An article in BMW Car, published November 2002.
As journalists we are blessed with the opportunity to drive all sorts of cars. We know that some of them have to be treated with respect, some can be frightening. We see all sorts of driving styles and, at some level notice that we could improve the way we drive. The question that we face on a regular basis is "How on earth does that bloke do that?" And more importantly, having identified what we aspire to: "How could we learn how to do that?" No matter how many cars you drive, no matter how many circuits you lap, or how many powerslides you catch you can always learn more and improve your skills. It's a thought I can't shake as I bounce an M3 backwards over the grassy infield on our Car of the Year shoot.
As I come to a halt five feet from the Armco I recall, with vivid clarity, the sight of a hard used white E28 M5 being held almost on its lock-stops for several hundred yards. The guy at the wheel was Don Palmer, driving coach and oversteer guru. I decide its time to give him a call.
Two weeks later Editor Harper and I are tucking into bacon butties with Mr Palmer in the Airfield Diner at Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground. We're here to learn. "Well, what is it that you want to get from your day?" asks our mentor. It's an approach that Palmer uses a lot.
He isn't here to tell, dictate or instruct in a traditional sense. Every client is different, with different skills, different problems and different goals. Whether you're a successful racing driver looking for the final tenth of a second per lap or a novice hoping to master your first BMW, Don can help you extract the best from your self and from your car.
He comes from an engineering background, and has a natural curiosity for how and why things happen. Having spent time in the US training chassis engineers doing countless laps in a fully instrumented Mustang he transformed his understanding of the subtleties of limit handling. From this simple beginning was borne a dream. He now lives it regularly, getting up early to coach fast drivers in fast cars.
Time to hit the proving ground to find some limits. After the briefest familiarisation of our course, including lane changes and slaloms marked out by cones, we take it in turns to have a short stint one on one with Mr Palmer. He encourages fast driving almost from the word go: "if you are going to understand the limit, you need to get there first," he urges. And it's reassuring to know that there is nothing to hit especially as Bob soon makes a backward-bee-line for the nearest field.
Don seems remarkably calm, despite the fact I'm really pushing. After a couple of laps he starts asking questions about my drive and what the car is doing. Another couple of tours and he takes the wheel and then back to base for a feedback session with the other course members. - This is a structure Don likes to use allowing interaction and assimalation with others to help make sense of the learning process.
What did we notice about his drive? Smoothness, calmness and minimum steering effort were all highlighted by us as key elements in successful driving. Next came the engineering bit. By looking at graphs and charts showing how a tyre typically behaves during cornering, Don gave us an insight into why the car does what it does and how we could maximise its performance.
I'm spectating as Bob goes out for his second stint. It appears as if Don is insisting on slow laps this time around. Yet when I climb in for my turn, he tells me Bob's time is 15 per cent quicker than before.
I soon realise why it all looked so underwhelming from the outside. I'm probably only using around 30-40 per cent as much steering input as I was at the start of the day. I'm also learning to relax my grip on the wheel increasing sensitivity, whereas previously, maximum attack meant aggressive inputs and a stranglehold on the wheel. Now it becomes apparent that doing less is clearly more effective.
As I'm starting to feel smug, Don suggests I try to look at the next obstacle, not just the one I'm negotiating and I suddenly realise how narrow my focus has been. Our next debrief takes place and we decamp to a local pub for a well earned lunch. Don is keen for us to forget about the learning process for a while and our conscious attention soon shifts to eating.
The plan works because, incredibly, my first couple of laps after lunch are around two seconds quicker than I've been before. Don is a great believer in breaking the day into small, intensive chunks and knows that you learn as much by watching and thinking about what you've done and letting it sink in. I can certainly vouch for that: everything feels more natural, more fluid I'm driving quicker, but I actually feel as if I have more time. It appears that the 'less is more' approach can be applied to teaching too!
Don reckons I'm now circulating consistently a full nine seconds (18%)quicker than when I started. Some of this is down to a drying track, but the majority has been coaxed out of me. Don now tinkers with the layout of the slalom, making the turns shallower and quicker, with more rapid changes of direction. We move on to dealing with limit handling at higher speeds.
A car is more unstable at speed so this will be a greater challenge, a chance to see if all the pieces of the jigsaw magically fall into place. We soon get up to speed and I feel confident drifting the car, letting it find its natural rate of yaw and allowing it to pivot at its own pace. I sometimes find myself trapping the wheel at the wrong time, destabilising the car, the cabin becomes a blur of arms, but this just makes Don giggle: "most commendable," he enthuses as we collect every cone in the final lane change during a particularly lairy run.
Our final challenge is to let Don watch us while we accompany one another for some fast-lapping. Bob drives first and I'm blown away by his delicacy and calmness. He's barely recognisable as Captain Spin from the morning stint and the 525i smears through the cones on the edge of adhesion. I can't match him for smoothness, but hope he's vaguely impressed by my oversteer antics. He's not, so we decide to call it quits.
It's hard to believe how much we've learned in such a short time. The chunk- by-chunk makeup of the course allows our feeble brains to absorb the absolute maximum. Don's easy going nature, understanding of the subject (and clients) and boundless enthusiasm allows us to relax and push hard, pushing our own boundaries a little further.
It's similarly unbeleivable to think how much money people spend on making their cars go faster, when one day of expert coaching would improve their car control (and lap times) for a fraction of the cost. The best bit is that we now have a greater idea of how to develop our own driving ability. My own driving style - particularly at the circuit has been transformed by Don's course. Bob, too admits to far greater confidence and understanding. It always impressed us how smooth and calm truly good drivers could be.
Hopefully, by applying the less-is-more technique we are a step closer to that ideal. If you want to get to know the limit a bit more intimately, whether to know when to step back, or when the fun really begins, perhaps you should give Don Palmer a call.
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