Abu Dhabi racetrack can help improve even the best driver's skills
Why Abu Dhabi racetrack is a classroom of thrills
Like many, I like to consider myself as a pretty good driver. I should be, I've been doing it for almost 25 years and have driven hundreds of cars over the years, in all sorts of conditions and on all sorts of roads and tracks. But, when I climb into a high-performance car and start pushing both my and the car's limits on a race circuit, I always realise just how much I still have to learn.
Recently, I was invited by the clothing brand Hackett to attend a session at the Yas Marina Racing School, in conjunction with Aston Martin Racing. Those nagging doubts came flooding back, along with very real thoughts about brushing up my skills by getting on track far more frequently than I have done in the past. For it's only when you're pounding a circuit in a specially prepped car with an expert at your side that you really learn about high-speed car control, and it's been two years since I drove in fury on a track.
The afternoon was split into three parts: track work in an Aston Martin Vantage GT4 with an instructor, followed by solo efforts in a Formula Yas 3000 single seat race car and a session hooning around the go-kart facility. Three distinctively different experiences, each one teaching participants in the safe confines of this dedicated facility, where there are no police or oncoming traffic.
Yas Marina's Racing School operates on the north half of the grand prix circuit, avoiding some of the tight corners around the hotel and, instead, keeping to areas where there are generous amounts of run-off space. Both cars and novice drivers live longer that way. Not that the chosen circuit is boring - on the contrary, it is still technical and incorporates the 1.2km straight, which is one of the longest in F1, enabling drivers to really put their foot down.
First up was the Aston. A proper race car, the Vantage GT4 is stripped of any unnecessary trim, has a serious-looking roll cage, bucket seats and not much else. And the noise once it's started is totally physical. With helmet on, I set out at the back of a pack of four. Instantly, I got down to the business of driving as fast as possible, trying to remember all the things I'd learnt over the years.
Shouting over the deafening roar of the car's V8, my instructor told me to overtake the others as soon as we reached a straight enough section, which I took to be a vote of confidence in my admittedly flaky abilities. With each lap, my confidence grew and, riding on slick tyres (a first for me), I was finding and exploring ridiculous levels of track adhesion.
And then I overcooked it. Exiting corner number seven, just where it joins the straight, I put too much power down way too early. Result? A 360-degree spin, lots of smoke, a stalled engine and one embarrassed driver. Still, no harm done and I managed to put in another six laps where I learnt from my mistake and waited until the front wheels were straight before opening the taps.
Once I'd done clambering out, my instructor talked me through his impressions and I was given a score sheet. Gears, braking, steering, throttle and cornering were all listed and I scored all Bs and Cs, which meant very good and good, respectively. My only A was in "response to instruction".
It was an incredibly valuable experience and really whetted my appetite to get better at it. But even that could not prepare me for the visceral thrills provided by the Formula Yas 3000 - basically a slightly scaled-down F1 car. That's another story but you might be surprised to know that you, too, can experience all these thrills for less than you'd imagine: Dh1,200 will get you into the single seater, while another Dh300 is all it takes for the Aston. There are plenty of other cars and options available, each one guaranteed to give you an unforgettable experience. I am definitely heading back for more - even Mrs H is wanting to try her hand at it now. Instructors, you have been warned.