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Today we share with you an insightful look inside the new and much-anticipated Lotus Driving Academy. Article is courtesy of Lotus Engineering:

With a driver training syllabus to rival the world’s greatest drive schools, delivered by tutors that are renowned ride and handling masters, The Lotus Driving Academy is unreservedly one of the most exciting initiatives to come from Lotus this year. With a planned start date of March 2009 and enquiries already pouring in, we get out on the tarmac to find out more.

Development engineer Dave Minter welcomes us onto the Hethel test track. He is tutoring some ‘test’ pupils in preparation for March 2009 when the Academy welcomes its first new trainees. Tutelage by Development Engineers, we ask, surely they have enough to do already? “Well, it’s like this,” he tells us. “Nobody knows the cars like the engineers that develop them, those that are responsible for the ride and handling of the car, the responsiveness and driveability of the vehicle, what better instructor for teaching even the most experienced how to handle a Lotus?”

Indeed, one can’t argue with that. It explains why, at racing circuits around the UK, the track talk has centred on going back to school. Demon-driver wannabes have been enthused by the thought of the new driving academy. At a recent Silverstone club meet, Lotus Club member Thomas Mulhearn told us: “There’s already a waiting list, I’ve put my name down and am prepared for a wait, I’m serious about taking part.” He is not alone. As the ever-popular track events begin to be rostered onto next years calendar the academy places are filling up in preparation. “It’s all about pushing yourself harder, learning just what your car can do and indeed what you yourself can do with it!” says track supremo Angelo Resonar, leaning against a battle-ready Exige S. “I’m looking forward to seeing what they could teach me,” he says, half-jokingly.

The Academy tutors are unphased by such bravado and, having been responsible for honing the skills of some of the greatest drivers to have ever lived, or indeed raced, you can understand their confidence. The school has thrown away the rule book in putting together a comprehensive and unique activity programme designed to transform a novice motorist into an experienced and skilled driver. “We’ve created a completely new training programme, a well-rounded course that will really benefit drivers, no matter what their skill level” says Minter. “The Academy truly acknowledges the participants’ expertise, presenting them with a licence that demonstrates their progress,” he says. “I think we now have the right balance where if attendees need more time on a subject, this course enables them to do just that, plus it allows everyone to learn to their own timescale.”

The new course is structured into tiers, starting with Bronze, going up to Silver, then Gold. Once you gain your licence in each level, then you are able to progress to the next tier. For the truly experienced pupil that successfully conquers the gold stage; they can then go onto the Platinum level allowing them to take advantage of some 1:1 training with their instructor at their track of choice, for at this point they’ll be able to drive any track in the world. To get to this point though, you have to put the time in. “There’s much more theory now, you spend half your time in the classroom,” says Minter. It’s about learning the technicality behind the car, so you understand it, and its potential responses. Then, once you are out on the tarmac, you can see how each component effects the car, for example what happens if you change the anti-rollbar, widen the tyres, or change the suspension geometry. Lotus also demonstrate that some of the much-heralded after-market accessories are just no good, and can actually degrade the car. What’s the point of having more power; if you cannot handle it?

The Bronze stage kicks off with a technical tour of the factory. This is not to be confused with the factory tour, for the technical tour goes further in answering questions such as why the dampers are fitted upside-down. Then you get a drive of the North track where the entry, apex and exit cones are positioned to give you reference points, to aid your learning and confidence with the car. The Silver level is akin very much to the current driver training day, in that you will get to drive the full track but this time you are given more lee way in that here only the entry and apex cones are positioned for you. When it comes to exiting the corners, you now have to navigate these freely with your instructor. It’s not until you get to the Gold level that you really are in ‘stabilisers off’ mode. You now get to drive the full track, the South track and the North track (anti-clockwise). This is much more of a challenge; here there are no cones at all. Entry, apex and exit cones are all removed.

Throughout the levels you get to drive an Exige, Elise R and Elise S. This will give an understanding to the different gear change points, the turning-in points relating to tyre grip level. It’s all there. The brainchild of Lotus Sport manager Chris Arnold, the Academy is being administered by Lotus Sport track and events coordinator Lisa Dann, who is responsible for ensuring that the Academy’s pupils understand the ethos behind this structured and multi-tiered approach that will ultimately see graduates gaining their Lotus Academy Licence.

“Getting the Academy up and running has been fantastic,” says Dann. “We’ve devised a programme, enthusiast drivers are going to love. It challenges you all the way and in doing so pushes your natural talents to a new level. Ultimately this course from start to finish is going to mean lots of silverware in the trophy cabinet for the participants who go on and race professionally. I have always thought highly of the Lotus driving programme but wanted to improve the format so that clients were injected with Lotus DNA and would gain knowledge of the engineering and dynamics of the Lotus product.”

The programme is based on three-competency based stages, Bronze, Silver and Gold, once you’ve passed those you eventually can have a stab at the much-coveted Platinum Licence, a prize reserved for the most skilled of driver.” “The platinum licence is the ultimate goal,” says tutor Alastair McQueen. “it’s the endorsement of a driver’s natural alliance with his car, the affirmation that the licence holder not only has a high level of skill but that he/she can strategise, plan an attack of the tarmac, and dominate it.”

The tutelage is centred on giving attendees a technical knowledge so that they understand their influence on vehicle behaviour even before they get behind the wheel. This theoretical instruction is fundamental to each stage of the Academy syllabus and will be assessed accordingly. By working at a steady pace, pupils can rest assured that their knowledge will evolve at each Licence level – just as their practical driving skills will.

At present the activity is centred around the Lotus Cars test track at Hethel, but if successful there is talk that the programme will be available locally to US and European customers. “We hope that eventually, the Academy programme will be available in all our major car markets,” says Dann. With the popularity of track driving increasing year-on-year and the skill level needed to win endurance, race and regularity competitions being ever pushed skywards so the demand for driver tuition continues. Drivers want to test themselves and their cars, and learn more about the art of driving and indeed racing. Now, Lotus has heeded that call and what they have on offer will tempt all types of car enthusiast. The Lotus Academy looks like an absolute winner, not only for Lotus, but for those who take part too.
 

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When I had last spoken to Lisa (November 2008), she had said that they would likely give credit to those who have been through the old program. Basically, this program rearranges what they were doing, adds a few things and adds a third level. In other words, it seems that the old system had what is now called the Bronze silver and platinum levels, but by different names. Now there is a little more in there and a "gold" level.

For those that haven't been. It is worth it. I wasn't able to deo the factory tour, which gives me reason to go back. :cool:
 
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