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Write What You Drive

A showcase of independent motoring journalism and automotive travails

Supercar Driving Experience

For professional motoring journalists, driving the latest exotica is part and parcel of the job (for the fortunate ones). Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Porsches are available for them to drive on launches and in their own time from press fleets and all they have to do in return is write something insightful (and hopefully positive from the perspective of the manufacturer) about their experience.

That may be over simplifying the situation slightly; but if that isn't true for most professionals - it certainly isn't for amateurs such as me. Luckily, my motoring interests encompass a lot of more accessible vehicles but if I ever want to drive an Italian supercar my best bet is one of the myriad Driving Experience Days available.

Since this is also the case for the overwhelming majority of the population I thought I'd try to answer the question - are they any good?

When I was a kid, the concept of a supercar experience was something that I was aware of from adverts in Top Gear Magazine and their presence at BTCC events. At that time there seemed to be just one company in the market, and whilst their name escapes me I definitely remember that their modest fleet counted a Lotus Esprit V8 and Dodge Viper in its number. I also remember that the price seemed fairly prohibitive but that they offered a full day with more of a VIP feeling to it.

In 2014, a quick internet search throws up any number of providers and the prices start from as little as £40 for a couple of laps. I had a driving experience bought for me as a gift so straight away I was in the black as I hadn't paid for it out of my own pocket but as far as I can work out my experience retailed at around £70 and gave me a total of 4 laps of the Prestwold circuit in 2 cars of my choosing from their list.

It turns out that not all of the cars are available at every event so having called up the premium rate booking service (factor in another £4 there) and resisted all of the optional extras you can add to the day at extra cost, I found myself fairly restricted on which days I could attend. I also discovered that once the booking is confirmed it is not possible to change the date so if your plans change; no supercars for you. You're seeing now why I included the comment about "VIP feeling" earlier...

I felt even less like a celebrity when I arrived at Prestwold (an old airstrip turned into a circuit with the addition of some tarmac and a handful of portakabins) along with about 150 other customers - on what was apparently a quiet day. I fell afoul of the scare tactics regarding a £5000 insurance excess and paid £30 for the insurance waiver but this was the only extra I purchased despite having passenger laps, photographs and video packages constantly waved in my face.

After a briefing video that is frustratingly patronising for anybody with half an idea of how to drive a car - including an instruction not to apply power at all through a corner until you reach the exit, which certainly goes against every other piece of vehicle control coaching and theory I've heard before and sounds to me like a sure fire way to unsettle a 500 bhp supercar.

Watching the other customers mill about the paddock over a pre-drive coffee in the prefab American Diner, I forgave the briefing video a little. After all, these were ordinary people who had probably never driven anything more pokey than a Vectra diesel in their lives and were about to be let loose in £100,000 worth of supercar. Whilst I had half an idea what I was doing and, more importantly, of my own limits - many others probably hadn't had the benefit of driving anything remotely sporty or on a race track before.

Something else that was bothering me was the lack of a Lotus Elise S2 (the one of my choices I was keenest to try, more as a test drive than an "experience") amongst the fleet of already circulating cars. Having battled my way to the front of the queuing system (a chaos-theory meets cattle market affair that I can't help think could have been slicker), I met a surly drive co-ordinator with cigarette stained fingers who informed me that the Elise had broken down.

Lotus jokes aside, this was somewhat frustrating given that I had booked a specific day and location in order to drive that specific car. This didn't seem to bother the attendant, who tried to fob me off with a 911 as a "free upgrade" (he's lucky I didn't ask for my money back, never mind pay him some more). I understand that this sort of mishap is always a risk with cars of this nature but I think it could have been handled better, rather than treating me like an inconvenience for wanting the product I booked.

When I turned down the 911, I was offered a Lotus 2-Eleven. Why this wasn't offered in the first place I don't know but the cynic in me guessed it had something to do with the fact it was more hassle for the co-ordinators as it wasn't already circulating, it required a specific instructor and I would need to be furnished with a helmet.

To their credit, the instructors (Tom and John, for what it's worth) were excellent and came across as genuinely nice blokes. Both thankfully disregarded the coasting around corners instructions that the briefing video had given and helped to get the cars around the circuit safely without spoiling the fun too much or being too patronising.

Aside from the Lotus, I had also selected a Lamborghini Gallardo (it was a supercar day after all). I was told when to shift gear and apply the brakes and throttle by the instructor and whilst this may sound like nannying, two laps is really no time at all to learn a circuit and master a car - especially one with power as prodigious as this one.

If the instructors see that you're capable of following instructions and that you possess a modicum of mechanical sympathy they will loosen the reins a little and allow you to push the car to probably 50% of its potential rather than the usual 30.

I overheard one chap getting out of an Ariel Atom and declaring to his partner that he spent the whole drive in 5th gear since it was so fast - each to their own I suppose but a good example of how the instructors will restrict a track day weapon to be as quick as the Ford Fiesta you arrived in if they decide that's all you're capable of handling.

Therein lies the paradox of the experience though - by their very nature the cars are capable of polishing off two laps of the simple circuit in no time at all; or you can drive them around in 5th and prolong the experience but to what end?

It's true that, with 500bhp, the supercars on show are massively capable in any gear - but why spend £70 to drive one and then keep it muzzled? It's like spending a fortune on Caribbean vacation and then only looking out of the hotel window.

I'd probably pay to do one of the experiences again - the cars are fantastic (the subject of a separate article) and handily compensate for the shortcomings of the venue, staff and all round low-rent feel of the day itself.

Roughly the motoring equivalent of a budget airline; considerably cheaper than buying the plane yourself and Paris is just as nice when you get there but expect to bump elbows to get your seat and be prepared to dodge the many extras thrown your way. If you can overlook these flaws - there is enjoyment, albeit all to brief, to be had.

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