The Lotus Driving Academy has already received great reviews from SELOC members, with Andibrook writing a piece on his experiences there for us last year. So when the offer came through courtesy of Paul Parkinson of Lipscomb Lotus for an exclusive SELOC day in early March for many it was an opportunity too good to miss.
With members travelling from around the country – and one even from across the channel – quite a few opted to travel up the evening before and stay over at Old Thorn Barn – a lovingly renovated 17th century barn a stones throw away from the factory and with a guest book that’s filled with visitors from around the world.
Being just around the corner from Lotus the pub walls are covered in a variety of Lotus Cars pictures and bits of Classic Team Lotus bodywork, although a 2010 Lotus Racing F1 rear wing end-plate had also snuck its way up on to the beams in the main bar.
Once suitably fed and watered it was back to the hotel for an early night to get some rest, ready for the day ahead.
The day started at 8am, so while some had been up since the crack of dawn travelling it was a relatively relaxed start to the day for those in the Old Thorn Barn, arriving at the factory gates in time to collect our passes from security and meet with the others before heading over to the Lotus Driving Academy clubhouse, located in the old airfield control tower.
Once inside we all started to warm up and tucked in to the range of delicious breakfast pastries before settling down for introductions from the Lotus Driving Academy team and the usual health and safety spiel. After this we were all split up in to 4 groups, with the first two driving while the others headed over to the factory.
Richard Parramint was our guide through the Lotus factory, a veteran of the company since 1968 who still has a real buzz and enthusiasm for the company, it’s history, and it’s future. Richard walked us along the vehicle production lines, split in to the small vehicle platform and Evora lines during initial building, then converging in to a single line for final testing and preparation, talking us through the build process and sharing some stories of the Chapman days – he certainly didn’t sound like an easy man to work with at times!
Unfortunately photography wasn’t allowed anywhere on the Lotus site (the one above is a promotional shot from the Lotus site), a real shame as there were some very interesting cars on the production line including 15 Elise 1.6’s being prepared for a race series in Thailand, various V6 Exige S’ both mid-build and undergoing final preparation, some supercharged Elise S’ awaiting fire-up and calibration, and a pair of stunning Evora GTEs – one in white and the other in a with a matte black finish which was arguably the most striking car we saw on the whole tour.
One thing that was noticeable on the cars working their way through the production line was just how many were wearing the ‘Lotus NYO’ nose badge – indicating the car was heading for China where it would be sold by Lotus’ Chinese distribution partner NYO.
There were also numerous LHD Evoras on the line, most marked as Federal suggesting they would be heading out to the US. While UK sales may have suffered recently it looked as if demand is strong from these key regions.
The final item on the tour was actually parked just by the track, with the ‘SID’ Esprit sitting looking rather sorry for itself in the Driving Academy car park. Having been rescued from the company graveyard and set to receive a restoration as part of the new managements focus on the companies history and heritage this is an Esprit like no other, with running gear – including the 4WD system – from the Metro 6R4 rally car, four-wheel steering and active suspension it was a real technical tour-de-force for Lotus Engineering in the early 90’s and one it’s pleasing to see won’t be consigned to the scrapheap.
We returned to the clubhouse just in time to get ourselves a balaclava and helmet and meet our instructors for the day. I was lucky enough to get Chief Instructor and former F1 driver Martin Donnelly as my instructor for the days four driving sessions and took my place in the passenger seat as they headed out to show us the lines around the recently renovated North Circuit.
After two laps around the circuit, taking note of the cones to indicate braking, turn-in and apex points around the track and general lines it’s back to the pit-lane and time to swap seats and give it a go…
Out on to the track and the first thing to remember is to keep calm, build up your speed gradually, and learn your way around before pushing too hard. The North Circuit looks simple on paper, but many of the corners are surprisingly tricky, with the Rindt Hairpin in-particular requiring a real leap of faith to carry in more speed and brake deep in to the corner despite the fast approaching Armco. Throughout the 20 minute session Martin is pushing me to let the car run out wider and turn in later so as to carry as much speed past the late apex and on to the long Fittipaldi straight, fighting my instinct to turn in early and compromise the corner exit speed.
The level of concentration required means it’s easy to lose track of time, and as we switch over to let the other group have their first session everyone is looking suitably wired from the experience. We talk over our session and seemingly no sooner than we’d caught our breathe it was back out for the second session. Another 20 minutes passed and Martin seemed pleased with my progress – a good sign as for the two afternoon sessions we’d be being rated by our instructors…
Before lunch we just had time for a tour of the Lotus Motorsport building, giving a chance to take a look at Evora GT4s, GTEs, and the GTS in various stages of race-preparation, along with a customer 2-11 bound for America, the new Lotus Racing Kart and a pair of Type 125 single seaters – with news that the latest chassis has just been shipped to a very lucky customer in the Middle East.
A buffet lunch was served as everyone finished off their driving sessions and tours and filtered back to the clubhouse, with an excellent (and plentiful) selection of sandwiches and other snacks, followed up by cake and fresh fruit – just the thing when you have the promise of instructor hot-laps looming at the end of the day!
After lunch it was the first two groups turns to drive again while we headed out the gates and over to the Classic Team Lotus site just across the road, with Richard again acting as our guide. These premises housed Team Lotus in the late 60’s and 70’s until the team moved to Ketteringham Hall, after which it was used as general storage before Classic Team Lotus was formed.
The Classic Team Lotus workshops are positively unassuming from the outside, but once inside are a veritable treasure trove stuffed full of historic F1 delights, with a dozen cars tucked away inside – including Type 25 R4, the car which Jim Clark drove to World Championship victory in 1963, alongside one of it’s sister cars.
Classic Team Lotus don’t just look after and run cars in their own collection but also customer cars from around the world, along with working with manufacturers to license models from the Team Lotus’ past and other merchandise. With the 60th anniversary of Group Lotus this year, along with a heavy focus on Lotus at the Goodwood Festival of Speed it looks like they have another busy year ahead.
Elsewhere in the workshop the Type 88B – with it’s banned twin-chassis design featuring separately sprung bodywork which lowered at speed to funnel air under the body – and the Type 76 – featuring a hydraulic, gearshift mounted, hand clutch and dual brake pedals – showed some of Chapmans innovations which didn’t quite work in practice.
After the tour it’s back to the clubhouse for our next two driving sessions, and the pressure is on as for the afternoon sessions we’re being scored by the instructors. Fortunately the break had given me a bit of time to think about the areas I’d struggled with, and on returning to the track I suddenly find it a lot easier to focus on getting my brake and turn-in points at Windsock Corner. It’s incredibly gratifying to see how the combination of later braking into, and carrying more speed through, the Clark Esses, combined with a better drive out of Windsock and on to the straight can really reel in the other cars on track. I also started to feel more of the differences between the Elise 1.6 and my own S1, particularly in how you can lean on the traction control and be more aggressive on the throttle mid-corner.
All too soon the drivng was over and it was back to the pit-lane. The day was rounded off with hot-laps out on track with the instructors showing just how much we all still had left to learn, along with just how sideways you can get an Elise! After a quick group photo our instructors present us with our Driver Evaluation forms and some feedback on our performance.
It may sound corny but getting some positive feedback on your driving from a former F1 driver is a huge compliment and as a whole SELOC did itself proud, with the instructors commenting that there was a much higher than average standard of driving ability across the group.
Finally we received our Driver Certificates, with all the drivers on the day passing the Level 1 course, along with a goodie bag, complete with the latest issue of the Lotus Magazine and a Lotus Originals cap.
As the group made its way back to the car park you could tell everyone there had thoroughly enjoyed themselves, with the day offering much more than simply a driving experience and giving us a chance to peer in to the inner workings of Lotus as well as back in to it’s past. Talk has already turned to who’s up for giving Level 2 a go…
SELOC would like to give a big thank you those who made this event possible, particularly Paul Parkinson of Lipscomb Lotus and Alex Brake from the Lotus Driving Academy.
By James Thorburn (Thorburn)