Two days ago I cheekily booked in a track day for myself at Snetterton. I had been planning to delay my first track encounter until October so I could go with a friend who could introduce me, but I had some free time this week and decided to just go for it. My first time driving a proper road car for performance.
A two-hour drive later and I arrive at Snetterton. I'm fairly early but some other people are already done with the signup. It doesn't take too long, and I'm soon waved away to get my car measured for noise. With that done I just wander around the pit area walking around. There's not many people yet, and those that are there already are of the young, chavvy kind. Not exactly my kind of scene, nor will it ever be. After a long wait the safety briefing begins, which is not particularly exciting or surprising, except for the fact that you're only allowed to overtake on the left (since it's a right-hand track) for safety reasons. Me being the ultimate novice worrier, this puts me at ease a bit. I've been waiting 2 hours now, I just want to get going.
After the safety briefing I manage to get one of the instructors to go with me on my first session. Well, second session, because the entire first session consists of introduction laps behind a pace car. I hardly know where to go but soon I manage to get myself and my car in the pit lane, ready for the first laps. I was expecting a reasonably slow parade lap kind of show, since it was just meant to familiarize ourselves with the track, but the group of cars I'm in speed up to near race pace. It caught me unawares but I manage to keep up, unlike a car about 5 cars ahead of me, which soon gives up trying to follow the pace car and starts driving at its own pace. Since we're not allowed to overtake during the first session, we all drive neatly behind the slower car until the session finishes.
After a short break all the novices head back into the pit lane for the second session, and I pick up my instructor. There's not much time for chitchat as we immediately head out and I tackle the first corner like a shitty amateur. The instructor reiterates what was said in the briefing about when to brake and makes a comment about the heal-toe downshift I just fucked up. Although the guy, whose name I don't even know, was rather blunt in his comments, it did help me out. A bit, at least. Most of the stuff he said was stuff that I should (and do) know already, but in the excitement of actually being out on a real track in a real car, sort of forgot about. So it's good to have someone next to you to keep hammering it in to you that you should stick to the racing line, brake at the right moments, don't shift too much and so on. That said, I can't say that it was the perfect learning environment. There's just way too many cars on the track, despite the organization claiming that they limit the number of cars for novice sessions.
At some point near the end of the second session my instructor commented: "do you smell that? that's brakes". I asked him if it was the brakes of the beaten-down 90s Peugeot driving in front of me, but no, the smell was indeed emanating from my own brakes. At the end of the second session, as I parked up, a Ford Fiesta pulled up next to me and I could see the smoke coming off its brakes. Mine were not quite as bad, but the entire pit lane smelled of burnt-up brakes.
The final two sessions I did all on my own, but I didn't quite get up to peak performance again because I wanted to spare my brakes. The third session was a very good intro to all kinds of lovely things: locking the wheels while braking and turning, inducing oversteer in a slow corner by powering up too much, and some proper battles with similarly-matched cars. The GT86 really showed its strengths and weaknesses here: I managed to catch up with cars that were faster than me in the corners, but on the straights they would start to outrun me. In the fourth session I had a great time chasing after a Porsche 911 Turbo, which I let pass on the straight and then managed to hold on to for 2 whole laps before my brakes started fading again and I had to slow my pace.
I guess the thing that surprised me the most is how serious things were on-track. It doesn't matter what kind of person you are off-track, once you're on the track, it's just you and the car. You immediately have to be ultra-aware of everything and be in full racing mindset. Another thing that surprised me is how much and how quickly tire wear and brake wear affect the driving experience. I honestly didn't think that you could fade your brakes in a single 20-minute session. The tires took a bit longer to warm up, but at the end of the third and fourth sessions I could definitely sense that they were more eager to lose grip than they were in the beginning. It could just be that they heated up and were a bit too high on pressure.
At the end of the evening I let my brakes cool down a bit and had a break before heading back home. The brakes had been a bit squeaky before the track day, and they used to be covered with some kind of yellow blotchiness. After the track day they were squeaky clean and without the squeak. There wasn't much socializing going on between the racers, they were all in their own groups and mostly headed home immediately.
As I drove back doing the speed limit on a dark highway, I felt more in control of my car than before. I know its limits now; when the grip of the tires starts to fade, how much stopping power the brakes can deliver, and what happens if you can't clear a corner cleanly. All of these are things that you should never need on the public road, but knowing them still makes me feel more confident.
By the way, GT86 torque dip: completely irrelevant on-track. The only reason you'd want this fixed is if you're only using it on the highway; on track you'd constantly be at higher revs anyway, and then all you'll want is some serious power rather than a tiny torque fix. Seriously, a lot of the cars I saw on track today were very evenly matched, despite differing BHP levels and different weights. Mostly it came down to driver skill and familiarity with the track. If you're racing a GT86, first get better brakes, then better tires, then a supercharger (which incidentally should fix the torque dip as well).
Part of me is dying to spend lots of money on my car, to get better brakes, tires, exhaust and maybe a supercharger. But that would be silly. It would be better to get a dedicated track-day car instead, and a racing license, which would offer a more proper racing experience. But that's not the reason I got this car. GT stands for Grand Touring: for taking your car out on a long trip and enjoying the way it drives. I'm finding out that, to me, perhaps, track days will be a means to improve my skill with the car so I can enjoy it more on public roads. Maybe. That's how I feel about it right now, perhaps that will change over time. We'll find out after the next track day :) .