On a dark, cold and thoroughly miserable looking November morning I drag myself from my bed to the shower at 4am. Having freshened up and gotten dressed I have a coffee and some porridge. Then a coffee. Then I fill my travel mug with coffee for the road. Coffee is good.
Loaded up, I hit the road. One good thing about travelling at this time of morning – the roads are practically empty. Soon I’m on the M1 southbound with the music up loud, the car smelling of coffee and me feeling a lot less bleary.
At 7:15 I arrive at Rockingham Raceway and, following directions from the security guard, wind my way around the roads within the complex to the paddock where I find the ST Motorsport van and trailer. The Volvo S60 T5 is being unloaded and taken into the garage. I park up and make my way into the garage where Steve Collett welcomes me. Then it hits me that today I am actually going to drive the beast I’ve just seen being unloaded. I have seen this car several times at shows and events such as Get Going and Motability One Big Days and have wanted to get behind the wheel for several months. This car is race prepared and adapted with hand controls and the controls can be adapted very quickly to suit drivers with various disabilities.
There’s another chap in the garage named Steve – Steve Tarrant. He has a motorhome and has stayed overnight at the complex. He shakes my hand and introduces himself and we have a chat. Steve is an experienced motorsport marshall, talking to him it is clear that racing is in his blood and his passion for it is such that after losing a leg when an F1 car tore it off at 180mph he fought the authorities to be allowed to continue marshalling and was the first marshall who uses a wheelchair.
Did I mention that I’ve wanted for a while to get behind the wheel of this Volvo? Before I can take the controls myself I have to be driven round as a passenger for sighting laps and this is the part that has worried me – I am a very nervous passenger having been driving more than half my lifetime and the thought of getting into the passenger seat of a race car while being driven around “Europe’s fastest track” by a racing driver has filled me with dread. I even ask if it’s necessary and am told it is.
So I transfer into the passenger seat, over the carbon covered spar of the roll cage, and am strapped in nice and tight. This should be reassuring as it is obvious I’m not going anywhere but it feels claustrophobic. Our driver for today is Paul Rivett, a driver in the Clio Cup who is currently close to the top of the leaderboard. This is a little reassuring but I am still nervous. As he gets in and straps himself in I explain to him how I feel and ask, pathetically, if he can “take it steady” once out on the track. I am surprised when he agrees and explains that today is a track day, that we’re not going to be racing and can go as fast as I feel comfortable with. This is a great comfort to me and I relax a fair bit.
Guided out by Steve Collett we leave the garage and enter the pit lane, checking it’s clear before moving out towards the traffic lights and the track. Approaching the lights the marshall there holds his arm up and points to his wrist. We raise our arms and show our wristbands, signifying that we are registered as drivers and have attended the drivers briefing. Satisfied, the marshall waves us past and we accelerate as the pit lane ends and we join the track proper. The sun has made an appearance and most of the track is bright and dry, with just a couple of damp patches.
The pit lane joins the track right after turn one, one of the fastest points on the track, and straight away there are cars whizzing past on our right. This is the only part of the track where overtaking is permitted on the right. At all other times the rules say to pass on the left and there is no overtaking on bends, only on straights.
Paul’s voice comes in over the intercom as he asks how I am. I say something in reply, I can’t remember what, and Paul then starts giving a commentary and telling me what to look out for, where to brake, where to turn and where and when to pull the throttle wide open. Taking a hairpin and finding a patch of water halfway round the car slides a bit and Paul corrects and holds it then tells me to look out for that. I make a mental note and continue listening.
In what seems like no time my 3 sighting laps are done and my head is spinning trying to remember turns, braking points, turning and acceleration points. My most dreaded part of the day has been a huge amount of fun and I am disappointed to arrive back at the garage and have to get out. This is where I had a surprise as I had thought that Paul would take each of the 5 drivers out on their sighting laps and then we would get our turns. This turns out not to be the case as I am bundled straight round to the driver’s side and strapped in again. This time I will be in control and again I am slightly nervous, but an excited kind of nervous.
Once in and helmeted up again and Paul is ready we are again guided out of the garage and I listen intently as Paul give me guidance over the intercom, I check the pit lane carefully. I am very aware that I am in control of a machine I have never driven before and which someone else has put a lot of time, effort and money into and am entering an area filled with more of the same, including some very exotic machines. I don’t want to be the one responsible for damaging any of it.
Approaching the marshall near the end of the pit lane we again raise our arms and get the wave. Paul tells me to go for it and I accelerate out of the pit lane, a check in the mirror and over my shoulder for traffic and I am on the track. On. The. Track. For the first time. First impressions – I am impressed by how light the throttle is and how the car responds. I am also very aware of the other traffic around me.
Lap 1 and Paul is reminding me of the braking and turning points. I had noticed on the sighting laps how he used the whole width of the track when taking the bends and I start to do the same. Coming to the hairpin where we slid previously I take it perhaps a touch too fast and the car starts sliding a fair bit. I steer into it and ease off the gas and once the car has settled down I pull the throttle again and receive a congratulations from Paul for the way I’d held and corrected the slide. While I hear that I am thinking it was my fault we slid in the first place but there’s no time to dwell on that for we are fast approaching a turn which sits at the crest of a short hill and appears to me to be a left hander but is in fact a right. I’ve approached ready to turn left and the surprise throws me somewhat. I make it round and we then enter a series of left handers which Paul wants me to take in one long, smooth movement. I fail miserably and the car lurches from one to the next. Straight after this I enter the chicane a little too fast but Paul doesn’t seem to mind. This then takes me back to the longest and fastest straight. Paul tells me to open the throttle fully and I pull it a bit more and aim out towards the wall on the far right of the track, then hold position around six feet away for the length of the straight before easing off and moving left slightly for the banked left hand curve which is still mostly in shade and so may be slippery. At the far side of the banked curve is that hairpin again. I brake harder than I had on the last lap and make it round without sliding and to a comment of good from Paul.
Several laps in and I’m starting to get a feel for the track. I now know what I can safely take the hairpins at and that the turn that appears to be a left hander is actually a right hander. But those left turns, that everyone else seems to be able to take fluidly, still elude me. I lurch from one to the next, missing the apex of each and getting in the way of everyone else as I repeatedly brake and then accelerate again. Paul takes matters into his own hands, quite literally. He tells me that on the next lap he will control the steering and show me how it’s done, and that’s exactly what he does. Suddenly it all seems much easier and on the next lap I manage to make them all flow into one, long, smooth left hand turn. I feel like a driving God. This feeling is short lived as we again approach the long, fast straight and, again, Paul tells me to open the throttle. Being quite a few laps in by now I am feeling much more confident and have a feel for the car so I open the throttle all the way, the first time I have done this. I squeal like a little girl as the car snarls, crouches and then launches itself down the straight which suddenly doesn’t seem as long as it had before. Driving God indeed, Paul is laughing and I can’t stop giggling at the acceleration.
A few more laps and my time is up. I enter the pit lane on my last lap and slowly pull down past the other garages before pulling into ours. I switch off the engine and remove my helmet. Let out a breath and realise I’m still grinning like a Cheshire cat. Steve is by the door with my chair and as I transfer back out the other guys ask how it was. Only word that I can think of to do it justice – awesome.
I’ll definitely be booking a slot on another of these days and may be taking along my partner too as I think she would enjoy this experience.
I would like to thank Steve Collett, Paul Rivett and Steve Tarrant for making this possible and for their work and dedication to making motorsport accessible to disabled people. I wish them every success in the future.