x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Hooked on speed: a novice gets to grips with race track driving

Steven McCombe wasn't always into cars, but track time at the Dubai Autodrome in an Audi R8 and F1-style single-seater has made him a petrolhead.

The single-seater experience was the most thrilling.
The single-seater experience was the most thrilling.

I suppose I've only got myself to blame. When I went to the Motoring editor and suggested that it might be an idea to put me in not one but two race cars and let me out on a race track, what do you expect, really?

Motor racing and me are like Brussels sprouts and children - they just don't mix. However, since joining the Motoring team as a page editor last year, I started to develop this hankering for speed. Now, I'm hooked.

Before this, I was apathetic towards vehicles; they were just a means to get from A to B. But since learning more about the dynamics of a car - the design, technology and expertise involved in creating and driving these often beautiful machines - I now get it. I no longer classify petrolheads in the "odd" category of people alongside train spotters and bird watchers. Indeed, they are far from odd. [Editor's note: "Oh, no, we're still odd."] They are people who invest their time and money in a pursuit that is educational, productive and most of all, exhilarating.

So I decided to head for the Dubai Autodrome to submerge myself more into this car world. What better - and safer - way to get a taste for speed and test my limits than on a full-on race track?

The Autodrome offers various driving experiences, and I choose two; first up was the single-seater experience, designed to give me a taster of what it's like to drive a race car, before I move on to the more powerful 518hp V10-engined Audi R8.

With an Autodrome race suit on and unusually sweaty palms gripping my balaclava, I enter the briefing room for a quick rundown on safety and rules out on track by instructor Paul Denby. There will be four novices heading out this morning, which helps alleviate a little of my intimidation, and we will be driving behind an Audi TT pace car.

At the Autodrome's Oval Circuit, we are given our helmets and the cars are waiting for us ahead of our 20 minutes of track time. Fear, trepidation and excitement ensue, and with these three combining at once, my brain decides to fail me when it comes to recalling the briefing information. Luckily, there are attendants here to help me out.

I slip into the tiny cockpit and the first thing that strikes me is how low I am to the ground. It's very basic in terms of controls but still I manage to stall the engine after flicking the on switch. "Keep your foot down on the clutch," I'm reminded.

The gear changer is the strangest I've ever seen in a vehicle; an old metal bar sitting vertically that you pull towards you and push away from you to go up and down the five gears. I'm strapped in so tight that I feel as though my vital organs are being squeezed, while a heavy helmet puts me out of my comfort zone even more.

Within seconds, we're off, and I'm thankful to not have stalled it again. The need to focus on the driving soon supersedes any discomfort and I begin to get to grips with the car. The circuit is only 1.12km long and there's only really one straight where you can up the pace to as much as 120kph, but that's just as well, as the single-seater is like a monster to me.

It reaches 100kph in four seconds but it feels like half that time. The braking system is so hard, I nearly have to put my foot through the floor to feel it kicking in; something that is highly disconcerting until I'm a few laps in and appreciate the force required to get what I need from it. The steering wheel is small but the car is responsive to my inputs. The biggest difficulties I face are trying to stick to the racing line I was informed about in the briefing and trying not to go into the back of the driver in front of me, who clearly isn't handling the car as well as I am.

Fraser Martin, a senior instructor at the Autodrome, recognises this and orders that I go ahead, following behind the TT pace car. This allows me to push myself and the car a little more in the final 10 minutes. As I attempt to "straighten out the corners" by starting out wide, then cutting into the apex before accelerating out, as I was told in the briefing, I'm also trying to maintain as much speed as possible throughout without spinning the car. In this pursuit, I find myself entirely focused on the car and the track; my body is straining yet I don't feel it, as every aspect of my being is concentrated on the task. The intensity is immense and, not surprisingly, the remaining track time is over in a flash. I emerge from the car sweating yet almost euphoric.

"How did I get on?" I ask Martin.

"You seemed tentative at first but, towards the end, you looked like you were wanting to let it rip," he replies. He's obviously seen novices like myself before as he's bang on with his estimation.

After an anxious entrance to my first track experience, I find myself anticipating the chance of taking on an Audi R8, and I don't have to wait long.

Two days later I'm back in the Autodrome briefing room again. It's a similar rundown, with the exception that this time, I'm going to be using the 2.46km Club Circuit, which includes the long straight past the grandstand. Due to the increased speed, there's more emphasis on braking, turning in at the right time and knowing when to accelerate out of corners, all of which are marked on the track with cones. I'll have an instructor in the passenger seat, Scott Lepham, and I'll also be driving an Audi TT first to get a feel for the track.

With my experience in the single-seater behind me, I'm definitely more relaxed this time around, but that nervous energy is still present and steadily growing as we approach the cars. The helmet is on and Lepham reminds me of one or two pointers before we crawl out of the pitlane at a snail's pace. A few corners in, I feel comfortable, even though I'm still trying to get my head around all the tasks I have to perform at the right time - timing is key, I'm beginning to understand.

But it's when I hit the straight at the grandstand and I floor the accelerator that the adrenaline really begins to pump. The 210hp 2.0L turbo TT quickly gathers pace and I almost hit 200kph before it's back on the brakes hard for a big right-hand corner; the car handles well and its pace astounds me. Lepham says I'm doing well and he looks pretty relaxed so I decide to push the car harder on the second lap. It's at this point I appreciate how much of a novice I really am as, when I up the pace, my cornering goes to pot.

The palms of my hands are sweating but I regain my composure and begin to really enjoy my final laps and, when it comes to stepping into the R8, I'm buzzing with excitement. The car is low and solid and I immediately notice that it is heavier and a little bit more difficult to control than the TT but, again, it's when I hit the straight that I realise its full potential.

Although slower than the TT to react to my throttle input, it growls and fires me up to 210kph - the fastest I've ever driven. Heart in mouth, I have a split second to marvel at the engineering of this supercar before Lepham tells me to hammer the brakes for the next corner.

The speed at which the R8 accelerates then decelerates is mind-boggling. I dwell on this fact and lose concentration somewhat on my cornering, which I'm worse at in the R8 compared with the TT. I also only have three laps in the R8 so it's over and done with quickly, but if my head can't quite believe what just happened, my body gives definite signs of knowing; my hands are trembling and my legs feel like jelly.

Although the excitement of driving the R8 is quite apparent, I enjoyed driving the TT more as, although slower, it's also smaller and easier to handle. But the single-seater was my most exciting drive; the fact that I was out there on my own, so low to the ground and in a vehicle that is nowhere near as sophisticated as the R8 all contributed to the thrill and the feeling of danger. It is also hugely different from any normal car.

The single-seater experience was the first of a three-step training process that ends with drivers being able to race each other on the Autodrome's Club Circuit. My first race track experiences have given me a taste of the joys of motorsport and I'll definitely be completing the training. Like I said, I'm hooked, although now, if my wife gets annoyed that I'm spending all my time at the track, I suppose, again, I've only got myself to blame.

For more information on the Dubai Autodrome's driving experiences, visit www.dubaiautodrome.com