If you're wondering what it's like to go on a Car Control course, have a look at these. You'll almost certainly find one that you can really relate to.
Some refer to a course that I ran on the wet circles at MIRA. It was called 'The Wetter the Better'. That evolved into the more comprehensive Car Control course.
I learned more about driving properly in one day than in thirty years of motoring and ten years of track driving.
Don is your man if you want to understand why, as well as how.
Have you ever had anyone walk into your head, pick up something you didn't want and take it away for you?
It happened to me over a mug of tea and a sausage and ketchup bap one foggy morning in the 'Airfield Diner' at Bruntingthorpe - home of the Vulcan bomber.
I'd gone there to meet the inimitable Don Palmer for his advanced limit handling course. I've been a few times before, with different vehicles, so I'm already quite well grounded in his model of how tyres generate grip and how to feel for and play with this. But today, I'm not just here to explore limits of a new car. I'm here to get my mojo back!
I've always prided myself on my driving, both in terms of a safe and speedy road driver and with a decent level of 'on-the-limit' car control but when I encountered a patch of black ice one cold January evening and ended up off the road having hit a lamppost I lost all confidence - at one point I even considered giving up the driving I'd loved for so long.
My wife and I decided the best thing to do would be to return to the scene of where my driving development really began some 4 years ago and pay Don a visit in the vast open spaces of Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground. There's nothing to hit other than his cones marking the course!
As I'd been a few times before, as had the other 'M' driver who was there for the day, the attitude and structure was even more relaxed than it is when you start with the Fundamentals.
Don knew us and we knew Don, so it was straight to the driving...
"What did you notice?". I knew he was going to ask. He always asks. Why wasn't I prepared with an answer?
At all levels Don expects you to leave him 'owning' the skills you have learned and practised. He doesn't give you all the answers, he gives you the tools to figure out the answer yourself.
Like everything else Don introduces you to throughout your day, it works!
I noticed that, as the laps went by, I was relaxing into it. I was comfortable behind the wheel. I was comfortable when the car started moving about beneath me, rather than tensing up for every bend.
Unsurprisingly, the memory of my accident was causing my problem. As Don explained it, it was a trauma in my mind and I was subconsiously using it to prevent me from being involved in anything similar in future. Unfortunately, this worked so well I could barely drive with it.
Don, chatting to me over that morning breakfast as the fog slowly lifted enough for us to be able to hit the runway, took away that trauma using a very interesting technique and enabled me to see clearly.
The sun had come out on my driving and he was even kind enough, at my request, to spend some time driving on the road with me just to make sure it wasn't just the open space that had enabled me to drive how I know I can. Not just driving either, I've noticed an increase in my happiness and well being in everything now. It had obviously affected me more than I had realised.
The trauma had gone, but this was just the start of the recovery back to my best. For that I would need some more practice and training specific to the roads - but without Don I wouldn't have been going anywhere.
My most sincere Thank You.
It's been a week since we met and every journey since has been a conscious or unconscious continuation of my education in the 'ways of Don'. Several vehicles have been exposed to my new found freedom aided by my new mantra 'just let go', (not one that I had before). I am not deliberately trying to go faster or brake later. However by simply applying your methods, my driving experiences have taken on a much calmer buzz and enjoyment.
...I love driving, I could do it all day every day given the chance, yet it now means even more to me after a day with you!
When you asked at the start what I wanted form the day, you soon established I seemed to want to know everything and I guess I still do (what ever that is). A week on I think it was all about feeling comfortably in control and believing in my own ability. You convinced me somehow that the car was basically invisible as long as I 'gently' took her through her paces.
So, I thank you for helping to spin the car, sorry that's not right. I'm glad it was you who was sat next to me when I span my baby. Days before the coaching I was totally convinced I was going to do something dreadful to my girl, but didn't and even though it was me behind the steering wheel it was down to your cunning guidance.
I just have to thank you again ever so much for yesterday. I have been thinking today about what I have learnt and quite frankly it's incredible.
You've managed to fulfil a dream that I have been working on for years now.
Let me start by asking you a question: How do you know when you've made the right choice? Well... some people 'just know' and others need feedback; confirmation or recognition you might say. Between the 2 there's an instinctive gut feel we have... it tells us when something is instinctively right... it tells us we've made the right choice.
Well... that's the feeling I had right after we'd finished our mugs of tea and bacon sarnies in Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground's Diner cafe and Don said "follow me" and we drove the 2 or so miles down to the end of the airfield.
You see, Don doesn't drive an exotic motor like you may expect...no snarling Lamborghiini, TVR or Noble here. No, a de-badged Golf PDi150. Yup, that's right....completely understated, just like the man himself. Well....‘said’ diesel golf, piloted by a bearded (and slightly portly) Don Palmer sprinted away down the straight and out cornered 2 jap turbo nutter cars with twice the power so comprehensively, that by the time we were thinking about braking from 130mph to shelve off some speed to take the final right hander at the bottom of the airfield, Don was already halfway up the opposinig strip of runway, manoevering his car into a parking slot on the grass (that's two thirds of a mile ahead). Just like I said... sometimes you ‘just know’. We had chosen the right course, and the right coach.
So...the format of the the ‘Fundamentals of Car Control’ day was to drive one's own car, at progressively higher speed, through a pre-determined course of cones depicting fast lane-change events and slalom style direction changes, a course set out in advance by Don himself.
Each series of runs results in questions, why did this happen? What did you feel? What did you notice? What was the cause of that? This is followed by suggestions for the next run – with occasional demonstrations from Don himself.
Which is exactly how the course started back in the diner, lots of questions. After an initial intro over tea and a good chat about cars in general Don asks "So...what do you want to learn"?
For me, this was all about ‘the limit.’ Where is it, how do I recognise it? How do I drive near or at it? How can I be more calm and confident when I am at or near it... instead of a blur of steering, tyre screech and tension. Don asked me to recount a particular moment I had on the track at Anglesey last year...I described it as a click of the fingers when the car let go. He asks me repeated questions "Was it really? What did it feel like? What did you notice?" Eventually he revealed it was the fear factor which was preventing me from relaxing. He built the whole day around that. Your needs only.
Well... back to the driving... After 7-10 familiarisation laps I am lapping the course in 57 seconds consistently. Come lunchtime, I was down to the 53 sec bracket... but at a brick wall... I just couldn't seem to go quicker.
Don helped me understand the factual information preventing me from going quicker - I answered my own questions and discovered, over a steak and chips, that my particular style was not optimising the grip of the tyres. It's a long story and I won't go into it in detail but suffice to say that, come the end of our day, my best time was in the low 49 seconds.
Between the 57 and 49 second bracket I span numerous times and on occasion, achieved the most rewarding series of seamless drifts I previously thought were outside of my talent.
Don's driving and coaching talent knows no boundaries. He demonstrated numerous fundamental points of the day with unparalelled car control and elegance. One of which entailed drving at 110mph, ragging the steering wheel over to the right, getting out of the throttle, then letting go of the steering wheel completely......
On the way back from lunch, driving my car, Don showed us the cornering technique which left us trailing on the horizon back in the morning. A long left hander leading onto the preliminary runway strip, I glanced at the speedo as we entered the corner. 120mph. "Always finish the corner" Don says... Man, that was F.A.S.T.
So...did Don Palmer meet expectations? At the beginning of the day, my belief of the limit was 'a click of ther fingers,' a horrible, gutteral, pant-cacking black and white movie, where scary things happened. By the end of the day, the 'limit' was reduced to a set of beliefs and refrence points... driving at and beyond the limit of your car is actually not as hard as it looks... it is certainly not a click of the fingers. In fact, as I discovered, it's all a bit of fun and a giggle... THEN a bit of a slippery slope (and quite a long one at that) and now, ONLY now... is everything in slow motion... cruise control in fact.
So all that remains is to say thanks to Monsieur Palmer... I've taken the opportunity to sit with many many instructors on track days... all they do is bark orders at you then show off by taking the wheel of your pride and joy (mostly against your wishes) and ringing it within an inch of it's life. Don's unique coaching style is not about that... I discovered the answers for myself and what's even better, I now 'own' that information. Pretty cool, that.
Just a note to say thank you for an excellent day at Bruntingthorpe. I am in awe of your teaching and driving ability, particularly as my previous encounters with driving coaches using the 'do this, now do this, more gas, brake' method have left me with no real understanding of what is needed to drive fast in a controlled fashion.
By lunchtime I was unsure that the day was going to work out as I was a little bemused as to where we were going, but thank goodness that after lunch I finally started to understand and my driving seemed to improve with me feeling much more relaxed. I seemed to drive slower and the car went much quicker!
That was probably the highlight of the day, but you undertaking a racing motorcyclist on a 180 degree bend in a 150 brake diesel golf really demonstrated how important the driver is when it comes to driving fast!
After the course I went out and got my competition licence to do sprints and hill climbs in the Elise. Due to regs I had to change the tyres to another make. With information that you gave me on the course about the way tyres behave, I was up to speed on the new tyres very quickly and had them working the way I wanted them.
My first event was on a very very wet airfield (sounds familiar) and I had a complete blast, although the car spent most of its time aquaplaning I felt in complete control. Everything that you had taught me came in very useful and in the wet I was lying 3rd in my class of some 20 cars. It all fell apart in when it dried, trying a bit to hard a nice 4 wheel drift got the better of me...I was on for a top 3 finish but ended up 9th (including the spin) so it wasn't a perfect introduction into motorsport but it wasn't a bad one either.
Over the year I've picked up 3 first places and 2 thirds. I did my first hill climb which scared the living poop out of me but I loved every minute finishing 6th out of 13 and I was the first non-hill climb prepped car which made me good. I finally finished 4th in our clubs championship (58 competitors).
I know without the coaching I received from you I wouldn't have had a chance at the results I got, everything that you taught me is still very fresh in my mind and I use it everyday on the road and of course when I am competing. I just wanted to say a massive thanks for your coaching, thanks for teaching me how to understand the car and my driving.
You're a legend!!
After last week's spin at Bedford and Emma's passage through a tyre wall, I decided it was time to improve our car control so we both went to Bruntingthorpe yesterday and spent the day with Don Palmer. Basically we had a brilliant day, Don's coaching style works really well, you feel like you've worked things out for yourself.
We both learned to steer our cars properly (its amazing how little you need), I managed to stop gripping the wheel as if my life depended on it and discovered that when all goes wrong letting go of the wheel and leaving the car to sort it self out works. Its given us both a lot more confidence that if we do overdo things then we will be able to cope and avoid going off.
I now know why it all went wrong last week, as having turned in too early and realised I was running out of road I turned the steering wheel some more but of course not a lot happened so when I did ease up on the gas the front hooked up but by then I was pointing the wheels at the grass so thats where we ended up, won't do that again.
The team have asked me to write to you to thank you for transforming our Boss on Wednesday. Since he has got back from Bruntingthorpe, his management style has improved tremendously.
The 'Tyre Department' are saying that they are no longer being pushed around, the 'Steering Group' are responding fantastically now that their instructions are being made in a very soft and gentle way and the 'Engine Room' is revelling in the opportunity to use its skills far more frequently without complaints from the rest of the team – albeit having had to be a bit more patient before receiving instructions. We have had a few mutterings from the 'Brake Boys' that they are having to work a bit harder but when it was pointed out to them that they are providing a hugely valuable service they knuckled down and did what they do best.
Unfortunately, after Wednesday, it became apparent that we had a couple of members who were clearly not team players – namely the OSR wheel bearing and top suspension joint – but it is clear that they haven't been pulling their weight for a while and that Wednesday was the last straw for them. Having spoken to the recruitment company, we have been informed that these members can be replaced at no extra cost because they were still within their probation period, so everyone is happy.
In summary, we are now an extremely happy team. In fact the word that everyone is using at the moment is 'Rhythm'. The Boss is now treating us with much more respect and in return we are delighted to be able to please him more and more often.
Take one geriatric in a yellow Lotus Elan to Brands Hatch GP circuit and you get lapped twice and are 2 seconds PER LAP off the class leader. Add a day with Don Palmer... at Castle Combe and you get 4th overall, 2nd in class and 5.4 seconds off the race winner's lap times. Miracle? Close, but that is what Don can do for you.
Thanks Don, you're a star.
Best fishes eh? Seriously though I had an absolutely fantastic time today. I haven't shut up about it to anyone that will listen to me. The difference you have made to my driving is unbelievable, I am so much more confident behind the wheel and feel much more in control. I am very much looking forward to the chance to take my car round a track (maybe when I am ready for a new set of tyres).
I can't honestly think of any way you could improve the course, I had high expectations for the course and they were all exceeded within the first hour of driving. I would be very interested in attending another of your courses at some time in the future and I will be recommending them to anyone and everyone that I meet that has any interest in driving. I can't thank you enough.
Yesterday, I died and went to heaven. Heaven, let me tell you, is wet.
There are no pearly gates, no harps, angels or cherubs. No St. Peter, no Mary, no Lord Lucan and not the tiniest morsel of Shergar. There are no policemen, no radar traps, no pedestrians and no GATSOs. No children playing, no oncoming traffic, no lack of space and absolutely no grip whatsoever.
There is no God in heaven. There is only Don. But Don has answered my prayers nonetheless. For yesterday Don Palmer, originator of the 'Wetter the Better' advanced handling course, taught me how to hold my Impreza Turbo absolutely sideways for over 300 metres, under full control, all the while grinning like a plastic surgeon at an Oscar ceremony. The best bit is, Dali Palmer can teach you too.
The day begins inauspiciously, at a famous-name roadside café, with staff that look barely more intelligent than the food. Perhaps they should rename it 'The Little Brain'. It’s here that we first meet Don Palmer, and his colleague Colin Scott for an informal breakfast and the obligatory signing of disclaimers. The wet handling facility is just up the road and apparently it’s full of top secret stuff which we aren’t allowed to talk about or photograph, on pain of being eaten afterwards. For a second I wonder if the gristle in my full-English was once part of someone else’s nose.
With forms and bellies filled, we head off in convoy. There’s a definite frisson in the air, and it's got nothing to do with the beans.
The wet handling facility, it turns out, is FANTASTIC. It consists of three parts. A twisty circuit, a long arc, and the roundabout of your dreams. It’s all covered in low friction materials of one sort or another with grip levels ranging from lousy to laughable. Then they spray water on it. Because they can.
There are seven of us here, and we can’t wait to get started. One bloke is hopping from foot to foot like a gecko at gas mark 9, but thankfully Don Palmer wastes no time. After a short briefing he sets out his stall.
"OK everyone, let's play." So we do.
I’m first onto the circuit and it’s awesome. Don Palmer rides shotgun and teaches me more about car control in the next twenty minutes than I’ve learned in the previous ten years. I understeer. I oversteer. I balance the power and the steering. I listen to the car and to Don and between them they tell me everything I need to know. Don talks quietly, laughs a lot, and steers me to arrive at the right conclusions by asking questions, rather than simply telling me what to do. He never, ever shouts. Admittedly he has a beard but no-one’s perfect. Pretty soon I was circulating as fast as it was safely possible to go, right on the edge. Not the ragged edge mind you. The glorious edge beyond which there is only UNTIDY and SLOW.
Pretty soon I felt like Richard Burns, only without the ginger pubes in the plug-hole.
But wait, there’s more. While I’ve been lapping it up, the others have been on the magic roundabout. It consists of three concentric circles; very slippy on the inside, pretty darn slippy in the middle, and really incredibly grippy on the outside to catch you if you cock it up. If only I had a million quid and a bigger back yard...
As I draw up, a guy in a 911 is trying to hang his tail out, if you catch my meaning. At first he spins repeatedly, but after about five minutes he starts to improve and manages to get half way round before the off, about 150 metres! He leaves the circles and swaps seats with his coach. We are all transfixed as the 911 circulates, tail out, with barely any perceptible movement of wheel or throttle. It looks and sounds majestic... even the gecko is standing quite still. Someone laughs out loud. It takes a moment to realise that it’s me, and that it’s my turn next.
Now this the bit you won’t believe. I’m telling you this now so that you can skip it and go on to the end. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Do you know? I swear it’s not as hard as it looks. There, I’ve said it. The hardest part is stopping your face from going into cramp because of the permanent grin.
All it took was the space to learn in safety and some Palmer Karma. "Forget your emotion, feel the motion" says Obi-Don. In other words, stop panicking because frankly there’s nothing to hit and listen to what the car is telling you. And whaddya know? It works! After about 5 minutes I manage a complete circle! 300 metres sideways! OK, it wasn’t the tidiest of jobs but even the guy with the 911 is clapping! There's no rivalry here, just a few like minded souls achieving the same long-held ambition. We’re the A-Team, Kelly’s Heroes, and the Magnificent Seven rolled into one, boldly going where none of us has gone before.
After some coaching on the roundabout we're allowed to use the arc and the roundabout again unsupervised. And believe me we made the most of it. The arc is a huge curved section taken from what would be an enormous circle, if it were complete. It has the same low friction surfaces as the roundabout but let's you practise at higher speed. It too, is soaking wet. A kind of Noah’s arc...
This is where "The Wetter the Better" course comes into it’s own. You spend so much time actually DOING instead of just listening.
We were free to swap between arc and roundabout as much as we liked and there was very little standing around. No-one felt cheated when it came to driving time, and everyone got their money's worth out of the two coaches. One or two of us even swapped cars for a laugh, which enabled me to confirm my long-held suspicion that one particular car should come with a poodle as standard equipment.
So what’s the outcome of all this? Well, when I go to track days now, I pray for rain.
On the road I sense the limit far better than before and simply avoid it. I’ve spent a fortune uprating my Impreza, but when I sell it, someone else will get the benefit. This time, I decided to spend some money uprating the driver, and I have, for less than the cost of a cheap set of tyres.
Yesterday, I died and went to heaven. Heaven, let me tell you one last time, is wet.
'The Wetter the Better', and more fun than a sackful of supermodels...
My confidence has increased and I feel safer whilst piloting my brisk motor. The tactility of the steering has taken on a whole new dimension and I found myself using B roads ASAP instead of the M1 to head off home. Brilliant fun. Thanks for a very enlightening day.
Generally, if you want to explore the outer envelopes of you and your car's ability, and totally understand what you are doing, I can't recommend this man highly enough.
We're all comparing notes about how our driving style has changed, and the common theme is that we are more delicate, more controlled and much, much faster. I can't wait to get back on the track and keep that learning process going.
When deciding to take the plunge and invest in any kind of course, there is always the doubt in the back of your mind that you have chosen the correct course. On arriving at Bruntingthorpe in the snow, with the wind blowing a blizzard I thought that this should be a fun experience.
It was the initial drive down the circuit at 120mph with you at the wheel, with the snow pelting against the windscreen as we approached the first corner, that I feared for my life, my car and your sanity!. Surviving this corner and the rest of circuit it became apparant that I was indeed on the right course with the right instructor.
An excellent day spent learning lots about my driving, my car and also about myself. Many lessons have been thought provoking when driving back on the road and the lessons have been learned well. I am sure that my driving has improved and the lessons will not be quickly forgotten.
Thank you for assisting me in learning the lessons and I will look for the next possible excuse to come back for more.
This is going to sound like an advert but frankly I don't care - If Don becomes rich from his approach to driver training, good luck to him. I learnt more in just a few sessions than any amount of flogging round track days. End of February I turned up at Bruntingthorpe proving ground in Leicestershire having slithered through wet & muddy lanes in and out of patchy fog.
Directed to the canteen for a coffee I met up with another PCGB member (with a 944 Turbo) there for the same reason.
Don turned up, introduced himself and started a day long dialogue about what we wanted out the day, what we knew and the whole thing interspersed with various anecdotes about F40's, Caterham's and like.
The format of the day was to negotiate a course of lane changes and slalom on what I suppose was (is?) the main runway. This at progressively increasing speeds. Each run resulted in another series of questions, why did this happen? What was the cause of that? This was then followed by suggestions for the next run – with occasional demos from the man himself. After familiarisation runs I started to go a bit quicker, at the end of the run I'm knackered - so a demo of how it should be done from Don.
Sadly this was my undoing. After a couple of runs driven by Don my stomach was about 100yds or 2 secs behind me. However what was equally obvious was that he'd gone quicker and with much less effort. So while the 944 Turbo and pilot got the treatment I had time to try and get my stomach together and to ponder the first runs.
This process repeated, the questions supplemented by information about tyres and slip angles sometimes there was a gradual dawning of understanding, once a revelation about the effect of taking lock off to turn tighter!
Somewhere in there we went to the pub for lunch – good food no alcohol. Back to work.
Gradually the times came down and it got easier, the cones were moved apart and the speeds rose this had most effect going through the lane changes – one big spin and the realisation lunch had been a bad idea –any more of that and it would re-appear!
We rounded the afternoon off with a tour of some the workshops at Bruntingthorpe, Ferraris being restored, a totally rebuilt Aston Vantage. Shame about the car sickness but a lot of information gained and in Don's words I now 'own' that information having learned (and understood) from doing.
It's not cheap - but it's a better return on your money than tuning the car – and more satisfying. I need to do more, I will do more, - and I will buy some Dramamine!