You can compete in a season of motor racing for the price of a golf club membership. Adam Hay-Nicholls gets behind the wheel of a Ginetta and realises a childhood dream.
What if I told you your fantasy of becoming a racing driver might not be a pipe dream? And what if I said you can compete season-long in a works-run sports car, cheered on by crowds at the UK’s most famous race tracks for less than the cost of joining a good golf club?
The Ginetta Racing Drivers Club is designed for novices, and the opportunity to switch from car writer to full-on racer was a lifetime’s ambition fulfilled.
Cut to the grid: Ahead are a dozen cars, and in my mirrors half a dozen more. It’s baking hot in the cockpit. My fireproofs are already soaked with sweat and we haven’t even started yet. I’m strapped tightly into my Ginetta G40 by a six-point harness and head-and-neck restraint. The red lights on the starting gantry illuminate above my quarry. The sound of engines soars. The lights go out and my heart hits the rev limiter as tyres squeal, the steering vibrates, discarded rubber rattles around the wheel arches, and we rush towards the first corner furiously jockeying for position.
No one here had a race licence until a month ago, and the learning curve is as steep as Silverstone is flat.
The season runs from April to August, with two races each at Rockingham, Snetterton, Silverstone and Brands Hatch, supporting the prestigious British GT championship. The price, including three practice days, is £42,000, and you get to keep the car at the end. The G40 is a pocket rocket that’s low on power yet feather-light – 840kg – meaning it handles like a dream. It’s two-seat, front-engined, rear-wheel-drive and built from fibreglass. Between its nose and my legs sits a 1.8 litre Ford Zetec engine producing 135bhp. Forget traction control and ABS; the only driver aids are your hands and feet.
Ginetta might sound like an Italian ice cream, but these machines are made in Yorkshire and they’re all identical apart from the paint jobs. Despite the chunky roll cage, cockpit fire extinguisher and the three buttons you need to press just to start it, this race car sits on regular tyres and is road legal. This means you can drive yourself to races. Careful how you go, mind, or else you won’t be able to drive it back.
A mechanic is provided to do all the oily stuff. If you don’t want to drive the car to and from the track, Ginetta will store it at their Leeds factory and transport it to the circuit. Alternatively, if you don’t wish to own the car you can do arrive-and-drive for just £9,000 for the season, paid in monthly instalments.
That’s less than the annual teeing fees at Wentworth and, compared to the £250,000+ cost of buying a British GT car and running it for a year, a relative bargain. How can potting a golf ball compare to the satisfaction of slotting your car down the inside of another at 100mph and emerging from the corner in the lead?
The GRDC’s drivers are a mix of hungry young hotshots looking to make their mark, car-mad businessmen taking time out from the office, and an off-duty anaesthetist. They’ve all done karting and track days before, but none of us have entered a car racing championship until now.
Ginetta holds our hand during the practice rounds, with professional drivers giving us instruction. They also arrange for us to sit our ARDS – a practical and a theory test set by the Motor Sports Association which grants me the ‘National B’ licence we need to go racing. It’s the first exam in which I have ever scored 100%. At each of the eight races you get a signature as long as you finish. Six signatures and you earn your ‘National A’, which would allow you to enter Formula 3, BTCC and Pro-Am British GT races. The road to Formula One or Le Mans lies ahead.
My race number, 69, eludes to the playboy spirit of racers past, like James Hunt; the days, they like to say, when sex was safe and racing was dangerous. More importantly, though, it means I can still be identified when my car is upside down.
Our first race is a baptism of fire. There are spectators, and officials, and very powerful Lamborghini and McLaren GT3s waiting in the wings. We’re the warm-up act, a 15-minute sprint, and the track is freezing and it’s teeming with rain. Rockingham is said to be the slipperiest circuit in Europe at the best of times, and rivers are flowing down its banking; rather unnerving at triple figure speeds. The Ginetta has impressive grip in the dry, but in the wet it’s like wrestling a well-oiled eel and one in a bad mood at that. I’m relatively happy to qualify tenth out of 15, given the perilous conditions, but the gap to the front is a wake-up call that my rivals are more skilled and motivated than I’d banked upon. I don’t want to get closer than a couple of metres to other cars in case we slide into each other. My insurance excess is three grand. GRDC is terrific value until you have a crash, and then it stops being fun. Maybe one should think of this less as an alternative to golf, more as a high-stakes gamble. The only prize: Pride.
Snetterton’s balmy conditions allows our confidence to build. The whole field becomes a lot bolder and I start to feel comfortable jousting half a metre from other cars. The Norfolk track has some fabulous curves and I take my first top ten finish. The thrill of passing another car is enthralling. At Silverstone, I go up another level again.
As an F1 correspondent I’ve moaned about Silverstone for years because of its lacklustre facilities and the scarcity of good spectating places, but driving the British Grand Prix track is a revelation. Now I get why F1 drivers rave about it. After just two practice laps I’m hooked up and more in love with its tarmac than I ever thought possible. Memories of Mansell, Hill and Hamilton flick through the old cerebral as I charge through legendary turns, like Copse, Becketts and Stowe. I’m living my teenage dreams, and I’m not just there to pootle around – I find courage and aggression I never knew I had, battling cars just millimetres away and goading them to come closer. After the race, one of my wheels has a perfect ring of blue around it from where it’s delicately rubbed against a rival’s bodywork through the 180 at Luffield. Suddenly, I’m fearless.
I start to embrace the stylings of a quintessential gentleman racer. Scotch whisky heir Rob Walker, who raced as a young man in the 1930s before becoming a celebrated F1 team owner, once competed at Le Mans wearing an alternative to the standard white overalls. He eschewed them for a dark blue pinstriped suit and tie for his evening stint and then swapped it for a more informal Prince of Wales check for his 12-hour-long marathon stint the following morning. Having crossed the line eighth he then drove another 150 miles to Paris and partied all night long. I decide to compete in a similar vein by staying in stately piles and characterful pubs near the circuits, as opposed to the dowdy business hotels you’ll find the teams staying in, and affixing a pocket square to my Alpinestars race suit. Unfortunately, the scrutineers will allow full Savile Row attire no longer.
The season finale comes in the form of the prettiest circuit of them all; the rolling asphalt of the Brands Hatch GP track, which sees the cars fly around a natural spectating bowl and then dive into a forest filled with ghosts of racers past. It’s a rewarding but unforgiving place, with fast and flowing corners, tricky cambers, and deep gravel traps. Having kept my nose pointing forward throughout the races so far, I manage to go into Surtees too hot a couple of laps into Race 1 and spin out of sixth place into the kitty litter. That means that for Race 2, the final round of the championship, I shall start from the back of the grid and have it all to do.
I get too much wheel-spin off the line but brake later than the cars ahead into the notoriously tricky Paddock Hill Bend, the car rotating enough to make one’s buttocks clench. The rear tyres find some bite and I’m catapulted down Hailwood’s Hill into the Druids hairpin, where I chuck the G40 down the inside kerb and overtake a couple of cars. By Lap 5 I’ve passed half a dozen and am fighting for fifth place. We roar past the pits three abreast when a stone or a piece of rubber or something hits my drivers’ side window and its explodes, showering me with glass. I don’t react, the engine hits 7,000 RPM and I immediately shove the gearstick into fourth and keep my foot down.
A lap later the plug is pulled from my electrifying battle when my gearbox linkage breaks and I freewheel along Pilgrims Drop looking for a marshals’ post where I can safely pull over. That, as they say, is motor racing. You can spend the whole weekend hoping for a trophy and you never get to see the chequered flag because a 20p part fails.
It makes me wish the season was longer. GRDC is a wallet-friendly introduction to hardcore motorsport, but you can’t do a second season. From here, the only way is up, and that is expensive. A season of Renault Clio Cup is approximately £80k. A GT4 drive is around £200k. Formula 2 is over £1 million.
I have a recurring nightmare that a few years from now you’ll find me sat rocking backwards and forwards in an alley, wrapped in cardboard and stinking of piss. You’ll ask where it all went wrong. I’ll tell you: Racing is highly addictive.