Today I had yet another life-changing experience.  I had my first instructor-in-car track day at the Shannonville Motorsport Park just east of Belleville.  The day was being organized by the new owners/management at BMW Waterloo, who also own Parkview BMW.

I have done lots of driving in my life.  I spent lots of time in parking lots when I was getting my license learning how to control understeer and oversteer (thanks, Dad.  That wasn’t just fun, it was a very valuable skill for winter driving, as well as collision avoidance).  But I had never had the benefit of an instructor sitting in the right seat helping me with my technique.  Today, that changed.

Before I get to the fun at the track, I’ll recap last night.  We had a driver’s meeting with head instructor Ian Law.  Ian has forgotten more about advanced driving than I know.  He’s an engaging speaker, and someone you can learn alot from.  He took the group through the basics of advanced driving.  We were going to be separated into 2 groups:  beginner and intermediate/advanced.  The beginner group would not be allowed to pass, and would be lapping at a slower pace, while the advanced group could pass when signaled on the back straight, and drive to their individual limits.  I *really* wanted to be in the advanced group.  My wish was granted after a conversation about my car and driving history.

So first off, the beginners took off for 40 minutes of lapping, while I sat on the pitwall watching excited waiting for my turn.  The skies were grey, but it wasn’t raining, although the track was wet from the earlier rain.

Soon enough, the “advanced drivers to your cars” call went out.  I got in my M5, and took position near the front of the pack.  I really wanted an instructor with me for several reasons:  I wanted the driving feedback, he would have “the line”, and I’d learn alot more.  I was lucky to have race driver/instructor Cam jump in with me.

The first few laps were a bit rough.  I was having trouble with braking, and wasn’t yet comfortable with really hammering the brakes late before a corner.  Add to this the rain that had fallen on the track prior to our stint, and you can imagine the challenge.  But once my confidence in the car (yeah, as dumb as that sounds driving this incredible car, you need to build up that faith by testing the limits of braking at 180kph).  With Cam’s great feedback, each corner was becoming smoother and faster and I was starting to get closer to my “Best Lap”.  The back straight is a place where you can get up to speed quickly if the tires will grip.  The right-hander at the end of the back straight is a tight one.  Imagine flooring your car, getting up to 160-180kph and hitting the brakes as hard as you can at a point 125m before you ease off the brake and turn into the corner.  Exciting stuff.  I can tell you than when you’re doing this, you are thinking of absolutely NOTHING other than the road well in front of you.  Cam and I felt that the braking in my M5 was working very well, and we should attempt to brake at the 100m marker.  So, on the next lap, at somewhere between 160 and 170kph I let the 150m marker fly by my window.  I what seemed a nano-second, the 100m marker was upon me, and I stiffly and quickly pressed the brake pedal.  The ABS went into “I’m in charge” mode, and it became clear to both of us (although Cam verbalized it) that we were coming in too hot for the corner.  Fortunately, we had discussed this situation ahead of time, and I used the long, paved runoff area.

We pulled into the pits, where Cam wanted to check my tire pressures.  He felt that we weren’t getting enough of a contact patch on the track, so he wanted to see if we could drop a few PSI.  We did that, and waited for our next outing.

As my M5 sat parked it was making some very interesting sounds.  I’ve never heard the brake disks pop and crackle before.  This is normal.  It’s the thermal expansion/contraction of uber hot brake disks cooling in the moist air.

Our next stint was on a pretty dry track.  This was a TON of fun.  I really got a great sense of what the M5 is capable of.  It is a tremendously forgiving car when the driver’s aids are on.  As long as you don’t overreact and try to fight the car, you’ll end up pointing in the right direction.  I had several “moments” where you react without thinking, but just to the feel of the situation.  If you have to think about what to do, it’s too late most times.  Got some understeer?  Reduce the slip angle of the front tires by straightening slightly the wheel until you get grip, while gently easing off on the throttle.  Got some oversteer?  Look where you want to go, steer in that direction, and ease off on the throttle.  Easy-peasy.  Ha!

We couldn’t tell if the PSI reduction Cam did was making the car more drivable because the conditions had changed for the better, but we definitely had faster (it felt faster) and more controlled laps in this stint.

For the 3rd stint, I swapped seats with Cam for a few laps.  He was giving me great advice and I wanted to see him put my car through some hot laps.  He was smiling the same way I was when driving.  He commented on how much torque there is all the way to redline.  It’s true that from 4k to 8k the car just wants to rip the road apart.

He gave me back the wheel, and off we went for some more laps.  It had started raining again, but I was in pretty good control through each corner.  Cam must have felt I was “competent” because he asked me “do you want to turn off TC?”.  Now for those of you who don’t know what TC is, it’s an abbreviation for Traction Control, and it’s the feature that keeps your rear wheels from spinning wildly when you are accelerating.  This usually isn’t a huge issue, but when you’re driving “in anger” on a wet track, TC is definitely your friend and guardian angel.  Formula 1 cars were using TC until this year when the technical regulations banned it.  Really great drivers don’t need TC.  Weekend lappers (like me) are often saved from embarrassing “offs” by it.  I was taken a bit aback by his suggestion.  Wasn’t he the instructor who was supposed to stop testosterone-filled drivers from trying to live a Michael Schumacher dream in the rain?  At the same time, I was flattered, because the absolute LAST thing I thought I’d hear from an instructor would be “let’s turn off TC”, especially since the head instructor told us that nobody should disable any of their driver aids.

So, I said “sure, let’s try it and see what happens”.  So Cam hit the button, and the HUD on the windshield showed the ominous “Warning DSC Inactive” Icon.  We were just before the hairpin turn.  I braked as normal, but knew I’d have to be very careful with the throttle accelerating into the back straight.  Well, I wasn’t careful enough.  The back end started getting jiggy, and I eased off on the throttle and gott us pointed where we needed to be.  No harm, no foul, just another “moment”.  But I was driving my M5 like a REAL MAN and in the rain, no less.

We continued to build up speed, albeit more carefully, as there were pools of standing water that we would aquaplane through.  It’s a fun game of “no steering” and “no rear traction”.  Fortunately, those puddles lasted for a split second, and going straight is pretty safe.

The right hander at the end of the back straight fast approached.  I braked well, and made a good turn into the corner.  As I started to accelerate into the “esses” (which was my favourite part of the track) all hell broke loose (as well as the back end of my car).  The esses were a great right left combination of corners that I was taking at around 115kph, but this time, I lost the rear under acceleration, and we started to spin.  I’m beyond proud to say that I recovered from this moment, kept the car on-track and pointed in the right direction.  Having that happen while cornering at 115kph in the rain is something you have to experience to understand.  It all happens so quickly.  I think the ability to feel what to do and do it is critically important in situations like that.

In any event, after recovering, I said to Cam “experiment over, let’s turn the TC back on”.  He agreed completely.  But I was pleased that we had at least tried it, and that while I did lose the back end at speed, I nicely recovered.

I had another break while the beginners were on track.  It was clear I would need more gas.  I’d gone through a tank already.  That’s 60 litres gone in about 60 minutes of driving.  Wow. So I headed out to the nearby Sunoco with the driver of the M6 that I was driving with for many of my laps.

After refueling and prepping for my final stint, I thought that I should bring the video camera out.  I really wanted a lap or two recorded for posterity (or abuse).  We were once again asked to take our positons in the pit lane.  Cam jumped in, and I asked him if he thought he could hold on while filming.  He was very complementary of the M5 “Holy Sh*t Handles”.  They’re solid!  He said “sure, I’ll give it a try”.  Well, he recorded the entire session.  I have some great commentary from him, as well as the fun “cat and mouse” game I was playing with my new friend in his M6.  He would always pull away on the straights (the M6 has the same engine as the M5, and about 200lbs less weight).  But I was catching him on the corners.  I’m so happy he filmed this.  If you’re curious, you can watch some of my last laps on YouTube right here.

Well, that’s pretty much all I have to say about the day at Shannonville.  I’ll definitely be back, and am looking forward to sharing this kind of experience with Sophia.

One final note.  I refueled (again) for the drive home, and the heavens opened up.  The 401 was crawling from Bowmanville all the way to Toronto.  I was tired, and wanted to get off the road and enjoy the fresh memories of this great day.  So I pulled off and am writing this from the Holiday Inn in Oshawa.  Part of being a safe driver is knowing when you’re done.  And I was done.  But I was still smiling, and I’m pretty sure I’ll wake up still smiling.