on the handbrake. Meanwhile, in the Impreza 22B, the adjustable centre diff allows you to channel power just to the rear wheels, effectively making it rear-wheel drive, so both characteristics (of rwd and 4wd) can be enjoyed in one car.

Front view of the Impreza22B with wheels pointing to one side

Conclusion

After a day of mental activity, working out the answers to Don's seemingly cryptic but, as it turns out, entirely logical questions, and with plenty of experience driving at, on and beyond the limit, many lessons have been learned.

Paul has improved his time around the circuit by a massive 12 per cent by the day's end and says: "Don's make me think a lot harder about the car's physics and how important tyres and steering feedback are - and, as soon as I started thinking, I saved time."

As for me, I have learned not to attack my steering wheel, but treat it gently. And this finter-tip control (with the finger tips mirroring the motion of the tyres) has enabled me to understand - and feel - the movement of my car through the tyres. Crucially though, the main skills learned have been mental, not physical. This means both of us go home 'owning' the information, as we acquired the knowledge ourselves ("I'm just a catalyst in the development of the driver's own skills," Don says).

Had we just been instructed with new skills, as I have been in the past, most of the information would have got lost in the excitement of a day's thrashing around a track. But, as the knowledge is self-acquired, old beliefs have been replaced with new, more developed and carefully considered ones. Hopefully, this will serve to make us both better drivers, not just on the road, but on the track - and where the fun is: on the limit!

2013 Don Palmer. All rights reserved.