You might be surprised to learn that F1 drivers — among the fastest racers in the world — could ever benefit from going back to school.
However, possibly even more surprising than that is the teacher that half the current Formula 1 grid and numerous top-level WRC, DTM and Indycar drivers turn to is a 63-year-old Kiwi, with an office in Leicestershire and two completely standard Opel Astras as his driving tools.
The surprises come thick and fast with Rob Wilson. He’s disarmingly charming and instantly puts you at ease, which is a useful skill to have when some of the biggest egos in motorsport are walking through the door.
He’s also heavily reliant on a battered Nokia 3210 as a teaching tool; not only to time hot laps, but also to demonstrate how a car behaves when it is hurled rather than coerced into a corner. He’s also a dab hand at describing how racing works: “It’s not about being the fastest driver; it’s about crossing the finish line first.”
Rob has only just switched to the latest generation Astra after running both the previous models and an Insignia as his track weapons. His reasoning is that they stand up to very hard track work despite being unmodified — although that didn’t stop him from getting through 400 replacement tyres and 30 sets of front brake pads.
They also happily accommodate the visiting drivers and engineers, who gain vital understanding of minute changes in car behaviour by sitting in during the process.
Subtleties are the fundamentals of Rob’s reasoning. His tips don’t require you to forget everything you’ve ever learned about circuit driving; his tweaks can cumulatively shave vital fractions off your laptime — we all know that a 1,000th of a second can make all the difference. The theory is racing cars have changed so significantly over the years, but driving styles haven’t changed enough to suit. Look at archive F1 footage and you’ll see glorious four-wheel d
rifts around every corner. That was the quickest way at the time because tyres were hard enough to last a whole race and mid-corner speed was everything.
Modern F1 racers are quite different however, with tyre temperature and longevity more of an issue. That means ultimate cornering speed isn’t necessarily as important as speed down the straights. Wilson’s method is — for certain corners at least — to apply more lock near the apex so you can use less afterwards to create a ‘soft V-shape’ through the turn rather than the traditional perfect parabola.
With the car settled on all four wheels more quickly, you can accelerate earlier with more power and get a fractionally higher speed down the straight. The tiny time penalty it may cost through the bend will be outweighed by the time you get to the end of the straight. He explains the effect on the tyres with an analogy about a hot plate: “Tap your finger on it and it won’t hurt. But hold your finger down and it will burn.”
This also feeds in to a bigger topic that Wilson is particularly keen on; weight transfer. All racing drivers and most wannabes understand the basics, which in a nutshell are; braking, accelerating and cornering moves the weight of the car between its wheels and affects the amount of grip on offer, which is crucial during turn-in and through a bend.
However, for Wilson, weight transfer matters all over the track. The traditional method for exiting a bend is to exit as wide and as quickly as possible while easing the car across the track to get into position for the next bend. Not so, says Rob. Instead, he suggests staying on the exit line and not moving across until you’re beyond the hard acceleration zone.
Why? Because turning even gently so early on the exit induces tyre scrub, which means less grip available for acceleration. You’d need a highly sophisticated simulator to measure the exact advantage this tweak would net you, but Rob clearly understands the physics at work which are hard to argue with.
At more than 20 years my senior, on paper I should be able to beat Rob’s ‘pole’ lap of the circuit of 1 minute 51.2 seconds, but after chipping away at my first attempt of 1.53.9 I can’t get any closer than 0.6 seconds adrift. More than that however, I’m perspiring with the effort, even though the Astra is a cinch to drive at speed, while Rob’s laps are delivered with ease, precision, a running commentary and one eye on a location for the next fag break.
At the end of the session, his compliments about my driving are blush-inducing, which, considering the legends who have sat next to him, is praise indeed.
However, the truth is this affable and immensely likeable New Zealander needs only a humble strip of Leicestershire asphalt, some cones and a 150hp Opel Astra to make the world’s fastest drivers even quicker. He could probably improve my driving with a matchbox and some well-chosen words.