Testing a beautifully prepared competition 289 AC Cobra at Silverstone today, everything was running fine until the throttle jammed wide open on entry to the famously quick Copse corner. Second only to brake failure, this is one of the scariest things that can happen in a race car.
But it needn't be so dramatic. Luckily, little or no harm came to me or the car thanks to a routine I adopted long ago and now feel compelled to share...
First thing I always do when strapping into a car - even one I've driven many times before - is to remind myself of the following:
- where is the kill switch? (Master switch or ignition key etc)
- how do I activate the extinguisher?
- where is the door handle and can I release it ok?
From a safety point of view, these are the priorities but it's also good to remind yourself of things like: the whereabouts of the oil pressure gauge and warning light, the water temp gauge, how to access reverse and what are the max recommended revs. Taking a quick moment to learn these could well save your bacon (and the car) in the event of sudden failure on track.
When the throttle suck open on the Cobra today, I was able to switch the car off almost instantaneously, which killed the drive to the wheels and rapidly aided my deceleration. Staying on the brake pedal (not too hard, you don't want to spin or lock up if you don't have to), I was still able to scrappily navigate my way around the corner, using only a little of the run-off area as I gathered it all up.
Getting the car switched off was the key 'save'. I didn't have to think about it too much, I 'just did it' and I'm convinced that such a spontaneous reaction is because:
a) I'd reminded myself of the position of the kill switch just minutes before
b) I'd also practiced the required hand movement from steering wheel to switch a couple of times with my eyes closed before leaving the pit box.
It takes ten seconds to do this, but helps deeply embed it into your subconscious. As I said, I do this in EVERY car I get into and over the years it's saved all sorts of exotica from ending up in a heap, including: an Aston Martin GT2 Le Mans racer (multiple times), a historic F1, Lister Jaguar, a GT40, a very special E Type, and probably several more that I don't remember. As I write, I realise that it's a freak situation that is freakishly common.
Back in the old days, competeing at Le Mans in the 24 hours, I'd often visit the pit garage late at night, long after everyone else had gone home, just to sit in the car and learn the position of all the switches. I wouldn't allow myself to leave until I could find them all correctly with my eyes closed. It could take forever, but it it wasn't uncommon to loose dashboard illumination during the race and I figured I didn't fancy fumbling for a switch in the dead of night at 200mph in the rain.
So in summary, here's what to do if your throttle sticks open:
1. Hit the kill switch
IMPORTANT: On a competition car you'll usually do this with a Master Switch, but they're not always accessible and sometimes you'll be using the ignition key. You NEED TO KNOW if turning your ignition key also locks the steering! If so, you'll have to train yourself not to turn it all the way off... easier said than done in the heat of the moment. Ideally ask the preparer to move the master switch to a place that more easily reached.
SIDE NOTE: before this step you could also dip the clutch, which will obviously kill drive to the wheels - but this is also how you buzz the engine, so I try not to. To be honest though, my first instinct is always to kill the speed in every way possible, so inevitably I've usually dipped the clutch just before I get to the ignition switch. Not ideal for the engine as the revs rocket, but better than ending up in the wall. Usually it's fine because the engine is unloaded as it over-revs, but today we weren't so lucky and we tapped a valve. A shame but could have been SO much worse. Mental note to train myself out of this instinct.
2. Hit the brakes (same time as step 1!)
Given that you tend not to realise the throttle is jammed until you lift to brake for a corner anyway, this step usually takes care of itself! Stay on the brakes firmly, but not so hard as to lock up. You need to retain control.
3. Turn normally though the corner
After steps 1 and 2, you'll often find the car will steer through the bend just fine - maybe a little wide, but it'll turn. The big mistake is to freeze up in a panic, lock the brakes and head dead straight to the wall. Instead, try to stay cool, moderate your brake pressure so as to decelerate as fast as possible without locking up. Don't turn in too aggressively as you might inadvertently pitch the car into a spin. Which is bad. Unless...
If it's all happened too late, too fast, with too little room to gather it all up and you're simply gonna hit the wall, then - and only then - turn in aggressively to chuck the car into a spin. STAY HARD ON THE BRAKES. The tyre scrub will help you decelerate, and if you're gonna hit, it's generally better to hit rearward than head on!
Drive fast and stay safe out there.