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October 19, 2005

…it cert'nly is now

Follow-up to Nerves for the weekend from Syncspeed

Wednesday already? I meant to update this a while ago! I spent Sunday at Silverstone for the Young Driver of the Year national final and got through the day without my birdflu/sniffles being a major detriment. It's great how setting mental targets and barriers can deal with most minor illnesses – I honestly believe I was never significantly ill in four years of uni (despite perpetual tiredness and exposure to freshers and their flu) purely because "I don't have time to be ill" was both a mantra and the truth. The target of being well enough to drive for Sunday proved to be sufficient motivation to recover. I did come away with a little prize, although it was only the geek prize (hmm, perhaps fittingly) but it was a pretty good day.

I found when I got there that pretty much everybody had been at a previous Young Driver final, so competition was pretty stiff. My group of five (competitors were split up for rotation around the activities) was particluarly good – four of us ended up winning pretty major prizes. I won't go into lots of detail, but here's a quick summary of the day.

  • The theory was the first bit: a tricky multiple-choice test. The first 100 questions were roadsigns on a Powerpoint presentation (7 seconds per question); the second half of the test was another 100 multiple-choice questions on other aspects of motoring. That was the geek prize I won – best Theory score. Woo and indeed hoo!
  • Manoeuvring was next – low speed manoeuvres demonstrating car control on a tight course against the clock. I did OK but didn't like the Mini Cooper automatics they had us driving for this event. Throttle lag was measured in seconds, and never having driven an auto before threw me a bit when trying to switch between forward and back all the time. And yes, I'll admit that I twice went for the (non-existent) clutch with my left foot and slammed the brakes on very hard. D'oh.
  • The skid control event was fun, using a new Audi A4 on a hydraulically controlled cradle set up to make the car oversteer. I should have been a lot quicker with my karting experience but I think tiredness and a slightly illness-impaired sense of balance worked against me.
  • The drive was the last bit, and by far the most important points-wise. I drew the short straw and ended up with a Mini One Cabriolet – not much power and a huge blind spot where the drop top wraps around the rear three-quarter panel. Despite that, it was quite a fun car to drive, quiet for a cabrio, good steering and I got on well with the clutch and gearbox. I made about four mistakes I spotted in my hour on the road: I was still braking slightly through a corner once, I didn't quite have the clutch up as I turned at a junction (twice!) and once near the start of the drive I put a bit too much faith in 5th gear up a hill and had to change to 4th where the engine was happier. In the words of the police examiner, "a nice, tidy drive" – I was quite chuffed.

Congratulations to James, the overall winner (a lucky guy – his father told me he's driven well over 250 different vehicles in his life, and he's still a teenager!). He won £500 off car insurance, training for a racing licence and the chance of a race in the Uniroyal Fun Cup, a one-make VW Beetle silhouette series (a spaceframe chassis with a 1.8 litre Audi mid-mounted engine). The runner-up, who will get to race if James can't next year, is called Dan and is an Electronics Engineering fresher at Warwick. Well done chap!

Everybody went away with a goodie bag from sponsors including BMW (among their gifts the offer of a tour of the Mini factory for me and my family), and my prize winnings included a fleece, a year's Green Flag breakdown cover and, er, some book vouchers (because it was the geek prize). If the rules allow it, I'm definitely going back next year (when I think they'll be running regional heats again) to win that race drive! Best get practising.

October 15, 2005

I think it's all over

Follow-up to Nerves for the weekend from Syncspeed

…bugger. Struck down by cold, in danger of becoming manflu. Hence will not win tomorrow. However, will just go for the fun of it. This is called getting my excuses in early. Oh well, I get to drive a MINIIIII! (Unless they've been lying to me…)

This may be my shortest entry ever.

October 14, 2005

Nerves for the weekend

adj. not giving attention to what is happening around you because you are thinking about something else.
Cambridge online dictionary

This weekend holds a pretty big event for me: the national final of RoSPA's Young Driver of the Year competition! I got to the final last year by winning the Midlands regional event, with a handy prize of £250 off car insurance. This year there were no regional events (presumably for lack of money or time) and entry was via random selection (out of not too many candidates, I suspect) after completing an online "driver attitudes" survey – but I heard about it through an email to all last year's finalists, so competition will still be stiff.

As last year, the format of the event is both exciting and tough: competitors (up to 40 of us) will be subjected at some point during the day to a difficult, hour-long theory test on all aspects of the Highway Code, road signs and general driving theory. One question which stumped me last year was about the notation of tyre sizes (must revise that!). The fun part of the day, which still carries significant marks, takes place in a large car park at Silverstone circuit (where the event is based). Competitors are judged on fine car control through a timed course, with heavy cone penalties, in a skid-pan car and then on a different course, manoeuvering into and out of tight spaces against the clock.

The most important part of the day, points-wise, is an hour-long drive on public roads – taking in congested villages, country roads, motorways and pretty much everything they can throw at you in that time – assessed by a qualified police instructor/examiner. You're encouraged to provide a running commentary of everything you do and consider while you drive along. It's not fast "emergency response" driving – indeed, doing 31 mph in a 30 will be noticed and held against you, as will doing 28 if it's safe to do 30 – but it's a massive step up from what's expected when you take your driving test.

Just to make it more interesting, more fair and more fun, the organisers hire a fleet of 10 identical small cars. Last year it was Corsas – a solid car, but not particularly fun to drive. I did OK but the clutch biting point was a lot lower than on both the cars I've driven significant distances in (my 306 and a newish Clio). That caught me out a couple of times, and not reading Roadcraft (the police driving manual) before the event meant that I didn't use a couple of advanced techniques the instructor was looking for. This year, it's been hinted we'll be driving either the MINI or a BMW 1-Series (perhaps I should have tried to have a test drive for practice; too late now). Either way it should be fun.

I'm hoping to do well, despite the manflu I'm having to try very hard not to come down with. My memory/understanding should be enough to get through the theory exam, I impressed a few people on the skidpan course last year (karting skills were very useful in drifting around the corners quickly and coping with slides) and, apart from my mistakes in the Corsa, I did well on the assessed drive. I just need to stay unhurried on the manoeuvering test, unlike last year. I'm trying not to get worked up about it, but let's just say the prizes are pretty special. Wish me luck!

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