Life in the Fast Lane

An article in The Players Club, published October 2004. Words by David Blows.

David Blows at the wheel

In today's high speed world, fast cars are commonplace — but do motorists have the skills necessary to drive them safely? Dave Blows took his Impreza Turbo for a day out and made some startling discoveries...

Driving guru Don Palmer loves to screw with your head. And when he's finished and you reach for the cigarettes, the realisation dawns that what you’ve just experienced was almost as orgasmic as the real thing.

Let's face it, short of sex (or scoring the winning goal in the FA Cup final) there's not much that compares to driving like a lunatic in a ballistic chunk of metal on four (or fewer) screeching tyres at speeds and angles that seem impossible in the real world.

I went to Palmer fuelled by a desire to understand what my car can do but, more significantly, what I was capable of. Despite owning a Japanese rice rocket, the times I've been in skids or slides matches Baldrick's sexual conquests, but at least I had a cunning plan to find out what it's like to lose control and emerge both unscathed and enlightened by the experience.

Porsche 944 on the track at Bruntingthorpe

Those trouser-rustling moments are things we all fear, but how to react when it happens? The natural response is to panic, freezing in that split-second of fear with potentially dire consequences.

White-knuckle rides at theme parks are kids stuff compared to the adrenaline-fuelled rush that a day's manic motoring delivers. But, and it's a big but, what Palmer offers is far more than a blast round a controlled environment on an airfield at Bruntingthorpe near Leicester.

For his Driving Development course is just that — huge fun, but far more. The day's experience leaves you knackered, infused by the smell of burning brakes and melting rubber and your tyres in shreds, but with an immense realisation that you’ve learned so much about what driving is all about. What you are all about. And it’s all indelibly imprinted in your head, arming you with a newfound respect and understanding you can take onto our overcrowded roads.

Impreza STi driving round a cone

I took the plunge alongside Reading keeper Marcus Hahnemann, a Porsche driving fanatic Don has known for years whom he describes as a "big, brash American with gonads the size of Saturn." Between us we had it all — Don the guru, Marcus as the sorcerer’s apprentice and me as the virgin desperate to lose my motoring innocence.

Let me put it all in context: The sensible hatchback or saloon of today would have been the supercar of yesteryear. Turn back the clock 30 years to the dark and dismal days before Mr Sony invented his Playstation and just about the only affordable performance motor was Triumph's Dolomite Sprint with its almost unheard of sub nine second 0-60, dubious build quality, questionable road holding and spongy brakes that wouldn’t stop a skateboard on corrugated concrete.

Today, the moans and groans of the motoring fraternity can be heard in Outer Mongolia if their Vectra or Mondeo can't match performance figures like the Dolomite — and out-drive it in every department. Even white van man can terrorise us with high-speed road runners.

Turn up the heat and there are vast numbers of sub £20,000 super-quick motors that would eat the dear old Dolomite for breakfast and spit out its fragile alloy block with contempt, from the humble Mini Cooper to the Civic Type R to the Focus RS and world rally inspired Subaru Impreza Turbo. Even Skodas for heaven’s sake — the RS Octavia is a truly mean machine for the price of a Mazda saloon.

Speed cameras or not, that means the bulk of today’s motoring population, not the exclusive minority of not-so-long-ago, drives high-powered cars at much higher speeds with no more intense training than an Asda shelf stacker. And don’t we all believe the vast array of electronic aids in our cars, from, ABS to EBD, ASR to AYC, TC to ESP (and I don't mean extra sensory perception...) means we are the safest thing in our metallic cocoons since little men with red flags walked in front of Model T Fords a century ago? Scary.

The state of one 944 tyre at the end of the course

Today's cars hold the road like chewing gum on your shoes. They're built as solidly as the Incredible Hulk and they've all got brakes that would stop flies splattering your windscreen (flies take note). So we all drive more slowly, don’t we? Yeah, right and Thierry Henry's a carthorse with clubfeet...

"Ordinary" cars are fast and they’re here. Full stop. But is there an answer to making life safer 'out there' other than common sense driving? Not track days in my opinion. They're costly and time-consuming where fun is the Holy Grail, not the acquisition of real-world skills.

I reckon many of the plethoras of days out advertised in the back of motoring mags also miss the point. Sure, you get to drive fast cars, but you're told how to drive: "Steer that line; break here; accelerate there." It’s zombie-motoring — you're in charge and having a good laugh but the instructor's driving and at the end of the day do you learn anything? I’ve done it. I didn’t.

That's where Don Palmer is different. His experience is legendary — a stiff body is a chassis tuner's wet dream and that's why so many top manufacturers queue up for his input. He knows and understands cars. Even former F1 world champion Jackie Stewart has exploited his talents.

But it's the way he does it that’s different and suddenly we're back to the sexual metaphors — he's gentle, considerate, takes as long as you need to reach fulfilment and then praises you for your performance while he lights your fag.

The Porsche 944 cornering

"With a coaching approach, I offer the responsibility of ownership of what you learn, and what you learn is a set of beliefs and values around driving," he explains.

"I don't give instructions, I might suggest you go fast so that you go faster and together we'll find out what happens. It's about you gaining experience and starting to learn what makes the difference."

"The deal is that you don't know where the limit is and it's my job to help you know - to get stuff out of my head into yours without you noticing. People think that when you get near to the edge of what's possible it's like standing with your balls on one side of a razor and you on the other. It's not like that - it's a slippery slope."

"So how do you know when you are on the slippery slope and what do you do when you get there? That's a combination of who you are, how you manage it, what the car is doing and what the tyres are doing. The basic principles are very simple - the difficulty is the human being who is scared to lose his balls."

It's all clever stuff from the man who spends thousands of pounds every year on honing not just his driving skills but his mind game techniques — psychology is a major part of Palmer’s armoury.

Does he believe in a real world application of what he preaches? You bet. He wants you to find out "what panic feels like" so that if, god forbid, the unexpected happens, the big freeze can be thawed. No guarantees but, like a condom, there’s some protection available.

There are three things Palmer wants wannabe drivers to understand:

  1. Know where the road goes
  2. Learn car control skills and know where to put it on the road
  3. Understand how to manage your state of mind
Marcus Hahnemann

"If you are faced by a vertical mammary situation and everything goes tits up, you need to be able to rescue it,", he says.

It is a view shared by 31-year old Seattle-born Hahnemann, who has been driving since he was a kid but joined the ranks of the fast car brigade when he came to England and bought a high-spec Impreza Sti, followed by a Porsche 911 Club Sport and his current beast, a highly modified 944 turbo.

"Don calls himself a coach, not an instructor, and that's the difference," says Hahnemann. "He always lets you come up with the answers. You ask questions and it sticks in your head longer."

What he says makes sense, but it also begs the question why professional sportsmen, espeically footballers, are not taught these skills as part of their education?

Marcus drives the Porsche round the circuit

Particularly the young, confident, upwardly mobile cash-rich kids let loose on the roads in 150mph-plus motors having barely passed their driving test.

"I hadn't really thought about that," Hahnemann frowns. "You are young, a bit carefree. The way we tackle our profession is to go head on, full speed and feel a bit indestructible.

That's the way we have to because if we don't have that confidence we wouldn't be where we are at. Part of the problem is if you have that confidence (some say arrogance, but the only difference between the two is someone's perception) and you take that from soccer to a fast car, which is inherently more dangerous, so you should learn how to drive these things.

A lot of guys have really fast cars and learning to drive them is the big thing. I think a lot of people are worried that a course like this is really dangerous. But it's not. It's all about learning how to drive a car in a safe environment.

Situations happen - that's why there are accidents. Suddenly with the speed you are travelling at and the corner you have to make it's all wrong and you have to figure out what will happen and how you deal with the slide, lane change or whatever it takes."

David Blows and Marcus Hahnemann

So is Palmer's Driving Development course the ultimate answer?

Of course not. One day's exploration of you and your car does not make you an expert, it merely opens your eyes to a wider horizon.

As Hahnemann explained, practice is key. "If the forward is about to shoot and I take time out to consider whether to dive or hold my hands to this side or the other, by the time I've reacted, they have already scored and carried the ball back to the halfway line," he says. "You have to keep practising and learning how to react to make sure you get it right."

2013 Don Palmer. All rights reserved.