When I approached Donington Park for my Ron Haslam Race School Premier Experience, I wasn’t feeling fast, confident or even particularly excited. I had just battled the hellishly busy M1 in heavy rain, I was wet and cold.
Things started to brighten up as soon as I got in the vicinity of the race school though: there was a line of sparkling new Honda CBR600Rs being fuelled up for the day, and the rain was easing a bit.
I can’t think of many places as well equipped to turn anyone from a sluggish Sunday rider into a knee-scraping track-missile than the Ron Haslam Race School. The school is based at Donington Park, one of the finest tracks in the UK, and it doesn’t use the Haslam name in vain – the man himself is very much present at the school, riding with the learners. You can often spot other racers at the school too, such as Ron’s son and British Superbike Championship rider Leon Haslam.
What are the options?
There are three different types of half-day courses, or ‘experiences’, to choose from: On-Track, Premier and Elite. Regardless of which one you choose, the day starts with registration and getting your kit sorted. The great thing about the race school is that you can just show up in your normal clothes as the hire of all the riding kit is included in the price. You can, of course, use your own leathers, helmet and so on, but the option is there.
The On-Track Experience combines track riding and bike control exercises. The Honda-sponsored school provides the bikes for all courses, and the On-Track Experience can be done on a Honda CBR125R, CBR300R or CB500/CBR500R.
Having already done the On-Track Experience, I opted for the Premier Experience, which is more intensive, and includes more track time. It also introduces riders to a more powerful machine in the form of the Honda CBR600RR. The day starts with a briefing, after which the riders move onto the track for three riding sessions. There’s one track coach for every two learners, so it’s easy to get feedback and advice. In between the riding sessions, the coaches advise on how to improve your riding from throttle control to body position and gear changes to race lines. The day ends with a final debrief, a certificate and a sheet where the coaches give riders a score and some notes on areas to improve or focus on.
There’s also the Elite Experience: a chance to get some one-to-one time with a coach and a Honda CBR1000RR Fireblade. I’m still very much a novice when it comes to track riding so the 600cc bike was plenty for me, but I’m tempted to go for the Elite training in near future.
Ready, get set, go!
At any given time there are various groups of riders attending different courses milling about at the race school, but the whole operation is run smoothly and effectively. Everyone knows where they’re going (usually to the paddocks for a track session, the classrooms for a debrief, or the loos for… well, you get the picture).
Once I got signed in and kitted up (they even have waterproofs for rainy days), I had a moment to spare and had a cup of coffee and tried to mentally adjust to going quite fast, on a fiery sportsbike, in the rain. Everyone who was heading off the track had big smiles on their faces so I can’t have been too bad.
I was in the Green group, as indicated by my armband in case I forgot, and soon enough we were called in for the initial briefing. This covered the different flags used to communicate any messages to the riders, general track etiquette, and advice on how best to navigate the circuit. This was all interesting and well presented, but the weather was improving and I was just itching to get out on the track.
From the classroom it was just a short walk to the paddocks, where we got paired with our riding partners and track coaches. I was paired up with another learner, Ben, who was roughly the same ability as me based on our responses to the questions about riding experience that we were asked when we booked the course. Our coach was Matt, who quickly talked us through what we had in store for the rest of the day. The rain had now stopped, but the track was still wet, so Matt encouraged us to start easy and get used to the circuit. “Treat the first few laps as sighting laps. It’s still wet, so let’s take it easy,” he said. That sounded good to me. I had no desire to go sliding off the track after over-stretching my limited abilities.
On the right track
Without too much standing around we were on our designated bikes and following Matt around the track at a nice and easy starting pace. The whole Green group consisted of 16 people and we were all on track at the same time, each pair of learners following their coach. There were also a few people taking the Elite course at the same time, and every now and again Matt would signal to us to go slightly off the racing line to let faster riders pass us. The track didn’t feel busy though, and the amount of overtaking was pretty minimal. Most of the time you could just concentrate on following Matt’s lines, body positioning and turning points.
Our first track session was a great introduction to the Donington Park circuit and it gave me confidence in slowly building up speed. I enjoyed the track despite the wet conditions – in all honesty, I didn’t really concentrate on the weather at all, I was enjoying the ride too much.
After the first session we did a bit of work on body positioning on a stationary bike at the paddocks. Matt demonstrated how to move on the bike and then we had a go. But it’s one thing to do it at zero miles per hour and a whole other to do it hurtling through a fast bend, so it was time to head back to the track to practise.
Session two was still a little damp, but the tarmac was starting to show signs of drying, which helped with the confidence. Our speeds were building up nicely as we got more comfortable with the track, the bikes and our newly acquired skills. Leaning off the bike like Matt had advised seemed surprisingly natural after a while. It was just braking and corner entry that I was still struggling with.
After another debrief, we headed out for the last session of the day. By now the track was almost dry, and it felt like we were flying compared to the speeds we had started the day with. There were still people on the track that were much faster than us (there always are!), but to me this felt amazing.
It’s incredible how much of a difference half a day can make. From a nervous start it’s easy to build up the skills and confidence to increase the pace safely. Any questions can be quickly answered by the coaches and having time on a track like Donington Park is just priceless. It’s a friendly and effective environment to learn in.
The school is very professionally run by Ron, wife Ann and their friendly team. Everything from the sign-in to the kit hire and briefings to the actual training is well organised. The trainers clearly enjoy passing on their track skills, making learning easy and fun.
The Premier Experience costs £299. This includes the bike, kit, refreshments and a goodie bag.