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PalmerSport review: The airfield circuit where amateurs can find the limit

If you’re a racing enthusiast who fancies having a go but haven’t yet taken the plunge, a trip to Bedford could provide the nudge you need

PalmerSport Bedford Autodrome

Nestled deep in the Bedford countryside is RAF Thurleigh, a former Royal Air Force station used throughout the Second World War by British and American bombers. Following the war it helped in the development of a number of planes, including the Harrier and Bristol Brabazon. While the airfield closed in 1997, it’s now home to vehicles that are no less noisy and no less interesting – racing cars.

Bedford Autodrome, as it’s now known, is home to PalmerSport – a trackday experience launched by ex-Formula 1 driver Jonathan Palmer. Calling itself “the world’s greatest driving event”, it offers guests the chance to get behind the wheel of a wide variety of cars to push the limits in an event like no other.

Your writer attended the event in July, and the day started with breakfast. There were eight of us in the group, six of whom were work colleagues and another guy on his own, all of us slightly nervous and excited about the day ahead. We were introduced to our host and pro driver who would be looking after us (we had Steve Morris, a former Formula Ford racer), watched a briefing featuring F1’s own Martin Brundle, grabbed a balaclava and name tag, and then it was outside into a minibus to be shuttled to our first events – Land Rover Defenders and Caterham Pursuit.

Unlike the rest of the day these elements are more about precision than outright speed, testing your ability to place the car where it needs to be. They’re a reminder that, while fast is fun, accuracy and car control will win the day.

Once everyone had finished the two events it was back to the shuttle and onto our next part – the JP-LM. The Le Mans-style car offered us our first experience of downforce, and runs on the 1.85-mile West Circuit. This taste of grip and speed would also help to prepare us for the upcoming ‘F3000’.

Not only was the JP-LM our first car with downforce, it was the first with an instructor at speed. Knowing that race car engines are much too loud to shout over, PalmerSport has equipped their cars with two-way radios to connect driver and instructor. The instructor came through loud and clear, coaching me through each corner, though my microphone was scarcely used – I was much too focused on little things like not crashing (though I did manage a “whoops, sorry” when I completely blew a corner).

The JP-LM was Jeffries' first taste of a downforce car, and has a second seat for an instructor to ride along

The JP-LM was Jeffries' first taste of a downforce car, and has a second seat for an instructor to ride along

Photo by: PalmerSport

With the 0.24 Hours of Bedford over it was back to basics with karts, before moving onto the main event – the F3000. Its lineage can be traced back to the Van Diemen Formula Palmer Audi chassis, rather than the F1 feeder series of the 1980s-2000s, but it has been extensively developed and upgraded. This was the car that I signed up for, and it came with another Brundle briefing.

Insight: How Lola rose to rule F3000

While the instructional video covered everything you’d expect – how to drive it, safety, racing lines and so on – it ended with a demonstration of what happens if you don’t abide by these safety instructions. An ominous warning from Brundle was followed by onboard footage showing a former guest getting overambitious with an overtake, making contact with the car ahead and sending them into a full barrel roll. It was a sobering reminder of what we were letting ourselves in for; no instructors in the single-seaters.

Once in the cars we got a final instruction on controls, a warning not to set off the fire extinguisher (which is apparently surprisingly common), and we were off. The F3000 run is on the same track as the JP-LM, so you already know your way around by the time you trundle out of the pits. A lap to warm the tyres, then push.

The car was visceral. It was loud, it was quick, it wanted to be pushed. It wanted to go faster than you were driving it, and with every corner it told you that it had more. It. Was. Fantastic.

Thankfully Bedford Autodrome has a mass of run-off and very few walls to collide with so, with the dust settled and my pants just about intact, and with the knowledge of where the limit was some way behind me, it was straight back to pushing

Feeling like the next Lewis Hamilton (steady on! – ed), I used all of my sim racing-honed skills to push the car. Brake a bit later there. Get more on the apex there. Carry the speed more through that corner. Teasing the limit was the name of the game, and I felt like I was dancing on that narrow line.

Then I spun.

It’s a tale as old as time – driver gets in car, driver pushes, driver gets overconfident, driver makes error. Thankfully Bedford Autodrome has a mass of run-off and very few walls to collide with so, with the dust settled and my pants just about intact, and with the knowledge of where the limit was some way behind me, it was straight back to pushing.

I got to a point where I felt I had a lot of good corners – maybe not all on the same lap, but good nonetheless – and suddenly it was over. Leaving part of my heart behind on the West Circuit, I came in and checked the times: first, and by a second and a half (with the eighth-fastest time of the year at that point, which has already been bumped off the leaderboard).

'F3000' chassis can be traced back to the Van Diemen Formula Palmer Audi

'F3000' chassis can be traced back to the Van Diemen Formula Palmer Audi

Photo by: PalmerSport

Still coming down from the adrenaline high of the F3000, we were transported back to base for some lunch. It gave everyone a chance to sit down together and trade stories from the first half of the day, refuel, and look forward to the remaining half of the day. This structure hasn’t come together by accident, of course – it’s been a winning formula for years.

“Jonathan Palmer and Lisa Davis developed the format of the day when they first started running corporate driving events at Bruntingthorpe in the 1990s,” says Bedford Autodrome venue manager Sonia Vann. “And it’s barely changed since then, as it worked so well. The timetable stays the same every day, whether we run one team or a full day of up to 75 guests. Clearly, we’ve changed the vehicle line-up multiple times over the years to offer something new for repeat guests and to keep people wanting to come back year after year.”

First order of business post-lunch was heading over to the 1.5-mile South Circuit for some laps in a BMW M4 GTP. Going from the comparatively spartan Caterham and F3000 earlier in the day into a (relatively) huge, heavy BMW was surprisingly easy. My instructor, Mazda MX-5 racer Jordan Pimley, encouraged me to drive it hard and rely on the electronics to sort everything out.

By the end of the drive I’d put in a 1m03.98s lap, which he said was within a second of his fastest time. In no way would I have come close to that time without him telling me what to do, me acting as a mere puppet behind the wheel following his instructions with a little bit of autonomy, but it gave a boost to my ego heading into the final two events. And this is what the aim of the day is – giving you the feeling, however fleeting, of being a real racing driver.

“Essentially we want all our guests to have the best and most exhilarating driving experience, whether they are a compete novice or a serious aspiring racer,” says Vann. “We pride ourselves in being able to tailor each guest’s session to suit their needs and, due to the unique nature of the circuit layouts, we can give them the confidence to reach limits they never knew they had, and to drive faster than they ever thought possible!

“We want people to get behind the wheel of cars they would never normally get the chance to drive on track, and prove to themselves that they can do it – and ultimately have one of the best days of their lives.”

Our penultimate drive was in the Caterham PalmerSport Edition, and here came one of my favourite moments of the entire experience. Steve, our pro/minibus driver for the day, was my instructor. In his own words he had “very little self-preservation”, which is exactly what you want to hear from your instructor when getting behind the wheel…

Trying out the Caterham 7 PS Edition was a thrill

Trying out the Caterham 7 PS Edition was a thrill

Photo by: PalmerSport

Like the other instructors, Steve wanted me to push, and I wanted to push. Driving a Caterham, foot flat in third, fighting it through a corner while your instructor giggles and encourages you to abuse the track limits in a way that would make IndyCar drivers blush is a great feeling, and isn’t one you’ll get elsewhere.

And that’s what sets PalmerSport apart from the average trackday you pick up next to the tills at Boots. The instructors there encourage you to treat these machines as the racing cars they are, not as a number on a profit-and-loss sheet that needs to be driven delicately to make it last. They understand that if you’re here it’s because you’re a fan of hard driving, and they’re happy to oblige.

The brakes required a hard stomp before the ABS would kick in, and the rear liked to dance through corners. It felt like a race car and, for my time behind the wheel, I felt like a race car driver

The final drive of the day was the Ginetta G56 GTA. A new edition to the fleet, the car replaced the Renault Clio in March and is driven on the one-mile North Circuit. The windscreen was small and offered little visibility, the brakes required a hard stomp before the ABS would kick in, and the rear liked to dance through corners. It felt like a race car and, for my time behind the wheel, I felt like a race car driver.

And then it was over. Heading to my car with the trophy for the fastest F3000 lap (which sits in pride of place on my desk, thanks for asking), two things were certain. The first was that the over two hours of motorway driving I had ahead of me were going to feel very slow. The second? That I had to find a way to do it again.

During his time in the Ginetta G56 GTA, Jeffries felt like a racing driver and has whetted his appetite for competition

During his time in the Ginetta G56 GTA, Jeffries felt like a racing driver and has whetted his appetite for competition

Photo by: PalmerSport

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