“ Drive Tech Limited / Castle Combe / Chippenham / Wiltshire SN14 7BW / Tel: 01249 783010 / Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. „
Did you ever receive a gift that you didn't really want but which someone had spent so much money on that you had to go along with it? I guess it has probably happened to most of us. For some unfathomable reason that remains a mystery to this day, my parents decided to buy my sister and me a half-day Skid Pan course run by a company called Drive Tech at Castle Combe Circuit, near Chippenham in Wiltshire. Neither of us has ever had a skidding accident, neither (as far as I know) have my parents who hibernate when the weather turns cold or nasty (They are a bit like the opposite of eating oysters, they don't go out if there's an R in the month).
Sister and I wondered if we could sneak off to the track and exchange the vouchers for an alternative activity -preferably one that would involve driving something overpowered much too quickly round a track. But no, apparently this training was for our benefit and any amusement that the rest of the family might derive from our ritual humiliation was purely incidental. We would be better drivers if we went along with it.
We put it off for a few months but sooner or later we knew that our excuses would not hold out much longer and so we fixed a Saturday afternoon appointment and I set off with my husband to meet the family at the race track.
Where is it?
The Castle Combe Circuit is located just outside the village of Castle Combe in Wiltshire. It is about a 15-minute drive from Junction 17 of the M4 (the Chippenham turnoff) and the route is well signposted. Bring your camera - you might want to get a picture of the village sign for the tiny hamlet of Tiddleywink which you will pass on the way.
Castle Combe is halfway between Bristol and Swindon about 20 miles to either town. When you arrive at the circuit, follow the signs to the skid pan centre -it's next door to the go-karting track.
When can I go skidding?
Skid pan courses are run each Saturday and two Fridays each month. Booking is essential as they can only take 12 people on each of the two courses run during each day. We booked for the afternoon session, which starts at 2 pm, but you are requested to arrive at least 15 minutes earlier. If you have a group of 12 people and want to book your own private skid pan experience, these can be arranged - just give them a call to discuss.
How much does it cost?
£85 per person - not cheap. But neither is getting yourself dug out of a tree or a ditch or replacing your car. I guess they would say "what cost peace of mind?" I have to say it was a more generous present than I am used to from my folks.
On arrival - registration
We arrived at the skid pan and found a small building which overlooks the course. It was not particularly well sign-posted but by process of elimination we figured out it must be the right place. This little club-house has a small training room, a couple of toilets (nice and clean), a small kitchen with an urn for making cups of tea or coffee, and a seating area for friends and relatives to watch the amusements. Just after we arrived the heavens opened and a couple of inches of fresh rain were deposited on the course. We watched the two instructors step gingerly round the course spreading gunge on the bends to maximise the slip, not that there was any shortage that day.
Next door on the go-karting track the riders looked like they were driving through the log flume at Alton Towers. They were spinning and skidding like inexperienced skaters.
We were asked to present our booking cards, write our names and signatures on a couple of lists and that was that. No inspection of our driving licenses was required. We were split into two groups of six people - my sister and I were in the second group with one other girl and three quarters of a family group (elderly mother, daughter and son-in-law). We were warned that if it rained too much they might have to halt the training or only train half of the group. Having driven for two and a half hours to get there, we wouldnt have been best pleased if that had happened.
The first group headed off to the cars - one a boxy old BMW 318i, the other some kind of old Rover in that particularly nasty dark green that Rover seemed so fond of. The reason for having two cars? One was rear-wheel drive (the BMW) and the other front wheel-drive (the Rover). By driving both we would see the different effect that skidding has on each car type. Neither car had any of the modern safety features such as ABS or traction control. Both smell a bit like old dogs.
The first exercise introduces you to what happens if you haven't a clue what you are doing. Three people pile into each car with some fighting over who got to go in the back where it seemed a bit safer. Each driver does three or four laps, slipping about all over the show in each of the two cars, learning very quickly that when it happens, there is not much you can do about it. We quickly learned that the BMW was a nightmare compared to the ploddy old Rover. My sister came in from this experience with the sort of shakes that would make an alcoholic proud.
As we were in the second group, the first group were in the classroom whilst we did our initial drive. When we left the circuit and went to the classroom, the first group headed out for their next exercise.
In the Classroom
The instructor Dave explained to us the different problems of driving front and rear wheel drive cars in a skid. With diagrams he showed us how each car type reacts and told us the basics of bringing the cars back under control. As our group was five women and one man he didn't get away with much. When he slipped into some impenetrable drivel about going from a 'plus plus' situation to a 'plus minus' we pulled him up for talking rubbish and he explained it in a way that made a bit more sense. Basically it was something about grip.
Regardless of car type the basics are:-
1. Foot off the accelerator
2. Clutch in full
3. Whatever you do don't brake!
4. For a rear wheel drive the back kicks out and you should follow your instinct to steer out of trouble.
5. For a front wheel drive car, the front kicks and you need to override your natural urge to steer away from the slide and steer into the direction you are sliding, then wiggle the steering wheel left and right until you get the grip back.
Thats just my interpretation so don't write and blame me when you wrap your car around a bollard. Get some advice or better still some training!
The instructor then explained that we would go out to the track again and practice these techniques before doing some braking exercises. These would consist of driving along full tilt and doing a four-wheel skid to prove how pointless it would be to try to steer, a 'brake on- brake off and steer round the obstacle' exercise and finally cadence braking (or pumping the brake). And finally when that was all done, we would have a time trial.
Back to the track
This time we were driving the opposite way around the course. Again, each driver drove each car and it soon became apparent that the instructor wasn't wrong with his suggestions. Most of us had done the first exercise without using the brakes or the clutch. The clutch became the key to the control of the car. However there was one added bogey in the system. By this time the track was so overly slippy that the BMW was exhibiting signs of behaving like both a front and a rear-wheel drive. But with some careful application of the rules we were getting the hang of things.
The braking exercises are carried out in two BMWs - the Rover by this time was off the course having a cup of tea and being comforted by a friend after all the trauma of the earlier exercises. After the first group had their go at braking, it was time for us to give it our best shot. This was actually my favourite part of the day and for these exercises we had an instructor in the car telling us when to brake and when to stop braking.
Put your foot flat on the floor and then slam on the brakes and sail down the course with no control whatsoever. Great fun (when it's someone else's car of course). That proved the point that it didn't make a blind bit of difference if you steered or not. We had no control at all.
Next time round, we were told to head towards a cone and then slam on the brakes until we were a few feet away then take them off and steer round the cone. Me? Well I clipped the cone and the instructor had to get out and replace it. I should have remembered he was an off-duty policeman before uttering the words "That cone was asking for it, officer". A second attempt and the cone was looking much less nervous.
Finally the cadence braking exercise - proof positive that the pumping the brake technique works like a dream.
The Time Trial
The time trial was carried out in both the BMW and the Rover. The cars were parked in cone 'garages' and the exercise required us to drive out of the garage and round the course one way, then spin the car round and head back in the other direction before spinning the car and reversing back into the garage.
All started well until the second driver. My sister was passenger in the car of the elderly lady who took a corner too wide and made an unscheduled visit into a row of cones and tyres. The cones got caught under the front and back of the car and took several minutes to remove. We were all doubled up crying with laughter as the instructor attempted to remove them whilst also trying to avoid getting run over or falling on the slime. My poor sister's face was a picture.
Another driver was disturbed to find her husband (as her passenger) decided to help her out with a handbrake turn which he hadn't told her to expect, leading to total confusion and a nasty stall in the middle of the course.
After we'd all driven both cars, redesigned the garages (turning most into double garages and in some instances parking in the next door neighbour's garage) the session was over.
Back to the Clubhouse
We all received a certificate and a handbook to remind us of what we had learned. The top three from the time trial were announced and applauded and that was the end of the day.
Did I enjoy it?
Yes I did enormously. I am quite ashamed at how reluctant I had been to go. And apparently our spectators also had a ball and laughed themselves silly for most of the afternoon. More importantly I came away with a much higher level of confidence in my own ability to deal with a skidding incident and at the end of the day, that's surely what its all about.
Other events available from Drive Tech
Go karting - £45 per driver (15 or older) or £35 for Juniors; Four Wheel Drive Courses - £110 per person . They can also arrange corporate events including Skid Control training (£800 plus vat for up to 12 drivers), off road training (£325 +vat for up to 3 drivers), Grand prix Karting events (£1350 +vat for up to 36 drivers) and mixtures of all the different options as required.
There is also a large driving circuit on the same circuit which is used by top drivers as a training and competition site just in case we had started to think we were doing really well, we could have popped up to have a look at how the experts do it