Despite what a lot of us think, we’re not actually perfect drivers. Often situations will arise which we have no prior experience with on the road, simply because we’ve never had the chance to encounter it in a safe environment.
And that is why car makers like Audi host programs like this, the Audi Driving Experience. As MOTOR’s ‘greenest’ member, it made sense for me to head off to Sydney Motorsport Park (though it’s held elsewhere around the nation) to be the guinea pig tasked with trying out Audi’s half track-day, half driver training session program.
This is the entry (called 'Advanced' confusingly) level of training, which takes one day and costs $999.
Upon my arrival I was greeted by the man running the show, Steve Pizzati (yes, the Top Gear Australia guy), and introduced to the driver trainers. Luke Youlden, Dean Canto, and Steven Johnson make up some of the regular crew, though a number of other professional racers rotate through the program to lend their skills.
Many of the 16 attendees were, unlike myself, Audi owners, though a few were just interesting in honing their skills and utilising an impressive range of cars to do so.
After a quick run-through of the day, we were off to try our hand at a slalom, with Canto directing and Youlden on cone duty. The Audi Q2 TDI and S5 Coupe were our vehicles for this exercise, and it was soon clear why. Driving the Q2 through a slalom at speed proved a useful insight into how well an AWD system can keep even a small SUV in control, but the step up in capability when we jumped in the S5 was astounding.
Just 10 minutes later, and Dean Canto was telling me to drive a TT S onto a wet skidpan with no traction control and turn full lock to the left, just to see what happens. He then told me once ‘it’ does happen (‘it’ turned out to be not a lot once the fronts are sideways) to reel back about half a turn until traction comes back.
It might sound obvious to a lot of us, but when your front wheels are at full lock, they’ve actually tilted and have less contact with the road. Bringing them back a little fixes that, giving you more grip and actually turning the car harder. And it’s this kind of stuff that Pizzati reckons we should be learning before we’re handed a licence.
He asked us after the morning’s activities if any of us actually got up to highway speeds during our driving test. Mostly ‘no’, including from him.
“I didn’t go any faster than 50km/h during my test,” he said. “The first thing I did after that was hit 100km/h on the highway.”
This is why the attendees that day found so much value in trying things like the slalom and wet skidpan exercises, as well as hitting 110km/h and stomping on the brakes in a 2270kg SQ7, or letting the electronics take over when you induce an emergency reaction from the car. It’s stuff a lot of people have never done before, and wouldn’t know how to handle in an emergency otherwise.
But as you’d expect, the afternoon tilted the scales further towards the ‘fun’ side of things, and we were being timed through wet motorkhana courses in TT S Roadsters, and following race drivers around SMP in the likes of the Audi SQ5, A4 Avant, S5, and the (frankly excellent) TT RS.
Riding along watching as the racers lapped the track literally single-handed (the other was holding a radio to instruct the cars behind) was also massively impressive. It was visual proof that motorsport experience absolutely makes you a better driver.
Swapping out of the passenger seat of an RS4 and into the TT RS to try my hand at a ‘hot’ lap of Sydney Motorsport Park was the culmination of my day, during which I topped 200km/h before I had to stop watching the speedo. And guess what? I didn’t die. In fact, I was almost a little bit ‘zen’.
Steve Pizzati spoke with me at the end of the day about why he’s so passionate when it comes to driver training.
“With driving, because we all think we’re better than we really are, everyone wants to skip past the ‘basics’ and go straight to the race car-level of our program.
“That’s just going to be ‘Mickey Mouse’ for me because I’m an eleven-out-of-ten driver. We spend a lot of time trying to convince people otherwise, and they inevitably come back to us and say ‘you were right’.”
“From our side, as long as you have fun that’s the most important thing. If you don’t enjoy yourself, you’re not likely to do it again. If you loved it you’re just going to keep coming back.
“Then we can slip in the lesson along the way like the cake with the medicine in it. That’s the way we try to approach it.”
Those who think the first (Advanced) level of the program is something to be skipped over are just plain wrong. Unless you’re a professional racing driver (and even then, maybe) there’s so much value in the course. Even at $1000.
Stay tuned next month, as I’m set to take on the next level of Audi’s Driving Experience programs –Sport. This consists of RS and R8 models… and we’re doing it at Phillip Island.