I suppose not many people apart from professional race drivers can say they’ve taken their car to twelve different racetracks in five different countries on two continents, but somehow I’ve managed this achievement. It wasn’t easy, and after a dozen or so visits to the Lotus shop and getting on a first-name basis with my mechanic, it for sure wasn’t cheap either, but it has been a satisfying fulfillment of a dream.
Here are the tracks I’ve been on, listed from most to least fun:
Lime Rock Park
Nürburgring GP+Nordschleife Combined Circuit
Virginia International Raceway
Summit Point (Main)
Surprise! Spa, for all its fame & glory, turns out to be the 9th best track I’ve been to, and little old Lime Rock Park, hidden away in the middle-of-nowhere, Connecticut is more fun than the Nürburgring. Let me explain.
First of all, a lot of these rankings were very marginal calls, and picking a “least fun” track to drive on is like picking the “least good” episode of Firefly…Some are clearly better than others, but a good day on even the worst track is still better than a round of golf.
The other thing to consider is that I am driving a Lotus Elise, which only has 190 hp and rarely exceeds 125 mph on track. These rankings, especially that of Spa, would probably be a lot different in a Corvette or McLaren.
Before I bore you with the details about each track, I want to mention how doing track days, especially on these famous European circuits, has given me a greater appreciation of professional motorsports. Much like how you don’t quite appreciate the skill of a quarterback accurately throwing a football 60 yards until you try for just 20 yards yourself, only after driving the in same places as the pros do you fully realize the skill they posses. Not just the raw speed, the eleven-tenths, knife-edge dance they do, but the absolute precision and consistency of it, all while fighting for position, navigating through traffic, thinking about race strategy, and talking over the radio. You start to see that they’re not just on the limit of traction, but often slightly past it, using just the right amount of slip. You start to notice that they hit the exact same marks lap after lap, sometimes for hours, while you feel happy just to put down five decent laps back to back. Professional racing drivers have truly remarkable mental and physical skills.
Now to the breakdown:
First is Brands Hatch, which I ran with BookaTrack, Ltd. So What makes this my favorite track in the world (so far)? Paddock Hill Bend, and a number of quick 4th gear turns. Paddock Hill Bend is an absolutely incredible turn, with a 4th gear entry and a steep downhill profile which bottoms out right around the turn exit, you feel like you’re catapulted out of the turn. It feels better to get Paddock Hill Bend just right than almost anything else. Later you have a reasonably long straight rolling over some hills leading into a series of short 4th gear turns around more hills where you can do a quick stab on the brakes and really toss the car around. The organization was also very good to run with, helping me sort out a marginal noise limit situation and providing a great deal on some amazing photos.
Zandvoort is also incredibly fun in an Elise, with more technical 3rd-gear sections than Brands Hatch, but still having some fast turns with good elevation change.
I’m almost as surprised as you are that Lime Rock is ranked so high on my list, but I really did have that much fun when I drove there. It’s a surprisingly fast track, feeling in some ways like Brands Hatch, with quick 4th-gear turns and fun elevation change (though nothing quite as good as Paddock Hill Bend). It’s also by far the shortest track I’ve been to, which I actually count as a plus because it lets you quickly find a rhythm and get into the “groove” of the track.
The Nürburgring is of course an extraordinary place, and well-suited to an Elise. It has many incredible turns and the backdrop of the Eifel Mountains is wonderful scenery. But the challenges it presents coupled with the proximity of the walls give me more nerves than usual. That plus the sheer length of it makes it harder to relax and find the groove, but the reward is worthwhile. And in the rare case where they connect the GP Course and the Nordschleife for tourist drives, there is no more epic track driving experience to have in the world, I’m sure.
Road Atlanta and VIR are both very good, and similar experiences, with fast esses, elevation change, and technical sections, but Road Atlanta edges out the win halfway because of the insane Turn 12, and the view from Turn 3.
Circuit Mettet was more fun than I expected. It’s known more as a local rallycross or motorcycle track, though as a relatively short and slow circuit, an Elise feels at home there. It has some fun turns and elevation change, but lacks scenery and feel of “going somewhere” that other tracks have.
Now here’s Spa, all the way down here at number 9. It is, no doubt, a beautiful place to drive, with lots of elevation change and of course the world-famous Eau-Rouge. The problem is, the turns tend to be fast and long, which does not play to an Elise’s strengths. Radillon being a steep uphill (just after Eau-Rouge) also doesn’t suit an Elise, slowing things down a bit and perhaps making it less exciting than you’d expect. To be fair, I’m sure there’s little better than Spa when you tackle it with something having decent power and a bit of downforce.
Summit Point and Zolder are similar tracks, both on the shorter side, not too fast, not too slow, not a lot of elevation change. Perfectly reasonable racetracks, but nothing especially notable about either one. Zolder does have windmills though.
Back to the Firefly analogy, NCCAR is the “Heart of Gold” of racetracks. It’s a racetrack you can drive on and have a good day, but there’s a reason nobody bothered to put it on TV. There’s no elevation change, and it’s not a particularly inspired layout.
Here, if you like, is a lap of each (except Brands Hatch, because of some “bad luck”) in more-or-less chronological order.
Now that I’ve been to all these tracks and have a better feel for what I enjoy, I have to decide what comes next. Continue exploring the various circuits of the world, or go back for a rare second go at something I already visited? I guess we’ll find out next year.