Driving "Just about the most fun I’ve ever had behind the wheel of a car"

BMW Drivers Day, Phillip Island, June 2013.
Photo of Sam Jeremic

Our Motoring Editor pushes his limits at Victoria's famous Phillip Island grand prix circuit. 

They’d told us not to look at the speedo.

I’m roaring up the straight past the starting grid at the famous Phillip Island grand prix circuit in a BMW M3. I’ve just ripped through the track’s 12th and final corner — a long, drawn-out, swooping left-hander which allows you to dive-bomb from the top of the track down to the corner’s apex at high speed —  and I’m having just about the most fun I’ve ever had behind the wheel of a car.

And others can too, through Phillip Island Drive Days — yes, even in BMWs.

Despite only having a few laps under my belt, I feel totally in control as I reach the top of the Gardiner Straight crest and gain even more speed as I begin the descent down towards Doohan Corner and Southern Loop.

In spite of earlier warnings from highly credentialled instructors not to do so, I decide to drop my eyes and sneak a peek at my speed. The needle is sitting at 190km/h, a long way north of where I was expecting. It climbs past 200km/h and is heading past 220km/h by the time I start thinking about braking.

All of a sudden I’m immediately aware of just how fast everything is moving around me — the building which houses the pits is in the distance and then behind me in a flash, while the starting grid markings whip by so fast they have almost a strobe-like effect on my vision when I glance at them.

Though all of these observations leave my brain as quickly as they enter, what I’m not thinking about in that exact moment is negotiating the corner, which is rapidly approaching.

I enter the corner a few km/h too fast, the tyres chirp their disapproval at the resulting slight oversteer, I drop some pace and the pace car in front of me gains a length or so.

That’s the thing about driving, whether on a track or on a road: the slightest slip in concentration almost inevitably has a tangible effect on your car’s behaviour.

I’m on the Island for a BMW Intensive Driving Experience course, a day-long event held at various circuits around Australia throughout the year. The courses are offered to buyers of M-range BMW vehicles but are also available to the public.

We have the track to ourselves and a wide variety of drivers are on hand.

The day began with a short theory lesson on safety and also some handy pointers to get the most out of being on the track, including hand position on the steering wheel, driving lines and aiming for the apex of corners (the tightest part of a bend).

From there, it was straight into the M3s for some laps.

Phillip Island really is a great circuit — the track was recently resurfaced and it’s as smooth as butter.

Our instructors set the pace ahead and were conveniently in contact via two-way radio to offer tips and talk us through each section of the track.

The main challenges were, naturally, the corners. Each had its own different apex and suitable driving line. We were told to aim for the green apex cones on each corner, to the point where we should be able to run them over if possible.

“Sounds simple, doesn’t it,” instructor Derek Walls told the group before we first headed out to the track.

“Golf sounds simple too… ”

Yep, it’s harder than it sounds.

But, we were collectively getting better. We sped through a short course plotted out of witch’s hats, with our timed runs getting quicker each time.

Many were there for the fun of tearing around a track, but there were real-life-relevant lessons to be learnt also. There was a tricky exercise of slamming on the brakes at 90km/h and trying to negotiate obstacles while sliding to a stop, but perhaps most fun was testing our oversteer skills on a wet skid pan with the car’s traction control turned off.

Even though we were all experienced drivers in our group, not completely unaccustomed to such driving, every single one of us needed multiple attempts to keep from spinning out.

But after time, not only could we keep control of the car but also prolong and direct the sliding M3.

In such a safe environment, it was great to push the limits without the chance of things going awry. The smiles all round told the story.

We then turned the traction control back on and were instructed to take the corner as we had been but to plant our foot and keep the accelerator to the floor.

In a testament to the technology, instead of flying off into a spin the car cut its power and braked so the end result was a meek skid.

“We get people saying their brother borrowed their M3 and lost it and crashed it but still swears he had the traction control on, ” one of the instructors chuckled.

“Well, clearly, he didn’t.”

After returning to the track for some final laps, we were all feeling rather confident. But we were given a wake-up call when the instructors ended the day by taking us on hot laps in the M3.

They hit corners at speeds far beyond what we were capable of, yet the whole time the ride felt ridiculously smooth.

Laps with the traction control turned off saw most of the 4.445km track taken while sideways, all the while the instructors nonchalantly chatted away as though they were ducking down to the shops.

It became abundantly clear the differences between we Average Joes who love to drive and those who do it for a living.

They don’t make the same errors in judgment and concentration we do and it takes years to be skilled enough to push a serious car like an M3 to its absolute limits — just because the car is capable doesn’t mean the driver is.

It also highlighted that the margin for error is far too tight and the level of knowledge far too great to try to self-learn these skills on the fly driving on our roads.

Sam Jeremic was a guest of BMW.

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