x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Yas Marina Circuit course introduces blogger to the rules of the road

After readers' uproar about her speeding, Ayesha Al Khoori takes a Yas Marina Circuit course and finds - at the expense of a few cones - that good driving takes more than just a heavy right foot.

Ayesha Al Khoori, getting her briefing before she undergoes driver training at Yas Marina School in Abu Dhabi. Ravindranath K / The National
Ayesha Al Khoori, getting her briefing before she undergoes driver training at Yas Marina School in Abu Dhabi. Ravindranath K / The National

A month ago, I wrote a controversial blog post for The National that seemed to spark a lot of discussion regarding my driving habits. More than a few readers commented strongly on the post and thought I was driving too fast and too dangerously. In fact, so did my editors. So they thought it would be a good idea for me to learn what it really takes to handle a car, but learn in a safe and instructive environment, away from the city's streets.

That's when the Yas Racing School stepped in. After reading my blog, the team there not only suggested I spend time with one of their instructors, but they also devised my own personal driving course to teach me the correct way to handle a car, with the main idea being to show me that good driving is more than just going fast.

The safety driving course first began with a briefing of the exercises that I would participate in, with the senior instructor, Jan Vanmeerbeek, explaining the set of activities briefly as I took notes. "[There] is a lot more than speed on the road [as a factor in accidents]," he started. "Drivers should be focused." He explained how most people drive while listening to music, using their phones or talking to another passenger in the car. With such a lack of focus, it's easy for the driver to lose control in certain situations and cause an accident. The exercises I would participate in would show me not just how to manipulate the car to keep control, but also how difficult it is to do so under various circumstances.

Now, the first thing I had to learn before even starting with the exercise was how to drive a manual car. I have driven a manual a few times before, but for brief minutes, and the car was already running when I had the chance to test it. I did not really know exactly how to keep this Renault Clio running, and that was a bit of a problem. I kept hitting the brakes instead of the clutch and completely forgot about the accelerator a few times. Thankfully, Vanmeerbeek was patient enough and continued to repeat the steps I needed to follow. Learning the steps to that process was a challenge on its own: first, I had to place my left foot on the clutch, right foot on the brake, and hit the "start engine" button. Then I had to switch the gears, putting it in first while releasing the brakes, placing my right foot on the accelerator and slowly releasing the clutch. I kept removing my foot from the clutch too quickly, causing the car to jerk back and forth. A few more times and I was getting better; slowly.

After a few minutes of practising accelerating and changing gears, it was time for the first real driving lesson. To be in control, you first have to be comfortable. The key is to adjust your seating position first - closer to the steering wheel rather than far away - then keep your hands at the 3 and 9 o'clock positions on the steering wheel. This is easier said than done; even as Vanmeerbeek was explaining to me how my hands should be positioned, I still resorted to using one hand. I had to keep my hand positions to go through cone gates on the zig-zag course, then U-turn and do it again. Because I was using one hand, I was knocking down most of the cones. The first time was horrible, as I knocked down more than seven cones; at least, those were only the ones I counted. So, I did it again, this time making sure both my hands were on the steering wheel at the right positions, and I only knocked down two cones this time. This exercise showed me how hand positions are important in keeping the car in control, as well as keeping me aware of where the front wheels are pointed.

On the road, you may have a situation where you have to brake hard and avoid something, so the next lesson Vanmeerbeek had in store was brake-and-avoid - only using cones. Basically, I was asked to accelerate at different speeds and then try to avoid an obstacle, first by suddenly hitting the brakes and then by swerving away from the object. When Vanmeerbeek took the wheel first to show me how it's done, it seemed pretty easy. When it was my turn though, I was having a hard time braking at the right moment. I would brake moments before even reaching 70kph, which was his speed. Going through the cone course, there were six sitting in front of me that I was supposed to avoid hitting. As I first started accelerating I would hit 30kph and hit the brakes lightly before swerving away, and I still hit the majority of the cones.

Now for the second part: I had to swerve away from the six cones ahead without touching the brakes. Even though I was still not reaching 70kph I still managed to knock the cones while swerving. This exercise was proving to be very hard for me, as I ended up hitting way more cones than I could count!

To me, it was scary. I wasn't used to accelerating and suddenly braking, nor was I able to vigorously turn the steering wheel. As Vanmeerbeek repeatedly mentioned, this was a safe area to practise, but a part of me knew that anything like this can and might happen in the roads of Abu Dhabi, with real cars and real pedestrians. I think that was the scary part, knowing that if I was ever in such a situation I would not be able to get out of it.

"This is only 60 or 70kph; imagine what it would be like at double the speed," Vanmeerbeek said after we were done with this activity.

Moving along to another exercise, I now had to go on the skid pan - a wet, slippery area with fountains of water to shower the car and the special surface. What made this even more interesting was the kick plate at the entrance of the skid pan - a motorised plate that grabs the rear wheels of your car to kick them out as you pass over it. The aim was to get over the moving plate and through the skid pan, trying to control a skid and leave the area in a straight line. Now this looked like fun and I was excited to try it out. Vanmeerbeek seemed to make it look easier than it really is. So, I got into the driver's seat with full confidence that this I could actually do. I have never been so wrong.

As soon as I drove over the kick plate, the car swerved and would not stop until it spun off the skid pan entirely. Vanmeerbeek patiently tried explaining that I needed to steer in the opposite direction of the car's spin. Again, I tried but failed miserably. One more time, Vanmeerbeek explained, and I tried to follow his instructions, and this time he controlled the steering wheel with me. So, four hands on the steering wheel and the car still managed to go into circles before being thrown out of the skid pan. At that moment, all I was thinking was, "What is going on? Why is this so hard for me?" I could not control the car, nor was I fast enough to turn the steering wheel, and so even with Vanmeerbeek's helping hands I had still failed yet another exercise.

The last lesson was to put all the lessons into one, going through the cones of the first exercise at speed, trying to avoid them. With my hands positioned correctly on the wheel, I started accelerating - only to hit almost all the cones. I still went on and tried to control the car at speed but, again, hit more cones. Vanmeerbeek decided to give me one last chance, and as I swerved at the U-turn the car's engine turned off by itself, giving me a sign that I had failed yet another course.

As exhilarating as the day was, it was an eye-opening experience. I felt I had a lot more practising to do and one training lesson wasn't enough.

Stepping out of the car, Vanmeerbeek asked me how I felt about the training. "See, it's not as easy as you think," he added. I admit, seeing him confident while driving just made my failure harder to take. I had obviously killed so many cones throughout the training that I am not sure how they will be able to replace them. "Now I will have to tell their mamas and papas," joked Vanmeerbeek. But better the cones than anything - or anyone - else.

What he had explained at the beginning of the course was now a hands-on experience for me; speeding is not safe. It takes a lot of patience to be on our roads, and not everyone has the techniques and practice to be as good a driver as they think they are. The process is long, and years of driving does not make up for a lack of good driving habits to begin with.

Before the course, I would drive around thinking I owned the streets and I was entitled to do whatever I wanted. But as soon as I left Yas Marina Circuit to head home, I immediately noticed how more focused I was, even though I was still very excited from the exercises. I was watching the other cars, careful not to endanger anyone. And even though I was tempted to speed because of the adrenaline rush that I was feeling, it just didn't seem of importance to me anymore. Vanmeerbeek's words were on repeat inside my head: "Speeding will cause accidents." Apart from his words, I knew how terrible I now was at trying to avoid obstacles after all the cones I took down. Being safe was the priority now.

Before leaving the course, I had met another young man, an Emirati, who claimed to be just as crazy as I was on the roads. After a few stories and accidents, he decided to go through with a safe driving course and progressed up to getting his racing licence - but no matter how fast he is on the track, he stays safe on the roads. Seeing him made me more determined to want to continue with the courses, and try to become more patient and have more expertise on the road. Maybe also try to get a racing licence as well.

aalkhoori@thenational.ae

Visit Ayesha's blog here.

For more information on driving courses at Yas Marina Circuit, visit www.yasmarinacircuit.com