Interviews — 23 August 2011
UCC’s Robb Gravett

Robb Gravett is one of the UK’s most successful racing drivers. A former British Touring Car Champion, who has won races and championships across the world, Robb has been voted Autosport British Racing Driver of the Year and was also voted Sportsman of the Year by the British Chambers of Commerce. Gravett, and his company, Ultimate Car Control UK Ltd, are now firmly established in the UK as leaders in driver safety and advanced driving techniques. Simon Turner investigates how a racing driver, even one as successful as Robb, can use his skills to teach safer road driving and finds out what enables his teaching to have such a profound effect on the people who attend his courses, many of whom claim to have avoided very serious accidents and subsequent personal injury by using his car control techniques.

ST: Hi Robb. I’d like to start by asking you what you think were the key reasons behind your motorsport success.

RG: I started racing cars in 1978 and realised very early on that, in order to be successful, I had to know my business inside and out. I would only be able to win races if I knew more than the next driver, whether it be about car set up or race craft or whatever. Most racing drivers go testing regularly and learn how to improve the car but it is only the ones who really understand the effects of the changes they are making, and why those changes happen, that are truly successful. That’s true for any form of motorsport – even Formula 1.

ST: Is this something that all the top racing drivers do then?

RG: You’d probably think so, but no. Even at the very top levels there are drivers who are there largely due to having a big financial backer, who they know, etc and these people are never going to be as good as someone like Michael Schumacher was in his heyday. They simply don’t have the required mastery and understanding to get to that level. It’s a real shame when you see good young drivers who do have the correct approach but are struggling to progress due to lack of sponsorship.

ST: The really great drivers are often said to have a better ‘feel’ for the car, often in tricky conditions. How important is that?

RG: ‘Feel’ for a racing driver is critical. Knowing how to control the car at high speed is obviously essential but ‘feel’ allows you understand and react to what the car is doing and to apply the correct driver inputs at the correct time. I call this ‘Driving Dynamics’ – it’s a deep understanding of how and why the car behaves as it does when the driver brakes, corners or accelerates and the ability to recognise that behaviour and even anticipate it before it happens. The driver needs to be able to react to all these things instantly and instinctively to maintain the car’s stability.

ST: So who do rate highly out of the current racing drivers? Who do you think has the potential to be a great driver rather just a good one?

RG: Well in Formula 1, I think that Vettel is a superb driver who has really noticeably improved his skills over the last season and a half. You can really see how much more focused he is. Alonso is also one of my favourite drivers while, of the up and coming drivers, Paul Di Resta is one of the new guys who I think will prove he has what it takes.  Part of being a great driver is also being able to work with a team and get along with the engineers which means being able to understand and communicate the car’s behaviour to the rest of the team. The really successful drivers all have this ability.

ST: So how do these skills translate across different forms of motorsport such as rallying or touring cars?

RG: Rallying is even more reliant on feel. Although some would say it is just an ability to unplug the bit of your brain that deals with fear! Because rallying involves so many changes of surface conditions, a rally driver needs to understand that a change on one surface will have a different effect on another surface halfway round the stage. His ability to instinctively react with the right driver input for the right surface is absolutely paramount. With something like Touring Cars, it is a different game because everyone is fighting for the same piece of track and, being a closed-wheel series, there if often quite a bit of contact. The really good drivers, with a good understanding of vehicle dynamics and race craft, are often able to overtake by forcing the driver in front in to a position on the track where he can’t make the next corner at the same speed. It’s essentially the same skill – just applied in a different way. Jason Plato is a really good exponent of that.

And it’s not confined just to car drivers either. Having started my career on bikes, I watch someone like Valentino Rossi in MotoGP with awe – his feel is simply staggering. The way he can slide the bike and get it to do things others can’t is because he truly understands the effect of his actions on the bike’s behaviour – when he got the chance to test a Ferrari F1 car a few years ago, he was quick enough on the first day to have embarrassed many more experienced drivers had he chosen to switch to F1. That’s down to a large amount of raw talent and a very deep dedication to understanding vehicle and driving dynamics.

ST: All this skill and ability sounds like the preserve of the super fast racing driver. How is it relevant to road driving?

RG: I need to point out straight away that our advanced driving courses are not about enabling people to act like racing drivers on the road. The skills a good racing driver employs are all about reacting correctly, instantly and instinctively to a particular situation. In a race, this is obviously about learning to corner as quickly as possible without spinning out of control, but these skills are even more important when driving on the road. Imagine you’re driving along a country road at night and a deer jumps in front of you, or you’re driving along a motorway and the car in front has a blowout – in both these common instances, you would have been driving safely and within the law but you now have to make an emergency high speed manoeuvre to avoid hitting the deer or the car with the puncture. Understanding how and why your car behaves as it does in situations like this, and being able to instinctively make the correct input to steering and brakes can be the difference between having a serious accident and
carrying on your journey. It can quite literally save your life!

ST: That makes sense, but what makes your courses different to other advanced driving courses?

RG: When we started Ultimate Car Control we looked around at all the other advanced driving courses available and found courses that were quite fragmented and inconsistent, partly because the training was carried out on the public roads. The course content wasn’t reproducible from driver to driver, partly again because the conditions weren’t reproducible, either geographically, or even in the same place from one day to the next. We are unique in training our drivers at private venues – not race tracks I hasten to add – but private secure venues where you can practice all day in complete safety.

ST: And this ‘reproducability’ and practice makes the difference?

RG: Yes it does – our corporate clients on the fleet driver training courses have seen reductions of up to 50% in their accident rates which makes a huge difference both to safety of their employees and their fleet management costs. These drivers also have to come back for a refresher course after three years and I’m constantly amazed by the fact that they haven’t forgotten any of it. Within an hour, they’re nearly all back up to the standard they were at when they left us three years ago.

ST: So what’s wrong with learning on the road?

RG: I don’t think it is a question of the value of on-road training to making any kind of worthwhile change to someone’s ingrained driving habits – we actually do deliver this type of training. The problem, as I have already mentioned, is how can you reproduce specific elements when the picture is changing day to day, minute to minute? Without wishing to sound judgmental, we cherry pick the very best experienced driver trainers in the industry.  Each driver is then subsequently trained internally by UCC and is also regularly cross checked to ensure that as close to 100% reproducibility is maintained. To go back to the question, there are situations where it can, and does add value, such as training chauffeurs or perhaps foreign seconded drivers from other countries and we also utilise the road course with high risk drivers that may require specific habit attention. It is, however, the practice element that’s essential. You can’t recreate a scenario that requires an evasive manoeuvre on the public roads withou
t exposing everyone to significant danger.  And, even if you could, you wouldn’t be able to exactly replicate it for the next practice run or the next driver. The venues we use allow us to do just that, and our drivers can practice each exercise until their response becomes second nature. I think it’s the perfect way to learn these skills.

ST: You sound very passionate about making sure your training is genuinely effective and not just just a box ticking exercise. Tell me more.

RG: Well, specifically when one is talking about people’s lives, I think that it is crucial that all aspects of road craft and safety are covered.  I also didn’t like the general opinion from so called “experts” that only a percentage of corporate drivers, or those deemed to be the greatest risk, should be trained. Legally, how can this be correct?  The mandate is clear in that any person that utilises a vehicle, whether it is owned by the company, leased by them, or owned by the driver themselves but used for company business, has to be trained to utilise the equipment and risk assessed and also requires policy documentation under Health and Safety statute.  Of course now that the Corporate Manslaughter Bill has been ratified, this has triggered concerns across many corporations due to the potential exposure, not only to the company, but also to individuals within the company.

ST: What do you do in terms of hazard awareness and other specific requirements?

RG: We have a classroom element where after significant trials we determined that certain people have certain learning abilities. For example some people have the ability to multi-task very well. Others are really quite poor at it. Women are definitely above men in this area!

ST: What do you mean?

RG: Well some drivers have the ability to learn much better or faster than others. This, when we designed the program and looked at the competition, was an area that required a lot of work. We look after young drivers, older drivers, male, female, over confident, lacking in confidence, and so on. It can’t be right, for example, that one person achieves on the course and a less confident person doesn’t – they could both find themselves having to deal with exactly the same situations out on the road. When we developed the program we developed a process that covers all areas required to ensure safety but, more importantly, managed to create a process that ensured everyone got it!

ST: So it appears that the skills of a top racing driver really can be of use on the public road?

RG: Absolutely. We have numerous letters from people who’ve driven on one of our days and then surprised themselves with how much better they’ve reacted to a situation – often on the way home from being with us. We even have a couple from people who swear they wouldn’t still be here if it wasn’t for the skills they learnt with us. They may not be budding racing drivers, but they leave us with some of the same advanced car control skills that the pros use to help keep them safe when something unexpected happens.

ST: Thanks for your time, Robb.

More information on Robb Gravett and Ultimate Car Control’s fleet driver training programme can be found at www.ultimate-epd.co.uk

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