Updated: October 20, 2017
Driving cars is fun. Driving cars fast is also fun. Doing it legally is the best. Which means if you can go to a race track for a nice and elegant track day, you've got all your angles covered. This was the foundation of my second visit to Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, for some more precise technical aggression.
Back in 2014, I drove a Renault Megane RS 265 in rainy conditions, and 'twas delightful. Now though, it was a bright and sunny day, dry tarmac, and the car of choice - well, more of a necessity, because that's what the RSR Spa team had available at that time - a Lotus Exige S, a two-door mid-engined sports car with 218 HP, a humble torque output of just 215 Nm from its supercharged 1.8-liter Toyota unit, and 0-100 km/h time of 4.1 seconds. On paper, this ought to be more fun than the Megane. But was it? Let's see.
Le possey de Dedoimedo arrived early, with bright sunshine drying up any leftover dew from the night. My road transport was the most excellent BMW M4, which I've immensely enjoyed driving in Germany and Belgium for a whole week thereafter, but for the track, I actually had the Lotus Exige S booked. The thing is, I really wanted the Renault Megane, but the organizers only had the Lotus available. I was not keen, knowing in advance it would be a poorly assembled, analogue-only car. I had already sampled Caterham at Donington Park in the UK, as part of another Eurotrip voyage, and it just wasn't any fun.
Then, I've also asked for the same instructor as the last time, only he was busy racing at Nordschleife. Karma wasn't with me that day. Strapping into the Lotus for a practice lap with the rest of the participants already highlighted the woes that were lurking ahead.
The driver's door would not open from the outside. I'm not joking. The Lotus has a two-lock mechanism, and one of these wasn't working. You could only pull the door open using the door latch inside. This already made me leery, projecting into a possible scenario where I'd might require assistance getting out and people on the other side not being able to offer any. That's not the baseline for your comfort zone when you go racing. The one absolute must is complete confidence in the driving platform.
Quality Control, failed
Once the warmup was done, the instructor took me and my lady co-pilot (separately, of course) for a couple of practice laps, to show us the lines, the car's dynamics and such. I noticed he struggled notching the gear level into the fourth, especially when downshifting. Odd. But that was already a second strike. Not only was the door giving me a gyp, so was the gear level. Wonky and wobbly, it was a light year away from the delightfully simple and smooth six-speed mechanism in the Megane.
Everything about the car shouted spartan, which you can partly ignore, but not when they get in the way of your safety and fun. It was my time to drive. And then I had the same problems with the gear level as the instructor. Coming out of corners, sometimes you'd want the second. Only you end up in the fourth. Or when you want the fourth, it refuses to slot in, so you waste a couple of precious moments figuring thing out.
This is terrible. First, driving fast, a second or two is a lot of time and distance. Second, timing is everything, and if you don't sync your corner entry well, it looks ugly. You get angry, and your concentration slips. The more often it happens, the more your frustration mounts. Being aware that you have a coffin door on your left and that you must actively thinks about the gear changes severely impedes your focus.
Even though it was dry, I was actually being slower than in the Megane. It was absolutely crazy. Part of it was not feeling comfortable with the rattle box, part of it was the mechanical failures. Either way, both ways, I wasn't fully zoned into the experience, and rather than enjoying the technical art of driving, I was thinking about the car.
You know how it ends
Yes, I spun out once. It wasn't really dangerous, and there was no damage, but it was completely unnecessary. I didn't feel frightened or out of control. Then, the instructor and I had a little miscommunique. I was already exiting, from the inside of the corner to the outside, when he said, inside. There was a guy trying to overtake through the corner, and the combo of conflicting direction instructions and me trying to accommodate for what the physics will not allow - mid-engine cars do not like that - ended in a bit of a wobble and a sideways drift. Indeed, it was something that you don't need if you go to a race track. Sure, you learn from mistakes, but when you pay top dollar to have fun, and you're not there to complete on a professional level, this kind of pseudo-macho character building is pointless. Plus, at least three times the instructor gave me wrong directions, saying inside/outside when there were cars there and so forth. Video to follow.
Imagine a pair of shoes with nails in the sole that stab you in the heel every time you tread down. Eventually, you will start walking on eggshells, to avoid the pain, and that's not the natural stride you have, now is it? Perhaps the shoes let you feel the ground in a way no other shoes can, but you're busy making sure you don't get stabbed. In the end, you look like an idiot.
Being relaxed is a key part in enjoying a race track. I wasn't relaxed. Lotus Exige S is pointless. I'm sure purists will heap praise and whatnot, but in the end, it's unsafe, badly assembled, imprecise, and you don't learn anything by driving it. Every gear shift, my mind switched from total focus to bullshit. Badly timed entries. Badly timed exits. Random crash scenarios flashing in your head, and that stupid, stupid door.
In the pit
I wasn't the only one having problems. Pretty much every single Lotus was down for maintenance every few laps. Even the mechanics complained, sharing a story that their entire fleet of Exiges, except for an odd V6, was getting scrapped, because they were so bad and unreliable. However, I draw no pleasure from other people's misery. To their credit, the RSR organizers did offer me a different car, right there, but then I had no insurance for anything other than the lousy Exige, nor could I arrange a new one so quickly, and I had to decline.
Dry conditions, many a hero
To add to the overall jinx, dry conditions also meant people really going wild. Back in October 2014, the event had been pleasant. It was the Munich Gentleman Drivers Day, and the track was ripe with class, style, money, and loads of awesome cars, including some old legends. Despite the slick tarmac, we didn't have any incidents, and everyone was behaving reasonably. I guess people take care of their expensive cars, and when you have half a thousand mares at your rear axle, you kind of keep it cool.
But the lack of water on the track makes people floor it with abandon. Which would not be an issue if the results matched the previous track day experience. Except we had three rescues before lunch time, including a 911 with a blown-out engine, a Bentley that needed towing, and another crash with a particular car brand eluding my memory right now.
There was an interesting array of cars at Spa, but that wasn't enough to compensate for the recklessness on behalf of some of the participants. I know that racing is about speed - but speed is a consequence of skill and persistence, not the other way around. If someone drives a full rollcaged sports car with decals and whatnot, comes kitted up in a racing suit, and then ends up destroying their vehicle, well, that misses the point does it not? Of course, pro drives will always end up trashing a ride here and then. It's the matter of statistics, but if so, then the circuit should have separate track days for amateurs, RSR school and the professionals.
It wasn't near as bad as the fog-laced Donington saga, but it still wasn't fun. I guess I would have probably forgiven the other participants if I were in a better mood. But the way things were, this just added another layer of disappointment to the event.
On the upside
My lady companion was having a bit more fun. She was driving more slowly, which meant she could dial it back down and not have to fight the car. Fred, the instructor was also impressed. Quote: "She needs to learn more and improve the steering wheel grip and corner entries, but then, I don't know any other woman who drives like this." Well, that's good enough for me.
On my side, I wasn't feeling like I needed to prove myself. I had come to Spa to have fun, not drift my ego through corners. Since this was not forthcoming, and I wasn't in the perfect mood - less than optimal sense of safety and concentration - I decided to stop driving the garbage can. Money is just money, and it's better to quit than potentially end the day in a serious crash. I had the whole week of driving the beautiful M4 ahead of me on Germany's unrestricted autobahns, and that proved out to be infinitely more delightful than the Lotus fiasco.
In a way, I am glad I had the chance to experience the Exige. This gives me another data point on my car origin slash build quality graph. Beyond all doubt, I am certain my future choice of cars will be restricted to some other manufacturers. That's already a valuable lesson. Then, the money you need for a typical track day gives you about two to three weeks worth of supercar rental value. If you have no friends with awesome cars, the way I do, then you can book an expensive item with one of the rental agencies. Or add the cost of flight, accommodations, fuel, and even food for a slightly shorter duration, and you will still come out even. That's another valuable lesson for the future.
All in all, my second visit to Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps was a failure, as far as enjoyment goes. I did not become a better driver, I did not enjoy the vehicle, I did not improve my line, nothing of the sort. It was several dozen laps dreading every gear chance, not unlike the Caterham's rev limit penalty, and that's no fun at all. But as I mentioned, I did learn a few other things. Will I be coming back to Spa? Maybe for the thermals but not so sure about the race track. See you around, and stay tuned for future car reviews.