- Saturday, 28 March 2015

First drive at Blyton Park

6 months, that's a long time to have to wait when you've bought a car you always dreamt of driving. There were fleeting opportunities to go testing with MGR in Spain, but timing and circumstances meant that this never quite came together, not for lack of trying. But that waiting is finally over (hooray!) and on Thursday 26th March I was as ready as I've ever been to set sail for Blyton Park - the van was loaded up at the weekend and nothing short of nuclear armagedon was going to get in my way!

I'd been checking the forecast all week, and sure enough I was looking at a wet start to the day. Initially I was a little frustrated as I had really hoped for a dry track, but after some pragmatic reasoning I thought it would be good to try the car in both wet & dry conditions and as it happened it actually worked in my favour - I'll explain in a minute. 

Around 2 hours drive from Leicestershire, Blyton Park is an ideal place for testing - lots of runoff, they're very friendly there and have a relaxed approach plus there were only five of
us sharing the track for the day so it was like having a circuit all to yourself. It rained pretty much all the way up but I'm quite happy driving the van (or Herve as I've named him), it's very comfy and easy to get around in and I've just bought a Garmin for France which meant I could daydream a little en route. I was travelling alone as sadly timing meant that I was without a mechanic, but as it happened SWB Motorsport were there for the day running a Formula Renault for Richard who owns and runs the venue - Nick and Mick (from Ginetta) really helped me find my feet so I owe them a both a big thank you.

Before I went out I had the benefit of a few sighting laps and some fantastic advice from a chap called Eugene who was working with Richard on driver coaching. An ex racing driver who now focusses on instructing, he'd raced at Le Mans and come 3rd in class driving  a Corvette in 1995 so I really listened to every bit of instruction & encouragement he gave me throughout the day.
Starting off on the wets on a wet but drying track (it was very windy) the car immediately felt very communicative and friendly to drive - any oversteer was easy to catch, it felt very well balanced and not at all intimidating. Wow. The gearbox felt very intuitive with no need to clutch up or down and although it was tricky to get the car rolling from a standstill it all seemed to click quite quickly. After about 8 or 9 laps I decided to come in as it was drying out and I was mindful of cooking the wets. 

Back out on slicks I immediately thought I'd not tightened one of the rear wheels up - was I imagining it? No the car was weaving in a straight line, ok straight back into the pits. I got out and started checking the wheels as a few people came over and explained. 'Oh yes cold slicks always feel like that, don't worry you just need some heat in them' I was told. Ok... So back out I went, and after a 3 or 4 laps I was getting into a good rhythm and suddenly a spin, out of nowhere. I set off and sure enough it happened again, unlike the session on the wets there was no warning and by the time it happens (there is virtually no steering lock) it's too late to catch. After about the third time I came in and had a think. It was cold and I don't think I was getting any heat into the tyres, so on the third stint I tried to build heat into them, but had a really scary moment going through the fastest part of the track - a fast 5th gear chicane when the car just let go. I was convinced I was going to hit something and wreck the car but I came to a stop on the runoff, thanked my lucky stars and made my way back once more. My confidence had gone straight up in the wet, only to come crashing back down - 'how on earth am I going to drive this up a bloody French B road?' is all could think.

It was 1pm and I decided it was perhaps best to go and eat the jacket potato I'd ordered for lunch some time ago, so I headed indoors and tried to focus on what to do next. It seemed simply that I wasn't heating the tyres enough, so I made a concerted effort to work them harder initially whilst not pushing the car too fast, building my speed incrementally each lap and this really worked well. By lap 7 or 8 I was really flying and after two clear sessions like this I was back in my comfort zone. I carried on like this for a few more sessions and suddenly the car was my friend again, and although the slicks were no way near as progressive as the wets, once warmed up you could sense a slide and be on top of it (most of the time!) before it bit you.

I can't get over how incredible the gearbox is, it's so quick and easy to use - ok you have to keep a mental note of what gear you're in unlike an H pattern as you instinctively remember where you last left the stick but even so it lets you concentrate so much more on your line and braking. The brakes are phenomenal too, I don't think I locked up all day, they just felt very strong with great feel - after the first wet session I left foot braked all day and it felt natural (I've been doing since January in my road car so the practice has paid off!). Corning speeds through fast parts had my neck muscles straining, and the next day I really felt it (plus the bruises on my knees - padding required) and it really opens your eyes to what it's like driving with downforce, over the course of a day ultimately quite physically tiring.

It's been a great first test, although my confidence took a dip midway through the day this was perhaps a good thing - it's taught me to respect the car and my own ability. Aside from having enjoyed it immensely I think I've learnt a lot about the car's characteristics and it's given me a good starting point to build on. I'd thoroughly recommend Blyton to anyone looking for a test day, especially if it's your first time in a car like this and you don't want the risk of tyre walls and gravel traps.

I picked up a huge amount of practical advice from all the other teams while I was there and have quite a few jobs to check (including the toe as we found the right front was toeing in more than the left). I'm off to Loton Park this Easter for another test, this time on the Avons, after which it's only 5 weeks until Hebecrevon... time to finish the van!

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