Lotus Driving Academy

Driving a sporty car in the wheel tracks of world champions.

You may have seen the scene from the movie Senna, the 2010 compelling documentary about the late, great Ayrton Senna.

It shows Senna’s fellow racing driver and good mate Martin Donnelly lying motionless in the middle of the track, 50 metres away from where his Formula 1 car hit the barrier at 140mph and completely disintegrated during practice for the 1990 Spanish Grand Prix.

At the risk of understatement, Donnelly’s injuries were critical. He had bruising to his lungs and brain (the impact was so violent it cracked the crash helmet), severe breaks to both legs and resultant massive blood loss.

During a long and painful recovery, the Northern Irishman suffered kidney failure and was on dialysis for weeks. It looked as if his right leg might have to be amputated. Remarkably, he survived and even went on to race again, though the massive injuries spelt the end of his promising F1 career.

Nearly three decades later, Martin Donnelly now heads up the Lotus Driving Academy in the UK. And right now, he’s seated alongside me, demonstrating the correct way to lap Lotus’s historic test track at Hethel in rural Norfolk.

Lotus ready to go

I’m at the wheel of an Elise 220 Sport, renowned for its subliminal handling and ability to punch above its weight. Like all Lotus racing and road cars, the Elise is a product of marque founder Colin Chapman’s ‘add lightness’ philosophy. Weighing a trim 914kg means it has the wherewithal to thoroughly exploit every skerrick of its supercharged, 1.8-litre Toyota engine’s 217kW of power and 250Nm of torque. Evidence a quickfire 0-100km/h time of 4.2 seconds.

But, I’m getting mixed messages. A voice inside my head is urging me to hustle the lithe, little Lotus – ring its neck, stomp on the brakes, pitch it into the corner. After all, I know from having driven the Sport 220’s predecessor – the Elise S 10 years ago – how much rollicking, good fun that can be. But, hardly audible above the rorty engine note and wind rush, Martin is telling me something different.

“Don’t brake. Just lift off the throttle, then back on the throttle,” he urges in his broad Northern Irish accent, delivered in scattergun fashion. “On, off, on, off. Smoothly does it.”

Martin is, of course, right. Lifting off the throttle transfers weight forward to aid front end grip turning into a corner; back on the throttle exiting the corner transfers it over the rear wheels which helps put power to the ground. Do as he says and the car immediately feels way more composed. More importantly – in the context of driving a racing circuit – it’s the quicker way around.

With Martin’s sage words continuing to ring in my ears, I’m now braking just once a lap – for a tight chicane near the end of the main straight. Using third gear everywhere except the two straights, where we pull fifth, ensures we’re making full use of the engine’s torque curve. His advice to be less aggressive with steering input and throttle application is also paying dividends. Result? The car fairly flows around the 3.52km track, a technical succession of bends, corners, hairpins and straights that places a premium on handling. Which, of course, is right in Lotus territory.

But, more than that, we’re driving in the wheel tracks of legends. Hethel is where a multitude of world champions shook down and developed their Lotus F1 cars that went on to take some 77 grand prix victories. The various aspects of the track carry their name: (Ayrton) Senna Curves, (Nigel) Mansell Main Straight, (Jochen) Rindt Hairpin, (Emerson) Fittipaldi Straight, and (Jim) Clark, (Graham) Hill and (Mario) Andretti corners.

Hethel Track Map

Originally the site served as an airfield to bomber squadrons of the U.S. 8th Air Force during World War 2, flying daring, dangerous daylight raids over Germany and occupied Europe. Group Lotus moved its headquarters to Hethel in 1966 and it has been there ever since. Portions of the runways and taxiways were developed to form the test track and the heritage-listed control tower now forms the basis of clubrooms from which the Lotus Driving Academy operates on track days.

All too soon, the 20-minute ‘Scare Yourself Sensible’ track driving experience – to use its marketing name – is over. It is, of course, a play on the words of that old saying, ‘Scare yourself silly’. I’m not convinced we did that, though Martin Donnelly might have another opinion!

What I am sure of is that, of the many similar experiences I have enjoyed at various tracks in the UK, Europe, the US and Australia, this is one of the best.
Given the dynamic drive, fun quotient and historic track, not to mention some handy driving tips from an expert, it represents mega value for £119 ($215 AUD), The price also includes a guided group tour of the adjacent Lotus factory where Elise, Exige and Evora models roll off the production lines.

In car with Martin Donnelly