Article by Neil. Photos by Helen/Rich.
Like most things it started innocent enough. A quick phone call prompted by a work colleague mentioning he was going on a Ferrari trackday. The phone call was to Don Palmer to enquire about his driving development course. After last years outing to Donnington both Rich and I thought some tuition was in order and as Don’s courses have been featured in a number of magazines with glowing reports I was keen to explore what was on offer.
When you ring you don’t expect to actually talk to the person doing the course but this is what happened. Don has a very infectious manner and immediately dropped into the conversation that he had a place on his course the following Sunday. That was just three days away and there began some frantic organising. First a phone call to my wife to secure my place, next a phone call to Rich to see if he was up for it. All good so far, next a phone call to MG to see if we could use the ZT190 I had on loan. Finally another phone call to Don to secure our places.
The driving development course takes the form of 2 hours of one-2-one coaching. There are only 3 people on the course and you take it in turns – this allows you to have down time between driving. The location is Bruntingthorpe proving ground (near Leicester), the airfield come test track. Famed for its 2 mile straight.
Bruntingthorpe is a bonus for me as it is quite close to where I live – but it’s a bit of a trek for Rich. With this in mind Rich travelled up the night before and we both travelled from my house on Sunday morning. The roads that surround Bruntingthorpe are highly enjoyable twisty country roads. Although when you are going to a track you are saving yourself.
We had agreed to meet Don at 10am. With precision and the assistance of Richard’s Sat Nav, and in the end my nose, we arrived close to 10. The security has been stepped up at Bruntingthorpe and so the gate house has not only a barrier but a spiked ramp. Once through the gate house we parked up waiting for Don. I was expecting Don to arrive in his white E28 M5 but he arrived in a rather ordinary blue Golf – albeit the badge on the back read 'Wolf' (the W we later found was an upside down M badge). After brief introductions Don told us to follow him onto the track, with the invitation to do what we wanted but keep our distance from each other.
Don’s golf must have had a V8 twin-turbo by the way he disappeared into the distance, so you can imagine our disappointment when we learnt it was only a 150bhp DIESEL. It did serve to illustrate how much we had to improve and Don credentials too.
For the day, Don had set up a coned course at the far end of the track on the first half of the 2 mile straight. The third driver was Roland who had flown over from Austria for the course. He will be driving Don’s race prepared Capri.
We got straight into it, or rather I did, as Don suggested that we started in my car. That way we could all get familiar with the course. So I set off with a full house Don in the front and Richard and Roland in the back. No talks, no demonstrations – I am sat in my car being asked to drive the course as fast as I can.
Long straight to a lane change (quick right-left turn) onto 180 degree turn and back through a series of turns (left – right) onto another lane change.
Sounds simple enough – no time to contemplate I am facing back down the first straight and setting off to beat my last time. After another three laps, we stop to contemplate/discuss. Don’s not saying much – just asking questions. That’s the essence of the day, it’s coaching - not instruction, and more powerful for it. I know I am trying too hard, being too aggressive. Off for a few more laps. to try to sort that out.
We do a couple slow laps to let the car cool down then back to where the other cars are parked up. Richard and I get time to contemplate, as Roland is up next and the race prepared Capri only has two seats.
Richard is out to beat my lap time and empties out any extra weight in his car – including the spare wheel !! The GTA is a four-seater too, so Roland and I sit in the back as Rich tries out the course. Things should be slightly different as the GTA is front-wheel drive. Rich is still new to the car and, as his last car, a Renault Clio V6, was rear-wheel drive and a bit of a handful. The first couple of laps are pretty good. Then Rich pushes a little harder and the understeer demon shows his face.
Time for a bit of thinking – as we stand round the cars Don starts up a conversation – again it is more questions and probing than anything else. The story starts with the tyres and we take a journey into understanding what the car and its components do under cornering. Then it's back out in my car to do some circles. Driving round in circles – building up the speed gradually and feeling the effect on the car. It’s more than understanding understeer and oversteer and it's all about understanding the messages the car is giving out.
Then it's straight back on the course to see what effect it has on my driving. Lots of laps, lots of questions. Then Roland, Then Richard. And so it goes on, until lunch.
Don had kindly offered to take us for lunch however we hadn’t figured on the effects of Mothering Sunday. Nowhere was available and so we ended up getting some junk food from a nearby garage. On the plus side it meant more track time.
As we eat lunch Don asks more questions, this time to do with the effects of braking and accelerating on cornering. Then it's out on the track to test our answers. One thing that had been annoying me was I kept braking far too early for the first lane change. I would end up coasting to it.
So with this in mind I forced myself to brake late, so late in fact that I didn’t. So the lane change which we were doing at c. 70mph was done at 90mph. Surprisingly, the B10 did it, apart from having it’s rear-end out on the exit. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite handle this. And so ensued a rather large sideways skid. For the first time in the day Don instructed ‘brake’, ‘brake hard’. And I did….
Amazingly, the tyres stood up to this mistreatment and even though the front ones had done 40k miles they hadn’t ‘spotted’. They were however showing signs of wear. For the second time Don took the wheel, this time taking the B10 round the whole Bruntingthorpe track. I recommend this for anyone who has a performance car – let someone who can really drive – drive your car. Show you what it can really do. In this case the B10 was truly impressive. Frustratingly, the fact that the fronts were so worn and the fact that the car has such large rear tyres meant that the car was hard work to tail slide. Don tried really hard too – and did manage it.
In Don’s opinion Alpina puts too much rubber on its cars – and he reckons that the same size rubber all round would work better. He does think the suspension is great and had Alpina suspension on his E34 M5. By the end of the lap it was time to cool the car down and swap over again. Quite an exciting outing overall.
Richard had improved and was able to reign in the understeer and still improve his lap times. The Alfa also impressed all of us. The motoring press has given the GTA a bad time but it was performing very well. It grew on Don too.
In the end it was my tyres and Richard’s journey home that brought the day to an end. Roland on the other hand was still going strong as we left. I couldn’t leave without giving the 2mile stretch a go, even on rough tyres. So from a standing start I managed 155mph before I decided to brake a little earlier than normal.
The course is just the start – it gives you things to think about, things to feel for and really does help normal day to day driving. What’s more I now enjoy corners much more and feel far more confident.
Don can be contacted on 01628 784911 and more details can be found on the associated web site : www.donpalmer.co.uk.