An article in Performance French Cars, published May 2009.
Words by Adam Tait and photography by Jeremy Gassman of photoviva.co.uk.
With news filling the air of a potential French sprint series, we visited renowned driving coach, Don Palmer, to see if it's possible to cut down on lap times without spending money on aftermarket parts.
Some of you may be deep in thought about a monumental engine build or general motorsport preparation, but have you thought about spending money on yourself? Not on Nomex underwear, but on improving your driving ability.
A well-prepared sprint / hillclimb / track car is usually wasted if its driver has never taken advice, or undertaken professional coaching. Some of you may already be competitive at venues like Prescott, Shelsley, Castle Hill or Gurston or generally quite handy on track, but spending the day with driving guru and legendary coach, Don Palmer will give you a better understanding of not only yourself, but your steed too.
Having got to know our Twingo RS Cup long-termer kindly loaned to us by the Renault press department, we've come to realise that its agile persona and punchy 1600cc twin-cam could be the basis for a superb sprint / hillclimb car. So beyond the restrictions and hazards of the UK's roads, we were itching to reach its limits. The destination was Bruntingthorpe in Leciester, an expanse of airfield concrete that's big enough to soak up any spin.
"Brake, brake, brake!" immediately ensued by "turn, turn, turn!" then a "go, go, go go!" - fail to do this and they will be extremely peeved if you don't happen to process their every command (while trying to simultaneously drive quickly). That is the usual puppet on a string methodology that you may discover with some racing drivers who can't actually instruct to save their lives. What skills you did have seem to be totally obliterated, because your left eardrum is mortified by a flurry of vocal commands in rapid succession, and more often than not, you are left wanting to injure them with a blunt object.
Luckily, Don Palmer's method of coaching is a far cry from being incredibly aggravating, overruling or demoralising. The 'Car Control' course begins to probe my knowledge, previous experience, driving goals and the renowned; "what exactly is it you want to get from the day?" My response to this was based around two main elements; "Ahh, well, erm, I'd like to improve on braking (an area that wasn't great) and steering (I was too aggressive)." They were just two thoughts, but I knew there would be a whole lot more to learn.
I have been competing in sprints and hillclimbs with moderate success, but my driving technique (if you can call it that) is self-taught, so I knew that professional coaching was going to be a real advantage, but I wasn't sure just how beneficial it was going to be. To me, as banal as it may sound, driving is a life education that never seems to reach a peak - old age may slow you down, but there's always room for improvement. In addition, driving quickly, or on the limit, is something that needs constant honing and perfection. Neglect it, and you will fall off the ladder.
It's blokes like Don who can speed this process up, cram what you could learn over a long period, into a single day. By the final sip of our second up of tea, I'm left really curious as to how the day will unfold, because it was clear that Don's slant on coaching was wayward of conventional. It was time to venture out to the coned sprint course, but before we depart from the diner, he makes a point of reminding me that lots of laughter is essential to the day.
A week before the course, I suggested to Don that I drive a lap to what I'd consider as quick, with no instruction, and then use that as a benchmark to work from. As it turned out, this method was fairly typical, but this time around we were working on a sprint format (two practice and three timed runs). So, complete with stopwatch around his neck, Don climbs aboard and I spear the Twingo through the coned starting gate, wait for the 7000rpm shift light in first, second, then reach the upper limits of third before an abrupt lane change section. This involves a dab of brakes and a quick right-left-right before straightening up again.
Clip the redline in third and then its hard on the brakes (I got on them too late) followed by a heel-and-toe into second for the bottom hairpin. I turn in, only to be greeted with colossal understeer (second obvious blunder). Then its up to third for a series of slaloms (where understeer once more intervened). It is then on to the finish in the confines of a coned gate, a section that can be cocked up if you make a hash of the final slalom. Don complimented my effort, but I knew that lurking behind that were a multitude of faults he'd picked up on. Even I could recognise in certain areas where I was going wrong, but thoughtlessly, I failed to make corrections across all four runs.
Don's unorthodox approach to coaching gets your own brain working. Rather than being presented with a shortlist of where I went wrong, Don first drives the course with me in the passenger seat. "What do you notice about my driving that's different?" he asks. Steering inputs were absolutely minimal, but fluid, he obviously had a superb feel for the middle pedal and for the slalom section, he was using the throttle and brake amendments to invite the rear of the Twingo to the party, rather than washing the front end away. Oh, and that notorious bottom hairpin was tackled with equal precision.
"What an excellent car this is!" Don shared his newfound enthusiasm for the Twingo (which he previously assumed was going to fall over) with snapper Jeremy Gassman. He liked it enough to wager that it could trounce a neighbouring bright yellow 911 GT3 around a tight course. I was sceptical, but thought it would be rude not to try. As you can see, the Twingo was all over the GT3, and on the penultimate bend, the Porsche spun, leaving the underdog with an outright win. Wunderbar!
To avoid overloading the client, the driving is broken up by theory in order to gain a better understanding of how the car behaves.
Using a section of tyre, Don replicates different situations, then asks what would, or is happening through driver inputs. He then moves onto steering and braking 'hints'. Whereby you apply a degree of lock or light pressure on the brake pedal in order to prepare the car for what is about to happen. Practicing these methods was shaving seconds from my lap time.
I'm encouraged to take a more delicate hold of the wheel in order to have a better feel of when the front begins to lose traction. Not to mention partial lift-off to allow the front end to bite. With encouragement from Don, rather than a dab of the brakes, the lane change gets taken with a mere lift and then it's a 'hint!' before braking hard for the hairpin. It was so much cleaner this time. The gruelling slalom section was also a test for my new steering technique. Unlike before, I was now using minimal inputs (cued with a 'hint' before each change of diraction). The Twingo shrieks underfoot and Don encourages more speed, but his quips and intermittent chuckles means you're at total ease with him being a passenger. &quBy far your quickest time yet! Did that feel better?" Don enquired enthusiastically. It certainly did, according to the stopwatch, I'd shaved over nine seconds from my original time. Hard proof that it's possible to make the Twingo move considerably quicker without spending a penny on aftermarket modifications.
You're not always going to have expert advice at your side, so developing the mentality of asking yourself "where am I going wrong?" is a practial asset to employ in future situations. Through Don's untraditional but incredibly useful guidance, I left Bruntingthorpe armed with the ability to pinpoint where and why certain blunders were occuring. As for my transformed driving technique, well that's definitely something that I'm going to practice from now on.
It's possible to get stuck in a rut when it comes to driving technique. I proved this by repeating my (slower) method on the sprint course, but since the coaching I had from Don, it's completely changed my outlook and approach, which means I'm now a more understanding, faster, more fluid driver. I didn't realise how minimal you can be with steering inputs when pushing on, or how well brake pedal or steering wheel 'hints' can prepare the car for what is about to happen. It may be £450 for the full day, but it's a figure that can be spread across pretty much any car I drive. So, if you want to find the limits of your steed and make the whole package faster without the need for bolt-on modifications, then it doesn't come much better than this.
2013 Don Palmer. All rights reserved.