Driving with your mind on full throttle

If he's in a traffic jam, he usually caused it himself. Our Secret Agents editor likes cars, but cars don't like him. A long, long time ago he got a crash course at the Zandvoort Circuit from racing legend Michael Bleekemolen.

Now that Michael and his two racing sons, Jeroen and Sebastiaan, will soon be back on the drastically rebuilt circuit of Zandvoort to race-experiences to give to the public, it might be a good time to revive that precarious adventure.

Forest camp remembers:

On a summery winter day, I barely passed hell. Between Roosendaal and Rotterdam, the road was being worked on for kilometres. Actually, you can't do that to traffic, a road narrowed for three quarters of an hour (at an average speed of about 80 kilometres per hour). It takes a lot of concentration and stamina not to play a bumper car for that long. Especially that afternoon. There were a large number of motorists on the road who were not quite there with their heads up and thought that bumper driving would increase the fun. Near Dordrecht, it went wrong. It happened to four cars in front of me. I suddenly saw a car start swinging adrift. Then I saw a Smart being launched. Literally.

Core of the accident

The small car came first with its nose up and then off the ground. I don't know what happened next, because I jerked the steering wheel, passed a truck at the back and ended up on the far right side of the road. The most improbable part of the situation was that we all just kept on driving as if what happened there was part of everyday life. I looked in my interior mirror. In front of the place where the core of the accident was supposed to be, trucks were standing still. I couldn't see the end of the macabre spectacle, but I was hardly reassured that it had ended with a sizzle. Too many cars were too close to each other's lips for that.

On the Rotterdam ring road, at the The Hague exit, my heart was still pounding in my throat. The fact that I was still driving here had to do with a big dose of luck. I had suddenly fled to the right. Without looking in my interior mirror, without making sure that there was no car next to me. Maybe it was time to stop making my chances of survival on the road depend on whether or not the Gods were with me.

Father Michael and sons Sebastian and Jeroen Bleekemolen

Michael Bleekemolen will be with me in a moment. He first has to address the participants of Flying Start, a three-day course that is the best start of a racing career in the Netherlands, in the Paddock Café just opposite the Gerlach bend of the Zandvoort circuit. For years Michael Bleekemolen's Racing School has had the highest success rate for the coveted KNAF racing license and that's not so surprising when you know that the lessons are given by instructors like Jeroen, Sebastiaan and Michael Bleekemolen and Allard Kallf.

Wormstruck Jane

In his speech he doesn't smear it with syrup. Bleekemolen says what it says. There's still too slow driving, too bad braking ("You have to play more with the brake pedal") and the start wasn't quite right either. I want a rennie for my stomach. If these guys, who seriously want to race, don't do it right, what will he think of me when I crawl through the Tarzan curve like an unstable Jane?

At the end of his speech, the cups are awarded to the best drivers of the day. number one is four years away from getting his driver's licence. Broekemans shyly accepts his cup. nothing has changed in all those years. I lived in Zandvoort for more than 20 years. in winter it was quiet in the village, but sometimes you were startled by loud sirens of police cars chasing 14-year-old joy-rider Jantje Lammers who barely got his head above the wheel. by the way, those policemen had a tough, if not impossible job on them.

When Michael walks out with me, where his son Sebastian's Renault Clio is, a car that hasn't yet figured out what's going to happen to him, he says: "Racing isn't that easy. It's not for nothing that I still appear at the start as an old bag. There's just not a lot of real new talent, yes, that kid from before. But that's really an exception. Still, they can all race later. And that's what it's all about after all."

Always ten for two

Getting to the car, Michael explains that he's giving me a kind of shortened compilation, a 'best of' of his courses, from a bit of increased driving skills to a bit of racing. "I can't possibly teach you everything in one afternoon," he says. "It's also important for me to know what you can do." As if he can read my mind, he adds, "I'm just assuming you're not a talent. Then it's always okay."

He gives me the keys. "Before we go on the track, I'd like to do the brake test with you. Most motorists can't brake. You don't learn it during driving lessons either. The trick is not to stand right on top of your brake, but to dose it with the pedal." He explains to me that a car from the factory has been given a brake balance, which is the ratio of brake pressure between the front and rear wheels (usually 70 % brake pressure at the front and 30 % brake pressure at the rear). That brake balance only works if you don't stand right on your brake. You first have to lean the car forward by gently pressing the pedal to bring the weight on the front axle. Only then will the factory balance be correct. "Of course, it will be different," he says. "If the car has ABS, then the technology does the job and that requires a different approach".

When I'm sitting at the Clio's driver's seat, hoping it won't leave me thin through my trousers, forcing Sebastiaan to sign a sponsorship contract with a toilet spray manufacturer, Michael asks me to show him how I hold the steering wheel. It's never half past twelve with me, nor a quarter past one, but always ten to two. "You'll do just fine," he says laughing. The sitting position also leaves little to be desired. A good tool, Michael explains, is if you can put the underside of your wrist on top of the steering wheel without sitting forwards. The interior and exterior mirrors are fine. I'm allowed to go.

Massive spout

"Drive on the track first," says the master who sits next to me and uses a walkie-talkie to keep in touch with the instructors along the track. There are still aspiring drivers on the track and we don't want to get in their way. I'm steering the car through the Tarzan curve. This is quite a magical moment. For years I've seen drivers like Jack Brabham, Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Jochen Rindt, Jackie Stewart and Nikki Lauda pass by as a hustler from the safe side of the track. What really bothered me then was that they never waved back to me. They didn't do that until they were flagged down, but then I was on my way home with my uncle and cousin, who were racing enthusiasts, to get ahead of the mass run after the race.

On the hunserug, Michael asks me to stop. Here are the brake signs indicating the distance covered. "Drive backwards," says the chief instructor. "And give it a try." I take a big run, step on the throttle, switch in pairs and at the first sign I'm on top of my brake. I smell a smell that betrays that I didn't do it right. "You have to be more careful with the clutch," says Michael. "Do you smell that? If you were racing like that, you'd be in the pits after the first lap." I'll try again. This time it goes better. I'm not on top of the brake either. The weird thing is that you think you'll slide further if you play more with the pedal, but it makes a difference of at least one and a half brake signs.


Bleekemolen's race planet has dozens of different race cars at its disposal

Deadly serious gases

"If we practise this even more," says Michael, "you can shorten the braking distance by 30 to 40 %." The next obstacle, is the roadside test. Behind the main stand, a sloping roadside has been built. When you drive in there, a strange balance arises in the car, which can hardly be absorbed. You get into a slip and then you have to turn the steering wheel very quickly to get the car straight again. Bleekemolen does it. It seems like a piece of cake, but when it's my turn, I get the car neatly straight, but with my nose in the other direction. But also here, practice makes art. After a few times, you get used to the strange feeling that the car slides away from you and you don't panic anymore, creating space to use your brain.

Michael says again that the Increased Driving Proficiency course is much more than just a brake and braking test. It includes a big piece of theory, a steering test, consisting of a slalom forwards and backwards, an evasive test and driving the ideal line on a part of the track. And now that I can brake a little and road a little, it's time to hit the track and start gassing seriously.

Michael explains that there are red markings along the track which indicate where to exit the car. "We're going to see if you understand something of the ideal line. You don't have to go fast yet, try to feel what the car is doing first." There we go. Tarzan bend, Gerlach bend, Hugenholz, Rob Slotenmaker bend, Nissan bend, Mitsubishi bend, Bosuit, to my mind there used to be fewer corners on the track and that may be true, because after a major rebuild in '89 the track, which looked like the quiet contours of France from above, changed into something much more whimsical.

Above expectation

I look closely in my rear-view mirror, because Bleekemolen can tell me more about where and how to turn, if I see a car in my rear-view mirror, I keep following everything but the ideal line at that low speed. There may be Michael in my passport, but my surname is Boskamp and not Schumacher. After two laps I'm actually starting to get used to it. I feel it's also above expectations. The best thing is when the car comes out of the corner and you can get it back into the right lane almost without steering. My co-driver is pleasantly surprised. "You do that remarkably well," he says. "Sometimes it really takes a day for a student to realise it. Some even never learn it at all, but you've already got it." He laughs. "Imagine, maybe you'll still be racing in your old age."

On the straight in front of the grandstand I'm told to be careful. "Just honk," says Michael. "You never know. Instructors always cross here. And those guys aren't that easy to find." When I enter the Tarzan curve, he suddenly says: "And now we're going to drive. Give it more gas." What do you do when you hear something like that and you drive on the circuit of Zandvoort where you're not bothered by trucks, traffic jams and speed cameras? Then you do exactly what you're told. I step on the gas and I immediately understand why this is Sebastiaan's car. After half a lap Michael asks if it could be a bit quieter. "You drive faster than you think," he says. "If you would drive on public roads like that, you'd see a lot of fellow road users pointing to their heads or sticking their middle finger up."

Concentrate on the race

After a while I start to notice something, something that has everything to do with my driving on the road. I start to lose concentration. I'm thinking about what I'm going to do tonight. I'm going to enjoy my girlfriend. I also see how. The ideal line suddenly looks very different in my mind and has everything to do with the sizes 90-60-90. And I just can't use those thoughts at the moment. I realize with a shock that I don't drive that badly at all, but that it's hard for me to concentrate behind the wheel. After Michael finally shows me how it's really done (while going down the Tarzan curve at top speed, he says dryly: "And I've been doing this for over 30 years now.") the big moment has come. The evaluation.

Sitting on a table at the Paddock-Cafe, he says again, "I really thought you'd drive very badly," he says. "I would have assumed that, but you did a very nice job."

In all honesty I tell him what my problem is. Somewhere between the Mitsubishi bend and Bosuit I found out. "Well," he says. "That's a known problem. I have that too. When I drive on the Monaco circuit, in the city where I have a house, my thoughts sometimes wander. And then I have to force myself to concentrate on the race."

A little later, when I drive my own car on the Zeeweg in the direction of Haarlem, the road where I secretly taught myself to follow the ideal line, I wonder what that driver was thinking about when he was driving on the back of the Smart. It might be better to think about something else, for example why the car that is right behind me is flashing its lights and is trying to pass me on the right.

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