Want to start racing? Then you are going to need your ARDS test
Our reporter takes his first steps into racing at Oulton Park
By William Esler
Last Updated: 17/10/14 4:55pm
Like many in the paddock I am a motorsport fan first and a reporter second - and thus have always dreamed of getting out on the circuit and becoming a race driver and thanks to Motorsport Vision, I got the opportunity to gain my National B licence.
The National B licence is the minimum standard you need to compete in the United Kingdom and will gain you access to numerous club championships, or for those wishing to get straight into single-seaters, the BRDC F4 Championship. To earn this licence you need to pass your ARDS Test, which consists of a written paper and a driving examination.
However, before you head to the track, the process has to start with ordering the MSA's Go Racing pack which can be purchased direct from the MSA or organisations such as MSVT directly.
The pack contains the MSA Yearbook, or 'the blue book' as it is often known, which contains all the rules and regulations, your application forms and the Go Racing DVD which you must watch before sitting your test.
The DVD contains all the answers to the written part of your exam - including an explanation of the flags and the differences between a waved and stationary one - which you must know as one wrong answer in the flags section and you fail the ARDS test.
Having watched the DVD, the next step was to book a venue to sit the test at and I opted for Oulton Park - one of the best drivers' circuits in the country (if you're not already aware of Oulton Park, have a look around here).
Given my limited on track experience, MSV and I decided an intensive full day course would be the best option to get me up to speed and given the amount of track time made available to you and the amount you learn, I can thoroughly recommend this course.
After signing on and a safety briefing, my instructor for the day, Tim Witham, took me out onto the track for a couple of sighting laps to show me the various lines used around the track in a Peugeot 208 GTi. Using the full 2.69 mile International Circuit there is a lot to learn - in particular what corners to compromise in order to carry more speed through the following bend.
Then it was my turn turn to get into the driving seat of the 208. However, before you head out to track it is vital to ensure you have the correct seating position and the steering wheel in the correct place. Contrary to popular belief, you do not drive with your arms locked out in front of you, but rather with quite a large bend in your elbow, thus allowing you to cross your arms to take tighter corners - you don't feed the wheel through your hands as you do on the road, which takes a minute or two to get your head around.
The track was wet from the night before making it rather slippery and in a front-wheel drive car easy to cause understeer, however, the reassuring Witham said these were great conditions to learn to drive in as you learn a lot about car control. After a few laps to observe my driving, we returned to the pits for a quick debrief and look at areas that could be improved.
One of the key skills I needed to develop was looking through the corner - i.e. focussing well ahead on the track, rather than where the next apex was, even if that did mean looking out of the side window on occasion! As I improved on it, I found I was using more of the track and maximising the full circuit width - staying within the white lines, though, as David Croft will be pleased to hear - meaning I was able to carry more speed around the lap and thus the times came tumbling down.
As the track dried it became rather treacherous with grip levels changing on every lap and at one point it felt like you were driving on oil! That meant experimenting with braking points and lines through the corners which is another key skill for a driver to learn, but it also means I now fully understand when a racer says they would prefer it to be either fully wet or fully dry!
Whilst the track day stopped for lunch, Oulton Park organised the chance to carry out three practice starts using the circuit's full starting light system. Sitting on the pole-position slot where many a touring car hero has sat is nerve-wrecking enough, but then you realise just how difficult the start procedure is.
As the grid is on a slope, the car wants to run backwards, but you cannot use your handbrake on the grid. Thus, you are left with the difficult task of heel-toeing - using your right foot to hold the brake on whilst also bringing the revs up to the required level whilst also finding the bite point of the clutch with your left. Then as the lights go out you need to release the brake pedal, whilst maintaining a steady throttle as you release the clutch pedal and scurry down to Old Hall corner. That was probably the toughest part of the day!
Then it was into the classroom and after watching the Go Racing DVD once more, it was time to sit the ARDS paper. Consisting of 28 questions, the first 14 require you to identify the correct flags, whilst the next six are multiple choice and cover safety. You need to score 20 out of 20 to pass that section. The final eight are again multiple choice and cover general racing information, with two mistakes allowed.
With a perfect score of 28, it was onto the driving assessment part of the test which was conducted by another ARDS instructor - Malcolm Barfoot who was one of the founding members of the test - so that it would be someone not used to my driving overseeing my examination. He took the wheel for two laps of the track to assess conditions, before I got back in the driving seat.
After an outlap, we exited Lodge corner and I was informed that my assessment was about to start. I knew the next three laps would be make or break the day, and it is key to drive within your limits on the test - and not get tempted to try and keep up with one of the Porsche 911s on track - as one mistake, one trip across the grass, one spin and it is an automatic failure.
Three laps later we returned to the pits and with great relief I heard the words: "You have not just passed, but you have passed with flying colours. You could be very, very quick very, very quickly." To be honest, even a few weeks later, I think I'm still in shock at hearing that statement!
Following a more detailed debrief, my form was stamped and on completion of a medical and sending the form off the MSA, I will officially be a racing driver - something I never thought I'd say!
After a brief break to let it sink in, it seemed like a waste not to take to the now fully dry track for a final push. Having ditched the Go-Pro cameras, I spent half an hour pounding around the track, getting quicker and quicker each lap, and even managed to dramatically improve my line through the tricky Druids corner which had been a struggle earlier in the day.
On my inlap, it became clear just how much I had learnt in just one day at Oulton Park when I noticed my slowdown lap was the same pace as my opening lap of the day. Granted conditions had improved, but what at the time had felt tense and on the limit, now felt like a slow Sunday afternoon drive.
There is no substitute for ontrack experience and I wouldn't hesitate in returning for another day of coaching with MSV. Next up for me, though, is getting six races worth of experience under my belt to lose the 'black cross on yellow background' novices are required to run and give me the option of upgrading to a National A licence.