In the past I’d always pictured myself as a budding astronaut, thwarted only by circumstances and my less than 20-20 vision. Then I tried the Mission: Space shuttle simulator at Florida’s Walt Disney World. Maybe not, then. This race track experience had been a similar reality check. Evidently a career as an F1 driver wasn’t on the cards for me either.
Hurtling around the bends at break-neck speed (I understand the phrase now), hitting the straights at a top speed of 140mph, and abruptly braking on the bends was doing my stomach no favours.
We were at the Lotus Driving Academy in Hethel, Norfolk, on its 2.2-mile, F1-specification test track, purpose-built as a proving ground for the Lotus cars built here. At first, I take the series of bends, hairpin corners and straights in my stride. On the warm-up lap I’m happily holding a conversation with Darren, the test driver-cum-host, who looks like he’s barely out of uni, despite having been with the company for over 23 years.
While gathering pace round the track Darren fills me in on its backstory, pointing out remnants of the defunct US airfield, which was used during WWII. Group Lotus moved its HQ here in 1966, spruced it up as a home for its factory and also spec’d up the track. F1 royalty who’ve stopped by to get their Lotus cars fine-tuned have included Jim Clark, Jochen Rindt and Ayrton Senna.
“I was an apprentice at Lotus and then I was given a choice of engineering or test driving,” says Darren. “They saw I had a natural interest and talent on the track.” And an iron stomach.
Lap two, as Darren continues to describe the track he clearly knows like the back of his hand, I’m watching his superfast gear changes get the best out of the 3.5-litre, supercharged V6 engine. Lap three, last bend — a particularly sharp one — there’s no talking.
Darren asks if I’m feeling OK.
“I think this might have to be my final lap,” I say.
Darren returns me safely to the starting line. Pulling off my helmet I’m almost certain I must look green.
“What did you think?” says my other half, a keen Lotus fan. “I wanted you to experience a fast drive and understand how safely I drive.”
Not quite what I’d gleaned from this experience. Nevertheless, I’ve been impressed by the speed, braking and overall race-car handling of this road car, although when does anyone get to drive a car like this on any of our roads? And where?
That said, the one-to-one driving tuition offered by the Lotus Driving Academy would certainly improve my driving skills. And it’s pretty popular. Now there’s a thought. I can’t possibly feel any more feel sick than this I’m behind the steering wheel instead of in the passenger seat. Can I?