Ever watched Plato and co. duking it out around Brands Hatch in touring cars on a Sunday afternoon and thought ‘that looks like a laugh’? Just how difficult is it to take the first steps to becoming a racing driver? And, perhaps more importantly, does race tuition make you a more competent road user? With that gaggle of questions asking for answers, and a fair degree of trepidation, I headed down to sunny West Sussex’s Goodwood Motor Circuit, armed with an ARDS National B race licence application.
ARDS, or the Association of Racing Driver Schools, is the official UK body which oversees the coaching of amateur drivers into fully certified competitors eligible to compete in national events and race series. National B is the entry point for all comers, whether you’re a seasoned go-karter, road tester and track day-goer, or you’ve never so much as played Gran Turismo. Once you’ve acheived National B status, you can enter a wide range of UK-based series, including rallies, drag racing, rallycross and various circuit events, including karting championships and various Radical series.
Since Goodwood’s Mithril Racing school is run in association with Alfa Romeo, our weapons for the day were Giulietta Cloverleafs: that’s the 235bhp version good for 150mph. Given Goodwood Circuit is a scary place, a fairly benign front-drive warm hatch was a decent tool for setting a novice off on the long road to champagne-saturated podium glory (ahem).
Goodwood Circuit shares no Tarmac with the famous hill-climb run you see classics charging up at the annual Festival of Speed. Situated around Chichester aerodrome a mile away from Lord March’s famous gaff, the circuit is a 2.3-mile clockwise lap that’s one of the fastest in the UK, with one sweeping, opening bend after another each lulling drivers to carry more and more speed…until you have an almighty off. Just ask Sir Stirling Moss.
All circuits demand respect, but Goodwood perhaps does more than most, despite not hosting any FIA-certified major events (the circuit’s owners refused to neuter its speed with chicanes in the mid Sixties). There’s a sobering impression you might not walk away from the sort of high-speed shunt Goodwood offers if you fall off halfway round Madgick, or don’t get it stopped in time after the long charge to Woodcote. This is, after all, the track at which Bruce McLaren lost his life at 170mph, and almost 43 years ago to the day I’m passing the same spot.
Naturally, the in-depth driver briefing tells you all this before anyone gets strapped into a driver’s seat. There’s theory mixed in with the practical too: a written test. It’s mainly multiple-choice, but identify any of the 14 flags incorrectly and it’s an instant fail. Familiar with the difference between waved striped red/yellow and stationary red/yellow? Or what a black flag with an orange circle warns of? If not, swot up.
Oh, and before you get near an exam paper, yet alone a set of pedals and a gearstick, you’ll need to have a full medical on-site. Eyesight, blood pressure, heart-rate and general state of mind are all under the spotlight, and ensure you’re not dehydrated when you arrive on test day. Unlike the regular driving test that eschews your L-plates, the ARDS programme requires a sample…
On to the meat of the exercise then: driving. The in-car action starts with two laps passengering with your instructor as he demonstrates the speed and lines expected of you, followed by 15 minutes of lapping with your mentor riding shotgun. He’ll calmly offer tips on how to improve your line, remember to look through the corner rather than at the end of the bonnet, relax, look through the corner, which gear’s best for each turn, and look through the bloody corner. All too soon you get the nod that it’s time for the two assessed laps. No coaching, no interventions: it comes down to two perfectly driven fast laps during which you’re marked for smoothness, racing line, general driving technique and remembering to look through the damned corner every time.
There are other Giuliettas lapping concurrently with students at various stages of the programme, but not to worry. Of more pressing concern is the dads’ army enjoying ‘supercar experience’ treats, tentatively piloting a Ferrari 360, Lamborghini Gallardo and Aston V8 Vantage around Goodwood’s undulating distance. There’s also a few chaps doing a classic experience package too, there’s a 1973 Porsche 2.7RS to dodge, an Aston Martin DB4 (with not much left of its gearbox, by the sound of those changes), and an original E-type. All the Alfa’s on-board safety aids are on, but these are high stakes. But then, so is racing. Just remember to look through the sodding corner.
Over the two high-concentration laps, all the racing clichés are evident. Smoothness is key to not unsettling the car (or the scribbling adjudicator), and it’s a case of linking each turn to the next in an enormous dot-to-dot pattern (helped by the cones placed at the entry, apex and exit of each corner. And course, carving the perfect line is made much easier when you Look. Through. The. Corner. Though we’re only driving at eight-tenths, the Cloverleaf is still pulling an easy 90mph as I brake for Woodcote, and over 100mph as I feather the polished throttle pedal and tip the car right into Madgick at the end of the pit straight, taking care to avoid the dawdling Lambo whose driver is more interested in getting a decent picture for his Facebook profile than maintaining any discernible racing line.
Upon returning to the pits, with the result still a mystery, my passenger asks from behind his clipboard: “Did you enjoy that?” I fumble for answer, muttering something about hooking up a tidy lap being satisfying. Truth is, the concentration required to be so neat is so intense, it’s hard to dissect the experience once it’s over, and it’s certainly not as grin-inducing as slewing around a racetrack purely for the sake of having fun. But this has been an exercise in gaining a licence to race, not muck about, and as such, quiet satisfaction is probably the best impression to be left with.
Fast-forward an hour, and the news is all good. My medical hadn’t turned up any nasties, I’ve aced the written exam, and praise be, passed the driving element too. My National B race licence will be in the post within days. The test itself cost £58, but to combine the tuition will cost you upwards £175 if you take it on independently at one of Britain’s mainly eligible race circuits (find your local haunt at ards.co.uk.schools.) The all-in-one package with Mithril racing at Goodwood is around £500.
Worth it? Yes, for the sanctioned ability to drive the Goodwood hillclimb at the Festival of Speed, or take part in proper competitive motorsport. It’s also valuable for the driving technique improvements you’ll absorb, centred on observation and deftness rather than aggression and irresponsibility. The former will make you faster, the latter slower at best, a liability at worst. Course, this is only where it starts. Once you’ve been bitten by the competitive driving bug, it’s an expensive, enticing road ahead. For your first six races, National B license holders wear the yellow-and-black badge of shame in their windscreen as racing ‘P’ plates. After six trouble-free events, the sticker is binned and you’re eligible to apply for a National A license. Chuck in around £5m in costs to race professionally at the highest level a year, and the Monaco grid beckons…