Get My Drift

An article in Cars & Car Conversions, published February 2002.
Words and photography by Carlin Gerbich.

Don drifting a BMW

While we'd all like to think we're handy behind the wheel, nothing highlights your shortcomings as a driver more than a few laps with someone who can safely push their car around a race track beyond its limits.

It's even better if they talk you through what they're doing and better still if they're prepared to sit next to you and give advice. It's a form of informal coaching which isn't pressured.

A good coach will fill you with confidence, not dazzle you with their brilliance. They'll allow you to shine by bringing out your best, not overshadowing your talent. And they'll never jump down your throat if you mess up. Bandy the name Don Palmer around any decent track day crowd, and you'll find at least half the drivers have learned their trade from the Maidenhead based Driving Development founder, and the other half wish they had. You'll be hard pressed to find a regular track-day driver with a serious performance car who hasn't either been coached by Don, or who wants to be, or who should be. Palmer's taught many of the students on Jackie Stewart's American Based motor industry training programs the fine art of on-the-limit handling; sideways driving world record holder Simon De Bank is a former student, and there are hundreds of other Palmer coached drivers now experiencing a whole new world of driving pleasure.

Don grinning at the wheel of a BMW

If you're not enjoying it, you should really look at the reasons why. He's not overawed by throwing a £100,000 car sideways through a bend any more than he would a £5000 M5 shod with snow tyres. To him, the car is a tool for fun no matter what it's worth.

Attitude is something driving schools can't teach you and it's this attitude which makes his courses so much better than anything else out there. If you happen to lose the rear end and spin, he doesn't get angry. He laughs and asks what went wrong. The glint in his eye tells you he knows, but he wants you to explain why and learn from it. My reasons for visiting Don were relatively simple. I've been driving since I was 10, most of it in front wheel drive cars. I learnt to drive in a Mini (with starter button on the floor), got my licence in a Mitsubishi Sigma and have driven predominantly front drive cars ever since. My first car was a Hillman Avenger (born the same year I was - 1971) but it was the only real rear-wheel drive experience I'd had before driving a Caterham for the first time, three years ago. But this job demands you know how to drive everything to it's limits front, rear and four-wheel-drive which means breaking traction occasionally. To do it safely and considerately, you can't afford to lose your bottle when the rear steps out.

BMW sliding a bit

Thanks to the friendly people at the BMW press office, I'd managed to front at Bruntingthorpe in a very nice 325Ci press car for the course. Don's a BMW fan (older M5's mainly) and had almost insisted that I turn up in one. It was shod in brand new grippy Michelin Pilots which could prove tricky to loosen on a dry surface. Thankfully, the skies over Leicestershire had opened up and dumped a load of water over the tarmac, so conditions were perfect for sideways fun. Don strapped in to the passenger side for the first few runs over his coned course and complimented me on my driving, which was nice.

What he didn't point out was that while I'd been quick, I'd driven far too aggressively.

Had I checked the back of the steering wheel, I'm sure my fingerprints would have been scorched in to the leather. I'd tried to be fluid and fast, but had lost the plot over Don's tricky, tight little course. Far from predicting what the car would do, I was battling to catch up as I tried desperately to gain speed but had lost out on both counts.

Now, Don's a diplomatic chap and talk centered around what had just happened. Without much prompting, he made me realise what I'd done wrong before setting off for another three laps. There was no need to throttle the steering wheel: finger tip control was all that was needed and by crikey, it worked. Relaxing my forearms spread to the rest of my torso. Gear changes became smoother and faster when not hurried, and the mist which had formed on my side window disappeared as I cooled off.

Even better was that I was much faster, far less frustrated, in far more control of the car less and raring for another three lap pass. By making me work out every facet of car control, Don had subtly transposed roles so that I fully understood what was going on. By making me think, he'd made me identify my own foibles. Without it, I'd probably have gone on for years in the same way, confusing aggression with speed. Don taught me more in two hours than I'd ever thought possible, and his coaching has strengthened my passion for driving. It's made track days much more fun now that I'm comfortable with the rear end stepping out oversteer is something to be enjoyed, not revered and though not always the quickest way to drive a circuit, it's a lot of fun. It also means I have the ability to better predict what a car is going to do on the limit and prepare for the consequences before anything happens. And should I get it wrong, I'm equipped with an in-built diagnostic kit which should stop anything happening a second time!

2013 Don Palmer. All rights reserved.