Since its opening in 1955, Disneyland has long been called the “happiest place on earth.” A formula of friendly characters, welcoming hospitality and a wide variety of exciting rides produces smiles and memories. Former F1 driver Jonathan Palmer should not be confused with Walt Disney, but he founded PalmerSport in 1991 to make driving magic.
The PalmerSport program is the modern-day equivalent of Disneyland for drivers. The unique approach distinguishes it from other driving schools or experiences. No other single day motorsport experience packs driving eight different vehicles in eight different mini-events into one day. Intrigued, Speed Journal Principal Jeff Francis packed his bags and set out for the Bedford Autodrome, located only 90 minutes north of central London.
The Bedford facility is an ideal venue. The 384-acre facility is part of the former RAF Thurleigh airfield and was re-designed specifically by Palmer in 1999. Crucially, Bedford Autodrome was designed with driving but not racing in mind. Wide open spaces provide ample run-off room for guests that overstep the bounds of friction. There are no concrete walls or grandstands. While PalmerSport does not endorse reckless driving, the endless run-off and acres of grass encourages drivers to push themselves and their cars harder than would be the case otherwise.
After a full English breakfast, PalmerSport staff welcomed the group of 70 drivers. A video briefing by Formula One commentator Martin Brundle walked through safety measures, introduced the cars and explained how best to get the most out of the day. Guests divided into smaller teams named after Formula One teams: Red Bull, Aston Martin, Williams, Mercedes and Ferrari. Instructors remained at each location while guest groups rotated throughout the day.
Guests shuttled between events in comfortable transport buses to trackside suites at the various venues. Friendly PalmerSport staff kept the packed schedule moving, maximizing driving time and minimizing waiting time. The weather during Francis’ visit was ideal, but weather doesn’t halt the PalmerSport program. Suites for events with open-cockpit cars had wet weather gear just in case.
Each guest wore a bracelet to activate timing software. This wasn’t wheel-to-wheel racing, but any group of competitive drivers comparing times will get the adrenalin pumping. The stopwatch doesn’t lie and the immediate feedback on timing screens was an ongoing source of commentary and entertainment. Drivers accumulated personal points for fast laps and each group also accumulated overall team points.
Jumping between eight different cars required each driver to get up to speed quickly. Instructors assessed driver skill and pushed appropriately. The blessing of eight different cars was the chance to sample so many varieties. The curse was the inability to spend more time with a particular favorite or work methodically to improve lap times. Remember, however, that the PalmerSport program is not a driving or racing school. Drivers take their experience and decide where best to spend their subsequent track time if they want more.
Francis and Team Aston Martin started their day with the Land Rover Defender. While exotic race cars beckoned from other parts of the Bedford grounds, getting dirty at slower speeds was a heap of fun. The Land Rover lived up to its legend. The playground of obstacles showed off its ability to climb steep inclines, paddle through deep water hazards, stay upright on high banked curves, and balance on narrow rails. One exercise involved climbing a steep full-scale metal see-saw that pivoted downward when the Defender reached the top.
Suspended tennis balls throughout the course challenged drivers to deftly hit bulls-eyes painted on the windshield and mirrors. Easier said than done – car control on uneven terrain required skill and patience. The Land Rover was clearly at home in its mother land.
Defender time done, Team Aston Martin headed to the adjacent Caterham pursuit event. The 175 hp front-engine, rear-wheel drive drift machine was nimble and quick. The lightweight Caterham begged to be tossed around and drifted. The exercise pitted two drivers against each other in two identical autocross-type layouts. With tires spinning and struggling for grip at the start, the driver hurled their Caterham down a short straight before a sequence of hairpin turns and short straights.
The intense point-and-squirt course culminated with a tight donut pivot around a pylon before throwing the car into a parking spot and braking to a stop. More of the run was spent sideways than with all four wheels pointed ahead. Each driver got three runs and recorded their best in their personal log book.
Team Aston Martin moved next to the go-kart track and the chance to drive the small and mighty Honda-powered 390cc Sodi GT5 karts. Karts are known for amazing acceleration and cornering and the PalmerSport karts were no exception. A good lap required keeping momentum up through the corners. Multiple drivers shared the track in pursuit of lap-times rather than track position, but maneuvering through the occasional traffic provided a dicey challenge. The body and mind got quite a workout and the intense exercise fired up the senses and got the adrenaline pumping.
The 12-corner, 1.87-mile West Circuit beckoned Team Aston Martin for two sessions with two different open cockpit race cars. The fun started with the Palmer JP-LM. A Cosworth 3-liter V-6 engine powers the two-seater LeMans-style prototype. With sculpted aerodynamics and slick tires, the feather-light purpose-built racer screams from 0 to 60 mph in only 3.4 seconds. PalmerSport says the car is capable of 167 mph. Helmets for driver and instructor were wired for two-way communication.
Just walking up to the group of sports protypes was a thrill, building the anticipation to track time. Instructors didn’t make the group wait. Helmets on and instructors assigned, drivers went out on track for a brief warm up. Instructors gave pointers and feedback, pointing out the correct driving line through corners and braking points.
The six-speed paddle shift made changing gears easy. The flowing circuit had enough room to briefly taste 6th gear, but mostly needed only third, fourth and fifth gears. Like the go-kart, the secret was smoothly keeping momentum through the corners. The sports-racer had plenty of power, but not enough to compensate for an irregular lapping rhythm. Instructors encouraged and pushed drivers to the edges of their comfort zone. The visceral nature of an open cockpit racecar was intoxicating. The driver’s helmet bounced around as the car sliced through the wind. The precise steering and slick tires kept the car planted through corners at impossible speeds.
As exotic as a LeMans-style prototype might be, an open-wheel race car with wings and slicks is another game altogether. Millions of people across the globe watch Formula One teams dice for glory and a Formula 3000 car is the closest that most fans will get to a taste. The purpose-built racer only fits the driver, so they were on their own without an instructor on board. Driving suit and helmet fitted, the driver swiped their timing bracelet to activate the timing and scoring system. The sight lines ahead were unobstructed. Seeing the wheels spin adds excitement and the improved visibility enabled the driver to precisely place the grippy slicks on the ideal line through corners.
The six-speed paddle shift was quick and effortless. No need for a clutch except for starting and stopping. As expected in a proper race car, the brakes required firm pressure and were aligned perfectly for left foot braking if preferred. The steering was extremely sensitive and precise. Unlike the Caterham that wanted to be tossed around, the Formula 3000 car was a precision instrument – a scalpel to carve through corners. The massive front and rear wings glued the car to the track, giving more grip as speeds increased. Every driver received a recorded video of their laps to enjoy (and analyze) later. The Formula 3000 car was the pinnacle of the PalmerSport line-up and every driver wanted the bragging rights that came with running at the top of the timing screens.
As an extra treat before leaving the West Circuit, instructor Steve took Francis for a ride in an upgraded JP-LM. Equipped with more power, grippier tires and better aerodynamics than the standard version, the “Superride” JP-LM had more of everything that mattered. The sheer pace of a capable car with a skilled driver was an eye-opener. Steve maneuvered the car with confidence, pushing with violence that dialed up the G forces. The car stuck to the pavement through curves at velocities that seemed impossible. Despite deep braking points, Steve always made the turn and carried speed down the track. Steve clearly enjoyed his job and his passengers were thrilled.
After a first-class lunch and time to exhale and compare notes with other drivers, Team Aston Martin shuttled to the 1.5-mile South Circuit for time with the 510 horsepower BMW M4 GTP. The M4 GTP is based on the M4 Competition Coupé, but outfitted with upgrades for PalmerSport including stiffened, lower suspension and a carbon racing rear wing. The South Circuit’s long straights were perfectly suited for the brutish M4. After driving lightweight purpose-built racers, the heavier production-based sportscar required a mental adjustment. The BMW soaked up curbing and used its prodigious power to leap down the straights. Power assisted brakes and steering were obvious differences from the race cars, but made the driving experience more familiar to guests with their own high performance road cars at home.
If one Caterham program was fun, two was better. In addition to the morning autocross-style pursuit activity, PalmerSport uses its own Caterham spec cars on the tight and twisty 0.75-mile East Circuit. The Caterhams are pure fun – no electronic nannies or high-tech aerodynamics. The driver controls their own destiny. The lightweight Caterham felt right at home, dancing through the eight challenging corners either drifting sideways or just about to break traction. If someone wanted to learn car control or drifting, the front-engine rear-wheel drive Caterham would be an ideal choice.
To finish out the day, Team Aston Martin headed to the one-mile North Circuit for a finale with the Renault Clio Cup cars. The front wheel drive cars contrasted sharply with the other PalmerSport rear-wheel drive cars. The Clio gave the sensation of being pulled forward rather than being pushed from behind. Armed with a 220-horsepower engine, it took only five seconds to reach 60 mph from a standing start.
The Clio didn’t have the same muscle or power to weight ratio as some of the other PalmerSport cars and a driver can’t rely on raw horsepower to find lap time. Like the karts, keeping momentum and getting on the throttle as early as possible at corner exit were imperative. Smooth and precise driving skills rewarded the driver with low lap times. The North Circuit was well suited to the manufacturer-developed race car. Motorsports fans in the UK might have seen them contesting the UK Clio Cup Championship. If drivers underestimated the plucky little Clio prior to buckling up, they surely were impressed after their session.
Driving done, all guests reassembled for afternoon tea and awards. One of the Team Aston Martin drivers had looked quick during the day and was rewarded with an overall title, logging the fastest laps of three of the eight cars out of all 70 drivers. Some wondered whether they could have done better by watching on-board videos in advance or getting more track time, but the spirit of competition gave way to respect with such a performance.
Looking for a cost-effective single-day driving experience that samples a wide variety of cars and driving activities, doesn’t require a racing license, features a venue and instructors eager to push your driving skills to their limit and wraps it in a hospitality package with friendly staff, good food, and comfortable facilities? The PalmerSport program could be the happiest place on earth for those looking for the motorsport equivalent of a day at Disneyland. As an added bonus, periodically the PalmerSport program adds a professional driver for the day. In September, for example, British Formula One driver Johnny Herbert will take guests for high-speed rides and tell stories from his career.
The Speed Journal would like to thank PalmerSport and the PalmerSport staff and instructors for their hospitality at the Bedford Autodrome.