Over-zealous officials are taking the fun out of trackdays, says Jethro
‘Dare to turn off traction control and all kinds of fury are set to rain down’
THERE ARE FEW FINER FEELINGS THAN FIXING a towing eye to your car as the high-energy buzz of expectation, nerves and a little sliver of danger swirl around the pitlane. You’ve had the briefing, signed on, got your brightly coloured wristband and in just a few minutes you’ll be out there. On track, driving at the limit, testing your car and yourself, totally unconstrained, wide-eyed with focus as adrenaline makes your arms feel stiff and heavy.
Trackdays are not as all-enveloping as racing, but they’re close enough and they represent that rarest of things these days. Freedom. No cameras. No temporary speed limits. No lemmings crowding the outside lane at 62mph or sitting behind a tractor on an arrow-straight road, refusing to overtake. Driving with a bunch of like-minded enthusiasts on a race circuit, being courteous and aware of other traffic and hazards. That smell of hot brakes and hard-worked internal combustion engines. It’s a kind of Utopia.
Well, it should be. But, right now, trackdays are very often rather glum affairs. The briefings are all ‘you’re sure to die at Turn 4 if you go off’ and ‘be careful otherwise we’ll send you packing’. And should your confidence not be shot to pieces at this stage and you dare to turn off traction control… well, all kinds of fury are set to rain down upon you. The merest hint of oversteer – invisible to the naked eye of anyone but a marshal – creates a panic and the next post you pass will have a board screaming ‘NO DRIFTING’. The next 1-degree slide that goes on for 0.6sec will have you black-flagged. All that money wasted. The pleasure of a group of enthusiasts enjoying the innocent fun of exploiting their cars pulled away in an instant. In its place the flushed dread of feeling like a naughty schoolboy.
I’m sad to report that many trackdays (although not all) feel increasingly heavily policed. It’s as though the creeping ideology that cars are evil has somehow spread its poison into the trackday scene. Worse, the directions of travel of trackday rules and road car technology have diverged to such an extent that they barely seem to speak the same language.
New cars are awash with extremely clever and empowering traction control systems that allow people of different skill levels to push towards and slightly over the limit. To experiment. To get a glimpse into that most magical promised land, the land of power oversteer. And yet it would be entirely possible to arrive at a trackday in, say, a new BMW M3, activate the variable M Traction control, dial it to the mid-way setting and then get black-flagged and a very stern telling-off for ‘DRIFTING’. It’s a nonsense and, as somebody who loves the freedom of track driving, something akin to a tragedy.
I understand the logic. People driving beyond their skill level might spin or crash and hurt themselves. Red flags might cut other customers’ track time. All perfectly valid concerns. So, have a common-sense approach. Observe. Take a judgment on each individual case. Don’t encourage absurd smoky drifts but don’t punish the simple act of getting around quickly in a powerful rear-wheel-drive car. Let the day flow, let the drivers feel liberated and beg to come back for more. I’d bet 90 per cent of attendees would happily take the risk of slightly more relaxed rules in order to feel that elusive sense of freedom. You might get one more red flag per trackday as somebody is dragged out of the kitty-litter. But the time you would have on track would be so much more fulfilling.
This isn’t intended as an attack on marshals. Far from it. I just think the rules they’re asked to observe need a rethink. Don’t demonise the very thing people come to a trackday to explore – the feeling of their car at its outer limits. Use common sense to weed out the hopelessly overconfident but nurture those looking to improve their car control. Tailor the tolerances depending on conditions and circuit. Sure, be extra cautious on a cold Goodwood or Thruxton, but loosen up at a sunny Silverstone GP or Bedford Autodrome. Our roads get ever more restrictive, our cars get ever faster. If trackdays continue to be so aggressively policed, what hope do we have of really getting to experience them?
Here’s a sweetener. Every trackday organiser, every marshal and every circuit boss should be granted time in a BMW M car, or an AMG or Jaguar F-type. Anything quick and rear-drive will do. If they can manage three laps without a bit of unintended oversteer they get to wield their NO DRIFTING board at will. If not, they let it get a little bit dustier. Driving a car with 500bhp or more on road tyres without going sideways is a skill in itself, of course. Just not one many people would like to acquire. Let them eat cake. But first, let them go sideways.