The following article has been written by Liam Fowler, who, thanks to CarAdvice, scored a free Driver Dynamics Level 3 High Performance Driver Training day at Sandown Raceway. Here is his experience.
With more than 10 years passing since my last track day, it is fair to say that I arrive at Sandown Raceway on a bitterly cold Melbourne morning with some trepidation.
Here for a day of high level advanced driver training with the team from Driver Dynamics, the opportunity to take part in the day is the direct result of winning a Facebook competition run by CarAdvice – so thanks guys.
Rolling up and onto pit lane in my 2013 Renault Megane RS265 Cup, my nerves are perhaps understandable given my last track day ended with my dear 2002 Honda Prelude VTi-R hitching a ride home to Melbourne from Winton Raceway on the back of a tow truck.
That day, my on-track adventures were prematurely cut short after a con-rod, which had formerly lived a contented life inside the rev-happy VTEC engine’s block, decided it had had enough of being in its natural location and decided to break through the side of block. Ironically, it was partly this sad tale that won me the competition prize and brought me here today.
I’m greeted at the mandatory drivers’ briefing by Caradvice’s resident Weekend Warrior track tester David Zalstein – there with crew testing the circuit potential of a lovely white 2015 Toyota 86 GTS.
Strangely, Dave and I had in fact met accidently a couple of years ago on a Sydney to Melbourne flight when Dave had noticed me devouring the content of another performance car related publication. Needless to say, we ended up chatting about cars for the entire flight. For the record, I can confirm that he is a certified car nut with extensive knowledge and passion for the subject matter (Oh shucks Liam – Dave).
Back at Sandown, Dave looks at my Capsicum Red Renault, sitting alongside some far more expensive and exotic machinery, and confidently tells me that the RS265 Cup is “incredible on track”. Not that I don’t trust Dave but, perhaps because I’m a lawyer by trade, I have tended to be somewhat cynical about some of the motoring press’ comments about the little front-wheel-drive hatchback.
I have been an avid consumer of car magazines since I was a child. And to be honest, a large part of why I bought the RS265 was due to the rave reviews it – and its RS250 predecessor and RS275 replacement – consistently receives.
For those unaware, the consensus is virtually unanimous that the RS Megane is a five-star performance car and one of the all-time greats. More than once have I seen the RS described as “the front-drive Porsche 911 GT3”.
To be honest though, while I had liked the Megane, I certainly didn’t feel as passionately about it as the motoring press. I found it fast, stylish and interesting, I just didn’t think it was a great car. But then again, I’d never driven it on track… With that in mind, I cautiously crawl out onto a freezing and slightly damp Sandown Raceway.
Having never driven the circuit before, my first couple of laps combine into a blur of straights, bends, and gear changes. Reminding me that a decade between track days is far too long, and that driving skill can quickly get on the rusty side, on about lap three, I brake a bit late into turn one, change down a gear a bit late, panic at my eager arrival speed, lift off the throttle and voila, I’m on the grass facing the way I came. Other than to my confidence, there’s no harm done.
Another couple of (more cautious) laps down and I park back up in pits. After a few minutes watching, and listening, to some of the other tasty metal fly around the track, I wander back over to my RS265 only to notice it has a flat tyre. Bugger. I realise I must have damaged it when I spun over the kerb at Turn One.
Given how my last track day ended all those years earlier, I instantly start thinking my day is done. Add in that Google unhelpfully alerts me to the fact that no nearby tyre shops are open, and I’m ready to throw in the towel.
I jack the car up and start pulling the space saver spare out of the boot when Dave walks over to see how I’m doing. I explain the flat and he suggests re-inflating the tyre – he suspects the tyre isn’t in fact punctured, but that it simply ‘popped the bead’ when the sidewall hit the ripple strip. Pessimistically, I give it a shot, re-inflate the tyre and go and have some lunch, fully expecting the tyre to be flat upon my return. Twenty minutes later though, the tyre is fine, and holding pressure without issue – a massive win.
Picking up on my seemingly obvious apprehension about heading back out, Dave informs me that one of the senior Driver Dynamic instructors, Geoff, is actually a long-time RS265 owner and suggests some one-on-one tuition with him. And boy I’m glad he does, as that suggestion is the turning point of the day.
Straight out of the pits, down the main straight and towards turn one, driving my car, Geoff carries far more entry speed into Turn One than I had, even when I spun. My brain is convinced that we’re coming in too hot but I’m wrong. The Renault’s sharp front end hooks in with just a little attitude coming from the rear.
By Turn Two and Three, we’re closing in on a skilfully driven Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG. By the exit of the tight Turn Four, the RS265’s stubby nose is a mere metre away from the C63’s rear bumper. Down Sandown’s 900-metre-odd back straight, the V8-powered Merc begins pulling away, but once we’re back into more tight and technical corners, Geoff, and my Renault Megane, have the big German’s measure, with the driver politely pulling aside to let us past. After that, Geoff continues on, catching and passing a four-wheel-drive CLA45 AMG.
Sitting in awe in the passenger seat, I work hard to comprehend just how much speed the RS can carry through corners and how balanced it feels with Geoff behind the wheel. Geoff explains to me that the trick to driving a Renault Megane RS well comes from getting the car balanced on turn in. I closely observe what Geoff is doing corner by corner and how his inputs differed from mine in my opening laps.
Pulling back into the pits after a cool down lap, we swap seats and it’s time for me to go out and give it a shot with Geoff sitting beside me.
Only a couple of turns in, I immediately realise what I had been doing wrong – in part, getting off the brakes too early and not smoothly enough and not being gradual enough with the steering. By the end of my session with Geoff, with him dissecting my driving and focussing my attention on each phase of the corner, my confidence has lifted considerably.
Next session out, I ask one of the other instructors to come along and pick up yet more tips. And the only reason I wrap up my final run is because the session is red flagged after a car has a spin (not me this time though).
Ten years between track days is far too long, and the day at Sandown Raceway with the guys from Driver Dynamics helping me out was a sound reminder of that.
My little Renault performed faultlessly all day too. There was no brake fade, the car was hugely entertaining and challenging to drive fast and it caught and passed some far more expensive and powerful metal on the day. The kicker? Only a day prior I did a 400km round trip to play rugby and following the track day, I filled the boot with my weekly grocery shop.
If you’ve never done a track day – or it’s been years since your last one – I highly recommend that you get out there and try it. It’s somewhat strange that people spend fortunes on buying faster and faster cars, and in some instances modifying them to make them even faster, but they never take the time to learn how to drive them properly.
Honestly, the best and most cost-effective thing you can ever do to improve the performance of your car, and your enjoyment of it, is to get some professional on-track tuition from the likes of the team at Driver Dynamics. And if you happen to win a free day out as a result of a competition, you have absolutely no excuse.
A massive thanks again too to David Zalstein and the whole CarAdvice crew. My Renault and I will definitely see you back out there sometime soon…
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser and Liam Fowler.