The Honda Civic Type R is labelled by its maker as a car ready to face the track. We put that statement to the test in Scotland.
Scotland’s only permanent race track crams nine corners into just 1.3 miles and, just for good measure, throws in a series of drops and climbs that mean the average height above sea level varies by about 60 metres from the circuit’s highest point to its lowest.
Knockhill demands make it a great place to learn about track driving, so I’m here to learn from Gordon Shedden, the reigning Dunlop MSA British touring car champion. The circuit is like a second home for the local driver, and as part of Knockhill’s track driving school, enthusiasts can opt for the Gordon Shedden Driving Experience, where, for £499, you get one-on-one tuition with the double tin-top champ in a Honda Civic Type R road car.
Shedden says: “It’s a unique track, and not something you could go and design again from scratch. It has so many elements and you don’t get a chance to relax.”
So how do you go about mastering a track such as Knockhill? The BTCC champ offers his advice.
WALK THE TRACK
“Walking the track before you drive it gives you a chance to spot things. Standing at turn one, you can see slight differences in the track surfaces: where there are patches, where the circuit is worn away, which bits look like they have some grip, where there is rubber, which kerbs look like you can use them and which ones the car won’t be able to take. In BTCC, we will take our race engineer with us on a track walk to explain the behaviour of the car at a specific point.”
BUILD UP YOUR PACE
The first corner at Knockhill, Duffus, is a fast right-hander with a downhill approach. It’s a big-commitment corner – fifth gear and 120mph in a touring car – and Shedden says he’s seen many novices make the mistake of attacking it flat out on their very first lap.
“Technique goes out of the window,” he says. “They haven’t even seen the track, we get to the apex and we’re running wide with the brakes fully locked up. That kind of driving will only get you so far. When you don’t even know where you’re going, why commit to that level? Chill out, get the technique and rhythm right and the speed will come naturally.
“You’re better off arriving going slightly slower but in control, then you can pick up the throttle and carry good exit speed. If you can pick up the throttle six feet earlier, it makes a massive difference all the way down into the next corner.”
Knockhill’s ferocious undulations are daunting enough from the outside, but in the low-slung seat of a BTCC car it’s almost impossible to see the road directly ahead.
“On the road, you’d never go flat out over the crest of a hill without being able to see what’s ahead, but here it’s the norm,” he says. “If you’re looking at the end of the bonnet, all of a sudden everything starts happening and it’s too late. At the apex of turn one, I’m already looking at the turn-in point for turn three, because that’s where I want to end up. Something might happen 50 yards down the road – maybe somebody has spun off or run wide and come back on.”
Knockhill’s chicane is one of the most daunting corners on any British race circuit. It is approached through Butchers, an off-camber left-hander, before the track rises to a blind crest topped by the left-right flick. Once you’ve committed to a line through the chicane, you can’t see what’s on the other side.
“It is just like going off into oblivion; there are no reference points,” says Shedden. “In the BTCC car we are pretty much straightlining the chicane and using a fair bit of kerb on the left on the exit. This is a fourth-gear, 100mph corner for us. On the first lap of a race, you’re in a train of cars, you can’t see where you’re going and you don’t know what’s happened on the other side.”
GET YOUR TURN-IN RIGHT
The entries to many of Knockhill’s corners are blind and there’s a natural temptation to turn in prematurely. This is especially true at Clark, the long right-hander that leads onto the back straight.
“It’s harder than it looks to stay wide,” says Shedden. “Your field of vision gets drawn to the right, so the temptation is to turn in early. You still get to the apex and it all looks great, but you can run wide at the exit.”
The second-gear hairpin poses a similar challenge. As you go through the corner, you’re driving uphill, and Shedden says the back straight has subsided over the years, making the entry to the turn incredibly bumpy and accentuating the gradient.
He says the most effective line is to almost overshoot the corner and cut back sharply. At a brisk pace, while getting the braking and gearchanging completed, this is more easily said than done.
“Stay very wide and hook in Some kerbs can be used to your advantage in a race; others are to be avoided tightly and pick up a bit of throttle and unwind the lock out to the exit. As you get rid of the lock, you’re applying more throttle, then it’s flat out straight over the top of the hill.”
THINK ABOUT WEIGHT TRANSFER
“You’re not going to brake the same for every corner,” says Shedden. “At the hairpin we brake late and hard, and there’s a big weight transfer to the front of the car, which is great because it squeezes the front tyres into the track and helps with turn-in.
“But if we put 70% of the weight on the front, we’ve only got 30% on the back, and while that’s brilliant at the hairpin, it’s not what you want at Duffus. You arrive there pretty quickly, so if you just brake as late and as hard as you can and get the front end down, the back end jumps around all over the place and it never gives you the confidence to turn in.
“So we’re not stabbing the brake to get the pitch in the car; we’re trying to settle the car to get enough speed off but to give us the confidence to make the turn.”
IRON OUT MISTAKES
Shedden says he would expect to make no mistakes during a race. “That means not missing an apex by two feet. That’s the level at which you’ve got to operate if you want to succeed. Getting three laps right and then having one shocker doesn’t come anywhere near to cutting it at this level. It’s hard to get right. Jackie Stewart once said that driving a race car is 70% mental and 30% physical. The turning of the wheel and pushing of the pedals, a lot of people can do, but what they do with their minds makes the big difference.”
Once you get every corner right, it’s then about getting every corner right every lap. “In nine corners, if you gain one hundredth of a second in each one, you’d be a tenth of a second up the road. If you gained a tenth at every corner, you’d be a second up the road. Three-tenths of a second around Knockhill in qualifying can be the difference between pole or not being in the top 15 on the grid.”
BEAT YOUR RIVALS
Mastering an empty track is one thing, but hitting every apex and braking point in a BTCC race while looking after your brakes and tyres is quite another. “Actually racing around here with 30 other nutters when you’re tucked six inches behind the car in front is a huge challenge,” says Shedden. “If somebody goes in and brakes one metre late and misses the apex, you’ve got to ensure you’re on your line and not immediately making their mistakes.”