“It’s the best corner in the world”, British Touring Car Championship racer Paul O’Neil explains of Paddock Hill, a particularly gnarly bend at Brands Hatch, the infamous car racing track in West Kingsdown, Kent. “It feels like your eyeballs are dropping into your stomach. It’s amazing!”
I quietly doubt it will be better than a Muller Corner, or ‘Cornerstone’ by the Arctic Monkeys, but will soon find out for myself, as I’m to learn how to become a racing driver. The experts at Brands Hatch, one of whom worked as a stuntman on the upcoming action movie Mission: Impossible – Fallout, will teach me how to hurtle around the track at improbably high speeds and brake into bends like a pro – all while not bashing into the racers around me. My preferred speed is 25mph. I’m a very nervous driver.
This, then, feels somewhat unwise, though I’m assured I’m in safe hands. Before my wobbly legs carry me over to the pit stop – a scorched strip of tarmac pockmarked with burnt rubber – Paul offers some final advice: “Make sure your helmet’s fitted on tight enough; otherwise, it might slip over your eyes.” A terrifying prospect at around 120mph, a good 100-miles-per-hour out of my comfort zone, but sage words all the same.
Paul broke into the sport when his sister, Mel C, helped him financially after the Spice Girls became mega-famous. Let’s hope two don’t become one mass of crumpled metal out here on the track. I’m to undertake a ‘hot lap’ – racing around the track with an instructor at my side – in a BMW M5, the car featured in Mission: Impossible – Fallout; a 425-break-horsepower behemoth fitted with a cage-like chassis in the drivers’ seat. We tear off across the tarmac and my instructor tells me to put my foot down as we approach Paddock Hill – the kind of deranged anti-clockwise thinking required to become a petrolhead. You either have it or you don’t. I don’t.
I turn too early into the scything arc of the bend and the car spins chaotically around, the tyres screeching on the track. My instructor, who has control of his own set of pedals, later describes this as “your little moment”, though it feels more like a near-death experience. They say you learn by doing, however, and though it takes a few attempts, I eventually come close to making sense of Paddock Hill – albeit very, very slowly.
When I apologise to the instructor for being such a wimp, he smiles and says, “As long as you had a good time, that’s all that matters.” My flirtation with extreme sports is brief. When it comes to raising the heartbeat, I’ll stick with the low-octane method of gig-going.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout is released on July 25