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Visit Horley and tackle Lets Race, the UK’s only full-motion F1 simulation venue

13:27 26 October 2015

Ben Stephenson (commercial manager), Steph Barnes (reception manager), Jean Philippe (admin manager) and James Cossins (instructor) (Photo Pete Gardner)

Ben Stephenson (commercial manager), Steph Barnes (reception manager), Jean Philippe (admin manager) and James Cossins (instructor) (Photo Pete Gardner)

Pete Gardner

The UK’s only full-motion F1 simulation venue, Lets Race in Horley provides a hyper-realistic driving experience that is as close as you can get to doing the real thing. Surrey Life’s intrepid journalist Pete Gardner puts his pedal to the metal…

Pete finds his feet in the scale F1 car on display at the centre (Photo Pete Gardner)Pete finds his feet in the scale F1 car on display at the centre (Photo Pete Gardner)

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine October 2015

***

Most blokes like me (and, no doubt, many ladies) will probably have wanted to have a go at driving a Formula One racing car at some point. But unless your name is Lewis Hamilton, you’re unlikely to ever get behind the wheel. Until now that is…

Based in the unlikely setting of the small Surrey town of Horley, near Gatwick, Lets Race has found a solution by recreating as far as possible what it’s like to lower yourself into a racing car, sit on the grid and then blast your way around a race circuit. We’ve all had a go at a racing sim on the PC but by setting up a near perfect replica of a car and plonking three huge screens in front of it, they have achieved an incredibly realistic way of putting you right on the track.

It doesn’t stop there, either, because these cars actually move as well – this is serious stuff, very serious, even down to an on-screen safety briefing by the former F1 driver Martin Brundle. (He warns of the “racing red mist” and points out that “you will feel the force of the simulated crash”…). It’s all done by setting the cars onto special mounts that move as you turn the wheel, brake and accelerate. So, roaring into a corner too fast and slamming on the brakes really gives you that terrifying feeling of impending doom as the car bounces and thuds over the gravel into the crash barrier.

Authentic experience

Now I’m not a very flexible person myself, and it was a challenge right from the start, even just lowering myself into the cockpit. Then you have to find your way around the controls. The authentic steering wheel has two gear-shift paddles – one to change up and one for down – oh, and you have to remember to brake with your left foot as there are only two pedals and very little room for your feet. Then the lights dim and all of a sudden the whole thing becomes terribly real…

I forgot all about sitting in a huge auditorium in Horley – I was on the grid at the start of a race round Spain’s Catalunya circuit in Barcelona (you can choose from a variety of famous circuits) – and it really was scary. The three screens give an incredible perspective of all-round vision to the extent where, apparently, some people have to ask for the side screens to be turned off as it’s too much for them.

The race? It’s not easy. Really, it isn’t. The cars react just like the real thing and you have to treat them so, so delicately – one tiny wrong move or too much braking and you have lost it…

The first few laps are designed as ‘practice laps’ – you get to do your own thing just to get the hang of the car, and plunging into a crash barrier or trying to work out where to find reverse gear is just part of the fun. Coordination is the key, I was soon to discover. I’m not an Aston Martin owner and I have never used a paddle shift on the steering wheel to change gear, so this was the first steep learning curve (no pun intended…). Also, I don’t think I have ever in my life braked with my left foot. So, everything just as in ‘real life’ with a monster of a car raring to go and an excited Surrey Life journalist also raring to go – a deadly combination.

After the practice session, it was back to the debriefing room where we were shown hi-tech computer graphics of our efforts. This shows you exactly (and I mean exactly!) where you used the throttle, used the brake, the gears – everything. I’m only surprised that it didn’t show, in a thick red line, where my blood pressure was boiling over…

On the grid

So, equipped with the knowledge of how to emulate the great Lewis Hamilton, it was time to race. Sitting on the grid, I watched the trio of red lights – and we were off! Well, sort of… We had been told, helpfully, that we should use half-throttle when moving off from the grid but I wasn’t sure why… until I did exactly what I had been told not to do and immediately spun a beautiful, balletic pirouette into the crash barrier about 10 feet past the start line.

Did things improve? A little perhaps but the concentration you need is huge and all part of the fun. You lose all track of time, but eventually the chequered flag was waved and we all clambered out of the cockpits and back for another quick debrief.

I sometimes wonder if the lovely editor at Surrey Life deliberately wants to embarrass me, but I did manage to come third (and I’m not saying how many were in the race) so claimed a place on the podium. One other remarkable effect of all this is just how exhausting it is – 15 minutes of duelling with others on the track and you stagger out of the room – how can I put this politely – let’s say perspiring a little…

The right track

Overall, though, I loved it. And, what is more, it’s surprisingly inexpensive for a simple one-off experience, with sessions starting from just £15 (though there are also various packages for serious racers and corporate events).

Aimed at families, too, there are loads of other things to entertain – a GT Zone for kids aged seven and above; a Batak wall, where you can test your reaction times; a large-scale Scalextric, a café and bar; and a seated grandstand in the main simulator room where your loved ones can sit and watch (free of charge) as you blunder round the track. You can even have a timed go at changing a wheel on a racing car.

In summary then, while I may not have claimed pole position, I really enjoyed the whole experience – and I can understand the sentiments of my fellow racegoer, Charlie from Crawley, who told me it was his fifth visit here. As a huge F1 fan, he says he just loves it every time.

Everyone is catered for though – there are disability pods available too. As Lets Race say themselves, the idea is to make motor sport accessible to everyone. Even back-seat drivers like me…

• Lets Race, 59/61 Brighton Road, Horley RH6 7HJ. Race experiences start from £15 and the GT Zone, for kids aged seven-plus, from £5. Tel: 01293 826800. Web: letsrace.co.uk

Stop press:

From this month, a new golf venture is also set to open at the Lets Race centre. Featuring the highest-spec golf simulators available, Lets Golf will offer enthusiasts the chance to play (virtually) on some of the best courses in the world, from St Andrews to the PGA National. The centre has even added golf pro Steve Furlonger to its team, who will be providing regular coaching. Sessions in the simulators will start from £15. For more information, see online at lets-golf.co.uk.

 

A county of car-lovers

Surrey has a plethora of links to the world of motor racing; here we bring you just a few of them…

Brooklands Museum in Weybridge is known as ‘the birthplace of British motor sport and aviation’ and for good reason. Built in 1907, the 2.75-mile racing circuit was the scene of many motoring feats back in the day, and parts of the banked track still remain.

• The son of motor racing legend Graham Hill, Surrey resident Damon Hill OBE has had his own success on the track, too, with a championship win in 1996 and 22 wins in Formula One. As president of the British Racing Drivers’ Club, he is still deeply involved in the racing scene today.

• HWM (Hersham and Walton Motors) is a long- established Aston Martin business in Walton-on-Thames but also steeped in motor racing history. Once a racing car constructor, they were involved in Formula One from 1954.

• Dunsfold Park, near Cranleigh, has long been the filming location of the famous TV series Top Gear. Parts of the old aerodrome, which was built in the early war years, were used as the ‘Stig Track’ where celebrities were put through their paces in the ‘Reasonably Priced Car’.

• Based in Woking, McLaren Automotive has a long association with motor racing dating back to the early ‘60s when Bruce McLaren founded the McLaren racing team. Now producers of road- going supercars as well, the name is synonymous with the sport.

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