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Life in the fast lane

Brendan O'Malley screeches into pole position at Brands Hatch, with the Nigel Mansell school of motor racing. Brake in a straight line to avoid a spin, advises the instructor at Brands Hatch, accompanied by a haunting screech of tyres on the track outside. "Worry about your technique not your speed: if you get the technique right, the speed will follow."

Eighteen of us are being briefed for a day's Super Trial in BMWs and single seater racing cars at the Nigel Mansell Racing School.

First a map of the Indy Circuit and an explanation of the flags waved at three points on the track. Blue means let someone overtake; yellow means slow down; red means danger, come into the pits; and the chequered flag means make this your last lap. You are driving clockwise and can only overtake on the left. Got that?

We are to start with an instructor in the fuel-injected BMW 318is. There are no dual controls, but you don't have to worry about a thing, because he'll get the sack if you crash. Oh, and there's an anti-roll bar inside to prevent the shell crushing you if the car turns over. Nervous? You bet.

Down on the track, my first instructor is Alistair Weston, 21, twice a British go-kart racing champion and once second in a Formula Ford festival. Still, I am the one who takes the wheel and he talks me through the choreography of the course.

There are yellow cones placed on the edge of the track to indicate the points at which to begin braking or turning and to show the best line to take. It all sounds simple, except that you have got to do it while a dozen other cars are racing at varying speeds around the track.

"Keep to the right out of the pits to avoid traffic coming up from behind. Into fourth down Hailwood Hill, wide out to the left, break under the Ferodo bridge, get your speed down before you take the corner. Into third and take the longest line through the bend. Into fourth and stay in fourth as you go wide to take the Graham Hill Bend. Let the corner take you out wide and stay wide up to the next cone. Don't follow the car in front, keep to the line."

Several laps, changing down to third only for two bends and you begin to realise that racing is not just about acceleration on the straight, it's about your speed of decision making and control coming up to and through the bends.

Alistair takes the wheel and shows me how it's really done. On the second circuit the car roars up the Brabham straight and swoops down the steep Hailwood Hill with such force that what normally passes as a stomach-turning feeling starts in my head, rushing down through my whole body and out of my toes. Up the other side we flash through Ferodo bridge, accelerate out of Druids Bend, hurtle towards Graham Hill Bend, scorch up Cooper straight, overtake three cars, sizzle on a straight line through the Surtees and McLaren double bend, break, swoop wide to take Clarke Curve, then break again and pootle into the pits.

Alistair marks me on my initial trial. "Nice steady drive. Good line, pace and handling." You have to get 60 per cent to be let loose in the single-seaters, I get a respectable 80. My main weakness is failure to be firm and smooth with the controls. Sudden braking throws the weight from the back of the car to the front, and breaks the rhythm, as does jerky acceleration. "Balance the car on the throttle. Don't waver the foot because the car wobbles. You have got to keep it on the same angle through the bends," Alistair says.

What a way to get fired up for the Formula First - a real racing car, low, bright red, with pointed ends. Clamped in by a full harness with your legs horizontal, you are almost lying down. It's at this point you realise it's made of nothing stronger than fibreglass, it's like driving a souped-up canoe. At speed if you don't drive smoothly it rattles and shakes, which can be quite alarming.

After my first session in this and a second in the BMW, I'm ready for my time-trial, 12 laps in the Formula First, a maximum of 4,000 revs and a target of 74 seconds for at least two of the laps. If I hit the target I can be upgraded and learn with the faster drivers for my next visit.

I roar along the pit lane, the car coughs and stalls. It's that jumpy foot again. Then I'm off, zooming down Hailwood Hill. But I run into a queue of beginners up the Cooper Straight and have to bide my time, watching out for the wild car, a yellow Hot Rod, that zooms past from behind with no warning. Skeeeyaaarm.

Round Clarke Curve and wham on the accelerator: yellow flag for over-revving. I'm not having a smooth time of it for the first few laps. Then suddenly I find my rhythm, accelerating out of the bends I realise the ferocious roaring noise is coming from underneath my car. Move over Hot Rod.

The ad hoardings are flipping past. I zip up Cooper Straight and into the double bend so fast the car rattles over the apexes like a Scalextric thrown off track, then soar up the Brabham straight. And in no time at all it's all over.

My fastest was 73.72 seconds. Mansell would have got nearer 50. But, hey, I'm coming back. This must be the noisiest, most nerve-wracking, fast-action sport you can find - and I'm hooked.

An Initial Trial with saftey briefing plus one session in the BMW with instructor and one session in a single-seater costs Pounds 85 weekdaysPounds 105 at weekends. The Super Trial, with two sessions in the BMW and two in the single-seater including a 12-lap time trial, costs Pounds 155 on weekdaysPounds 195 at weekends. Personal instruction, plus 10 timed laps costs Pounds 60 at novice, intermediate, advanced and graduation level. The Nigel Mansell Racing School operates at Brands Hatch in Kent, Oulton Park in Cheshire and Snetterton in Norfolk. Tel: 01474 872367

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