Driving, but not in a real car

On 2 February I drove an Aston Martin GT3 race car on the VLN set up on the Nürburgring.
The catch is that I never left the UK.

I went to Base Performance Simulators in Banbury to see for myself what driving in a simulator is like. And it’s a lot harder than you may expect.
When I called I simply requested an Aston Martin (what else?) on the Nordschleife. The reason for this is that, as you may know, I have done one lap of the Nordschleife in the Ringtaxi. At the time I felt I wouldn’t want to drive there myself, but – as it happens when time passes – I have change my mind and now would like to try. However, the Nordschleife is a notorious track and I am not confident enough to take it on at this moment in time. So when the opportunity arose to try a simulator session at Base Performance I took it with both hands.

When I got there I was introduced to my instructor/coach, Dave, who explained how the simulator worked. He also told me the simulator had been set up as a GT3 Aston as these are easier to drive than the GT4. I was thankful for that pretty soon!

It’s interesting to be told your feet are too small. I usually don’t have any issues with my size 6 feet, but apparently I would have a bit of an issue braking because my feet didn’t fully cover the pedal. Dave turned out to be 100% correct: I had to put more of an effort in than people with bigger feet and eventually resorted to moving my foot so I pressed on the brake pedal a bit higher. That certainly made it easier.

The first surprise came when the session started: having three screens made me seriously dizzy. Dave had to switch the two side screens off to make it even bearable. This meant that I lost my peripheral vision, which is not ideal when going through corners. It took me approximately one lap (which is rather large!) before I managed to deal with the vision. I have to admit it never did go normal, there was always a bit of an effect, but it didn’t hamper me…thankfully.

My second surprise was how heavy the steering wheel was. Even though the Aston has power steering the tyres would be big and have no profile (slicks, as these are called). I hadn’t taken that into account, of course. At then end of the session my arms were quite tired.

I am not particularly short (1.70m), but the position within the car is quite low. As a result I couldn’t see the track at all when going uphill. Very interesting, as you will not know what’s coming next…unless you know the track very well, and I don’t.
I also kept on crashing in the same corner. The reason being that I approached it while driving on the right side of the track and this was a righ hand turn. As a result I turned in too fast and too sharp and skidded nicely to my left into the armco. Oops!
Even though I couldn’t see the track until very shortly before this corner, I don’t want to use that as an excuse. After a few laps I knew it was coming and I made the same mistake every single time. I believe I managed to just stay clear of the armco, but was still on the grass. I need more practice.

All in all, it was a great experience and I am considering repeating it. One or two motion sickness pills should help with the nausea, so I can use all three screens. And I intend to do my homework and study the track before any future attempts.
I managed 4 laps and went from 12:29 to 10:40. My aim is not to drive one lap as fast as possible, but to get an idea on how to drive that track safely. Chances are therefore quite high that I will try another session so I can eventually move on to learning to drive there in a real car. Watch this space!


Track experience #5 – The best yet!

1 March 2016
Aston Martin unveiled the DB11 at the Geneva International Motor Show.
It was around lunch time and I was – quite illegally – watching it unfold at work on my mobile. For a very long time indeed the DB4 had been my favourite Aston Martin; my favourite car even, but now? I haven’t forgotten the DB4, but the DB11 stole my heart.

5 March 2016
My best friend and I went to Geneva to see the new Aston for ourselves. We ended up spending about 45 minutes at the stand across several visits that day. We marvelled at the engine which was on display (it’s big!), the car’s cut out model, showing the technology in the bodywork, and of course the DB11s on display.

The DB11 on the Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd. stand at the Geneva International Motor Show in 2016.
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13 January 2018
It’s almost 2 years after the car was unveiled in Geneva and I’ve seen my fair share of DB11s – on the road, but also at the factory in Gaydon.
On this day, though, it is time to drive it!

My best friend and I drove 4 laps (approximately 6 miles) each in the car. This is the V12 version, so not the recently released V8 car. Of course there is nothing wrong with a V8, but I was very curious about the 5.2 litre V12 that AML built for the DB11. Apparently it can go from 0 to 60 in 3.9 seconds. I think that makes it the fastest car I’ve driven so far.
I was not disappointed.

I already knew that when you’re inside the car it doesn’t feel very large at all, even though it is by no means a small car. Being an Aston Martin it’s obviously also not a particularly light car, despite the fact that the DB11 was created as light as possible. When you drive it however it feels like it weighs nothing. The moment you take your foot off the brake it starts rolling quite gently, but when you put your foot down it runs off with you. What a drive!

The Aston Martin DB11 at Prestwold.
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The Prestwold track is approximately 1.3 miles long, so the straight is not very long. Just before the straight there is a safe zone where you are allowed to go only between 40 and 50 mph. Thankfully the DB11 speeds up quite quickly, but the straight is not long enough to make it to 100 mph before the braking point – almost though.
Since I know the track quite well now I am certainly improving which allows me to enjoy the drive more. The shift paddles are not a novelty for me, so that is no longer a distraction either.

The DB9 I drove a while ago is of course a few years older than the DB11, but since they are both Aston Martins I feel it’s fairly safe to compare them. Like the DB9, the DB11 doesn’t dive down when you brake hard. Braking is very level and comfortable.
The DB11 did feel a lot faster, but also lighter than the DB9. If the interior didn’t very clearly look like Aston Martin you could be mistaken and feel it’s a much smaller car. Only when I had to park it did I realise this car has a very long nose. But even at slow speeds it handles really well and as light as a feather.

Overall the handling is very smooth, so you have to waste no brain capacity on driving. It is simply natural. It makes the drive the best I’ve had so far and I got out of the car with pain in my heart.
I’m guessing I will repeat this track experience. It was just too good not to.

The onboard video didn’t turn out perfect, so I have it in three parts. You can watch it here:
Part 1 of 3
Part 2 of 3
Part 3 of 3

Nürburgring – Ring Taxi and a 6 hour race

For the fourth time since 2015 I travelled to the Nürburgring. It is one of my favourite tracks, mainly because it is so accessible (even if you don’t have a ticket) and there is lots to do. In addition it is in a beautiful area of Germany; the surroundings are stunning. The atmosphere has so far been very relaxed during race weekends and I enjoy driving a rented car from Düsseldorf Airport to the track.
Last year I was lucky enough to find a hotel at walking distance from the track which of course enhances the luxury aspect even more.
With a visit of five days it is practically a holiday and for me it truly is just that.

Part of the Müllenbachschleife and the surrounding area in the background.
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Like previous years I went for the 6 Hours of Nürburgring, the World Endurance Championship race. Unlike before, however, I went one day early and arrived on the Thursday. This happened to be my birthday and I treated myself to something special: a lap around the Nordschleife, also known as Ring Taxi. I opted for an Audi R8 V10 for additional enjoyment (the ‘standard’ car is a BMW).

The Nordschleife is the largest part of the Nürburgring. It is visible from the Müllenbachschleife, but I had not been there yet. It is quite thrilling to go to such an iconic track with such a rich history, but also a reputation of being tricky to drive and downright dangerous.
Of course I trusted my driver to be experienced, but when we arrived there were well over 100 cars out on track and obviously I didn’t know how many of those drivers knew what they were doing. This track is notorious for having very few run off areas, so there were some nerves before we took off.

The video can be accessed by clicking the link above, but I have to say that the video doesn’t do the experience any justice. There is no indication on the video how fast we were going and I only peeked every now and then, as I didn’t want to miss the drive itself. I do know that we went into some corners that seemed safe at 50 km/h with a speed of 90 km/h or more and on the final straight we did reach 260 km/h. The speed was also noticeable under braking. I am by no means a feeble female, but I was shaken in every direction in corners and especially under braking. The pressure when speeding up was also considerable and, to be honest, very nice. And of course there is the roar of the engine…

It’s not cheap, but if you get the opportunity I would recommend this experience. It is nothing short of awesome.

One of the Porsches which couldn’t keep all wheels on the track at the Veedol chicane.
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The rest of my stay (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) were all about the WEC 6 hour race.
The weather was changing throughout the weekend, including some serious rain, but Sunday was fairly cool and, at times, windy.
Throughout the weekend I explored various parts of the track and so enjoyed different views wherever I went. The support races were once again very entertaining.
Especially seeing the Porsches almost jumping through the Veedol chicane was a wonderful sight. They were all racing exceptionally hard and quite a few didn’t make it through the chicane and instead had to cut through or go over the grass.

After attending the 24 Hours of Le Mans I was possibly even more excited about this race. Normally there are several months between the races I go to (Silverstone and then Nürburgring), but Le Mans was still very fresh in my mind.
It was strange to realise this would be Bykolles last race of the 2017 WEC season. They will be focussing on next season and testing their car. Even though they compete in the LMP1 class, their car is not hybrid, so they are practically a subclass by themselves.

The Bykolles LMP1 car.
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This race was unusual in the sense that there was no Full Course Yellow, no safety car and no red flags at all. The result was of course 6 glorious hours of uninterrupted racing. It was a rare treat to see what would happen when teams had the opportunity to fight it out on track without the race-changing possibilities mentioned above. As always it was beautiful to watch and it was a bonus to watch it at such a wonderful track.

Track day #4 – three cars, triple the fun?

For my fourth track experience I decided to treat myself to three cars rather than just the one. It wasn’t easy deciding what to drive after the Aston Martin DB9 and Audi R8. I ended up booking the Bentley Continental, BMW i8 and Nissan GT-R.

Bentley Continental

Ever since I saw a Bentley Continental race in Blancpain I was a little bit in love with it. It’s a massive car and it’s almost inconceivable that it can be fast. But it is!
I went on a factory tour at Bentley in Crewe to see where this beast was born. And then I decided I wanted to drive one.

Bentley Continental
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The Continental available for a driving experience is of course nothing like the race car. A bonus however is the fact that this particular car is a convertible. My friend drove it first and since the rain had just stopped she opted for the top down. I couldn’t fault that, so the top stayed down for my two laps.

The Bentley is an extremely smooth drive. Like most cars at this venue it has shift paddles, so you keep your foot on the accelerator while gearing up. It’s quite snappy for a big car. At no point did it feel sluggish. It’s not extremely fast, but that was not the reason I wanted to drive it. I simply wanted to find out how it handles. And it handles really well. It’s fun to drive and doesn’t feel as big as it actually is. At the end of the drive you have to park the car (forward, nice and easy) and that’s when I found out how extremely small the Continental’s turning circle is.

Overall I really enjoyed driving this car. The one comment I have is that under braking the car noticeably dives down. It’s not a bad thing, but I would expect a less aggressive move from a car in this price range.

BMW i8

Anyone who knows me is aware of the fact I am not a fan of BMW. Their look simply doesn’t appeal to me.
This is different for the i8. The lines of that car made me look twice the first time I saw one.
Now liking a car is usually not just about looks, and I’m no different. The fact this is a hybrid car made me curious. So I decided to drive one.

BMW i8
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The i8 is a big and low car. Emphasis on ‘low’, because it’s best to sit on the ledge of the door, slide your bum into the seat and then pull your legs in. Imagine getting out again…

The engine is a modest 1.6, but the electric motor provides boost…quite a lot. Even though this is also not the fastest car available at this venue, it is not slow by any means. It speeds up rapidly, but is as quiet as you would expect from a hybrid. There is some engine sound, but not that much. The drive is smooth. In short, it’s a fun drive.

The car seems to move effortlessly and responds really well to whatever I ask of it.
Of all the cars I’ve driven so far (including on public roads: rented or borrowed) this one is fun, but not much more. I’m happy I’ve driven it, yet it is unlikely I’ll ever drive it again. But that is ok with me, because I really wanted to drive it for the experience. After this I’ll stick to enjoying watching it; it’s still a good looking car.

Nissan GT-R

To complete my set of three cars I had hoped the Aston Martin DB11 was available, but it wasn’t on this day. McLaren 570 s? No, not available.
Had I ever considered the GT-R? Well, not really. I mean, I like the look of it and I had seen it go around the track in quite an impressive way. But driving it hadn’t occurred to me.

My doubts continued almost until the moment I got in the car. You can upgrade and swap on the day and I almost did. I am very happy I didn’t!

Nissan GT-R
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The instructor for the Bentley already commented I would probably enjoy the Nissan. He was right. What a beast!

When I was about to drive off I was told the car would respond choppy in first gear, but would be better in second. I hope that’s not normal for every GT-R, because it does make you feel as if you’re in a car for the very first time without any notion on how cars actually work. It’s almost embarrassing.
But the instructor was right; as soon as I geared up to 2nd (shift paddles again) the car started behaving. And when I took it out onto the track it ran off with me. The cars I have driven so far are not slow, but nothing compared to this!

The power you control is almost overwhelming. The GT-R speeds up like nothing I’ve driven before, brakes incredibly hard and is loud. I absolutely loved it.
Whereas the previous cars were smooth and behaved perfectly well, the Nissan had more of a ‘you want a piece of this?!’ attitude. I had a grin on my face for quite a while after my drive.

The car handles great, but very direct. For example: I commented on the handling under braking of the Bentley. In comparison the DB9 brakes more evenly; you can’t really feel the nose going down at all. The Nissan just gives it to you straight. You tell it what to do, it does it. No questions asked.
Incredible handling, great sounds, considerable speed (despite the short track and my lack of experience) – I would jump into a GT-R again in a heartbeat.

I do believe I should go for ‘double the distance’ next time, because two laps per car is not really enough. Other than that I had a great time, as before.
Next on the list: DB11. And maybe another trip in that crazy Nissan.

If you want to see the videos of the drives, have a look at my YouTube channel.

Track day #3 – driving an Audi R8

It’s only year three, but this is rapidly becoming a tradition of sorts.
I’ve left it very late this year, but I did go on a track experience at Prestwold (same location as the previous two times). My ‘weapon’ of choice this time was an Audi R8. And the present to myself was a passenger ride in an Ariel Atom.

I suppose that starting with the Aston Martin DB9 was not such a good idea after all. I mean, Astons are my favourite cars and the DB9 was a really smooth and lovely ride. It was always going to be downhill from there. Or was it?

Driving the Audi R8 had been on my list for a while.
© All Rights Reserved (photo by Joanne Loftus)

Of course I am fully aware I should not compare Audis and Astons, so I won’t.
Let’s just say that the Audi R8 has had my attention for quite some time now. I think it looks absolutely stunning. From the moment it was unleashed into the world I was curious what that would be like to drive. It is apparently a very nice and fast car to drive.
So this was my chance to find out.

One of the best things, I think, of driving something fast is the fact that you get pushed in your seat and the engine starts roaring. That is something the R8 definitely has.
Other than that I found the car strangely underwhelming.
Like most cars at Prestwold the car has paddles (or flippers) to change gears. I’ve experienced that in the DB9, so no issues there. What I do think is an issue is the fact that the car noticeably slows down when you gear up. If you check the video above, you can see I even move forward a little when I change gears. Immediately after it picks up quickly and you get that lovely push into your seat, but I expected a smoother gear change.

Handling is otherwise very nice. The car feels sturdy and I felt well in control the entire time. It helps I am beginning to come to grips with the track properly now. Thanks to that I could try a bit harder to get more out of the car.
But there the Audi disappointed as well! The last corner before the straight is a ‘safe zone’, so you are limited to 40 to 50 mph. However, you are allowed to speed up while pulling out of the corner and floor it shortly after. Despite that the car never even reached 90, even though I was pushing the pedal down as far as it would go.
This in my mind now begs the question if the Audi R8 is truly underwhelming or if this seeming lack of performance is due to the car being limited somehow. I have heard from people that during track days elswhere they were told not to go faster than 100 mph. At Prestwold you don’t get that instruction, but maybe they don’t have to if the cars are limited?

Nevertheless I had a great time in the Audi. I haven’t done this type of thing very often, so throwing pretty much anything around a track is fun. I still think the thing looks great and, as I mentioned, it was a lovely drive nonetheless.

But I had more to do that day. I added a passenger ride.

The Ariel Atom just after the ‘safe zone’ corner.
© All Rights Reserved (photo by Joanne Loftus)

During a previous visit I had seen the Ariel Atom go round at what seemed to be a ridiculous speed, so I had to get me some of that. I would never be able to drive that beast like the drivers at the track can, so I decided to get the most of out it by not driving.
When I booked it upon arrival I was assured I would be scared. Defiantly I told the lady I wouldn’t be.

Now it’s all over I can proudly say I was right. Nothing to be afraid of.
But what a ride!!!
This thing takes off like a rocket and you don’t get any time to catch up until it’s parked. It responds incredibly quickly. We were passing some fast cars (like Lamborghinis and McLarens) as if they were standing still. If you like thrill rides you have to try this one.
I was grateful to my driver for trying to impress me (let’s say there were some moves I didn’t expect); it all added to a wonderful two laps which were over too soon.

As before I had a great time at Prestwold, not only while on track, but also before and after when there’s time to have a good look at the cars they have there. I’ve not quite decided what I will be driving next year, even though that Lamborghini Aventador looks very inviting…

Track day #2 – driving an Aston Martin

In May last year I booked my first track day which was a rally taster. It was amazing, so I promised myself at least one track day a year. It is now October and I’ve been so busy attending races I had not yet managed to book another track day. I decided it is time to finally drive an Aston Martin and I chose the DB9.

The Aston Martin DB9 at Prestwold.
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Even though I cannot remember exactly when I fell in love with Aston Martin, I do know I’ve had an Aston Martin related list for a very long time. It started with something simple as seeing one for real (as opposed to in magazines and on television). I was 12 when I saw my first Aston Martin at a car show.
The items on the list then got gradually more exciting: seeing one drive on the public road, sitting in one, being driven around in one, etc. When I went to Le Mans in 2006 one of the members of the Aston Martin Owners Club was kind enough to drive me around in his car, leaving me with only two things on my list: driving one and owning one.

I got a lift in this Aston Martin at Le Mans in 2006.
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Yesterday was the day to tick another box on that list: I drove an Aston Martin DB9.
The weather was not brilliant (grey and quite windy), but at least it was dry. After signing in at reception I went for two demo laps. That meant being driven around in a Skoda Octavia so I could see the track. This is not the same part of the track being used for the rally taster, so it was a very welcome introduction. Less amusing was the remark from the driver that Prestwold is a technically challenging circuit. Trust me to pick that as my first experience!

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I have to admit that my goal for the day was not to race around the track as fast as I dared. My intention was to enjoy driving the Aston as much as I could at a speed I was comfortable with. And that is exactly what I did.
I was warned about needing two laps (of the four laps I booked) to get used to the car. That was not the case at all. Even though changing gears with paddles on the steering wheel is strange, it doesn’t take all that long to get used to. The car is extremely responsive, despite its weight, and very easy to handle. Just like last time the limitation came from my (in)experience.

I had no idea how fast or slow I was going, I was simply enjoying the sound of the engine and the feel of the car. Four laps is not a lot, so I made the most of it.
I opted to buy the on board video, which you see below.

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When I watched the video at home I did think that I probably would have been able to go faster, but I had a brilliant time nonetheless. It’s probably a good idea to drive a number of different cars on this track over the coming years and then trying the Aston again. The comparison could be interesting.
The fact remains that driving on a track is very different from driving on the public road. So, despite having my driving licence for almost 16 years, I am still very much a novice when it comes to this.
It is really good fun and I will stick with my decision to do at least one track day per year. There are plenty of other cars I’d love to drive and there’s still the Atom and X-Bow (scary and inviting at the same time). Prestwold will see me again!

Photo by Joanne Loftus
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Track day – rally taster

A few days ago I finally made it to a track to have some fun. I have tried off-road driving quite a few years ago, only to find out it’s really not for me. So this time I went for a rally taster. I had no idea what I would make of it, so a taster (only a few laps and not too expensive) seemed the right thing to do. And it was.

I have to admit that booking it wasn’t as straightforward as I had hoped. I bought a voucher for a rally taster, but when I called to book the day the lady on the phone tried to convince me to change it to a supercar experience. Eh…no, thank you.
The track nearest to me also didn’t have any available slots on a weekday (at least, not on a day I could get time off from work), so I had to go to Prestwold instead. That didn’t bother me, because it is still less than 90 minutes away and the track itself looks a lot more exciting than the one nearer to my home.

Track day fun!
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I was requested to register one hour before my experience would start, which meant I was there before 11:00 expecting to wait for 1 hour. I was not bored. As you can see above there are plenty of cars to look at. This is about half of what they have got, because the rest was out on the track.
Being a great fan of Aston Martin, you can imagine I had quite a good time just looking around.
Oh, for the record: that supercar experience is obviously on the wish list, it’s just not my priority right now.

When I bought the rally taster voucher I thought I was going to do some off-road rallying, but I was apparently wrong. Never mind, I like road rally too!
The downside of the Prestwold track is that my best friend couldn’t even see the track I was on, so I have no video footage or photos of my laps. I do, however, have photos made by the track photographer.
One example I have posted on Facebook.

Track day fun!
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I have never driven a four wheel drive car before. So driving the Mitsubishi (the car on the right on the photo above) was quite a new experience in every possible way.
Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find any information on the car on the website, so I don’t know what engine it has, how old it is, where it comes from, etc. To be honest, I can’t even tell you how fast I went!
The track was laid out with coloured markers. There were different colours, so my instructor had to explain which route I should take the first time around. But, as he told me I would, I found my way around quick enough.

It is not easy to describe what it feels like when you go around a corner – basically doing a u-turn – in third gear without braking. This really goes against all you learn on the road. You don’t brake a lot before getting to a turn, you just let go of the throttle. Before you’re halfway through the corner you start accelerating again, where you’d normally do that a lot later.
I was being pushed around in my seat, but the car just would not budge.

Judging by the photos I probably did not go very fast, even though I was constantly alternating between 3rd and 4th gear. I just did not have the time to check my speed. I had to keep my eyes on the road.
I am fairly certain that any ‘normal’ road car would not be able to handle what this Mitsubishi could. And I am also fairly certain I probably didn’t get to push it beyond even half of what it can do. In the end I got to do 7 laps and even got a few compliments from my instructor. The grin on my face has not yet gone and I am already considering what to do next. It may be another rally experience, but for a longer period of time, or I may have to get into this thing:

Track day fun!
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I am not sure what it is, but I have seen it is very fast. Either way, whatever is next, I will most definitely book another experience in the future and I will write about it here afterwards.