Fleet News

Course proves speed and safety can go together

DRIVERS choosing the new Mazda RX-8 will get a training day designed to hone their skills and teach them how to look after their car included in the price. Fleet News editor John Maslen tried out the Prodrive course.

Locating where the dipstick is in a car is the first problem fleet managers must address to ensure their vehicles have a trouble-free life.

And though some might think otherwise, the dipstick in question is not the hapless fleet driver given thousands of pounds worth of metal to treat shabbily for three years before pouring it back into the company car park. It refers to the act of checking the engine oil level on a regular basis to ensure the car keeps going, even in these days of 20,000-mile service intervals and 'ever-lasting' oil.

This isn't the kind of advice drivers might want to hear as they begin their ownership experience of one of the year's most exciting new sports cars, the rotary-engined, four-door coupe Mazda RX-8.

After all, drivers will probably be paying more attention to the equipment, driving position and bodywork. But although it might dampen drivers' boyish enthusiasm to get behind the wheel of their new toy, it will ensure their smiles don't turn to grimaces.

The advice from Martyn Poole, my trainer at the Prodrive circuit in Warwickshire, sets the tone for a day of instruction which mirrors the course that owners of the RX-8 are offered free as part of the car's price.

Mazda is at pains to point out that the whole day is not about 'hoolying round a race track', particularly because drivers will be in their own or their companies' vehicles. Therefore, the focus is on how to get the best out of the car to ensure it remains trouble-free to run.

Which is where the dipstick comes in. Just as drivers would check their pockets before leaving for work in the morning to make sure they aren't going to lock themselves out of the house, Prodrive recommends making the oil check a reflex action.

The advice is that every second time the car's fuel tank is filled, the driver should pop the bonnet open and squint at the oil level. In 10 seconds the job is done and the possibility of engine failure is avoided.

A spokesman for Mazda said: 'Like all engines, the rotary engine does use oil during its life. It is basic engine care that makes sure drivers don't run into problems.' And to avoid pirouetting into the nearest hedge on a corner, drivers are warned to check the tyres too. Two more minutes and the job is done.

Once the basic checks are out of the way, it is into the car. To start with, Poole takes the driving seat, but Prodrive is happy to let owners lead the way. He said: 'Some owners may not be happy with us driving their pride and joy and that is fine. We will adapt to whatever they want to do. The important thing is that they get the most out of the course.'

The day is split into several parts, with some classroom work, an on-road session and a visit to the Prodrive circuit for handling and performance training, although customers can adapt the day to suit their tastes.

My first session is on the road so Poole can offer some words of advice on simple everyday techniques that will protect the precious metal around the driver.

He has a nine-word mantra to manage driving technique. 'Position – Vision – Decision', meaning if you have the right position, you will have enough vision to make a safe decision on what to do next.

Then comes 'Slow – Know – Go', meaning slow in time to assess obstacles, such as roundabouts, so you have time to know what is going on, then you can proceed without losing momentum, making for a smoother journey.

Finally comes 'Fake – Make – Take'. This is a great trick if done properly.

Effectively, it means managing road space better. For example, if there is a van parked on the offside and you don't think there is room for oncoming traffic to get through safely, you fake space, moving towards the middle of the road to make yourself wider.

Nine times out of 10, this subtle message ensures the on-coming driver doesn't try to pull into your path to overtake the van.

You can then take the space and drive on. If the driver does pull out, then you have made enough space to take a wider route.

Poole adds: 'I don't want people to leave here with their heads full of advice and effectively have learned nothing. If they can learn one or two things that improve their driving, that is great.'

After a short while, I take the wheel and during a mix of motorway, A and B-road driving, he tactfully points out potential areas for improvement and praises my good points. He plays simple games that improve road positioning and technique and offers simple pointers, particularly about how to watch out for the unexpected in towns.

The second half of the day sees a move to track driving.

Poole said: 'The track is aimed at showing what the vehicle can do under safe conditions and particularly how some of the technology aids your driving. We also show what the car can and can't do.'

A case in point is the skid pan, where we put the ABS braking system to the test. We race towards a wet Tarmac area and hit the brakes. The car seems to take a huge distance to stop, but stays level and stable.

Poole says: 'A great mistake people make is thinking that ABS makes them stop more quickly. It actually makes you stop more safely and the driver remains in control of the car, but it won't stop them having an accident if they are driving too fast for the conditions.'

We also play with the traction control, getting to grips with rear-wheel drive, tail-slides and slaloms, all at low speed in safety on the low grip surface. We then move on to dry Tarmac and high-speed emergency turns, showing what ABS can do in a real-world emergency.

By the time of our third 70mph rush at the cones, followed by a frantic stab at the brake pedal and a hard pull to the left to avoid a 'crash' with some cones, I realise what a bad idea that big lunch had been.

However, I bravely soldier on through a second handling course and finally on the high-speed circuit, steadily getting to grips with what the RX-8 can do.

I end the day brimming with new knowledge, more confident about rear-wheel drive, with expert knowledge of how to find the dipstick on an RX-8 and even better know-how of how to keep a large lunch down at 70mph on a slalom course.

Mazda has so far taken 1,200 pre-orders for the RX-8 and expects to sell 6,000 in a full year. Research on its website suggests there could be a 75% take-up for the driver training course, demand which will be met by 40 trainers offering 40 courses to drivers and a partner in a single day.

That's a lot of training – and a lot of sick-bags.

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