A couple of laps of an old airfield in a fast car, or a day learning to be a world champion? The Lotus Driving Academy promises so much more than a supercar experience, so Will Beaumont went to investigate.
Driving experience days. They’re usually held at swanky purpose-built facilities with fresh new tarmac and skid pans soaked by dancing water features. Or, if you’re unlucky, you’ll find yourself on a scruffy old airfield with lots of space and not a lot else. Rarely are they hosted at a location that has any real relevance to the car you drive.
Unless you stumble upon the Lotus Driving Academy, that is. Based at the firm’s Norfolk HQ, the Lotus driving experience uses is the very same track that every single one of the company’s cars has been honed since 1966. That’s both road and race cars.
The Lotus test track at Hethel may once have been an airfield, but it’s only its lack of elevation gives away its past. There’s not the rough concrete surface littered with tufts of grass that you’ll find on a regular airfield. Instead, there’s the smooth black asphalt, pit lane and raised corner kerbs of any full-blown race track, as well as some dramatic green and yellow-painted runoff areas.
The names given to each element of the Hethel circuit betray another aspect of the circuit that isn’t initially obvious. There’s Mansell Main Straight, the Senna Curves, the Fittipaldi Straight, the Rindt Hairpin and other corners called Clark, Graham Hill and Andretti. Every single one of these Formula One world champions has all driven here.
Lotus’s driving experience is called an academy because, rather than just getting a taste of its range of glistening new cars, you’re meant to actually learn something. Exactly how much depends on what course you go for, from a half-day in an Elise from £119 up to a three-day ‘Lotus Licence’ for £1599. But even though Hethel has hosted a huge amount of driving talent in the past, you aren’t going to absorb any of that skill by simply standing on the tarmac. Instead, you get a teacher. Rob Barff, my instructor for the day, may not be as famous as the names above but with experience at Le Mans, the Daytona 24 and the Sebring 12 Hour he’s overqualified when it comes to teaching me a few moves.
After a short briefing, I slip on a helmet and clamber into a Lotus Exige 410 Sport and head to the circuit, Barff riding shotgun. Crawling down the pit lane onto the Hethel test course, snug in a bucket seat, an exposed gear linkage by my left knee and that bright yellow Lotus crest staring back at me from the steering wheel, I can’t help but think about the vast history of this place and its deep significance to Lotus. I know the Exige is going to feel at home here. I mean, if it doesn’t work at Hethel where is it designed for? But, as I’m here to improve my skills, I’m glad I’m in a car that’s perfectly suited to its location, and not in something that’s going to need persuading and cajoling around a track.
The gravitas of driving a Lotus around the Hethel circuit quickly disappears from my mind when we’re onto the track proper. It’s never pleasant having someone observe how you drive, and Barff’s initial silence as he evaluates my skill level and identifies what I get right, as well as the many things I get wrong, is nerve-wracking. But one lap down and the tips, pointers and, unbelievably, praise starts to flow. Barff encourages me to brake later, use more of the track and maintain high speeds through the corners. He has confidence in me that not only makes the nerves a distant memory but bolsters my self-belief.
There are areas I do need to improve. I am a little too eager when accelerating out of corners, but Barff doesn’t get strict or leap to intervene. Instead, he highlights the negative effects it’s having on my speed so I am aware of what’s adding to my lap time. A few more attempts while implementing Barff’s suggestions and the results are clear, I approach the following set of corners with greater speed than ever. What that means is I have to alter my approach to a different part of the track. Thankfully I have expert guidance.
Much like a Lotus itself, the Lotus Driving Academy is stripped of gimmicks and unnecessary stunts. You’re not going to be needlessly flattered or lark about for the hell of it, you’ll get something far more valuable; you’ll learn how to be a better driver – not just one who has an inflated sense of confidence on slippery surfaces. And you know what, scything away at my lap times, carving through corners and balancing the car on the edge of its grip, was even more satisfying and enjoyable than any dramatic antics you can have on a skidpan.
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