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How not to drive a BTCC car
Ever seen a British Touring Car race and found yourself shouting at the TV, convinced that you could beat that clumsy bunch of paint-swappers in the diesel Ford Focus sat on your driveway?
Well, here’s your money-where-yer-mouth-is moment, as The Racing School at Donington Park is now offering a touring car track day experience. For £849 - yeah, not cheap, we know - you get to drive TOCA support cars such as a single seater, Ginetta GT4 or 911 racer before the highlight of the day: instruction in a modern touring car, and then passenger laps alongside one of the stars of the BTCC.
If you always thought BTCC looks sort of… friendly by racing standards, think again. It is, I can confirm, a whole world more brutal than you’d ever imagine.
TopGear.com was (un)fortunate enough to experience four laps with 2013 champion Andrew Jordan in his Honda Civic, and I have to admit that I was a tad blasé beforehand. After all, I reasoned as the mechanic ratcheted me - and my vital danglies - down into the Civic passenger seat, I’ve driven a McLaren P1 and a Veyron. Honda’s BTCC car has barely a quarter the power. This would feel pedestrian, surely?
Not so much.
Hard out the pits at a surprising lick, up to Donington’s first corner, and in a crisp, horrible moment, I discover Andrew Jordan is not aware of the concept of braking. Fifty metres to go, there’s a gravel trap ahead, and he’s hard on the throttle. Thirty metres. Come on, Mr Jordan, we’re getting really quite close to the corner now. Twenty metres. Anxious looks across. Fifteen metres. A squeak emerges from somewhere in my face.
I’m catapulted forwards against the belts, arms and legs involuntarily flying forwards in a weird gymnastics routine, head snapping into my chest. Little can prepare you, physically or mentally, for the first time a touring car ace stands on the brakes. We’re off and into the Craner Curves by the time I’ve realised what’s happened.
And Jordan isn’t even driving flat out, mainly because his tyres are a bit worn, his brakes are past their best, and he’s got 65kg of fleshy journalist upsetting his corner weights. What it must be like in a race, with 20 other lunatics all fighting over the same scrap of tarmac, doesn’t bear thinking about. No wonder they bash into each other so much when the margins are this tight in the braking zones.
Later on, I get a go in Matt Neal’s Civic Tourer racer, and from the driver’s seat, the appreciation of the BTCC boys’ driving talent only grows. These are not easy cars to drive. Granted, I was in Mr Neal’s seat, thus roughly six feet further away from the steering wheel than ideal - he’s very tall, and I’m…well… short - but even so, getting a handle on the Civic is not the work of a moment.
For starters, you need to get heat into the fronts, otherwise it’s far too easy to lock up the tyres under braking. This is not something that is advisable, especially not today, as Matt will be racing this very car this weekend. And especially not at Donington, where traditional gravel traps still lurk. But getting heat into the tyres involves going quicker, which comes with all the associated, and rather inconvenient, increase in the risk of crashing.
As well as giving the tyres an impressive flat spot, I also make a dreadful mess of turning into the corner, which - let’s be honest - is quite an important part of racing. Because the Civic boasts such a trick front diff, it has the unsettling habit of wanting to dive into the corner a lot quicker than I expect. As you get faster, this sorts itself out a little, provided you let the car flow between the corners more, but still, it’s an unnerving experience.
So BTCC driving: much more complex than it looks. And I’m just out here on my own: there’s no engineer shouting in my ear, and I don’t need to think about altering the brake bias, or saving tyres, or what I’m going to say in the press conference later.
Conclusion: there’s far more to BTCC driving than meets the eye. I wouldn’t stand a chance. If you reckon you’ve got the skills, best give The Racing School a bell.