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Racer for a day

Kiss that apex

In noxious tabloid-speak, Sasha Pearl would suffer the label ‘leggy blonde’.

Granted, she is tall and fair and attractive. But any implied triumph of physical appeal over mental acuity is quickly dispelled by her professional calm as the race-prepped XR-2 crests Knockhill Racing Circuit’s main straight at not much shy of a hundred miles per hour.

I’ve already decided that I wouldn’t have Sasha’s job for all the silverware in the Schumacher trophy cabinet.

For coming up is Duffus Dip, a tricky downhill right-left taken at speed, and much loved by Sunday race fans who flock to see the great and the not-so-great exchange the tenuous grip of the tarmac for the spiralling ignominy of the gravel trap.

It’s not that Sasha doesn’t know what she’s doing – years of racing experience have brought intimacy with Knockhill’s every bump and squiggle. It is just that her state of professional calm is currently at rest in the XR-2′s passenger seat. Oh yes, and I’m behind the wheel.

Sasha occasionally encounters chauvinist hostility from students; Mr. Max Power, desperate to show the simpering she-person what he’s made of, rather than what he’s surely full of; the retired gent picturing her chained to a sink.

But no such disrespect from meek me, as I follow her shouted lead through braking and turning points, corner apexes and exit lines.

I harp back to Knockhill in 1977, when I sneaked a few hairy laps on my 550cc Honda motorcycle, memories of which remain remarkably current. Survive Duffus Dip and you face the sharp right at McIntyres, then a scary right/left/right through Butchers and over the blind crest of Glenvarigill; if still pointing forwards (not exactly a certainty), accelerate for Clark, another unsighted right-hander preceding a long, dog-legged back straight rush to Taylors hairpin, the last kink in the tarmac ribbon before the direct run to Duffus. At Knockhill’s regular Sunday race meetings, big-budget racing exotica and shoe-string club racers do all this in a little over a minute.

But I’m not here to race. I’m here to learn how. At £99 for twelve laps of the track, the ‘Racing Car Experience’ is the most popular of Knockhill’s driving courses, which together draw three thousand students a year.

Earlier, 35 of us weekday wannabes endure a short briefing. The instructor emphasises control and safety, enjoyment for all over the dangerously delusional fleeting achievements of the individual. Overtaking is tightly-controlled, and remember please, gentlemen, this is not a race. We nod maturely – and sneak contemptuous leers at all the sad gits we’re going to leave for dead as soon as the lights go green.

Out on the track, I’m beginning to understand the need for a bewildering combination of exacting, almost delicate precision – and uncompromising brutal bloody force. When Sasha points to the edge of the track to prepare my line into a corner, being two feet from where the tarmac disappears doesn’t cut the mustard. She wants sidewalls brushing the grass. Likewise, the braking marker doesn’t mean get off the gas and get ready – it means throttle foot to the floor to exactly that point, then stomp on the brake before the upcoming turn.

My five laps are over depressingly quickly, and already I’m itching for my solo drive in the Formula First open-wheeler. But before that comes two demonstration laps with an instructor at the wheel of a standard family saloon. Excitement, it seems, will have to wait. As if. Fresh from my XR-2 laps, smug self-congratulation fades to fear and disbelief as the instructor mercilessly thrashes the Daewoo, braking late and deep into corners that are dismissed in tyre-screeching four-wheel drifts that launch us down the straights, engine screaming in complaint. Exhilarating, yes – but very very scary; later, a whisper goes around that a student in another Daewoo soiled himself; my immediate reaction is not to snigger but to understand. I mean, that could have been me – though of course it wasn’t. No, honestly.

At last I slip into the torpedo-tube on wheels that is the Formula First. The First has the same engine as the XR-2, propelling about half the weight. With no speedo and a centre of gravity that puts the back pockets of my chinos about four inches from the rushing tarmac, seat-of-the-pants speed guestimates have never been so aposite. Can you spell f-u-n? My five laps disappear in a haze of unburnt hydrocarbons and smoking rubber, flecked with just a hint of testosterone. I congratulate myself for successfully evading the magnetic lure of the gravel traps. Then realisation dawns: should have tried harder, dammit.

I ask Sasha and her husband, fellow instructor/racer Alan Brunton, about their students. The best, they agree, are the women: attentive, receptive of advice, and no swinging-dick egos to appease. At least, not usually. Mere minutes after interrupting his pre-drive talk with an abrupt ‘don’t worry about it – I’m a police driving instructor‘, one fear-frozen lady officer took Alan straight through Duffus, full-throttle across the gravel trap, head-on into the tyre wall. On the first corner of her first lap, buried deep in a mountain of cascading tyres, she still had her foot hard on the gas. Alan had to reach across and switch off the engine. Eight-hour motorway shifts doing ninety in a day-glo Range Rover might be great for the confidence, but when it comes to corners traffic police, Sasha and Alan agree, are students from hell.

Which settles it. Twisty roads all the way home, for me.