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Lotus Driver Training - Hethel

on Tue, 03/07/2007 - 17:00

Group Lotus Sign
I could scarcely believe it when the instructor jumped out and the door to a shiny new Cobalt Blue Lotus Elise 111R lay open in front of me. Fumbling over the sill and falling into the seat I immediately felt a sense of belonging. It's hard to describe but having poured over pictures of the Elise in magazines and requested all the brochures I could get my hands on the Elise felt both new and familiar to me at the same time. I'd sat in a few at motor shows of course and treasured the fleeting time I'd had, but that had all been while stationary. The key was in the ignition and I could feel the gentle hum as the car idled on the tarmac. I clearly remember saying out loud, several times, that I couldn't believe someone was actually going to let me drive a Lotus! Thankfully the instructor was very patient with me, I'm sure he'd seen it all before.

I had arrived at Hethel in plenty of time, queuing up behind an Exige and Lightening Blue Elise S. The Lotus Driver Training course wasn't cheap but it already felt like value for money just being allowed deep into the factory (although that perception did change after subsequently attending several anniversary open days, it didn’t detract from the memory of this first visit). We drove in convoy, my Vauxhall Corsa sticking out as the only non-Lotus present at the day, snaking between large buildings until the test track facility opened up in front of us. Registration was in a basic building to the side of the track with a viewing gallery on the first floor. Bacon butties broke the ice and everyone started to chat away. A safety briefing was held and I tried to take in as much as I could amid my excitement. We were then split into two groups of 4 and headed down to the circuit.

The course consisted of 4 core training activities in total: breaking, slalom, oversteer and understeer. This would be followed by 2 full lap sessions around the famous Hethel circuit. My group’s first exercise was the slalom. Not only was this my first time driving an Elise, it was also my first time on a track. The instructors, a mix of engineers and test drivers, were all very friendly, making the experience feel special rather than intimidating. Winding the Elise through the cones it felt so planted, changing direction with such ease and precision. I wasn't going particularly fast, but compared to my everyday car this was another world. In hindsight, I wished slalom hadn’t been my first exercise, it was a lot of fun but I think I would have got more out of it after I’d acclimatised to the car and track a little more.

Hethel Circuit

Next up was straight line breaking. The aim was to get the car up to speed then apply the breaks at a point designated by a small red cone - a classic Top Gear challenge. Lotus had recently released an anti-lock break option on new higher spec cars so we did the exercise several times each, switching the anti-lock breaks off for the last couple of runs to experience the difference. There must have been a good 4-5m extra in my overall breaking distance without the anti-lock but according to the instructor this could be almost completely eliminated with practice and a gradual but firm pressure on the peddle - if I didn't know it already it was clear there's lots to learn.

After lunch came the turn of understeer and oversteer training on a wet circular section of track. The understeer part was relatively straight forward, building up speed until the front end started to break away or until you snapped it back and into oversteer. For this exercise the rear 17" wheels of the Elise were switched out to match the smaller 16" versions at the front, destabilising the handling and making it prone to oversteer. Creating a controlled slide didn't look easy, no matter how relaxed the instructor seemed as he flicked the steering wheel with minute precision and we drifted for a second or two. Balancing the throttle on a wet surface during turn-in was never going to be easy for a first-timer like me and to say I managed anything even reassembling it would be a lie. I got the feeling this one would take a while to master. Eventually however, I experienced a different kind of first, overcooking it and throwing it into a spin. Bizarrely it felt incredibly peaceful. With the roof off, windows down and a flat section of track stretching out ahead, the air rushed past my face as the car went light - the only thing I could do was relax and let the car spin itself out.

Finally it was time to put everything we had learned into practice and enjoy the two sessions of 4-5 laps a piece. It was at this point my girlfriend and other guests were allowed to join and watch from the viewing deck of the track side building. My first lap was controlled - for the most part. I approached the tight chicane at the end of the back straight with a little too much speed, sensing my instructor tense up I flung it right, left, right and just about made it through unscathed. My confidence, speed and I like to think control grew with each lap. After completing the various technical exercises earlier on this was a great way to end a fantastic day.

Driving round Hethel, the home of Lotus, was a truly wonderful experience and as I had expected from all of my years reading about them, the Elise proved more than capable - at least certainly by my standards. It was an absolute joy to drive, flowing from corner to corner at speeds I'd never before experienced. I learnt so much throughout the day and hit my personal top speed at around 125mph - not far off the Elise's actual top speed (I wonder how long that will stand?). The experience of driving a Lotus Elise for the first time, at Hethel, will never leave me and I would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in cars or who wants to understand what all the fuss is about. The day confirmed what I had hoped about Lotus: great people, great place, great cars.