Photos by Mike & Ellie Hamilton, David Nolan, Steve Pretzel, Paul Clark & Carolyn Spillett.
A happy group of our WA members recently returned from a visit to the Lotus Driving Academy in Hethel. Read on to find out what they learned with thanks to Mike Hamilton and photos by Mike & Ellie Hamilton, David Nolan, Steve Pretzel, Paul Clark & Carolyn Spillett.
Lotus Driving Academy – August 2019
by: Mike Hamilton
photos: Mike & Ellie Hamilton, David Nolan, Steve Pretzel, Paul Clark & Carolyn Spillett
Regardless of whether you are a full on Lotus enthusiast or if you simply have a love for cars then you will likely know that Lotus (or Lotus Cars are they are also known) is a British automotive company founded by Colin Chapman that manufactures handmade sports and racing cars, which includes their current range that is the Elise, Exige, Evora and the all-new 2,000HP Evija electric hypercar.
You may also know that Lotus has enjoyed global motor racing success and is famous for its racing pedigree and for designing and building race and production cars of light weight and unparalleled handling characteristics. Lotus also owns the engineering consultancy firm Lotus Engineering, which has facilities in the United Kingdom, United States, China, and Malaysia.
Perhaps less of us will know that Lotus are located just outside of a place called Hethel. Hethel is a small village in Norfolk, England, near the historic market town of Wymondham, and approximately 10 miles (16 km) south of the city of Norwich.
The village gave its name to the former airfield, RAF Hethel which was used by the US during the Second World War, and later by the RAF. The base was constructed in 1942 for American use and assigned USAAF designation “Station 114”. From 14 September 1943 through to 12 June 1945, Hethel served as headquarters for the 2nd Combat Bombardment Wing of the 2nd Bomb Division.
After the departure of the Americans, it was assigned to RAF Fighter Command. On 25 June Polish-manned North American Mustang RAF squadrons moved into the base. In mid-1947, Hethel became a Personnel Transit Centre but was transferred to RAF Technical Training Command. With the downsizing of the RAF, the field was closed in 1948. For many years the base was inactive and abandoned until it was finally sold by the Air Ministry in 1964.
With the end of military control Hethel became the manufacturing and testing site for Lotus Cars. The manufacture of vehicles, which originally started in the old hangars and workshops, now takes place in several modern buildings (with more now scheduled for construction). Portions of the runways and taxiways were developed as a circuit that could be used for the testing of cars, which in turn has been used by famous racing drivers of the likes of Clark, Rindt, Hill, Fittipaldi, Senna, Mansell and Räikkönen to fine-tune their Lotus Formula One race cars.
Fast forward to present day and the entire complex has undergone a complete refurbishment and is now a state-of-the-art facility with concrete surfacing and curbs throughout. An FIA specification purpose-built test circuit with a length of 2.2 miles and a width of 40 feet, the Lotus Test Track combines a variety of technical aspects with a series of bends, hairpin, corners, straights and a “skid-pan” turning circle all designed to put Lotus’ high performance cars through their paces.
If you take these key ingredients of history and racing pedigree (Lotus DNA if you will) along with their seemingly relentless pursuit of performance coupled with their focus and ability to design, test and manufacture some of the best handling cars on the planet you get something very special indeed. If you can imagine all of this distilled and offered up as an experience for us mere mortals you can start to get a feel of what the Lotus Driving Academy is all about. It’s a focus on you and unlocking your full potential, just as Lotus do with their cars. As most people would agree, the chaps and chapesses at Lotus know what they are doing!
Much has already been written about the Lotus Driving Academy and when I sat down to write this article my aim was to be reserved about our experience. Despite this I am now about to become yet another person that only wants to gush uncontrollably with praise, thanks and admiration for Lotus and the team of professionals that work tirelessly to make the Lotus Driving Academy what it is today. So much for being reserved and staying in control!
Whether you are looking for a quick half day experience or something more focused there are packages to suit everyone. In my case this was the second experience at Hethel, Ellie and I having already made the trip from Australia to visit back in 2016 for a full day Elise experience and factory tour. To say it was a fantastic day is an understatement and as a result here we were again (pretty much three years later to the day) early on a summer’s morning driving through beautiful English countryside along the twisty country roads towards Hethel.
Once again, the excitement was ‘turned all the way up to eleven’ and this time it wasn’t just my wife and I. Since our last visit we have become proud members of Club Lotus WA and this time we and four other budding club members (Paul Clark, Carolyn Spillett, David Nolan and Steve Pretzel) had arranged to meet and spend three days together doing the Bronze, Silver and Gold Level licences. It’s fair to say that we were all as ‘keen’ as the famous mustard that is produced just up the road in Norwich!
What followed was three full days of intensive driver training in the Elise 220 Sport with 1:1 tuition while tackling multiple driving sessions, passing a wide array of on-track activities and enjoying demo laps at the end of each day with our allocated instructors. The end of day demos made you realise just how much scope there was to learn, yet every day each of us had clearly progressed by quite some margin. To underline this point, I genuinely believe that if on day one I had seen how fast and controlled my driving on day three would be like in the mighty Exige V6 I don’t think I would have believed it!
Our time in the cars and on track was supported by in-depth classroom and personal coaching by the team of experts that were on hand over the weekend. This in turn allowed us to get a grip on vehicle dynamics, driving technique and ideal racing lines, thus establishing a sound foundation of knowledge and understanding of vehicle dynamics and track driving.
Outside of the driving there was a fabulous range of food and drink available during lunch and the morning and afternoon breaks. We also enjoyed some time away from the track in the form of a guided Lotus factory tour to see how their high-performance sports cars are individually hand crafted and what makes them so special.
In addition to this we enjoyed a guided tour of Classic Team Lotus, which to this day is run by Colin Chapman’s son, Clive Chapman. Here we visited the workshop and saw some of the Team Lotus mechanics at work, including Bob Dance who joined Lotus 59 years ago and back in the day worked with famous World Champion Jim Clark.
As part of the tour we also got up close to and heard some of the stories and history behind the classic Lotus Formula One cars as driven by the aforementioned Jim Clark as well as the likes of Graham Hill, Emerson Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti, Nigel Mansell, Ayrton Senna and not forgetting Martin Donnelly (who is also a long-term instructor at the Lotus Driving Academy).
Guy from the Lotus Driving Academy conducted both of our tours and his relaxed and easy-going approach coupled with his encyclopedic knowledge of both current and classic Lotus was nothing short of amazing. I would certainly recommend making the trip to Hethel, even if just for these tours.
As tempting as it is, I’m not going to write about each day and what we did, but I must give special mention to the full team at Lotus Driving Academy, as they worked their socks off and nothing was too much trouble. The instructors are amazing and live and breathe all things cars and motorsport. We are talking about guys that have engineering backgrounds in vehicle testing and dynamics, racing in Formula 1, GT3, GT4, Daytona, Le Mans and British Touring Cars to name but a few.
In my case I had the talented and extremely personable Rob Barff as my instructor for the weekend and he was brilliant. As with any great event they only run smoothly if they are professionally coordinated and Guy and Tom who worked tirelessly over the three days to ensure that everything ran like clockwork.
It feels like a bit of a cop-out, but believe me when I say that no amount of words can really sum up our three days at Lotus. It would be like trying to write about ‘that special sunset’ you remember watching. Just like that sunset, the Lotus Driving Academy really has to be experienced first-hand to be truly appreciated.
The good news is that unlike a sunset, with the financial backing of new (ish) parent company Geely the future is only getting brighter for Lotus and there is a notable buzz and positivity within the team for the years ahead.
Whilst the sounds of WW2 aircraft engines at the site have long since passed, it’s good to know that the amazing smile inducing sounds of Lotus sports cars will continue to permeate the air around Hethel long in to the foreseeable future. This also means that if you have the time to visit the Lotus Driving Academy the team will be there, ready and waiting to look after you. Happy days!
If you Google the word ‘Academy’ you will find that means a place of study or training in a special field or a society or institution of distinguished scholars and artists or scientists that aims to promote and maintain standards in its particular field.
Those of you following Lotus will have also noticed their new branding, which includes the words ‘For The Drivers’.
The Lotus Driving Academy brings these two elements together and blends them perfectly to deliver an experience that gives you a full and complete understanding in the application of performance driving and this is something which has seriously enhanced our skills behind the wheel both on and off the track. But, there is something more than that, our time at the Lotus Driving Academy gave us three special days to meet some fantastic people and enjoy a truly amazing experience that we will never forget.