Bruno Helps Us from No-hopers to Podium

When you find yourself racing a McLaren 570 GT4, you need all the help you can get. We had Brune Senna

NUMBER FOUR: I was on old tyres. Number 74: I didn’t get a clear lap without traffic. Number 452(A): the sun was in my eyes… I’m scanning my increasingly well-thumbed mental copy of The Big Book of Racing Drivers’ Excuses, Volume 1 to try to justify my best lap in first practice being nearly six seconds off the pace. Okay, the other drivers have been in the car all season (excuse number 42), but… six seconds? Six seconds. In racing terms that’s a fortnight. I need help.

 

It’s the final round of the inaugural Pure McLaren-GT series, a one-make championship for McLaren customers competing in identical 570 GT4 racers at circuits across Europe. Each round has space on the grid for a guest driver or two, and this weekend at Silverstone, thanks to a galaxy’s worth of lucky stars, I’m one of them. Each driver also has access to McLaren’s hand-picked team of driver coaches for the weekend, and one of them is none other than Bruno Senna, racer of everything from F1 to Le Mans and Formula E, and nephew of Ayrton. Yellow crash helmet on, he looks uncannily like his uncle; those eyes.

Luckily for me, Bruno’s as patient as he is articulate and friendly, and he willingly sets to with the video and telemetry traces that tell the unvarnished story of my laps so far.

‘Immediately when I look at your data, I can see that you’re not used to the car. If you look at the fastest drivers, they’re really aggressive with the brakes and the throttle, whereas your inputs are more progressive because you’re not so confident with the car. That’s absolutely natural, and also a positive – it’s a good idea, it keeps you out of trouble!’

Bruno’s great company, far more down to earth than you might expect a world-famous racing driver to be. He carries himself with a relaxed confidence and chats away like we’re colleagues. He dissects the lap corner by corner, working out where I can take a fraction more kerb here, change my entry trajectory there, get to full throttle a smidge earlier almost everywhere, and overlays my best lap with that of the bench-mark driver – in keeping with the campus spirit of the series, the fastest driver in each session must share data with the rest of the field, thus accelerating the learning process for everyone. ‘I wish I had that when I’m racing!’ grins Bruno. ‘It’s nice to see the video, because you can see how your inputs are affecting the car. I can see that your steering inputs are very gentle, which is good for the car; it doesn’t like big corrections.’
Fastest driver so far is Mia Flewitt (so fast she’d wrapped up the championship title at the previous round), whose other half is McLaren Automotive CEO Mike. He’s here too, chatting to customers and driving his own historic McLaren F2 single-seater in other track sessions.

The garages are spotlessly clean: no clutter. Very McLaren. My name, to my astonishment, is printed on the wall and above the garage door. And there, doors aloft, sits my white McLaren 570 GT4; on its jacks in the centre of the garage, dayglo flashes on its bodywork and aero flicks. It looks stunning.

Time to climb back in and have another go. It’s funny how driving on a track recalibrates your senses. On the road, the regular 570/600 feels impossibly, brain-scramblingly fast, but on a circuit, against the clock, you quickly find yourself craving even more performance. It’s the same car that competes in interna-tional GT racing, albeit without the penalty weights intended to keep everyone competitive. Those same Balance of Performance regs mean the 570 GT4 actually develops less power than its roadgoing counterpart, and has its throttle opening pegged back by 50 per cent. As a result, how fast it goes in a straight line isn’t much to write home about; what really leaves its mark is how little you need to slow down.

The speed you can carry into corners when the slicks are warm simply doesn’t compute at first. You have to dig into your reserves of trust to come off the brakes earlier, and roll in with the kind of speed that would see you sailing straight off the track in a road car. As a car to learn in, the 570 GT4 couldn’t be friendlier. Set up with a benign, understeer-biased handling balance, it’s predict-able and, importantly, consistent – a benefit of the stiffness of its carbon chassis – for apparently viceless handling. When you reach the limit, it doesn’t snap or wobble. Instead it blurs grip smoothly into slip and gives you time to sort it out.

The road car’s touchscreen remains, and still works while you’re wearing race gloves. Its menus are reduced to only two, one for lap timing and one for the air-con system, which is essential for endurance racing in hot climes. Clad from head to foot in nomex race gear it’s hot work in here, and at first I have the air-con on full blast. But it’s a funny thing, stress; the more used to the car I get and the less tension there is in my body, the less hard work it becomes. Later I’ll race with the air-con and fans off completely, for maximum engine power, and feel cooler than I did with the fans running at full tilt in practice. By the end of the session I’m in sixth place, and I’ve gone from 6.0sec off the pace to 1.5. That’s more like it.

Such is the depth of coaching talent laid on by McLaren, not only is Bruno Senna on hand but also one of his former F3 coaches, Danny Watts. Danny is good: no-nonsense and as keen to get a good result as I am. ‘The biggest battle is always with yourself – trusting your own ability and the car,’ he says. ‘Closing 1.5 seconds can seem impossible, but Silverstone is a very long lap. If you break it down corner by corner, it’s not that much.’ And encouragingly, when we lay the data traces over that session’s fastest lap, it no longer looks like two completely different graphs printed on the same page by accident; they could almost be laps by the same driver.

‘It’s all very small adjustments you need to do, to get everything out of the lap,’ Bruno nods, and gives an example from his own experience. ‘When I did my first F1 test with Honda in 2008, at the beginning of the day I was losing some time in one particular corner. My driver manager was watching and said, “How can you be so good in the whole track and so bad in one corner?!” Sure enough, I tried something different, it worked, and all of a sudden I became really good in that corner. And I was only a tenth and a half off Jenson [Button] in my first day in an F1 car. You work around it, and then it clicks.’ Two hours later, I think I’m starting to understand what he means: I’ve qualified third for the race, 0.9sec off pole. ‘I don’t know if I can teach you much now, you’re pretty close to pole,’ jokes Bruno. (That sentence is a keeper, isn’t it?)

But there’s not much time for backslapping. ‘What you have to do before the race is sit down, go to a quiet place, or just be on your own, and you think about a few different iterations of the first few corners,’ Bruno advises. ‘This guy goes left, is there an opportunity to go right?’ and so on. The tyres are going to be stone cold, and on the formation lap I would be accelerating, braking, accelerating, braking – weaving doesn’t do as much, it’s braking that really builds the temperature into the wheels and into the tyre for the best grip. And then you can just drive around the outside of them at the first corner!’ Well, that would be nice.

Flash-forward and I’m attempting to do just that, braking and accelerating to the point of whiplash to build as much heat as possible, and then form up on the grid behind pole-sitter Mia Flewitt and David Kyte. The lights wink on the F1 gantry above and Bruno’s advice plays in my head like a deeper-voiced, Brazilian-accented Yoda.

‘All the cars will make similar starts, because they’re not using any start modes – just go from zero throttle to full when the lights go out. So ultimately, it’s all about trying to get a good reaction time when the lights go out.’ And I do, almost enough to get alongside Kyte on the run to the ultra-quick first corner, before he closes the door.

‘Then turns two to four is where everything really happens. If I could be in your place, I’d be on the outside, because the other cars can get stuck behind each other on the inside. Then, crucially, you’re on the inside for T3. That’s where you don’t want to be on the outside…’

I emerge from the melee still in third place, and now we’re steaming headlong down the Wellington Straight to Brooklands in a train, Kyte’s car filling my windscreen and Stewart Proctor just under my rear wing, my car’s V8 singing in a trio with theirs. I know I have to carry big speed into here, and I hear myself shouting ‘Off!’ at myself, willing my foot to get off the brake pedal early, fighting the muscle fibres in my ankle.

Next big challenge is Copse, one of the world’s great corners, a dab-the-brakes-and-chuck-it-in game of chicken. ‘Aim the car at the end of the guardrail, and the understeer will take it past it to the apex.’ Bruno’s trick works a treat, and I actually manage to pull a bit of breathing space on the cars behind. But a few laps later, it’s nearly disaster at the same corner. I drag the brakes a fraction too long, and with the balance of the 570’s weight concentrated on the front Pirellis, it pivots its rears into a big slide, my arms fully crossed to wrestle it straight again on the exit kerbing, only just managing to stay ahead of Stewart.

‘If you make a mistake it’s really important to clear your mind; it’s in the back, it’s in the past, and you think about it after the race.’ He’s right; I concentrate on clean, fast laps and drag back up to David and Mia again, who are running nose to tail. Then the safety car is scrambled – a 570GT sporting orange lights and driven by Bruno, no less – while a stricken car is recovered from the last corner. Two corners to go, four of us are rushing into the Vale chicane in one final sprint. There’s half a chance, my foot wavers, ready to release the brake pedal and run down the inside, but the door is closing. Visions of colliding McLarens fill my mind’s eye and I back out to be safe, finishing in third place.

Podium! Champagne! And a trophy I’ll always look at if I’m having a bad day, to remind myself just how good days can be. A trophy that I’m sure wouldn’t be in my hands without Bruno and Danny’s help.

This sort of experience is – deep pockets permitting – available to everyone, thanks to Pure McLaren, the company’s customer track driving programme. It’s become an integral part of the way McLaren goes about its business.

Head of experience Vikki Ford explains: ‘It began as an opportunity to get our customers together on iconic circuits, so they can enjoy their cars [most owned, some hired] and better themselves as drivers. It drives a bit of repeat purchase, we get feedback about the cars direct from the customers, and provide a safe environment in which they can unleash their full potential.’

The programme now encompasses everything from taster sessions for customers driving on a track for the first time to intensive coaching for experienced drivers; further down the pit-lane today there are all shapes and sizes of McLaren, from early 12C road cars through to a mighty P1 GTR and a couple of new McLaren Sennas. Pricing for the GT series? Around £200k for the 2019 season if you own the car, or circa £275k if you’re renting. It really is all-inclusive, including transport. You don’t even need to bring any kit, and a dedicated crew runs each car. Alex, Jonny and Chitty looking after my car have years of experience in F1, Le Mans and beyond. And then there are the instructors, with their magical way of bringing the best out of you and helping you believe you have even more in reserve.

‘You know, it becomes easier with more experience, to be at 98 per cent,’ Bruno tells me. ‘The last two per cent you are always learning, because the track, the car, the tyres are changing. It’s the never-ending task of trying to find the perfect lap. Somehow it entertains me forever.’

‘You think that’s a racecar?’ 570 GT4 racer vs 600LT

Race relation

570 GT4 is the racing alter-ego of McLaren’s 540/570/600 Sports Series road cars, available for private customers and race teams to buy for £159,900 ex-works.

Basically the same

GT4 racer is closely based on McLaren’s Sports Series road cars: same carbon tub, same dual-clutch ’box and 3.8-litre twin-turbo V8, with race-spec mapping.

Performance balanced

In international racing the GT4 is hamstrung by 110kg of ballast, as part of the Balance of Performance regulations intended to make racing closer, but competes without in the Pure McLaren series.

Neutered

Road car is tuned to 592bhp, and develops 457lb ft of torque, but the racer is limited to 358lb ft by GT4 regulations, and its throttle restricted by 50 per cent.

Race-bred vs a racer

600LT road car is the most extreme car to date in the Sports Series, McLaren’s most accessible range. It’s road-legal, but optimised for the track. Yours for £185,500.

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