A skidpan teaches you how to control understeer and oversteer. Picture: SUPPLIED
A skidpan teaches you how to control understeer and oversteer. Picture: SUPPLIED

The sound of an F1 engine firing up can raise the heartbeat by as much as 15 points. The sound of a BMW M3 engine doesn’t really compare, but there is enough latent menace in its throaty snarl to elicit a frisson of fear in the deepest recesses of the brain.

The pretrack briefing at the Bridgestone-sponsored BMW Driving Experience at Zwartkops Raceway didn’t really help to alleviate this symptom. Sure, it had been delivered in a friendly good-hearted fashion, and was fun as briefings go, but there was no hiding that track days are a serious undertaking and that the devil is often in the details.

The anatomy of a corner, with its apex and turning-in and exit points seemed fairly obvious (it turned out not to be), but it was the stress given to little things such as seating positions and the position of one’s hands on the wheel (not at ten-to-two as it turns out) that seemed a little alarming to someone used to driving cowboy style, one hand on top of the wheel and the other usually preoccupied with texting or gesticulating wildly at other road users.

Most people think they are good drivers, but few have the opportunity to explore the basis of such a supposition. A track day provides the perfect moment of truth, and it can be as humbling as it is rewarding. You have the freedom to concentrate on the sheer pleasure of driving fast without the everyday hazards of the usual commute. But it is a controlled environment, and this means you have to listen to your instructor. And this is not always easy.

Terse injunctions

Despite the best intentions, I found it difficult to process all the incoming information, which demands that one multitasks at speed. Michael Schumacher had the uncanny ability to fiddle with all kinds of car settings while chatting to the pit crew as he was diving into a corner at 280km/h. Not me.

Because the rules kept changing, we were allowed to experience how good getting better felt while knowing how far from good our getting better was.

Caught between understanding my own limits, that of the car (much higher), and the increasingly terse injunctions from my instructor, I manage to miss most apexes (they look very different on a diagram), misjudge most braking and exit points (not easy because they are clearly marked by cones), and place my hands everywhere on the wheel but at the requisite quarter-to-three. I do get better though.

But here’s the rub. At the very point you think you’re beginning to get it, the rules change. On our next outing, we’re told to make use of the paddle shifts, which adds a level of complexity to the process that sees some of my newly found skills fly out of the window. I’m suddenly missing the apex again and my hands revert to their old bad habits.

Every curve is a learning curve. But the really big one comes when they remove all the cones from the track.

Suddenly, you find yourself renegotiating all the corner entry points, which changes your braking behaviour, which in turn compromises your ability to nail the apex, which means you exit the corner badly and then, because you’re confused, find yourself paddle shifting down instead of up.

At the end of the track component of the course it was clear that the car was the real star.

FIRST THERE WAS THE FRIGHTENING REALISATION THAT YOU NEVER QUITE STOP WHERE YOU THINK YOU WILL

Due to the traction control (you need it on an M3 putting down 331kW) we were free to explore some of our inner demons without fear of ever doing anything really silly.

And, because the rules kept changing, we were allowed to experience how good getting better felt while knowing how far from good our getting better was.

And then came the skid pan, which really threw a spanner in the works.

First there was the frightening realisation that you never quite stop exactly where you think you will.

It’s always a little further down the road than you expect, especially when the surface is wet. At 30km/h it seems quite easy, but at only double that speed some serious damage was done to the cone that doubled as a pedestrian.

A bit tricky

But by far the most interesting part of the experience was learning how to control understeer and oversteer, and this is where the positioning of your hands on the wheel is all important. If they are not at a quarter-to-three it’s almost impossible.

Understeer seemed relatively easy to control — you lose the front end of the car, so that instead of turning in it goes straight, and you correct it by getting off the power and straightening the wheel. More challenging was learning to control (or work with) oversteer, which is when the back of the car steps out. Getting off the power is easy, but judging how much countersteer you need is where it gets a bit tricky.

Once you’ve got the feel of it though, not only can you straighten a car in a corner but … more excitingly (with the traction control off), you can control the power slide and drift the car around the pan. It’s a wonderful feeling and the ever-changing power input makes for a truly zef soundtrack.

It was a long, hot and exhausting day, humbling and rewarding and exhilarating. And on the long drive home, I kept catching myself inadvertently humming “I believe I can drift…” Man, it was fun.