How Good Is Your Driving?

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Written by Tim Barnes-Clay

Dads, have you noticed that everyone’s driving has become, erm.. a little crap since Covid kicked in?

Alright, maybe not every motorist has lost the ability to indicate or keep an eye on the speedo, but a hell of a lot have.

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to work out why this is happening – during the pandemic, most of us have spent less time on the roads than we would have before.

Indeed, recent research conducted by the AA suggests one in four motorists think the standard of driving in the UK has deteriorated during lockdown. According to the study, speeding, lazy lane discipline, poor vehicle control and in-vehicle distractions are some of the worst contributing factors.

Of course, I couldn’t be one of the bad drivers, or could I? There was only one way to find out – and that was to accept Mazda’s offer to team up with expert driving coach, Mark Hales and have one-to-one coaching with him.

Before I knew it, I was at Blyton Park in Lincolnshire meeting the legend that is Mr Mark Hales. And I don’t use the word “legend” lightly. With a career spanning over 40 years, Mark has raced or tested almost every type of car ever built, ranging from NASCAR and Formula One, through to Touring Cars and rare classic machines. So, he is the guy to go to for valuable driving advice.

Mark is a friendly man – but he’s firm when he’s on track with you. Jeez, he has to be – he’s putting his life at risk. Well, kind of – I mean I’m not a nutter behind the wheel – I’m more of a nun these days. Or so I thought. To cut a long story short, Mark said that over the course of the day my driving went from “confident” to “over confident”. This was no great criticism – he just mentioned I was taking corners in his Mazda MX-5 at over 100mph at one point. Thank God we were on a circuit at an old airfield, eh?

Mark taught me an awful lot – stuff I didn’t know I could learn. I’ll share some of his performance driving skills, in no particular order, with you, so that you can translate them to the road, as I’ve done.

1: Remember that there are factors which will begin to have an effect as you go faster. If you are running out of road on the exit of a turn, it could be that you are simply going too fast. It could also be that you have not transferred the weight effectively to the front wheels as you turn.

2: Study the difference between your position on the track and the timing of your control inputs. Remember the phenomenon called Hinting, or The Start of Steering. Ask yourself the question, how long does a tyre take to develop a slip angle after you move the steering wheel… How far will the car travel in that time?

3: Your eye to hand co-ordination is a timing device as well as the means to see and move things. Refine your steering technique to integrate it with the line you’ve been trying to optimise. Link this with the eyes as much as the hands. Remember, your hands will follow your gaze. You will steer wherever you look.

4: Investigate the effects of weight distribution in the car. When you apply the brakes, which way does the weight shift in the car? Ask yourself what effect this has upon the tyres’ ability to grip.

5: Remember the traction circle, “the wheel of life.” The tyre can offer grip in two planes – fore and aft under braking or acceleration, and laterally under cornering. If you ask it to do both together though, it must give up some of its capability in each department. If you brake as well as turn, it will do each task less well, but the expert driver’s job is to wean it from one task as you introduce the next. To close up the whole process of braking and entering the turn, such that it takes up as little road space as possible. The weight transfer on the brakes is an additional blanket of grip which can then be spread over the top.

Fundamentally, I learnt that driving well is all about technique rather than speed – and Mark, combined with Mazda‘s MX-5, helped me see this more clearly than ever before.

I’m not saying you need an MX-5 to drive well, but, boy, this car is tolerant. You can spank it and you can stroke it, but only a true idiot could ever make it bite. And that’s no surprise really. Since its debut at the 1989 Chicago Motor Show, across all four-generations the Mazda MX-5 has perfectly embodied Mazda’s famous Jinba Ittai ‘car-and-driver as one’ ethos. Combined with its style, handling and agility, fun factor and affordability, this has seen it become the world’s best-selling two-seater sports car.

Anyway, thank you, Mazda – and thank you, Mark. The whole day up in Lincolnshire has stopped me taking driving for granted. It is a skill that we carry throughout life, and never really stop learning.

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