5 Things I learned driving on the Sepang International Circuit for the first time with BMW
Not quite fast and furious (yet)
The past weekend saw me heading to Sepang to spend two intense days with BMW Malaysia for the Intensive Module of the BMW Driving Experience. For the uninitiated, BMW offers driver training for those looking to enhance their driving skills, learn how to react to and overcome potential hazards while driving, leading to better, more confident drivers. Although, there were a number of participants who had done the course multiple times—the bona fide car enthusiasts. When I first heard of the BMW Driving Experience, I thought it would make for a great opportunity to drive on the Sepang circuit, something that I've always wanted to do. What I didn't realise at that point, was that there were actually two modules to the BMW Driving Experience: Advanced, and Intensive. The one-day Advanced module teaches the basics of, well, advanced driving. We went through things like the correct way of adjusting seat posture (always find the right seat height first), braking and steering drills, oversteering and understeering. Alas, we were only allowed a taxi ride on the track. I would need to go back for the Intensive module to actually be able to drive on the track myself, so a few weekends later, I did just that. Over the two days, we were taught basic racing skills, such as racing lines, finding the apex of turns, advanced braking techniques and more, both on and off the track. Track driving turned out to be more challenging than I'd anticipated, but it also made for a weekend to remember. Below, five things I learnt as a beginner on the track.
This was probably the most oft-used word of the day. Commitment-phobes don't let your heart skip a beat just yet. What the instructors mean when they shout 'commit!' into the walkie talkies is to remind us to stick to the challenge at hand—if we're meant to brake into a corner at 100km/h, just do it with no hesitation. Of course it's easier said than done; going and keeping at the right speed into an obstacle was challenging enough without using the speed limiter. Having to continue at that speed with a visible obstacle in front of you (no matter that the instructors tell you to visualise the cones being musang king durians on the road), that's where you have to commit to what you're meant to do, to achieve the desired outcome.
2. Line of vision
As with certain sports like golf or tennis, line of vision played a much more important role in driving than I realised ie. you should look where you want to go. Even then, while driving, you should be looking much further ahead; "broaden your vision", one of the instructors told me. For instance while approaching turn 1 on the Sepang track, once you've figured out the apex of the curve, you have to already look ahead to the upcoming turn 2 (both turns are close to each other, almost like a reverse S). While doing an oversteer U-turn drill, I was too fixated on the road right in front of the car, while trying to avoid hitting the cones at the same time, which resulted in me only managing an oversteer, without being able to countersteer effectively and continue with the exit route. It took me three tries and mutterings of 'commit, lift foot off throttle, countersteer, look at exit (!), tap throttle' (yes, there's a lot of multitasking going on) to finally get this drill right. Line of vision works like magic.
3. Slow in, fast out
While the oversteer drill was one of the most fun, I learnt that each time you over- or understeer, you lose precious time on the track. I was a repeat offender for understeering on turn 14, the last turn before the back straight, to which my instructor said that I was approaching the turn too quickly. Even though he was in the car behind and approached the corner at a slower speed than I did, his car was pretty much next to mine by the time we were exiting the turn, just mere seconds later. We drove the BMW 420i Coupé Sport for the entire duration of the driving experience; Formula One drivers usually take turn 1 at an average speed of 80km/h so that should be a good indication of how fast you should take that turn in a non-F1 car.
4. Learn and practise the racing line
Turning the steering wheel less saves you precious time on the track and that's why it's important to figure out the apex of the curve and use the full width of the track. On a clockwise track like the Sepang circuit, you generally approach a right turn coming in from the left side of the track, clip the apex on the right, and allow the car to glide to the extreme left of the track. A lot of the times, I found myself leaving wide gaps between the car and the left side of the track, thinking that I was close enough when I wasn't, which allows for easy overtaking, and loss of precious seconds during a race.
5. Start slow, go easy (if you can)
You're handed keys to a car that's not yours ie. rubber to burn without feeling the pinch, and have an entire track at your disposal. Of course the first instinct is to go out there, pedal to the metal but this is not the aim of the BMW Driving Experience. Safety comes first and foremost, and drivers who listen to instruction quickly build up the skills necessary to be faster, more consistent, and safer, drivers. I finally aced a double-lane change exercise on the fifth try (imagine an obstacle on your lane, avoiding while steering into the lane on the right, avoiding oncoming traffic, cones in this case, and steering back onto the previous lane—at 100km/h), to which my instructor asked me later, "was that a fluke?" Hey, practice makes perfect! Another thing I didn't quite anticipate was the stress, both physical and mental, that race car drivers are subject to - the g-forces, driving at high speeds on the track, and having my instructor's face in my rearview mirror, definitely got my heart rate up pretty quickly, and the tiredness really only hits once the adrenaline wears off but it's exactly that rush that gets people hooked on car racing, and this course is definitely a good place to start.
The BMW Driving Experience is only held five times a year so you'd want to sign up early for this. For more information, please click here, or call BMW Voice at 1800 88 3000 or 03-2082 3000.