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Donington Park – A Drivers Delight

30 November 2011

While the racing season is now at an end for another year, the action on track is still ongoing – albeit in a less competitive environment - as car enthusiasts take the chance to sample circuits up and down the country in the growing track-day market.

Donington Park has long been a popular venue for drivers eager to see what their own machinery is capable of and now the circuit has launched its own range of Track Days – titled Thunder in the Park – which will run through to the end of the year.

Having spent plenty of time at the East Midlands circuit on the 'other side of the fence', the chance to get out on track wasn't something that was going to be turned down when Crash.net was invited to sample Donington on the first Thunder in the Park session last weekend.

The format is simple. For either £99 or £135 (depending if the day is noise restricted or unsilenced) you can take your own car onto the Donington circuit for six 20 minute sessions, following the footsteps of some of the biggest names in motorsport who have tackled iconic corners like the Craner Curves over the years.

When we arrived at the circuit on a damp and cold Sunday morning, the Track Day regulars were already starting to fill the paddock with a wide range of machinery – from an Aston Martin Vantage and Nissan GT-R down to a raft of Peugeot 205s and a Hyundai Accent, resplendent in the livery formally used by the factory WRC team around a decade ago.

And there, right at the far end of the pitlane from sign-on in the media centre, was our car for the day...

Now not that there is anything against the diesel-powered Peugeot 307 that had carried us to the circuit, but it isn't a car that was really designed to tackle a racing circuit, even in a non-competitive environment.

Luckily, that was where Bookatrack.com came to the rescue. As well as organising their own track days, Bookatrack.com offer a car hire service with a fleet of Caterhams available for use – ranging from the R300 race car down to the more standard Superlight model.

For the day, our trusty steed was BAT4, an R300 race car fitted with a two-litre Ford engine and producing 180bhp, which doesn't sound much until you consider that the Caterham weighs next to nothing; making it more than a match for anything that was on track.

While we were sharing BAT4 for the day with a colleague from the Derby Telegraph, that still meant a total of around an hour on track was planned, with the first 20 minute session coming after a driver briefing which was to the point and informative without being too over the top and confusing to any novice taking to the track for the first time.

The initial laps for each of the three groups were spent behind the course car to give people a chance to see what condition the circuit was in after early morning rain, although sadly that would be all that a Caterham driver in the advanced group who managed to spin into the wall before managing a complete lap and saw his day come to an early end.

For us, the initial session was spent in the passenger seat which gave a chance to sample what the Caterham was capable of before getting behind the wheel ourselves in session two.

While Donington do have instructors on hand to help guide you if you so desire, we were able to count on Bookatrack.com's own instructor Paul Lind to help out – freeing up the Donington team for other drivers – so he jumped in for our first foray onto the circuit.

The first thing that strikes you heading onto the circuit is how undulating it is. While that might sound stupid given that it is clear to see when watching from either trackside or on TV that Donington is a circuit that makes the most of the natural countours of its location, it is only when you actually go out on track yourself that you can fully appreciate the way in which the tarmac suddenly drops away as you turn through Hollywood and head through the Craner Curves. The opposite is true as you climb out of McLeans and head to Coppice, with the blind apex – and low sun early in the day – making it far from easy to position the car for the turn.

Completing the initial 20 minutes of running, confidence was increasing as we found out where there was – and wasn't - any grip, and worked out where was the best place to push, where we needed to be braking and where we needed to feed the power.

It meant that by the time our second run on track came round, albeit on a drier circuit, the speeds were increased and the whole experience of driving on track really came to life. We were on the power that little bit more through the Craner Curves, the Old Hairpin was now being taken in fifth gear and the brakes were being applied later into the Fogarty Esses.

By the third run, we were really on it – pushing the Caterham hard to try and get the quickest lap possible. All too soon, our time at the wheel was at an end, and having sampled the circuit for ourselves, it was a shame to have to climb out of the car and head for home.

So what impression did the day leave on us?

Well for a start, it made us even more thankful that Donington Park is still in use as a race circuit following the much discussed bid headed by Simon Gillett which failed to secure the British Grand Prix and left the venue in a state of disrepair. Huge credit needs to go to Kevin Wheatcroft and his team for the way in which Donington has been brought back to life, and the circuit itself was in fine shape and provided as much of a challenge as ever.

The feeling heading down the Craner Curves as you try to balance the power and hit the apex before jumping on the brakes and turning into the Old Hairpin was fantastic on every lap, while there was a sense of satisfaction at holding the right line through Schwantz Curve to carry the maximum speed possible through McLeans. Coppice was a challenge, driving home how difficult it must be for the drivers who fight for position through the right-hander in a race environment, although the Fogarty Esses was the one section we never really felt we got right when it came to riding the kerbs.

Driving standards on the whole were good and people had obviously taken notice of what they were told in the morning briefing, although there were a number of red flags as people tried a bit too hard and there were occasions when some people could have taken more notice of a quicker car behind in their mirrors to move over; but such a situation can be found on the motorways of the UK every day as you head out to work.

Had we not been sharing the car, we'd have been treated to six 20 minute sessions which may not sound a lot, but in reality is decent amount of time on track – and enough that people don't become too cocky when it comes to their ability behind the wheel. The fact that the day was split into sessions wasn't something that everyone will like, but at the same time, it opens up the day to more people than if an open pitlane was in operation, and creates a safer environment as those people who have never been on track before don't find themselves sharing the circuit with much quickest drivers for whom track days are a regular occurrence.

Although designed to give you a chance to sample your own car, as most people were doing when we were there, the option to hire a machine more suited to the circuit added something extra to our day – and left us feeling like we'd been able to get a real taste of what guys like Matt Neal and Jason Plato must feel when they race at Donington every year.

Would we go back and do it again? In a flash.
Would we recommend it to others? Any day of the week.
Do we now want to see if Caterham have a media car available to loan for the 2012 season? Definitely.

Donington will hold three further Thunder in the Park sessions before the end of the year, although expect places to fill up quickly if our day was anything to go by. Full details on the remaining sessions – on 4 December, 28 December and 30 December – can be found if you CLICK HERE, where you'll also find information on how to book your place and a link if you decide you'd also like to hire a Caterham from Bookatrack.com for the day.

If you decide its time for an early Christmas present, you won't be disappointed...


With huge thanks to Kirk Rothwell and Jenna Parker at Donington Park for organising the day, Doug and Paul from Bookatrack.com for their help while we were at the circuit and to Xtreme Sports Photography for imagery from the track


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