First Masterclass

An article in HPC Magazine, published August 2007.
Words by Steve Ivermee.

Don Palmer and Mark Hales at Anglesey

The week before last I attended Don Palmer's and Mark Hales' first track Masterclass. The event was based at the newly re-developed Anglesey Circuit.

There were six participants in total, making an excellent pupil / coach ratio of 3 to 1. We arrived at the circuit at around 9am, to be greeted by fantastic sunshine and probably some of the best views available at any circuit in the UK.

Mark and Don set out first to explain the objective of the 2 day course. In short, the objective was to explore and deconstruct the process of track driving, and work out how to optimise one's line and approach to cornering. Mark and Don were both keen to stress that this was not about learning Anglesey (or any specific circuit), but rather helping us to equip ourselves with the tools and processes to analyse a circuit and analyse our own driving. In short, to raise our awareness of how to optimise our track driving techniques.

The Masterclass cars

With the course costing £1,500 plus VAT for the two days, you’d be forgiven for expecting to be able to drive some fairly fancy cars. So it is good that Don and Mark prepared us in advance for the fact that we would be driving a BMW 325i (E90) and a Toyota Avensis! Their rationale is simple – you want to be driving a car where it is easier to feel the response of the vehicle and tyres to a given input, and that means not having a fire breathing, ultra grippy monster! As it turned out, we pretty much all preferred driving the Avensis once we realised how much harder it was to master (the BMW was just so competent), proving Don and Mark entirely right! As I understand it, Rob Wilson, who trains a number of Formula 1 drivers at Bruntingthorpe, adopts the same philosophy and can generally be found tooling around in a VW Passat.

After setting our objectives for the course, it was time to explore the circuit and all the different configurations that Anglesey has to offer. We were four up in each car (three participants and one of Mark or Don), and we set off gently (well, in some cases). Anglesey has been entirely re-profiled and re-surfaced, and as we quickly found out offers great variation in corner type, from low speed hairpins, to some very quick corners, and perhaps more than any other circuit a huge amount of z-axis challenge, as well as some positive and negative cambers.

The Masterclass coaches Don Palmer and Mark Hales

For many of the corners, you cannot see the exit, and this, coupled with the very featureless circuit (there are no kerbs as yet, or braking boards), makes choosing one’s entry point tricky.

This, as it turned out, was a real bonus because it allowed Mark and Don to coach us to work out a method for planning our approach to each corner without the benefit of being able to see all of it. I decided on an approach where I would assess where I was exiting for a given entry point, and then consider whether that exit was optimal (eg, using the entire road or running out of road) or not. In short, I started to think with the exit in mind at all times. This proved to be a useful method – obvious in a way, but until you've tried it and refined it, it's actually harder than it sounds.

During the course of the day we spent a fair bit more time in the cars, either watching each other (unexpectedly instructive) or driving. In between drives, we would spend time in the classroom reviewing what we had learnt and also being given some excellent theory input from Don and Mark. Don mostly covered the issue of how to turn in and understand slip angles; Mark was excellent at discussing the optimal racing line.

Interspersed with all the coaching were some fantastic anecdotes from both coaches. Mark, in particular, has been involved for racing a very long time and has some great stories which he tells with aplomb. The stories got even better in the evening when we gathered for an enjoyable dinner.

A Porsche on the track at Anglesey

Day 2 continued in much the same vein, but this time Don and Mark added in trail braking and the effect of weight transfer on grip. It was tremendously helpful to discuss an issue in theory and then have the luxury of practicing, with no-one but us on the circuit, over and over again until we had properly understood the techniques.

By the afternoon of the second day, our pace had increased considerably and we were driving the cars smoothly but pretty much to the limit of their grip. This was a great feeling; to have analysed the whole process and then put it together with some precise, fast and smooth laps. Crucially, this was not because we had 'learnt' Anglesey, but because we had developed the tools to improve our own driving.

The first class at Masterclass

I was joined on this course by a friend of mine, and we both shared the same view after the event. We are both, in fact, experienced track drivers and in reality little of the theory was new to us. However, we both found the course really beneficial in terms of giving us the space and time to analyse our driving, pull it apart and work out how to improve. It also reinforced the importance of precision, accuracy and the ability to have mental picture of what you are trying to achieve.

On the face of it, it is a lot of money. However, I came away delighted I had made the investment and at the end of the 2 days we all agreed that we wanted to follow up the course with further modules with Don and Mark. Both Don and Mark were excellent – very different to each other and as a result highly complementary.

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