Rob Wilson is a name most people won’t be familiar with, but mention him to a hardcore motorsport enthusiast or ex racer and you’ll soon realise that this guy has some serious influence.
Rob happens to be the guy people go to if they want to drive seriously quickly in anything with four wheels, including half of the current Formula One grid.
Between jetting off to Maranello to offer a helping hand to Ferrari and honing the driving styles of some of the biggest names in motorsport, Rob kindly found time in his diary to show me the art of driving fast… in a Vauxhall in South Leicestershire!
South Leicestershire is home to Rob’s office, Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground, a huge former airfield perfect for driving at speed, and Rob’s car of choice? The Vauxhall Astra.
Surprised? Me too, but Rob has some very simple requirements from his cars, “They need to be predictable and have some serious stamina”. In any typical year Rob’s Vauxhall fleet will cover more than 15,000 track miles at race speed, 100,000 manual gearshifts and 400 tyres replacements, “They also need to be comfortable, I’ll often have Formula One race engineers in the rear and the drivers up front, we spend a lot of time in the car and so it’s an important factor. I used to use any car, but I quickly found out the Vauxhall’s were by far the best for the job.”
Taking my place in the driving seat alongside Rob was a pretty exciting experience. After all, the guys that usually get the privilege are hoping to somehow shave a tenth of a second off their lap times before the next qualifying session.
Before even stepping into the car Rob had talked through some detailed explanations of the physics of driving. The way a car responds according to your body movements, and how to introduce the car properly to each corner. It was clear Rob is top of his game and that there’s a lot more to it than simply holding the racing line.
After a couple of laps things started to click into place. With the adrenalin flowing corning the Vauxhall Astra at 120mph with Rob calming telling me, “Whatever you do don’t lift off the accelerator” (I was later told doing so would’ve seriously caused some damage) somehow felt normal. More importantly with Rob’s help I was I was taking seconds off my lap times and clocking some pretty consistent times. Once Rob had introduced me to the dark art of heel-and toe (I’d never heard of it either, but keep reading) I finally started to understand some of the basics to managing the car’s balance under braking.
After a couple of hours on the track, in the company of one of the most interesting men I’ve ever met, it was time to reluctantly leave the comforts of the Vauxhall Astra and head back down the M1.
Drivers use the “heel and toe” method to combine braking and downshifting as they approach a corner, the aim is to speed up the engine to match the tire speed.
In layman’s terms it goes something like this, as you approach a corner you reduce throttle move the toes of right foot across to the brake, increase brake pressure, dip the clutch with your left foot, downshift, and then try to match the rpms with the new gear.