Learning Your Lines

An article in Octane, published February 2009.
Words by David Lilywhite and photography by Mark Dixon.

A view of the Anglesey circuit from the air

There's a short hill that ends with a sharp, blind, left turn, followed immediately by a right-hand hairpin. You touch 100mph before braking hard, really hard, and if you get it wrong then there's no way you're going to make it through.

I'm heading in fast for another go, veteran instructor Don Palmer in the passenger seat, urging me on. 'Brake, brake!' he urges. 'Now hint!' (more on that later...). 'That's it, now look through the corner, where's the exit? Lovely, and... LOOK! AN EAGLE!'

For me, that ridiculous moment in which driver, instructor and bemused colleague in the back seat are staring at a magnificent bird of prey hovering over the lovely Anglesey Circuit while part-way through a tricky, high-speed, on-the-limit manoeuvre sums up two amazing days on what has since become the Octane Masterclass. We learnt a lot, we had fun, we had what felt like life-changing experiences - and I'd like to point out now that we have only since made this an Octane course because we were so impressed with it. This is not an advertising feature!

The Masterclass Audi on track at Anglesey

There are five of us on the course: deputy editor Mark Dixon, art editor Rob Gould, assistant editor Keith Adams, publisher Geoff Love and me, managing editor. Mark and I have rallied and I've raced, but we both feel that our skills need serious honing. Keith is a driving addict, who refuses to fly if there's even the slightest chance of being able to get there by car, with a fine history of trans-European rallies to his name. Rob is the quiet one, no boasts, no false modesty, but with a penchant for fast cars and the only occasionally mentioned accolade of having driven three different 250GTOs in one day. As for Geoff, he's a publisher, which means he drives flat-out everywhere, hands-free mobile blaring. Despite the presence of both Octane and evo editorial teams at our Wollaston office, he's the only person to consistently wheelspin out of the gravel car park. Every single day.

And the men who are going to knock us into shape? Octane contributor and world-class historic racer Mark Hales, plus engineer-turned-eagle spotter Don Palmer. The task ahead doesn't seem to daunt them, but then they've been doing this for many years.

The Toyota in a corner

Now maybe you've been on a driving course before. If you have, there's a fair likelihood that you were taught to brake at this cone, turn-in at that cone, clip the cone on the apex and aim for yet another bloody cone on the exit. And, sure enough, you get to learn the circuit, which is great if you're about to race there - as long as there's no-one, or nothing (like oil), in the way of your perfect line. But what if you need to change your line or even learn a new circuit (or road)? Where are the cones then, eh?

This is where the masterclass comes in. It's a suprisingly cerebral course, with as much theoretical instruction as driving time. Each stage brings a new demonstration and practical session. We talk about tyre grip and theorise that actually there are two points of equal grip either side of maximum grip, and the one that requires less steering lock is, unsuprisingly, the one to aim for. We head out on the circuit, try unwiding the lock a little with the car on the limit, and sure enough the tyre squeal lessens and the grip increases, initially against all logic.

Don Palmer pointing at a diagram

We talk about car balance, and the effects of braking and accelerating: all logical stuff that we thought we knew. But when we take it in turns at heading into a hairpin deliberately too fast, heave on the lock and hit the gas (big understeer!) and then abruptly come off the gas again, we watch in awe as the car dangles its inside rear wheel in the air and regains its line. Time after time. It's a fine demonstration of how relatively small inputs massively affect the balance (and hence grip) of a car.

Oh, and of course there's the 'hint', the Hales/Don term for giving the tyres a chance to retain grip by gently easing them in the direction they're about to be travelling, and so taking up the flex in the sidewalls and tread, rather than hoiking them straight into the turn with no 'warning'. Once again, on track we switch between hint and non-hint techniques and note the very obvious improvement the former makes to the grip and therefore the speed through the corner.

On the track at Anglesey

There were so many of these simple lessons; as is so often the case, it doesn't seem that any are particularly revelatory until we take stock at the end of the two days (especially once we've been challenged to analyse a tricky series of corners and work out the best line through them, which we all do with suprising success). Meanwhile, though, we're also having a lot of fun on the track - especially Keith, who even sneaks out in his own car between sessions and is still disappointed when he gets pulled in.

I can't say I blame him. I'd not seen the much-revised Anglesey Circuit before, and I'd missed out. It dips and climbs almost as dramatically as Knockhill, and at every crest there's a stunning view of the sea or the Snowdon mountain range: It's magical stuff.

Mark pointing in a Masterclass discussion

And yes, I have just written 'magical', and that's from the seat of two utterly humble cars, a diesel Audi A4 and an ex-research project Toyota Avensis. Just as you're doing now, I assumed that the fact that they're both front-wheel drive would make them irrelevant to driving historic cars, but they're not - the A4's great torque allows us to concentrate on our lines through the corners without worrying too much about gear selection, while the bizarre set-up of the Avensis has left it as the perfect demonstrator of understeer, oversteer and overall balance.

We'd been warned of this by a grinning Don, who is near-evangelical about the Avensis, but my first signal that all is not usual about it was from the driving seat of the Audi. Don's slightly evil laughter broke out over the intercom...

"The Toyota's prompted it's first F-word of the day!"

Another half-mile round and there it was, 20 metres off the circuit, facing the wrong way, a pale-faced Rob in the driving seat and a fine set of hero tracks across the grass charting his pirouette.

The Toyota in a corner

The thing with the Toyota is that it has no grip. At first, it's scary, then it becomes entertaining, then it's hilarious. You can make it dance! Minute adjustments to the throttle or to steering input produce astonishing results, but if you keep your head you can keep it off the grass, usually... It's a great car to learn in.

And learn we most certainly did. At the end of each day we were exhausted, but a single night out still produced much hilarity from the Hales/Don comedy duo, along with a few of the quiet ruminations on the meaning of life that explain why Don is also a 'life coach' when he's not instructing silly buggers how to stay on the tarmac.

At the end of it all it seemed wrong to leave in a rush. Geoff and Keith headed for the A5 rather than the faster A55 to get some practice in, Mark vowed to heel-and-toe his gearchanges all the way home, while Rob and I headed for Snowdonia, where we parked up on the Llanberis Pass to breathe in the mountain air, before jumping back into the car to sample the quieter mountain roads while shouting 'hint!' at each other. Marvellous stuff.

Curiously, since the course all my cars now seem to have significantly more grip. I know they haven't so I'm guessing that my driving, even when I'm not really trying, has improved. I'm rather pleased about that.

2013 Don Palmer. All rights reserved.