x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

The mouse that roared

Can the slowest car on the road keep pace with high-powered Porsches at a track day?

I sat behind the green lights at the pit lane exit as the Porsche 911 disappeared over the brow of the hill in front of me. Then, it was my turn. My car surged forward as I floored the throttle, the engine roaring as the automatic box moved through the gears. Hurtling towards the first bend at Dubai Autodrome, I tried to remember whether the blue cone placed to the side meant I should start braking or start turning in. The tyres squealed as the car forced itself to the right under the blazing floodlights. Almost as soon as I had begun feeding in the power again, it was time to brake a second time and snap the steering wheel right. Already, after just a couple of corners, the shiny black Cadillac CTS that had left the pits a couple of hundred metres behind me was on my tail, desperate to get past. It was obviously going to be a tough evening.

I was at the Autodrome for one of the regular track events, when the public can take their own cars for a spin on the circuit. The Autodrome usually holds one daytime and one evening track event a month. There were two groups that evening, and as a first-timer, I was in with the beginners. The others in my group had souped-up Honda Accords, Porsches and Infinitis. I was driving my own road car, which I believe is the slowest car available in the UAE: a Chevrolet Spark with a 796cc engine that generates 51hp and takes 21.9 seconds to get the car to 100kph with a four-speed automatic gearbox.

Sharing the track with me was, among other things, a Porsche Carrera with a 3.8L, 385hp engine and a 0-to-100kph time of 4.7 seconds. I was either being very brave or very stupid. The event had begun with a helmet fitting and a briefing from Fraser Martin, the clerk of the course. The advanced group left after a couple of minutes, leaving us newcomers to listen as he went through the basics. We were told the correct seating position for braking (you should be able to rest your foot on the footwell beneath the brake pedal) and for steering (arms should lock straight at the top of the wheel, so in the steering position on each side, elbows are bent).

There were strict rules for newcomers: overtaking only on the straight and, as with everyone else, no "silliness" and no drifting. The circuit is covered by cameras and, the clerk warned, anyone messing about risked being sent home. "Remember, you're not racing," he said. "There's no timing and speed is not important. If you've got sticky tape, cover your speedo. "And if you've got time to look and see how fast you're going, you probably won't get round Turn One."

It was, we were told, all about smoothness and consistency. If you could achieve these, "the speed will follow". By this time, however, I was terrified. The advanced group were already pounding round the track and, as each car went down the main straight just outside the briefing room window, it sounded like a full-on Grand Prix was taking place. How could I possibly cope in my tiny Spark? What if someone doing 300kph hit me up the back as I pottered down the start-finish straight at 100kph? It didn't bear thinking about.

Mr Martin, a no-nonsense but reassuring presence, told me not to worry. A car like mine, he said, was exactly what you want if you've not done it before. My ability would be, say, 90 per cent of what is needed to control a car like the Spark on a racetrack. Put me in a Ferrari and I would be left flailing about, only 50 per cent capable of fulfilling the car's potential. And if the other drivers came up behind me, he said, they would just have to sit there until the main straight. They were not my problem.

We did three familiarisation laps behind a track official in their Audi to show us the racing line through the corners of the Autodrome's Club circuit. There were orange cones to indicate where to lift off the throttle, blue cones at the turning in point and yellow cones to mark the apex of the corner. My car, the engine revving furiously, struggled to keep up even during the familiarisation laps.

We were taken back into the pits, told to line up at the end of the pit straight, and then told to drive off one by one. I was all over the place, missing apexes, drifting wide in the longer corners and screeching the tyres. I remembered the clerk's warning that there were cameras covering every section of the course, and hoped no one was watching. It would have been embarrassing. After a couple of laps I calmed down, told myself to drive smoothly, like the former F1 champion Alain Prost would have, and I found myself becoming more consistent. But in a Spark, you can only do so much: the tiny wheels do not have enough grip for you to hurtle into bends at breakneck speed.

As often as not, there would be two or three cars stuck behind me in the infield section, yet they always behaved impeccably, never once flashing or making a move to go past. If only drivers were as disciplined on the UAE's roads, I thought at the time. I was using up all the track, desperately following the racing lines to improve my speed, but when they followed me, the other drivers seemed to keep to the centre of the road. For them, the sections behind me were like pottering about in a supermarket car park and they were not remotely pushing.

But they would surge past the moment we reached the main straight, where once my Spark got up to 113kph. It felt safer than expected and the speed differential with the other cars was less than I'd thought it would be. I'd thought they'd lap in about half the time I took, but it was probably closer to two-thirds. And I was trying not to thrash my car too hard, having been warned by one seasoned enthusiast of the risk of the brakes going off (due to the system's oil boiling) and the tyres melting.

At the end of the first 20-minute session, I was covered in sweat - I couldn't put the air conditioning on as it would have made the car even slower - and my ears were buzzing. We parked our cars behind the pits and the drivers lifted their bonnets to let the engines cool off. I worriedly checked my tyres, but they seemed OK. Adnan Khalil, an Emaar employee from England, was enjoying his first track event in his 2.4L Honda Accord, on which he had stiffened the suspension and fitted high- performance wheels and tyres.

Despite these modifications, he said his white Accord was "not in the same league" as the Porsche 911 and Infiniti G35 in our group. He had, he said, reached 175kph on the main straight. "But I kept up a little bit with them, which is quite surprising," said the 23-year-old. "I want to make it better for the track - the brakes, engine management and exhaust and do a bit more on the suspension." The Porsche 911 belonged to a thirtysomething South African who declined to give me his name. He was concerned his high-octane hobby might not impress his business contacts in the finance industry.

"It's a great way to actually get some performance out of your car," he said of the Autodrome sessions. "I wish more people would do it rather than race up and down Sheikh Zayed Road. "I come here so that I can keep to the speed limit on the road, but still get some adrenalin rush." His 911 was his daily transport, but rather than keep thrashing it on the circuit, he was mulling over buying another car for having fun at track days.

"A Porsche is a very expensive toy to put on the track," he said. "I would rather go for something old and Japanese because the parts are cheap, and build it up as a dedicated track car for a maximum of Dh100,000." Alternatively, he was thinking of buying a KTM X-Bow, a fearsome looking little open-cockpit sports car that several of the advanced group of drivers were using. After a 20-minute break, it was time to go onto the circuit again. I took it slightly easier this time, but still went as fast as I was able as I turned left, right, left in the chicane section. I am sure I pulled away from the Infiniti behind me as my narrow little car darted through the twisty bits.

As the cars cooled down for a second time, the drivers, mostly in their early 20s, stood about comparing notes. I felt I had worked my Spark hard enough for the evening, and there was a little wear on the rear tyres, so I sat out the third session, watching from the paddock as the cars pounded down the main straight. They looked a lot slower than I'd expected, so I cannot imagine how tardy my Spark had appeared.

At the end of the session, after the cars filed into the pitlane then into the car park, I met the clerk of the course again. Track days, he told me, did have a role in making the roads safer. "They're going to go away having learnt something they can put into practice on a day-to-day basis," he said. "How to go round a corner, how to use the accelerator and the brake and keep the car in balance. And if it's in balance, it's safer."

As we talked, one of my group did a mini skid and came to a halt behind the pits. "See you again, and next time try bringing a bigger car," the clerk said with a laugh as he strode off to give the errant driver a telling off. Dubai Autodrome usually holds one daytime and one evening track event a month. For more information, call 04 367 8700 or visit www. dubaiautodrome.com. dbardsley@thenational.ae