King of the Road
Not long after obtaining my road licence, after just three lessons, I enrolled at Silverstone’s racing academy to apply for a competition licence. I had to learn the different flags and display proficiency in late braking, tackling a corner at speed and controlling the twitching rocket that was a Peugeot 306 around the Grand Prix circuit. Before I knew it, I was flying around the track less than an inch off the ground in a single-seater that was the closest thing to a Formula 1 car, and Heaven, that I had ever experienced.
That took me all of a single day, fuelling my conviction that I was Carlos Fandango behind the wheel.
My dad decided to take out an insurance policy by having me attend a specialized skid-control course at Silverstone. The course took place using a normal car fitted to a frame that lifted the front or rear tyres off the tarmac to induce a skid. And skid we did.
I learned to pulse the brake pedal to unlock a stopped wheel, throw the steering into opposite lock to catch the car as it fishtailed and to perfect the recovery of a 360-degree spin at 70 mph by spotting the desired direction and fixing on it like a ballerina.
Armed with knowledge spanning not just how to execute a three-point turn but also how to nail a chicane and stop the world from turning, I was primed to become an insurance statistic. I set off on a long trip with a mate to test a single-seater racing car at some far-flung airfield. I returned at the end of the session to discover my buddy, who was never renowned for his common sense, had locked my keys in the boot. So began the kind of journey of self-discovery they don’t teach in classrooms.
The AA had to hotwire the ignition and the delay meant I was running late to get to Brands Hatch for a season-opening Formula First race. With a gut full of nerves and my friend jabbering in my ear, I ventured onto the M25 for the first time just as it started to rain. With the rain lashing at the windscreen and some fascinating radio stations to choose from, I failed to notice the traffic slowing in front.
Crunch: a five-car concertina.
I arrived at Brands late, with what remained of my Honda on the back of a flat-bed truck. Fortunately, I was already wearing my racing suit, since my normal clothes were still locked inside the boot with my keys. I qualified on the front row. Then it started to pelt down with rain, and through further ignorance I opted for brand-new, and therefore greasy, tyres for the race.
Having survived the first lap, I took the lead. Then I braked so late for Paddock Hill bend I could see the incredulous look on the flag marshal’s face as I shot past him. For the second time in 24 hours I locked up my front wheels and no amount of pulse braking could prevent me firing off the track at 80mph to an ignominious finish in the gravel trap.
Understanding how my choices had set this disastrous chain of events in motion took me longer than it should have done. In the words of my race team manager, I needed to ‘break the cycle before you kick the bucket’. If only I had paid more attention to that bucket.
I destroyed a further three Formula First cars that season, to be awarded the championship’s inglorious Bent Wishbone trophy for the hardest hit of the season.
It finally sank in: I’d been ambushed by sheer ignorance of the real world at the very moment my mind and body were most eager to explore every nuance of it. The desire to tinker with machinery, push personal boundaries and ignore the advice of crusty old men with too much time on their hands is a trap that most of us have fallen into somewhere along the line.
The process that began, very slowly, was a painful one. I desperately needed to understand why I was failing on so many levels. Over time, I set about picking apart the patterns that led to my mistakes and began conditioning my responses.
To this day I’m still learning, and because there’s so much to discover I’ll never claim to be an expert. But that’s what makes driving such an art.