Life in the fast lane: Greg MacLeman takes on The Stig

| 6 Nov 2014

Ask most petrolheads what they honestly think about their driving talent and the majority will tell you they're pretty good. Ask a group of motoring journalists and you'll likely be told you're in the presence of true greatness. Which is why, when I was invited to join the Best of the Best team for a day of thrashing Caterham Sevens at Silverstone, I jumped at the chance.

I'd like to think that I'm a handy enough driver at legal limits, but the closest I'd come to testing myself on a track came when I took my MGB GT for an ill-advised lap of the Nürburgring last year. I'd only had the car for a few months and, to be honest, I didn't have the best time. The temperature went up, the oil pressure went down, and I managed just one lap of the brutal circuit before limping to the car park, convinced I'd cooked the engine.

The Caterhams, on the other hand, were a different proposition altogether. The out-and-out track machines were built to take the abuse of hard driving, and the five examples from the Caterham Experience at Silverstone were no different. Sticky tyres, a low centre of gravity and torquey 140bhp engines meant they were the perfect tool to learn your limits.

Luckily, I wasn't left to my own devices. Instead, I was paired with Brad Ellis – a hotshoe who honed his skills racing Ginettas, Radicals and Tojeiros. A few sighting laps with him at the controls showed me the racing line, and after just 10 minutes I was let loose behind the wheel. 

I surprised myself. I thought it would take lap after lap to build up to a decent speed, yet I found myself pretty much on the limit after just a few corners. However, I quickly learnt that there is a big difference between driving quickly, and looking like you're driving quickly. 

My first problem was braking: I just wasn't doing it hard enough. It wasn't a problem in sweeping, quick turns, but became an issue at the hairpins, where at first I was continually diving too deep, scrubbing off all my speed for the next corner. The constant input from Brad soon took effect though, and before long I was pulling the Caterham up much quicker. The next issue I faced was commitment, accelerating hard out of corners and realising that I could use all the road. I already knew the principle, but it was only after driving hard for several miles that I realised how tight I was on exiting corners. 

In my mind, holding the car on the very limit of its grip would eek out as much pace as was possible, but I soon realised that by 'letting out' the wheel I could carry a great deal more speed.

By this point I was thoroughly delighted with my progress – I was comfortably overtaking other Caterhams, Toyota GT86s and Audi TTs and my confidence was at an all-time high. Maybe a drive at the Goodwood Revival beckoned?

Of course, that was the perfect time to drop me in the car with Ben Collins – otherwise known as The Stig. 

"Do you want to go fast?" he said. "As fast as you can go," I stupidly replied. 

Nothing could prepare me for the velocity with which we entered Maggots curve – I couldn't believe it. The grip was astounding, and he managed to ask of the car so much more than I thought possible from my day of driving. 

It was Copse that really sealed the deal: we went fully sideways, tyres screaming, around the outside of an Audi R8. At the time – backside inches from the road surface and helmet juddering up and down – it scarcely seemed believable. 

I left with a much better understanding of how to squeeze the most performance from a car – knowledge that only comes with practical application – but also a realisation of my limits. I took second place on the event, but still spun three times. Were we in something heavier than a Caterham, it may have been a bit more serious. 

Of course, I wasn't just there for a jolly – I was bargaining on your behalf. As a result, C&SC has teamed up with Best of the Best to offer 25 readers £20 credit in their latest competition, which gives entrants the chance to win the classic car of their dreams. 

All you have to do to enter is fill in your details on our website and answer a simple question.

Click here to put your name in the hat – and think of me if you win!