Although I had not purchased a Lotus Exige, for Christmas my wife purchased a Lotus Exige driving experience for me at the Lotus Driving Academy, which is located at their factory in Hethel, near Norwich. The driving day was purchased for 12th March and since Christmas I have purchased a Lotus Exige LF1.
It was an ideal time to take my Lotus LF1 out for its first real drive. I had the car detailed and had had the Ventureshield protective film fitted. The journey was going to be about 150 miles and would take three hours so we set off in plenty of time for my 12:30pm booking. The car was amazing and very comfortable considering the sparse interior and race inspired seats. I set my iPhone up on an air vent using a Kenu Airframe holder and after a little bit of adjustment the phone was held in place. I used Google maps to guide me to the Lotus factory. Almost the entire journey was on either motorways or dual carriageway and the only real fun to be had was when entering and exiting the many small roundabouts we came across.
Once at the Lotus factory we had to wait until 12:00pm before we were let onto the premises. After parking the car we were greeted by Graham who took us to the old control tower, which is now used to host the Driving Academy days. Two other participants were also there for the event. We were introduced to David our instructor for the day and he gave a briefing on the track and also the cone markers he had put out on the track that were there to help pick out the braking points and the corner turn-in’s.
The academy only had one Lotus Exige available so each participant took it in turns to drive the car. This meant that I had to wait around 50 minutes for my first run. After selecting a suitable open-faced helmet I was taken to the car by David. The academy Exige was left-hand drive and was also fitted with the automatic paddle-shift gearbox, neither of which I was particularly impressed about. Anyway, I got in the driver side and set out on track. To start with the car was left in auto mode so that I could concentrate on the racing lines of the track. David was a pretty good instructor and it only took a couple of laps before I started to get comfortable and my speed increased and I was then told to start using the paddle-shift gearbox.
The automatic gearbox was shocking. I was told it was a single-clutch gearbox but in fact it was a traditional torque converter offering. It was just so sluggish to change gear and it was clear to understand why so few cars in the UK are supplied with the option. The only good thing about using it was at least I could change gear when I wanted, even if it took and age to change.
My lap times had been dropping as my confidence grew. My only issue was with the Andretti corner and where the cone marker was located. I just could not understand the line, but then I had a eureka moment and realised that I should not drive straight towards the cone marker like the other corners and that I should be on the left hand side of the track and the marker was the point to turn harder in.
I also felt that David was a little nervous as he was not letting me push 100%. An example was down the Chapman straight and through Windsock Corner. I was told to brake longer than required before shooting down the Mansell Main Straight.
After my first driving outing on track in an Exige I was very impressed with the overall handling of the car and the amount of grip it had. The downside of the car being used was the terrible automatic gearbox.
So once I had finished driving it was off to look around the Lotus factory. I was surprised to find out that Lotus had a couple of sites around the country such as their lightweight structures factory at Wellingborough, which make the core chassis structure of their cars. Also surprising was the number of main components that are bought in from overseas such as the glass for their cars being made in Chile. We were told about how the panels of the car are painted and that customers can select their own bespoke car colours. Then we were shown the main cockpit chassis structures that had been made in Wellingborough. We were then taken down the Evora production line and it was interesting to see all the components including the engine being added to the cars as they went down the line. We also took a quick look down the Exige / Elise production line. At this stage no body panels were fitted to the cars and this was the next area for us to look at. Again it was interesting to see how the panels were fitted to the cars including the undertrays and aero parts. The cars were finally taken to a final inspection area before being taken for a quick test drive. I found the tour very interesting.
Back to the control tower for our second driving experience. Again I had to wait for my turn but when it came I was far more confident than my first experience. David, the instructor, gave me more valuable input and I felt my confidence and also speed improve with each lap. I was going much faster and was getting to master the Clark and Graham Hill curves that required pinpoint turn-ins to take at high speed. All too soon my driving was over.
The next part of the tour took us over to the Lotus Motorsport department. In here customers can have work carried out to their cars from a service to a suspension upgrade, to the fitting of a roll cage and race harnesses and more. The motorsport department also caters for the maintenance and running of race cars such as the Lotus Evora GT4. In the workshop were a number of cars being worked on, some race cars and also customer cars. It was interesting to see the cars and to have a quick look around.
We went back to the control tower for the final part of the day, a couple of quick laps in the Exige driven by the instructor of the day David. I was happy being last for this experience as it meant the tyres and brakes were very much up to temperature. David really pushed the car and I was particularly impressed at how well the car handled around the track.
After a quick presentation the day had finished and I made my way back home happy with the overall experience of the day, even if it was not particularly well run.