Ripple strips, braking zones, apexes and speeds close to 200km/h. How can a high-performance driver training day improve your road driving? CarAdvice spent the day at Sandown Raceway with the team from Driver Dynamics to find out.
Started in 1990 by director and chief instructor Kevin Flynn, Driver Dynamics runs courses in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide for drivers of all skill levels.
Starting with Level 1 and 2 Defensive and Advanced driving courses – currently priced from $149 and $315 respectively – both new and experienced drivers are catered for. All you need is a valid driver’s licence, a car, and fuel in the tank.
We signed up for Driver Dynamics’ Level 3 High Performance training day, which set us back $350.
Running from 8:30am to 4:00pm, the day includes all necessary safety and rescue crew, lunch and refreshments, a minimum 20 minutes on track per hour and as much professional high-performance driver training as you like from qualified instructors.
Our weapon of choice for the day is a completely standard road-going Mazda MX-5. Teaming a six-speed manual transmission to a 118kW/188Nm 2.0-litre four-cylinder, the 1100kg MX-5 remains one of the most iconic and best-handling sports cars around.
Master trainer Peter Barr starts the day with a driver briefing, where he explains track direction, flags, use of mirrors, track etiquette, vision, cornering, braking and general safety.
This is followed by a track inspection around Sandown’s 3.1km circuit, covering its13 corners and two near-900m-long straights.
Back to the pits and it’s helmets on – supplied if you don’t have your own – and out onto the track for the day’s first proper laps.
Strapped into the passenger seat, Barr – a guy with more than 30 years of racing experience – takes us out to show us the basics.
There to highlight your car’s abilities, rather than simply ‘hurt’ your pride and joy, Barr points out the ideal racing lines and associated braking makers.
“I’m not going to drive flat out because you’ll learn nothing if I drive flat out,” Barr says.
“Now what we’re going to work on for a start is our braking points, because our braking points are the start of our whole sequence.”
When asked what people will take away most from the day, Barr says everyone will learn different things.
“Personally I think that the whole business of driving a car fast is about maintaining balance,” Barr says.
“If you haven’t got balance, you can’t drive fast, you can’t use power.
“Vision is [also] absolutely crucial – looking where you want the car to be, not at what you can hit.”
Importantly, he also emphasises that being in a controlled environment means that “if you muck up a corner one lap, you get a chance to get it right the next lap".
“And look, it’s an opportunity for people to enjoy their vehicles, learn something, and you’ll find at the end of the day everyone will go home with a big smile on their face, they will have had fun, they won’t drive as fast on the way home as they probably drove here this morning, no one will die, everyone will still have their licence in their pocket, and we reckon that’s probably a good way to go about it.”
Talking up the little Mazda on the way back into the pits, Barr says, “They’re a lovely balanced car these, they’re really nice.”
“It’s talking to you every single minute that you’re out there.”
With the circuit knowledge fresh in the mind, it’s our turn.
Split into three groups for the day – beginners, intermediate and expert – you’re only ever on track with people of a similar skill level to yourself.
We leave the pits and reach the Turn One braking marker in fourth gear. We brake, grab third gear and turn in, making sure we’re looking up and as far ahead as possible.
We move left, brake, grab second gear, turn in, look ahead and position the car out to the right. Brake, turn left and feed on the throttle onto the back straight. Third gear, fourth gear, sight our braking maker and brake.
Turn into Turn Six and float the car down through Turns Seven and Eight, moving right before braking hard into the second-gear Turn Nine left hander. We feed in the throttle and straight-line Turn Ten, getting ready for the final three corners.
Move left, brake, grab second gear, tip it right, dab the brake, point it left and let the car move out to the right. Throttle up and peg it down the main straight. One lap in the bank. Repeat.
Performing solidly all day, the MX-5 proves not only fun and competent but reliable, too, genuinely impressing us throughout the day, even on its Bridgestone street tyres.
To learn more, we give up some wheel time to sit shotgun alongside two-time Japanese G1 Drift Champion and Driver Dynamics instructor Chris DeJager.
“One of things I try to suggest is put everybody [instructors] in the car,” DeJager says.
“One guy will be able to pick on one tip, the next guy picks on something else, and everybody’s going to get an idea of what you’re doing.
“Essentially we are going to give you a little bit of advice, we’ll be able to pick up on a couple of things that you’re doing and then you get to go out by yourself and actually put that into practice.”
As far as hardware is concerned, DeJager says it really doesn’t matter what car you bring to the track.
“Whether you’ve got a high-performance HSV or whether you’ve got a little Mazda like this, the fact is that everything you do, you’re going to learn something from the car. And the car’s actually telling you a lot as you’re driving it.
“So as we’re going through the corners I’m telling the car to smoothly turn the corner but at the same time, the car’s letting me know what it feels like underneath – am I steering too much or not enough, is the front starting to skid or the rear starting to skid.
“It’s a technique of telling the car what you want out of it and at the same time you’re really reading from the car what it needs as you go through. And you can do that in any car that you bring out.
“And if anything, I tend to find that some of the slower cars are even better to learn from because you’re not so scared that you’re flying around the track at a million miles an hour, you can slow it down, bring the panic level down a little bit and really read a lot more of what the car’s trying to tell you."
Age and experience are also negligible issues when it comes to driver training, with DeJager telling us it really doesn’t matter how old you are or how long you’ve been driving.
“The fact is that everybody can just get out, bring whatever you’ve got out, and get an instructor in the car, start bringing your skills up and just really actually have a whole lot of fun in whatever car you have.”
After countless laps and seven and a half hours on track, any level of driver training is something CarAdvice can’t recommend highly enough. Apart from instilling a new appreciation for vision, travelling at speed and one's seating position, driver training most importantly improves drivers' attitudes towards driving a car and the skills required to do so safely and competently.