Boris Johnson ordered the national lockdown on the 23rd of March and after that date, you were only allowed to leave your house for these reasons and these reasons alone: To buy food, to seek medical help, to exercise and for work, if working from home was impossible.
Attending a track day was not one of them.
The UK lockdown was mirrored across most of Europe leading to the cancellation or postponement of hundreds of sporting events. All the early-season track days I had booked, including one at the glorious Spa Francorchamps circuit, were canceled. Luckily, the track day providers allowed us to either claim refunds or book alternate dates.
The enforced break meant I suddenly had a lot of time to prepare the track car, a BMW E46 M3, a.k.a. ‘Sub Eight’. I first sent the car to PS Designs Global to have a very high-quality MK Carbon GT4 Wing on high mounts fitted. PS Designs came up with a simple, but ingenious mounting bracket which perfectly fits the curve of the Carbon Siebon CSL-style boot lip.
While the car was with them, PS Designs found a leak in one of the dampers of the Tractive RTX Coilover suspension system. This meant I had to take the car to CPC Performance Engineering in Amersham where the suspension was removed and sent to Meteor Motorsport, one of the few Tractive-approved service centers in the UK for a complete overhaul.
Meteor Motorsport rebuilt the dampers and put on the recommended spring rates and settings before sending them back to CPC where the entire suspension was re-installed on the car.
When I collected the car from CPC, I noticed that the car refused to track straight. It was clear that the alignment was all over the place, so I booked the car in for a full corner-weighed geometry setup at RD Automotive.
He also fitted the set of Toyo Proxes R88R I’d ordered from Demon Tweeks to replace the Nankang AR 1s I’d been running. The Nankang AR 1s had to go because they had scared me silly on my return trip from the Nurburgring late last year.
You can read about that trip here.
No one said that this motorsport lark would be easy eh?
The Track Day
As soon as Boris eased the ‘lockdown’ restrictions, many circuits and track day organisers put the plans and procedures they had been working on into place and published them. Javelin Trackdays were the organisers of this particular post-lockdown, socially-distanced track day and these were the main points of the COVID-19 procedures that had been out in place:
- All pre-event registration and safety briefings had been moved online. This replaced the traditional driver briefing held at the start of each track day.
- Access was restricted to one car and two people per single garage.
- Garages were to remain fully open at all times (to the front and rear).
- Extra space in the paddock was made available to facilitate social distancing.
- Only participants and their essential helpers could attend a test or track day
- No spectators, including family
- Passengers were only permitted if they were from the same household as the driver.
- No in-car instruction, no helmet hire, and no access to race control
A fairly comprehensive string of restrictions that were actually quite reassuring.
The venue used for this COVID-19 track day was the excellent Bedford Autodrome with its 3.8-mile ‘GT’ circuit. This venue is built on the former WWII RAF bomber base Thurleigh Airfield. This track was designed by the ex-F1 driver, Jonathan Palmer, and it shows. This motorsport venue does not host any racing events therefore there is no need for crowd-protecting safety barriers or concrete walls.
This means there is a lot of run-off space and you’d have to be going some, or doing something very, very daft, to hit something other than another car at this track.
I’ve actually done a track day at this venue before but never completed the article. I drove my other car, a Porsche 911 GT3 back then and the comparison with my track-prepared BMW M3 proved to be very interesting.
I left my house in West London very early one Monday morning to drive the 70 odd miles to Bedford and arrived there at 7:30 am to check-in. This took all of 5 minutes, then I was back in my car to drive the short distance to my reserved garage in the pits.
This was the event’s timetable
- 07:30 Signing – On Starts
- 09:00 Sighting Laps
- 9:25 Open Pit Lane
- 12:30 – 13:30 Lunch Break
- 17:00 Track day Ends
Since I had completed my sign-on by 7:35, I had a lot of time to prepare for the day ahead, and to indulge in one of my favourite pastimes: Gawping at and photographing performance cars. I was even able to observe most of them as they arrived in the pit lane. There was the usual wide variety of machinery you see on almost any mid-range track day.
I counted three Mclarens and three Porsche 911 GT3s. I also spotted a glorious Lava Orange 911 GT3 RS, the track day ‘King’. I’m not sure any normal production car looks more at home on a race track than a Porsche 911 GT3 RS.
A few of my ‘track and driving’ buddies arrived about forty minutes before the first ‘sighting’ laps. One arrived in his fabulous, newly-acquired, track-prepared, lurid-green E92 M3. The other arrived in a Megane RS, also in an appropriate retina-searing shade of yellow.
At 9:10 am, the lights at the end of the pit lane went green and we all rolled out on to the track for the two ‘sighting’ laps behind the pace car. These laps are quite important as it gives a first look at the track and the track conditions on that particular day. It also helps to jog the memory about the track layout, which is crucial.
The track, unusually, runs anti-clockwise and the pit lane joins the track just before a tight left-hander. Once past this left-hand turn, the track sweeps left before you hit the first high-speed chicane, left, then right.
The track then leads into a challenging left curve followed by a right curve before you hit a left-right corner complex.
Once through this, it is a short squirt to the next left-hand hairpin. This leads on to the fastest part of the track, the 1km straight which has a small kink two-thirds of the way down. This straight leads to the hardest-braking point for the slow, tight hairpin left. The track curves right then left then through a near-90 degree left before yet another tight left-hand hairpin.
Track Layout and Rules
Once through this hairpin, you encounter another challenging high-speed right-hand curve which leads to another flat-out stretch, after which are the two fast right-handers which take you back to the start-finish straight.
A lap around the Bedford Autodrome is fast, challenging, and oh-so-much fun.
Overtaking is only allowed on the straights and on the left side only. No ‘outbraking’ maneuvers allowed. The noise limits at this track are among the strictest in the UK: 101db static and 87.5db drive-by, and this can be problematic for a lot of cars.
My friend in his glorious 911 GT3 CS would fall foul of the drive-by noise limit later on.
Sighting laps completed, we all trundled back into the pits to wait for a bit, or as one friend put it: “to wait for the ‘Crazies’ to go out first”. The ‘Crazies’ are the over-eager, Lewis Hamilton-wannabes who think they are much better than they really are and it is best to let them go out first to vent their pent-up frustrations.
And they did not disappoint. There were two stoppages in the first half-hour caused by spinning ‘Crazies’. Sigh.
I had always intended to use this first post-lockdown track day to ‘shakedown’ the car. I’d made many major changes, including a whole new setup, and upgraded and tweaked the car extensively.
It was time to test all these changes and see if they had delivered the improvements in lap time, balance, and driver confidence I had hoped for.
I strapped in, set the GoPros, and headed onto the track as soon as the lights at the end of the pit lane went green.
I started this first stint with a slow ‘outlap’ to warm the tyres and get all the fluids up to their working temperatures. I stayed well out of the way of cars already on hot laps.
As I approached the last fast right-hander at the end of the warm-up lap, I gunned it, braked lightly just before the corner, turned in as the DSC light, which I had deliberately left on, started flashing, retarding the power as swept through into the short start/finish straight.
The first tight left-hander was next, I braked hard for it, downshifted one gear and turned in. The car’s response was direct and accurate, into the short squirt to the gentle left sweeper which can be treated as one acceleration zone before you hit the first high-speed chicane, I straight-lined this chicane, taking as much kerb as I thought possible, the car was hardly flustered, dismissing both kerbs like they were not there..wow!
Through the left curve and the right sweeper, the car felt planted with very little body roll and a balance I did not think possible, maybe because I’m still staying away from the absolute limit?
Into the next left-right complex and then into and through the left-hand hairpin that leads onto the main straight, the car was accurate and the poise and balance under hard braking were truly impressive.
I hit a maximum speed of 140 mph at the end of the main straight which was slightly disappointing. This disappointment was wiped away as I hit the brakes as I approached the marker for the hairpin at the end of the main straight. The AP Racing braking system wiped off 100 mph well before the apex, as clearly, I had braked too early.
After the hairpin came the sharp radius right-hand curve and then the two left turns before I hit the last left-hand hairpin. I braked far too late and ran wide, compromising my exit from the hairpin. Then it was into my favourite corner of the track, a fast right-hander where you play a balancing game between throttle and grip. Get too greedy on the throttle as you exit the corner, the car will run wide and you will lose speed as you enter the last substantial straight of the lap.
At the end of this straight comes the penultimate corner of the lap, a sharp right hander, which requires hard braking, downshifting two gears and a wide line through to avoid cars entering the pit lane.
The final, fast sweeping right corner is next, and then it is on to the start/finish lap.
A lap of the Bedford Autodrome’s ‘GT’ circuit is fast, busy, challenging, and technical lap which is so rewarding and enjoyable when you finally get it right. Then it was back into the pits to let the car cool down and a tyre pressure adjustment before heading out for more stints.
I spent the time before lunch doing more 5-7-lap stints, braking later, pushing harder and with all the stability systems turned OFF. The car was incredible, seemingly unflappable with grip and poise to spare.
I remember overcooking it into the first part of the fast chicane, the car landed sideways, I turned into the oversteer and the car made the apex for the second part of the chicane. Amazing!
We used the lunch hour for err, lunch, make more adjustments, and talk cars. When car enthusiasts are not driving their cars, they talk about their cars, or about driving their cars.
One of my friends, Dave (Deadweight Industries), asked to drive my car after lunch, a suggestion I was all too happy to go with. You see, Dave has been driving various cars at the Nurburgring’s Nordschleife circuit for over 8 years, and he has set a low 7-minute time (BTG) at that iconic track.
Given that this M3 was bought primarily to set a sub-8 minute time at the ‘Ring, I was very interested in his feedback.
Sometime after lunch, Dave strapped himself into the M3’s Recaro Pole Position bucket seat and headed onto the track, while I walked to the last corner of the track with my Canon 5D MK IV and long lens in hand.
“That is the best track car I’ve ever driven” – Dave
Twenty-odd minutes later, Dave came back into the pits beaming from ear to ear. “That is the best track car I’ve ever driven” he enthused. He continued: “That thing will eat a lot of cars at the ‘Ring”, and most importantly he added: “That is definitely a sub-8-minute car”.
Music to my ears. I just have to make sure I am capable of a sub-8-minute ‘Ring time, the car certainly seems capable of it.
The Chequered Flag
Buoyed by Dave’s assessment of the car, I spent the rest of the track day pushing harder, trying new things, trying to refine my lines and driving technique. I went on longer stints, only pausing to let the car cool down as it was a very hot day.
I used TWO tankfuls of fuel, the first time I’ve used so much fuel on a track day. I drove longer and harder than I’ve ever done in this car and the car responded brilliantly and did not put a foot wrong. It has a mighty and accurate front end, endless grip, and is almost perfectly balanced.
The car apparently has no serious foibles and I could not be happier with it.
I kept driving until I saw the chequered flag signaling the end of a glorious track day.
I’d driven harder, longer, and better than I’d ever done on a track. The car has improved and I feel I have improved with it.
I hung out with some good mates, in the company of other petrol heads, burnt TWO tankfuls of fuel and a good deal of rubber and thrilled myself to bits.
The perfect way to come out of ‘lockdown’ and lift the COVID-19 gloom.
‘Till the next time.