When I was young and foolish, about three or four years ago, I had a very fast car. I’d been a fan of the front-engined Porsches, even though they were an aberration in the company’s history. The original Professor Porsche believed that the proper place for an engine was over, or even behind, the rear axle of a car, leading to generations of Porsche engineers trying to make such a design safe for normal people.
But the early eighties flirtation with populism had led to the Porsche 924, with an Audi-derived engine in the front, followed by the 944, and then the 968. I first had a 944, low, flat and fast; and then upgraded to a 968. Slightly curvier; big engine; seating position on the floor.
On the public roads, you may have noticed, they have speed limits. The 968 was capable of over 160 m.p.h. but that was not allowed. However, there are no rules against fast acceleration. So, departing from the traffic lights at astonishing velocity, and leaving the boy racers in their louder Corsas was quite legitimate. Still, there was a desire to use the car to its full potential.
That’s what “track days” are for. Here in Northern Ireland, we have two smallish race tracks, at Nutts Corner and Kirkistown; the latter being a little longer and faster. The Porsche Club GB books sessions, and so I paid the fee and headed out on the highway.
The first time with the 944, to my embarrassment, I didn’t know that a crash helmet was compulsory and had to borrow one. Still, good fun driving round with just the crash barriers and stack of tyres to keep you from armageddon. I bought my own helmet for later days and joined the set. Once you were accredited, as having paid and been briefed on safety, the marshalls would let you onto the track when there was a vacancy — someone else taking a break — and you could do as many laps as you liked before coming back in yourself.
Like anything, there’s a technique. Real race driving merits detailed training, and really, only the exquisitely talented can make a career of it. But for the occasional track day hack, it boils down to three things. First, the racing line. Drive round a corner on the public road and you’re compelled to take the most inefficient route, but on the race track, when you have the whole of the tarmac to yourself, you reduce the curvature of the corner by going wide-narrow-wide.
Second: never brake unless the car is pointing straight forward. That rule is provisional and much-qualified, but good for the novice. Brake, then turn. Not brake while turning. No, no, no. To some extent, the same applies to acceleration. Better to speed off in a straight line than struggle with squirming steering under power.
Third, and most significantly different from normal driving, don’t cruise. At all times on the track, you should be either accelerating or braking, hard. If you aren’t, you’re losing time.
Now that I’m older and wiser, and driving a Mercedes with a whole 40 horsepower less than the Porsche (and heavier too), I haven’t been tempted to go onto the race track. But knowing how to drive fast probably still helps.