Strapped into a lightweight, rear wheel drive single seater with the engine note and wind noise overpowering every sound around you, you are focused just on your lap. Remember what your instructor has told you; scrub off enough speed before you turn in, don’t lift off too early, kiss the apexes. It’s living life by a series of moments of pure determined focus and it’s completely addictive.
Motorsport seems so easy when you’re barking advice at drivers on the telly, dispensing opinions in 140 characters via Twitter or, in my case, standing in a pit garage somewhere watching the timing screens. Let’s be honest: more than one of us has said: “I could do that.” But unless you’re one of the few very lucky kids whose parents gave you a go kart before you could walk, how do you find out whether you really can do that? Hooning around supermarket car parks is one answer (but not a great one). A better solution is a track day or race experience, where you can find your limits under the sort of expert tuition that will prevent you breaking yourself or the car.
I popped along to a recent event run for motoring journalists at Mondello Park’s National Circuit. I like to think it’s because I work in motorsport but it might also be because I’m pretty tall and people wanted to see if I could fold into a track car. I could. What’s more, I managed to set the fastest lap of the day in a SEAT Leon FR, so when I found out that Mondello offers race experience packages, I had to give it a go. Oh yes. Lady Stig, coming through.
The entry Race Experience package gives you time in two cars. The first is a 105hp Mazda 3 saloon car, with an instructor riding shotgun. Then you’re let loose for 12 laps in a Formula Sheane single seater boasting 160bhp. That might not sound like an amazing amount of power but, in a car that weighs well under 500kg and is merely 11 feet long, the sensation of speed is immense. It’s reasonably priced, too. The Mondello Race Experience starts at €199. Compare that to Silverstone for example, where a general admission Grand Prix ticket for Sunday alone costs £155 (approx €220) before you begin thinking about travel, accommodation etc. And as a racing fan, wouldn’t you rather be – well, racing? The day arrives to drive the 2.5 hours up to Mondello. My “please don’t rain” dance has worked and the day, although overcast, is dry. That might help keep spins to a minimum on my first time in a single seater.
To get to the race school, you pass the paddock and other sections of the track; you can’t help but notice how big and varied the Irish motorsport scene is. Drifting, super car experiences, track days – Mondello has got the lot.
Yes, I’m a motorsport geek so yes, I got a thrill out of being fitted for a race suit, helmet and boots. One word of caution: be careful when attempting the classic “unzipped to the waist with wrap-around knotted sleeves” look. It can be hit or miss. Or miss.
Driver briefing next, just like a proper racing driver. Here, in a classroom style lesson, your instructor takes you through the basics of track driving, including what the different marshals’ flags mean and what to look out for on track. This is also your first opportunity to get a sense of track layout, gear shift strategy and etiquette.
Then comes the fun part: strapping into the business seat of a track-ready Mazda 3 while your instructor braves the passenger seat. Although the saloons are stripped out and fitted with roll cages, they still feel familiar to someone who has only driven on the road. This leaves you to focus on what you’re doing on track rather than fumbling around in an unfamiliar cockpit. It’s surprising how quickly the layout becomes familiar. Your laps soon become smoother and quicker. At some point, you even remember to breathe.
At 1.1 km and with 7 turns, the ‘International Loop’ circuit has a great combination of fast, slow and technical corners with a superb kinked, downhill back straight. Once you’ve picked up an idea of racing lines and brake points you really start to enjoy it!
Track driving requires patience. It’s critical to listen to exactly what the instructor says. (Especially when he says “brake harder” very loudly and in a slight panic.) Oddly enough, you’ll find that a lap that feels slightly slower but is smooth and controlled might yield a quicker lap time than ragging the car around with the tyres squealing and the car leaning onto its door handles.
After 12 laps in the Mazda 3 it’s time to slip into the Formula Sheane single seater. As you wriggle into the cockpit, inches above the ground, you instantly feel like every one of your racing heroes. The simple metal gear lever at my right hand reminded me of 70s onboard footage of Graham Hill driving up the hill in Monaco.
There’s a huge rush of adrenaline as you wait for the session to start. It’s all down to you. Visor down: off you go. You take to the track in a group behind a Mazda pace car for two laps to find your comfort level, before you can put the hammer down for 10 timed laps. It almost doesn’t matter how fast you go in truth. The combination of speed, engine noise and stripped back, analogue feel makes for a genuine racing experience. Forget Twitter or TV: this is a proper motorsports experience.
Once you’ve returned to the pits and prised yourself free of the car, there is time for a quick debrief with your instructor and a look at your lap time print outs. This is when you can figure out where you can improve, should you fancy coming back for another go. You will. It’s addictive. You’re a racing driver now.
Naomi Panter (@naomipanter)
“A qualified architect and multidisciplinary designer, Naomi “Pants” Panter is the art director and social media whiz at current-e.com, the leading independent guide to the newly established, all electric FIA Formula E series.. “Pants” also recently set the fastest journalist lap around Mondello’s National Circuit and has since been invited to make her race debut in Irish Strykers at the Leinster Trophy meeting this September.”