Too Cool 4 Skool?

A news article in Performance GTi, published April 2007.
Words by Dan Benstead and photography by Gary Hawkins.

The Clio Sport V6

I'm a bloody good driver. I can take racing lines. I brake in the right places. Nothing is beyond me. I'm the nuts… At least, that's what I thought up until a month ago when two experiences changed my perspective completely.

Being a journalist, I'm in the jealousy-provoking position of being able to test lots of nice cars. Most of the cars I have driven have been front-wheel drive hot hatches that can be chucked about and are more than forgiving when you make a mistake, which, of course, I never did. However, there was one car that set me straight. The Renault Clio V6.

The Mk1 V6 had a fearsome reputation for swapping ends at any opportunity. I'd been told that the Mk2 had undergone a few chassis mods, which had cured the snappy rear end, but as the test car rolled into the office car park, I couldn't help being slightly apprehensive about driving it for the first time. The fact it was raining didn't help.

On the way home that evening I was surprised at how planted the rear-engined Clio felt, but there was one problem. As I made my way down the winding country roads, I suddenly realised that I actually wasn’t that great a driver. Yes, I could drive the Clio quickly in a straight line, but then who can’t? It was round the twisties that I suddenly realised I had no idea of how far I could push the V6, where the limit was or even when it was getting close. I just couldn’t read the signs and something had to be done. Quickly.

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What I needed was professional help. Someone who could help me learn more about driving on the edge and more to the point, recognise when I am perilously close to falling off that edge. It was at this point that I remembered seeing a Noble come round the top bend at Bruntingthorpe in a perfect drift, which the driver held all the way through the bend and out on to the centre line of the straight. I later found out that the guy behind the wheel was Don Palmer, driving coach and oversteer king. It was time to give him a call.

A week later I arrived in the canteen at Brunters with staff writer Si to find Don already tucking into his bacon sarnie. "Welcome gentlemen," he greeted us. "Take a seat." After a brief chat about the traffic and weather, Don fired his first question at me. "So Dan, what is it that you want to get out of today?" This is an approach that Palmer uses a lot. He doesn’t dictate or instruct in the traditional sense, but gets you to think and analyse what is going on around you. The image of that first drive in the V6 flashed through my head. "I want to learn where the limit is and how to recognise when it’s getting close," I replied. Seemingly satisfied with my response, Don turned his attention to Si. "And you Simon?" he quizzes. "I want to be able to drive like you," Si replies. We all smirked, knowing full well that it takes far longer than a day to reach Don's incredible understanding of limit handling, mastered during time in the US coaching chassis engineers in a fully instrumented Mustang.

"Let’s go play!" Don laughed.

Out on the Proving Ground, Don used cones to mark out a series of lane changes and slaloms, and after a few familiarisation laps with the man himself it was into the V6 and out on to the track for some one-to-one coaching. "You need eight laps to get to know the course," Don explained. Making you aware of what’s around you is key to Don’s approach and as I put those first laps in he was giving very little direction, leaving me to find my own feet.

Don and Dan in the Clio

With the practice laps over, Don encouraged speed right from the start and I had loads of it. "Ah, our old friend Mr Understeer!" Palmer chuckled as I wound on more and more lock, trying to get the Clio to turn in. After several tyre-wrecking laps, we swapped seats so the master could show me how it’s done. "What do you notice about my driving?" he asks. Calmness, smoothness and minimal effort were the things that struck me straight away. Whereas my stint saw a blur of arms winding the wheel from lock to lock, Don was using minimal adjustments to direct the car exactly where he wanted it to go. Oh, and he was using the middle pedal too!

Unpicking the experience is all part of the course and Don likes to break it down into short, intense driving sessions with a discussion as to why things are happening in between. During our first debrief he tried to get out of us what we were feeling: What could we see? What could we hear? He was getting us to tune into the signs.

Don talking, viewed through the windscreen of the Clio

My understeer antics were tackled by Don with the aid of a section of tyre. The demonstration was to show exactly how a tyre reacts with each input from the driver and with this is mind we headed back out for our second session.

As I accelerated towards the starting gate, Palmer was demanding more speed. "Go faster," he pushed. "You’re not fast enough. If you want to explore the limit, you have to find it first!" So, I squeezed the loud pedal further into the carpet, but this time I was braking and setting the car much better for each turn. The understeer had gone.

Instead, the car was beginning to squirm at the back. "Feel that?" Palmer asked. "Sure do!" I shouted. I was getting close. Too close in fact, and just as I was beginning to enjoy myself, I pushed too hard, the back end snapped and I over-corrected, sending me into a huge spin, which ended with the car scooting backwards into the grass in a cloud of smoke. "Most commendable!" Don chuckled. Si was up next, but from where I was standing he looked slower than on his first attempt. It wasn’t long before he too took a trip into the green stuff too, but when they returned I was surprised to find out that Si has shaved nearly six seconds off his lap time.

The Clio driving the track at Bruntingthorpe

Handling Characteristics

Keen to better Si’s improvement, I headed out for my final jaunt of the day and this time Don was insisting that I looked beyond the corners. “Choose where you want to get to and focus on it,” he told me. I was amazed at the difference it made as I turned the car in precisely and came out of each corner set perfectly for the next. My steering inputs had become non-existent compared to the start of the day, and I was feeling exactly what the car was doing underneath me, not fighting it, but letting the rear end step out just far enough before catching it. As I accelerated through the finish gate for the last time Don gave a round of applause and told me that I had cut my lap time by over six seconds It was the first time ever that I had driven a car truly to its limit, and through helping me find and explore my own flaws, Don had increased my confidence and understanding massively. Simon also admitted to increased confidence and now thinks far more about his steering inputs and speed while on the road.

It’s easy to spend thousands on turning your car into a missile, but if you can’t make the most of the car’s potential, and, more to the point, yours, then what is the point? We’d recommend spending a day with Don. Then you’ll really find out what driving is about.

2013 Don Palmer. All rights reserved.