How to start racing

For the would-be racer, actually becoming a racing driver can seem a distant dream. The sport seems complex and expensive, available only to the privileged few. While this may be true at the higher echelons, it is possible to get out and enjoy racing without re-mortgaging your home or selling vital organs. I’d always harboured a wish to give racing a try. I can still remember watching the BTCC in the early nineties with Cleland, Hoy, and Soper etc battling wheel to wheel, pushing their cars to the limit and beyond. Despite this, I’d never made any attempt to actually race myself. I’ve competed in rallying for many years but like many I’d become disillusioned with it. Perhaps racing could be an affordable alternative.

I’ve driven some race circuits, mostly on trackdays, but my entire race experience consisted of the occasional trip to a kart track and playing racing games on a PlayStation. Wanting to avoid the cost and commitment of buying a race car only to find it wasn’t for me, hiring seemed the best option.

With the decision made, I trawled the internet looking for something suitable to hire. I soon discovered that for the typical cost of hiring a race car for one day I could buy a race car! Fortunately, during a trackday at Cadwell Park I spoke to someone running an MG ZR race car. He’d mentioned a company that hired out an MG ZR race car for trackdays at Brands Hatch. It wasn’t racing but it was a race car and at a proper track, and tuition was included. Seemed like a good first step.

So on a cool, dry March morning I arrived at Brands Hatch for the trackday. The car was shared with four other drivers and we each took turns for our 10-15 minute track sessions.  The group was a mix of corporate guys and enthusiasts wanting some fun without the hassle of their own car. It was all very low key and relaxed. After signing on, the MSV drivers briefing took us through the do’s and don’ts for the day with particular emphasis on reminding everyone that it was not a race, to keep right to allow faster cars through, and not to pass during a corner. Essential information for novices, and a useful reminder for seasoned racers using the session for testing. On first sitting in the car, i realised my sessions would be a struggle as there was no seat adjustment. Being 6” 5’ this was a big issue. The mechanics were able to mount the race seat further back so I could just fit, but it was still uncomfortable with my left leg trapped between the steering wheel and seat bolster. Not ideal.

At least I could get a taste of a properly set up race car, even if it was on road tyres. I’d never been to Brands so it was all new. Strangely, it seemed smaller than it does on TV. TV footage also doesn’t give you a sense of the elevation changes. I was surprised to feel the blood rushing to my head as I Exited Paddock Hill bend and dropped steeply down Hailwood hill. Quite a buzz when you are flat out, trying not to run wide into the gravel and surrounded by cars. And this was just a trackday!

The short sessions allowed time between sessions to chat with the other drivers and process the instructor’s comments and what I’d learnt. The instructor was friendly and willing to chat which put me at ease, as he offered guidance where needed. Smoothness of accelerator and brake was the first thing he picked up on. At first I was jabbing at the brakes coming into corners and the accelerator upon exit which unsettled the car. Not good in racing or rallying but less forgivable perhaps when you know what’s ahead. Selecting the correct gear also wasn’t easy with an unfamiliar car. Was it second down into Graham Hill bend or could I get away with third? After trying both, i decide on third as the revs stayed high enough to pull us out onto the Cooper straight. My lines and braking points were reasonably good but I struggled to find the right braking point at the end of the start/finish straight heading into paddock Hill bend. “Don’t brake until you cross the white line” (which marks the pit-lane exit), the instructor kept telling me but this was easier said than done as I kept braking too early. My line through clearways was also difficult to get right. “The apex is late. Once past it let the car run wide as you head onto the straight.” I preferred a tighter line on exit which seemed a shorter route but the instructor was right. The wide line did allow more speed to be carried onto the straight.

For the afternoon session the MG ZR was replaced with an MX5 with full cage. With no seat adjustment again, there was no chance of fitting behind the wheel so my day ended early. Fortunately the company did reimburse me for the lost afternoon.

My brief experience of racing had been hugely enjoyable. Catching cars and making a pass, even if only on a trackday, was exhilarating, giving at least a taste of wheel to wheel racing. Having someone else preparing and supporting the car also enabled me to focus 100% on my driving.

Surprisingly, the biggest plus from the day was the instructor. Despite having driven competitively for many years, I was a novice in racing and so went there with a novice’s mindset, willing to glean as much knowledge as possible. Being open to the instructors input definitely helped me get up to speed more quickly and highlighted some bad habits I’d acquired. Just as experienced golfers use coaches to ensure their technique is still optimal, there is no shame in someone observing your driving technique and advising on improvements, even if you have years of experience. A session with an instructor to improve your own driving could be the biggest upgrade of the year!

With my appetite wetted, the next step is obtaining that all important race license. See how I get on here.