Surrey Life tackles Top Gear track at Dunsfold with The Stig
PUBLISHED: 08:24 09 February 2015 | UPDATED: 12:22 27 March 2015
Pete Gardner Photography
It's the moment that Top Gear fans everywhere have been waiting for - the chance to have a spin on the show's famous track at Dunsfold Park. Surrey Life's Pete Gardner gets behind the wheel with The Stig to test his motoring mettle…
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine December 2014
My cover is, as they say, well and truly blown… Now, I’ve never actually told anyone that I am The Stig, the mysterious white-suited driver from Top Gear, but like many men who love anything with an engine and four wheels, I have, for a long time, been quietly pointing out that I am the same height and build as him and, well, I can handle a supercar on a track and drive very fast – but of course I’m not allowed to say anything (nudge nudge…).
Now I’ve gone and been photographed standing next to him. Pah! Thank you Surrey Life…
Indeed, so popular has the hit TV series become that we mere mortals now have the opportunity to try out a whole à la carte of courses at the show’s famous track at Dunsfold Park near Cranleigh. The idea for the experience came about because of the huge number of viewers who tune in every week to watch the exploits of the three motorheads – Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May – as, with a bit of tongue in cheek, they test nearly everything motorised to destruction. The old World War Two airstrip at Dunsfold proved perfect for this, and now you and I can try out a circuit like the celebs or a four-wheel “crash course” over hills and gullies.
Amongst others on the menu were the two I was here to try – a whizz round the track in a “reasonably priced car” and, as an aperitif, a seat next to The Stig in a “very fast car”. A very, very fast car.
Arriving at the Dunsfold track, I was whisked into the hangar where the show is filmed and allowed to roam about gazing in awe at all the Top Gear stuff – including a helicopter perched on top of a truck and the Cool Wall, a very special place dotted with photos of all the cars tested by the presenters. If yours is at the “cool” end, you can pat yourself on the back for owning such a select motor, while at the other end… oh dear…(where my VW Passat Estate would come, I dread to think). In addition, the stage where the presenters sit and embarrass their guests (and each other) is there too, and I also had the chance to drive the circuit on a computer to give me an idea of where I was going to crash. Hmm…
Being a nitwit with a bit of four-star petrol in his bloodstream, I decided to go for the drive with The Stig first (I shouldn’t have done it this way round, I realised later, as it’s not easy to try and set a winning lap time when your legs have turned to jelly…).
Like an alien in a spacecraft, The Stig suddenly appeared from around the corner in a brilliant white Porsche GT3 and stood waiting patiently. It was at this point I decided it would be a good idea to make a bit of journalistic history and actually interview him/her.
Me: “So, why do they call you The Stig?”
Me: “Okay. What’s it like to make a living driving fast cars all day?”
Me: “Are you a man or a woman?”
At this point, The Stig turned and got in the Porsche.
I’d had my chance…
The blurry bit
Then came the blurry bit. I’ve heard it said that your entire life flashes past you at times of extreme crisis. Comfortingly, all that flashed past my eyes were tarmac and buildings – but at an unbelievable speed. I understand that racing drivers have huge neck muscles to cope with the ‘G’ force that throws you about on corners. Unfortunately, I haven’t got huge neck muscles and my head flopped about like one of the Muppets as we roared around corners at impossible speeds – all the time The Stig looking so cool and relaxed. There was something, I think, playing on the CD too but please don’t ask me what.
It was, obviously, over far too soon. The last couple of bends are apparently a bit notorious for the unwary but to The Stig they were just like parking your car at Sainsbury’s. I staggered out of the Porsche and mumbled a squeaky “Thank You” before ZOOM – he disappeared in a flash of fairy dust and exhaust fumes.
So, you can understand now why my lap time was a bit pathetic in the “reasonably priced car”. (Look, I have an excuse and I am sticking to it, okay?).
I think it was a Kia that was wheeled out on the track for me. With a helmet on, and strapped in with a racing harness, I assumed this was meant to provide some reassurance. Strangely, it had the opposite effect, but I suppose if I messed up the Sainsbury’s parking bit I might survive…
You get two bites at this. The first lap is to acquaint you with the track – i.e. where to brake, where to accelerate and where to scream, then you go for it. There is a nice friendly helper next to you with, I found out, a duplicate set of pedals to prevent a total disaster, but other than that you’re on your own.
Seriously, it’s not as easy as it looks and I take my hat off to those celebs we have seen on TV who somehow manage an incredible lap time despite having the entire world watching as well. Sitting behind the wheel and seeing the famous track whizzing past through the windscreen gives you a strange sense of déjà vu – it’s like sitting at home watching the telly but with the terrifying knowledge that it’s your hands on the wheel.
If my legs were jelly before I started, they were probably a smooth creamy yoghurt by the end of all this. I’m afraid I have to apologise now to all the loyal Surrey Life readers I have let down – I managed a not terribly good lap time of one minute 58 seconds (it was wet, honest), but how on earth did Rowan Atkinson manage 1.42? And Tom Cruise 1.44…? Maybe I need to be a Hollywood superstar.
There are other heart-stopping things you can have a go at here too – all themed around features from the show.
Described as “wading up to your wheelnuts in muck while avoiding the tank’s gunsights”, you get to ease an FWD Landrover around a cleverly designed area of hills, humps and deep water gullies while being shot at from a tank lurking in the undergrowth. Other adrenalin-fueling events at the track include a drive in the Ariel Atom – one of the fastest road cars around with a huge engine and hardly any bodywork – and the Hot Hatch experience.
I will never understand why deliberately terrifying yourself is such fun – my legs are fine now, by the way, but I did let someone else drive me home.
Truly though, if you are a Top Gear fan (and there are a lot of you out there…), you just have to have a go – it showed me just how good some of these drivers are and I know I’m not going to forget the experience for a long, long time.
Oh, and I am most definitely not The Stig. Sorry.
Need to know:
What: Top Gear Track Experience
Where: Dunsfold Park, Stovolds Hill, Cranleigh GU6 8TB
How much: Pete tried the Hot Lap with the Stig, £99, and ‘Star in a Reasonably Priced Car’, £175
Bookings: 0844 225 0767
General Enquiries: 0333 577 7171
More information: topgeartrackexperience.com
Top Gear trivia...
With an estimated 350 million viewers in 170 countries, Top Gear is one of the most popular shows on television. Started in 1977 as a half-hour motoring show, it developed into the current format in 2002 with the team of presenters headed by the somewhat controversial Jeremy Clarkson. Surrey’s Dunsfold Aerodrome lent itself perfectly to the series as the site was already being used for various car testing and had several old hangars that were ideal for filming indoors with an audience.
Surrey is a motoring Mecca…