Yesterday was the Association of Racing Drivers Schools (ARDS) day for the Group 1 Academy gang…..the day where we were all going to be tested to see if we were ready to be given a racing license. I didn’t really know what to expect as we hadn’t been told a great deal about the day, or the test, and there wasn’t a great deal of information available on the Internet that I could find. We had been sent the MSA Blue book (which is not an easy, or indeed required read) and associated MSA DVD to revise from, but I couldn’t find any sample papers to prepare myself with, so felt quite uncertain about what the day would hold. I needn’t have been worried.
The day itself started very early, with me leaving just after 5am from Hertford to try to get to Castle Combe for 8am (a journey of 130 miles). I didn’t want to be late, so left myself plenty of time! I also decided that with the melting of the final few patches of snow it would be appropriate to try and put a few more miles on the Caterham, so wrapped up warm, dropped the hood, plugged in my i-pod and set off. I love driving at night with the roof down, but it was really rather cold and I was glad of a cup coffee and a few minutes of last minute revision when I got down to the circuit. Two of the other guys had decided to bring their Caterhams down as well, one coming down from somewhere well and truly up north (a 6 hour drive away), so I didn’t feel like the only other mad man there.
Once at the circuit it was nice to catch up with some old faces and introduced myself to some new ones at the same time. Everyone is very friendly and we were all quickly exchanging war stories of our build experiences and first track days (for those that have done them) whilst Jenny and Simon from Caterham tried to get our attention to start the day. They did a brief introduction before splitting us up into 4 groups for the day. My group started by watching the MSA DVD, before heading out onto the track with an instructor who showed us the circuit at 60 – 70% race pace in a Fiesta ST. I had never been to Castle Combe before, but it is very fast and flowing track that was easy enough to learn. It would be fun in a Caterham Academy car, but probably quite eye opening on a quick bike or in a single seater.
Whilst the first of our group went off for his track test I went off to pee in a pot and see the doctor. With eyes tested, blood pressure taken and some intimate question asked, it was back to the car for my turn on the track. I did eight laps - five with the instructor instructing, then three with him observing in silence. He was looking for a good understanding of the racing line, smoothness, consistency and good forward vision and all-round awareness. Basically they want you to drive at 60 – 70% race pace, but in a controlled and safe style, such that they would be happy to be on a circuit with you. Speed is not important! I passed the track test just fine, with positive comments on all aspects of my style, but a note of warning about changing down the gears too early and carrying a touch too much speed into some of the corners. I did however have to stop myself from really going for it when I was overtaken on the pit straight and remind myself that it wasn’t a race….not just yet anyway.
After the track test we watched the second part of the MSA DVD, before sitting the written test. The DVD really does give you all of the answers to the test, so this really was very simple. It consisted of approximately eight statements/situations, for which you had to write the colour of the flag that would be used and whether it would be stationary or waved. There were then approximately 20 multiple choice questions asking you what you would do in certain race day and racing situations. These really were common sense, so if you know your flags and have common sense then you really should pass this part of the test first time.
After lunch my group went off to the skid pan, where we spent an hour thrashing some very tired old BMW 3 series around an oily and very slippery circuit. This didn’t form any part of the test and was a great excuse to behave like a hooligan, spinning around like a fool with no danger to either car or self. After the skid pan it was back to the race centre for a talk with the Caterham guys on preparing the car for scruitineering. This was really useful and highlighted that we all still have a bit of work to do to get our cars ready for the first sprint. I think another day in the garage is required, especially as my car has been re-called for potentially faulty rear brake callipers that I also need to swap over. At this point we found out that everyone had passed their test, which was fantastic news and a demonstration of the fact that they really are looking for people to pass rather than fail. As ever the guys from Caterham did a fantastic job in preparing us all and generating an environment that was friendly, relaxed and where we could take another gentle step towards our first race with confidence.
After a long day at the circuit it was great to get back into the Caterham for the drive home knowing that I was one step closer to becoming a fully-fledged racing driver. The drive itself was long and cold, so I got home very tired, but also very pleased, with a Caterham well run in and in desperate need of a good bath. It was a very good day and certainly beat being at work!