Going fast in a straight line is easy. Driving fast around tight corners in a top of the line Ferrari, Porsche, or Aston Martin is harder than you might think, as I found out during a morning with Sprint Racing, at the racetrack in Mettet, Belgium. If you feel the speed limits in Belgium restrict your ability to put ‘the pedal to the metal,’ then this article is for you.
Since the advent of transportation, people (ok, men) have been tempted by speed. No matter the vehicle, be it a horse, a car, a truck, or a lawn mower; if it moves, somebody will inevitably challenge someone else to a race. I’m no different, except I drive a Prius; not exactly what you would call ‘sporty.’
For my birthday this year, Alison wanted to find me a unique experience. She knows I enjoy driving and I wanted to try out racing on a real track. She also knows, based on how much I drool when watching shows like Top Gear, my dream car is the Aston Martin.
I’m not a fan of Ferraris, Porsches, or Lambos; they just don’t do anything for me. I love cars that have a ‘refined explosiveness’ about them, like Aston Martins. They look awesome, are comfortable and enjoyable to drive, but when you punch the accelerator, the beast inside growls sharply into life, throwing you bodily down the road. If it’s good enough for James Bond, it’s more than enough for me.
With this in mind, Alison researched options in Belgium and found the French company, Sprint Racing. They offer a selection of super cars and use a track in Mettet, about 45 minutes southeast of Charleroi. Sprint Racing also offers options, such as extra laps, an in-car video of the experience, and a couple of laps with a professional in a Ford Focus RS2. For the environmentally conscious, you can also purchase a CO2 credit.
Alison, The Most Wonderful Wife in the World tm, booked an Aston Martin v8 Vantage with extra laps, a video, and the professional experience. Needless to say, I was thrilled when she told me. An Aston Martin AND the opportunity to drive as fast as I could! Boy heaven.
“Please, don’t kill yourself.”
Mettet is not exactly on the way to anywhere. Situated between Charleroi and Namur, the track is about a 1.5-2 hour drive from Brussels. Unfortunately, my start time was 8am on a Sunday, meaning we had to be at the track by 7:30. Neither of us was looking forward to a 5am start, so we booked a hotel near the Charleroi airport.
Arriving at the track, we walked down to the registration area to sign in. To register and get your badge, you need to sign a waiver and hand over your driver’s license, which they hold until you finish. We then proceeded to the top floor cafeteria for a weak coffee and a look over the track.
From the balcony, you overlook the expensive line-up of cars in pit-row. If you are a connoisseur of engines, it’s a great time to be outside, as the Sprint Racing team starts all the cars and moves them into position. As we’re watching the preparations, Alison suddenly realised she’s given me carte blanche to be reckless. “Please, don’t kill yourself,” she said.
At 8:30, the drivers are taken into the briefing room. Sprint Racing realises the majority of eager participants have never driven these cars before, they focus on explaining the major differences for each car. Points I remember:
- For rear-wheel, rear-engine cars, don’t hit the accelerator while still turning, because sudden acceleration lifts the front wheels and the car loses the ability to turn.
- Because most Europeans drive manual transmissions, a big emphasis was on gluing your left foot to the floor. They were keen to avoid someone, in the middle of a straight away with another car right behind, mashing the brakes as if it were a clutch.
- Don’t down shift early. The brakes were built to be replaced, but the engine wasn’t so don’t use it to slow down. You are not a truck on a hill.
- Brake hard. Don’t worry about the brakes locking up. If you’re travelling faster than 70km/h the momentum of the car is sufficient to keep the brakes from locking.
The briefing was done entirely in French. I understood about half of what was said, but it was enough to get the point. If you’re not comfortable in French, don’t stress. If you have questions, ask the instructor after the briefing. Also, you drive with a monitor, in the car, who will help you. Remember, these cars are worth tens or hundreds of thousands of Euros each, so they will work hard to ensure you don’t break anything.
Briefing done, we took a few laps around the track, driven by a professional, in a Porsche Cayenne. During this track introduction, the driver also shared tips on taking corners, telling us to: stay wide when entering the turn, dive for the apex (courbe), and accelerate smoothly away from the apex. Seems simple, right?
Very quickly, we’re back to the pit area and I’m next on the track in the Aston Martin. I grab a hairnet and helmet, and meet my monitor, who helps me into the car, which is harder than you think when wearing a helmet. He jumps in next to me and introduces the controls.
What gear am I in???
Fortunately, the Aston is not a manual transmission, so I won’t be burning out the clutch. However, it has a “flappy paddle” gearbox, which I’ve never used. This means there are shifting paddles on each side of the steering wheel that allow me to shift up a gear (right side paddle) or shift down a gear (left side paddle). Again, seems simple, right?
Shifting the car into first, we pull out of the pit area and onto the track. We pause at the end of the pit-lane to check for other cars going around the track. That’s right; you’re not alone out there. At any time, there are 10-15 other cars on the track at the same time, each with a driver trying to go as fast as they can in a car they’ve never driven before. Fun!
A black Porsche slips past and we’re off; Right into a left hand turn. Stay wide, dive for the apex, what gear am I in? Stay to the side as a Lambo passes me. Right hand turn. Shoot! Missed the apex. Straight away; floor the car. Shift up! Again. Mash the breaks. Harder. 180 degree corner; stay wide as I’m being overtaken by the Ford Focus RS2 driven by the pro. Accelerate out of corner into a left hand turn that goes over a small hill. Accelerate down the hill, into a right hand turn at the bottom. Mash the brakes. Down shift. What gear am I in? Swing out wide to the right to prepare for the left hand turn. Dive for the apex, hit the accelerator. Up shift. What gear am I in? Sweeping turn to the left, off the gas a little, hit the apex, accelerate up the hill. Up shift. Brake hard. HARDER. DOWN SHIFT. DOWN SHIFT. Swing wide for 90-degree turn onto the straightaway. Dive for apex. Hammer the accelerator. Up Shift. UP SHIFT. Engine pops. Mash the brakes for chicane. Harder. Harder. Shoot, down shift. Down shift. Left, right, left. Accelerate towards first corner. What gear am I in?
Each lap got a bit easier, my monitor helping me remember things like shifting, keeping wide so the car maintains momentum, braking in time for the corner, and more. By the end, it was all a blur although I remember passing multiple Lambos and Ferraris. Go me! It was great fun but much more thinking than I’m used to, when driving down the motorway.
The last activity of my day was a couple of laps, with the professional, in a lime green Ford Focus RS2. The driver, a French version of the Stig, immediately took off and we flew around that track. He accelerated hard and braked even harder, the car bucking and sliding as he approached corners. Any corner approaching ninety degrees he braked hard, flicked the car sideways and accelerated out of the slide. By the end of two laps, he made me feel as though my laps in the Aston Martin were a Sunday drive!
By 10:30am, my racing was complete. Behind me, you could hear the snarl and pops of engines churning through the course as the next drivers got their chance. We made our way to the exit where I picked up my certificate and the video of my laps.
Replaying the video of my laps, I still remember all the things going through my head for each corner: brake, down shift, stay wide, find the apex, accelerate, up shift. I also remember going much faster than the video reveals. In fact, you’ll travel faster on the motorway than the track, but the motorway isn’t nearly as interesting.
I really enjoyed my day at the track. I loved the time I spent in the Aston Martin and I’d love to do it again. My tips if you’re going to do this:
- Purchase at least 6 laps. By the 4th lap (the default), you’ve just gotten the hang of the course and the technique.
- Do the professional laps at least once, to get a sense for how far you can really push a car, so you feel less intimidated.
- Splurge on the video because I guarantee you will remember little of the experience beyond what I shared above.
- Once you get back in your own car, remember you’re not on the track anymore!
Thanks again to my lovely wife for making this happen. It was a terrific experience and I’m sure you’re thankful you didn’t have to be the passenger!
Have you raced on a track in Belgium? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below.