Thruxton - taking a trip to the fastest circuit in the country
PUBLISHED: 14:58 19 June 2015 | UPDATED: 15:01 19 June 2015
Set in over 400 acres of land, Thruxton race track is the fastest circuit in the country. We sent Jane Gazzard to get to grips with some serious boys' toys that cater for enthusiasts from five to 85
When Managing Director Bill Coombs asks one of his team to “bring the Lambo up to the start grid”, it’s all in a day’s work for the employees who work at Thruxton Motorsport Centre. But for any self-respecting petrol head who’s been bought a track-day experience and the chance to put the ‘Lambo’ through its paces around Thruxton’s famous track, it’s a dream come true.
The car in question is the 700hp Lamborghini Aventador, the very latest in supercar technology to roll off the Italian production lines. It does 100mph in six seconds, costs a cool £340,000 and is the latest jewel in Thruxton Racing’s crown.
“It gives us a real buzz to see people’s faces light up when they step into one of our cars,” says ex-racing driver Bill. “We have a fleet of vehicles that’s worth about £1.5 million, many of which are brand new and which we use for our experience days, lessons and racing throughout the year.”
How it began
Motor racing started at Thruxton in the 1950s, first with cars and then with bikes. But it wasn’t until 1968 that the track was rebuilt in its present layout – 2.4 miles of twists and turns, guaranteed to test the mettle of many a budding superstar driver.
“When it was rebuilt, its reputation as a top racing venue grew rapidly,” says Bill. “The Easter meet, in particular, attracted large crowds as it still does to this day, and we’ve played host to some of the most well-known names in motor racing.” These include British drivers James Hunt, Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill, Nigel Mansell and, more recently, Lewis Hamilton.
But it was a case of like father, like son when Damon Hill drove a demonstration run here in 1993. “He drove his Williams Formula 1 car,” says Bill, “and recorded the fastest ever lap of the track – 57.6 seconds, an amazing average speed of 147.25mph.
“So whether people come to Thruxton today to compete, to have lessons or have fun on our experience days, everyone drives the same track layout as all those great names, so they’re in good company,” says Bill, himself a Formula 3 driver in 1985 and Historic Formula 1 Champion in 2010.
Life in the fast lane
Bill was also a racing instructor. “I enjoyed instructing,” he says, “and was lucky to have taught two British world champions early in their careers, Jenson Button and Damon Hill. But as I became more immersed in the organisational aspects of Thruxton, ex-racing drivers Andrew Franklin and Pat Blakeney joined to help lighten the load, instructing novice drivers in our racing school working towards their race licences and members of the public on experience days, which were becoming very popular.
“Opening the doors to the public was quite an innovative concept,” says Bill, “and Thruxton was one of the first to offer people the opportunity to drive a Ferrari – or race a donkey, which was admittedly one of our more wacky ideas for corporate days that put us on the map,” says Bill. “That and the fact that Thruxton is the only place in the world that has the latest of any supercar you want to drive. Our cars in the fleet are replaced on a yearly basis and people come from all over the world to indulge their passion.”
Something for everyone
But it’s not just the grown-ups who get to test their skills on the track. Young drivers over 12 years-old can learn the essential skills needed to drive a car – in a Porsche Cayman – and ‘karters’ can start as young as eight.
“Karting is incredibly popular with children and adults alike,” says Bill, “and we have around 20,000 people coming each year.”
At Thruxton, the emphasis has always been on fun – whether you want to off-road on the 4x4 track, slip ’n’ slide your way around the state-of-the-art skid pan or let Formula 1 and Le Mans racer Tiff Needell take you on the white knuckle ride of a lifetime in a brand new BMW M4.
“This is an increasingly competitive market,” admits Bill, “but Thruxton is unique. It has an unusual layout and it’s the fastest circuit in the country. Plus, there’s a lot of history attached to the track that makes it special. It has seen a lot of changes over the years and there are more to come.
“We have a programme of racing events from April to October,” says Bill, “and we also have plans to expand the facilities to make Thruxton Racing more of a destination stop, somewhere to call in to see what’s going on, because there’ll be lots of new and exciting activities taking place every day.”
Thruxton Motorsport Centre sits in 400 acres of privately owned Hampshire countryside that it shares with Thruxton Airport, home to Western Air. And as with the race track, the airport is steeped in history.
“You know that this is a World War II control tower, don’t you?” asks Head of Training David Scouller enthusiastically as he ushers me into Western Air’s reception area.
Thruxton Aerodrome was built in the early 1940s to support nearby RAF Andover and it was instrumental in the outcome of the famous Bruneval raid during World War II, of which the team is justifiably proud.
“Three aircraft took off from Thruxton bound for Bruneval in Normandy on the French coast,” says David. “It was there that a group of Commandos were parachuted in to disable a German radar unit that was causing problems to the RAF on bombing and reconnaissance missions. An RAF electronics technician dismantled the unit and brought back several key components for analysis by the MOD.”
The raid was a success and there’s a brass plaque outside the control tower that commends the efforts of all involved, to serve “as a reminder of their sacrifice and testimony to a singular feat of arms”, it reads.
Western Air has been running its flying school at Thruxton since 1967 and their flying club boasts a membership of 150. “There are three things that make flying interesting,” says David. “First, it’s a manual skill but second, you have to navigate and manage your aircraft, which is a mental skill. And third, you’re operating in three dimensions in a natural environment that’s constantly changing.”
While this may sound like a lot to take on-board, the team at Western Air is nothing if not committed to making any newcomer’s introduction to flying a memorable one. “A lot of people come for a trial flying lesson for a number of reasons,” explains David. “They may have been bought a lesson as a present or just come for the sheer enjoyment of seeing some breathtaking scenery from the air – Avebury, Highclere and Stonehenge being some of the popular destinations we fly over.
“Alternatively, they might come to experience flight in a light aircraft to see if they enjoy the experience sufficiently to consider flying as a hobby. If they do, they can take control of the aircraft and depending on how much they have absorbed, may be able to fly back to the airfield and even position the aircraft for landing.”
A trial lesson lasts anything from 20 minutes to an hour, which is usually all it takes to whet the appetite for more. It’s not difficult to be bitten by the bug and some of these first-timers go on to take their Private Pilots Licence, which is internationally recognised.
“It takes the average person anything from six to 18 months to complete their training,” says David. “Students have to do a minimum of 45 flying hours, 25 of which must be with their instructor and a minimum of 10 hours solo under the supervision of an instructor.” And there’s no shortage of experience to rely on to show you the ropes, for Western Air’s instructors have a whopping 35,000 hours’ instruction under their belts.
Western Air is a place of friendly faces and lively banter, and there’s usually someone there to keep you entertained and enlightened with snippets of local information and amusing anecdotes – no more so than David, who modestly plays down his vast experience in a team where everyone mucks in. He spent 35 years in the RAF and has held a professional licence for over 40 years. And while his passion for aviation clearly knows no bounds, he’ll be the first to guide those fearless flyers…If, for example, you want to turn your world upside down and emulate those magnificent men in their flying machines, an aerobatic trial lesson gives you the chance to pull a few Gs. The idea, however, is not to terrify the student with death-defying displays and stomach-churning stunts, but to make it exciting and exhilarating.
“We want to make sure the customer enjoys it, so we start them off gently, doing aerobatics in a balletic style, telling them what we’re doing, what’s going to happen and making it comfortable for them. The last thing we want to do is terrify them and put them off flying forever!” says David.
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