Licence to thrill

Well-off ‘hobby’ racers are now queuing up to qualify for a track licence. Can Simon de Burton pass muster?

November 11 2009
Simon de Burton

Displayed behind me on the office wall is a large, framed photograph of one of my childhood heroes. He’s a goofy-looking chap dressed in sky-blue racing overalls and crammed into the cockpit of a 1960s Ferrari Formula One car. His name is John Surtees and he became F1 World Champion in 1964, the year I was born.

I discovered this fact at the age of five and wouldn’t ordinarily have been especially impressed since Mike Hawthorn was already my favourite driver, largely because he had raced for BRM and Vanwall and I had Dinky models of his cars.

But when I learned that Surtees was (and still remains) the only person to have won both car and motorcycle world championships, I had no option but to instantly name him the person I most wanted to become when I grew up, even if he did look like a slightly geekier version of George Formby with less hair. I did not, of course, become John Surtees when I grew up, and I can categorically state that Surtees has had no influence on my adult life whatsoever – or, at least, he hadn’t until I was given the aforementioned photograph last Christmas.

The instant his toothy grin revealed itself from beneath the torn wrapping paper I was transported back to those hero-worship days and was abruptly reminded that not only hadn’t I become Surtees, but I had managed to attain the age of 44 years without racing either a car or a motor­cycle, despite those being the things I still most want to do “when I grow up”. Like so many people, I had put one of my main ambitions on the back burner.

Sensibly speaking, that would have been a good time to forget about going racing once and for all, and I probably would have done had it not been for a bizarre coincidence. Just days into the New Year, How to Spend It’s effortlessly efficient editorial co-ordinator Rochelle Reef forwarded me an invitation from the Association of Racing Drivers Schools to take the ARDS test – which, if successfully completed, would enable me to apply to the Motor Sports Association (MSA) for a National B racing licence.

Did this mean I was destined for racetrack glory after all? Undoubtedly not, but it certainly gave me the shove in the back I needed to at least take the first, essential step towards being allowed to compete – and within a few weeks I was sitting in a classroom at Silverstone circuit feeling more nervous and apprehensive than I had done since O-level days.

You might be surprised to learn that prior to 1994 it was possible to obtain a race licence by sending a form and a cheque for the nominal fee to the MSA, after which the necessary documents would be dispatched by return of post, meaning that anyone from John Surtees to the most untalented duffer could take to the track in virtually any category of car without anyone really knowing whether they knew the difference between the brake pedal and the accelerator.

“The problem was,” explained Silver­stone’s chief instructor Chris Ward, “that many newcomers were not only a liability to themselves but also to other, more competent drivers because they just didn’t know what they should be doing or, in some cases, were simply not cut out to be racing drivers.

“The pass rate for the test is around 70 per cent, which suggests that without it there would be 30 per cent of drivers on track who shouldn’t be there. The point of the test is to establish a basic level of ability, but also to make newcomers aware of what to expect when they arrive at their first race meeting.”

Ward says that the number of people doing the standard ARDS test has grown considerably in recent years due to the large number of competitive events now taking place. A basic National B licence entitles the holder to race anything from a modern GT car to a 1930s Bugatti.

“The demographic has changed dramatically,” he says. “During the 1990s, the majority of applicants were young, aspiring drivers who had their sights set on making a career of it. Now, because it costs at least £15,000-£20,000 to race something like a Formula Ford for a season, plus the purchase price of the car, we see far more well-off ‘hobby’ racers applying.”

After a short wait in the classroom, I was joined by senior instructor Mark Armstrong, who has taught at Silverstone for a decade following a successful racing career in everything from karts to the type of mighty Sports Prototype cars you see at Le Mans.

His job was to assess whether or not I had any clue at all as to how to control a car at speed, how to place it for a corner and how to use the brakes, accelerator and steering in a sufficiently deft way to avoid being a potentially lethal hazard. The sheer science of understanding the importance of apexes, downforce, braking points and matching engine speed to road speed left me thinking that actually, despite having held a standard driving licence for more than 25 years, I had a hell of a lot to learn before taking to the track for my practical assessment.

Just 15 minutes later I was strapping myself into the passenger seat of a supercharged Lotus Exige, a 240hp sports car with a 0-60mph time of four seconds and top speed of 150mph. Its mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive configuration and lack of electronic safety devices make it a fine car for learning how to drive quickly by “feel”.

My instructor for the session was Rob Barff, who is regularly called upon to compete in events ranging from the Le Mans 24 Hours to the Historic Touring Car Series. He started by lapping the circuit a few times – briskly but not at outrageous speed – in order to point out the braking, turning-in and “clipping” points that I would need to be aware of in order to make smooth, fast progress.

We then swapped seats and I set out on my first, tentative laps. To my surprise, I wasn’t as bad as I had expected to be and seemed to respond well to what I regard as Barff’s rather brilliant teaching method: for the first few laps, he explained exactly what to do at every point on the circuit, but as time progressed the instructions gradually petered out until, suddenly, I realised I was braking hard from 100mph down Hangar Straight before taking a gentle line around Stowe Corner and flooring the accelerator towards the curves of Vale and Club. And I was doing it all of my own volition.

“The ARDS assessment requires you to complete two laps at race speed without spinning off the circuit or driving in a dangerous manner,” said Barff. “You’ve managed at least 10, so I don’t think there’s a problem.”

I think the feeling I experienced is best described as one of elation – until I realised that I still had to return to the classroom for a half-hour written test comprising questions based on the 452-page MSA handbook that I had been cramming with the night before. Would I be able to remember the meaning of a black flag with an orange disc? Did I know how to pull into the pit lane correctly?

After an excruciating wait of at least five minutes while Armstrong checked my paper, he made the long-awaited announcement: “I’m afraid you’ve failed. You didn’t write your name at the top.”

“But I’ve waited 40 years for this,” I blubbered pathetically.

“Don’t be daft – I’m only joking,” he retorted. And I smiled a smile that out-goofed even Surtees.

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Sports cars