Sunday 17 December 2017

My lifetime's cunning plan to clinch that podium finish

You don't need to be Hamilton or Vettel to go racing. Shane O'Donoghue looks into getting his competition licence

What exactly do you need a racing licence for?" asked my wife, with the faintest trace of suspicion playing across her face.

"Oh, it's just for an article," I replied as nonchalantly as possible. Let's face it, a lot of us reckon we're more talented behind the wheel than many of the prima donnas who grace our telly screens with their suave demeanour, manicured nails and bulging bank balances. I mean, it's more about being in the right place at the right time than actual talent, right? (That and a parent with deep pockets, of course.)

And so I find myself at Mondello Park in Kildare early in the morning for an introductory course, which is the first step to gaining your competition licence.

Motorsport Ireland already sent me out a package containing a DVD and everything I need to know, but really, I reckon this'll be a breeze and I'll be home by lunchtime to give McLaren a call to offer my services. Then I catch site of the day's itinerary and realise that this is a very serious matter.

Emphasising that, the course starts with safety. A good deal of time is spent on clothing and equipment such as helmets. I vaguely understood that certain standards were required, but the rules are strictly enforced and they're made to protect the competitors. Who knew that these things had an expiry date?

The instructor patiently answers questions from the group of attendees about the use of HANS (head and neck restraint system) and other devices that I had assumed were only part of top flight series like F1 and World Rally. It seems that such things are filtering down to grassroots motorsports too, though they're not mandatory as yet, recognising the budgetary constraints of this end of the industry.

Indeed, a theme running through the introductory course is one of parsimony. Motorsport Ireland and Mondello Park are all too aware that motorsport is, for most, a luxury. This was evident in the boom in Ireland when grids were packed every weekend. Today, some race series have been curtailed while others have amalgamated to ensure a sizable number of cars on the track. It's therefore enlightening to hear tips for saving money during the day.

Admittedly, safety is never compromised and it's the most important message of the day. Following the clothing and equipment section, we discuss safety signs and signals at the race circuit. The procedures are quite advanced, and not alien to anyone who watches F1, but they are specific to each track. Mondello's flag zones are pointed out to us, along with what to do in various situations.

It's invaluable that the course instructor is a seasoned racer, as he has countless anecdotes to share. Some extract a giggle from us, but most are sobering, reminding us that people do get injured (and worse) while partaking in motorsport -- and not just at international level. It certainly focuses the mind on listening to the rules and regulations, and it explains why there's a whole section devoted to competitor behaviour.

One of the very first things a racer should do at an event is scrutineering for his or her car. The checklist of potential issues appears daunting, but obviously it's all in the name of safety. Not only could you hurt yourself, you wouldn't want to put your fellow competitors at risk either, never mind the volunteer marshals and spectators.

We take a break from the classroom, walk down the pit lane and into one of the spacious pit garages in Mondello. There are a couple of real race cars and we're told to scrutinise them. It indicates that you really need to know a little more about cars than just driving them to enjoy motorsport. Still, it's a thrill being so close to serious machinery and the smell in the garage is a heady concoction of fuel, oil and rubber.

After the seriousness of the morning it's a relief to get back into the classroom after lunch to talk about the theory of driving around Mondello. This track has hosted much international race action, including superbikes, British Touring Cars and GT racing -- so it's incomparable to your local kart circuit. It's invariably damp as well, which makes the place feel much smaller than it really is.

Thankfully the driving instructors are relaxed and helpful. I sit into one of the race school's Mazda 3s for a bit of intuition before we set out on track. I can't help but ask how much power it has, expecting it to be highly modified, but it turns out to be pretty standard other than the presence of a hefty roll cage. That may disappoint some, but this day is about passing the course and demonstrating that you're suitable to be on a race track with others.

Anyway, it turns out that the Mazda has enough power to make it interesting, especially in the wet, and its low weight means it's surprisingly agile.

Ken, my instructor, lets me get to know my way around before stating that, to pass the test, I must drive around without instruction. He points out that to go off the track is an instant fail, but he says to push on and be quick. He says it's best to aim for 80 per cent of your flat-out pace though, as nobody is timing the run.

Suddenly I'm nervous. In this job I've been lucky enough to drive on track a lot, but my driving has never been under such scrutiny. The adrenaline kicks in and it's over all too soon and I'm delighted when Ken signs me off.

All that's left for the day is a written examination. If you don't read your Motorsport Ireland pack and you don't listen in the class you'll not pass this easily, but it's mostly common sense once you've gone through the basics.

I get home at the end of the day smiling and clutching a piece of paper rubber-stamped by Mondello. To get my competition licence I also need to get a medical. My wife comes home from work and I ask: "Where would I go to get a medical?" Says she: "Why would you need a medical?"

I may have some more explaining to do...

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