Wheeeee - it's easy being a racing driv...arrrrgh

THE trouble with televised sport is that athletes have a habit of making everything look so damn easy. Watch Christopher Dean gliding around an ice rink and, apart from not wanting to wear an all-in-one sequinned suit, I really do believe I could do a triple salsa just as smoothly.

Then there's Gareth Southgate. My dear chap, how did you miss? Tim Henman? For God's sake man, just hit it back, hard and in the right place.

And, of course, we have Damon Hill. At the British Grand Prix, Eyebrows suffered a disastrous start and found himself behind Mika Hakkinen in a McLaren for lap after tedious lap.

"Look Damon," I shouted encouragingly from my hospitality box. "I know that Mr Hakkinen is a madman and that his Mercedes engine pulls like Kevin Costner at a northem disco, but will you stop messing about and GET PAST."

How hard can it possibly be to overtake someone? I do it all the time on my way to Banbury. I just pull out, put my foot down - and you, Damon, don't even have to worry what's coming the other way.

Well, for dinner last night I tucked into a plate of humble pie, garnished with lashings of whoops-I-should-have-kept-my-big-mouth-shut sauce.

Last weekend I did something I have never done before - climbed behind the wheel of a racing car, on a race track, wearing racing overalls and a helmet. Mr Coward, the man who won't go downstairs without holding the banister, did motor racing.

And I can report that it is harder than doing a heart and lung transplant operation on yourself while being attacked by vampire bats.

I had been allowed to familiarise myself with the circuit in a Peugeot 306 XSi, a fine-handling car with good brakes, oodles of grip and a tendency toward oversteer when the going gets tough. Nice. However, in the race we were all driving Seat Ibiza GTis. This may well be a nice, safe little road car, but on the track the brakes were poor, the understeer was terminal and the gearbox seemed to select cogs at random. The trouble was that as I sat on the grid, I did not know any of these things.

Blissfully unaware of the problems ahead, I engaged first on the grid and planned my attack on the two cars in front. It was to be a simple manoeuvre, breathtakingly daring in its concept and dazzling in its execution.

I would simply keep to the outside of the track and make no effort to kiss the inner apex, where I knew other cars would be jostling for position. I would simply glide round the outside and emerge on the main straight in first place.

Er, it doesn't really work like that. I managed a sort of averagish start as the lights went green and could not understand, as the six of us headed for that hairpin, why I was not gaining on the car in front. I'm doing everything right, I thought. Why can't I catch him?

This is because he, too, was doing everything right, as was everyone else. We all braked at the same moment and we all went round the comer at the same speed. The futility still had not dawned on me as we tore down the straight, with me holding station in third. The brake lights in front went on and I never even considered that it might be a good idea to slow down, too.

Aha, they are braking and that means, I can overtake. I did, too, in a bold move that put me in first place ... and then on the grass.

I had been expecting a bit of Peugeot-style oversteer, but the Seat just ploughed straight on, no matter what I did with the wheel. This is probably because I was attempting. a 40mph corner at about 100mph.

I rejoined, once again in third, very puzzled indeed. On the next corner, I braked at the right time but tried to put the power on much earlier than the guy up front. And once again I ended up off the track, slithering about, as though I really was Christopher Dean.

Not once did I spare a thought for my own safety, and when I missed a gear - something I did a lot - I shouted at the lever like I'd just caught it in bed with my wife. I tried everything up to and including ramming other cars, but it was hopeless.

By lap six, I had calmed down and was fully familiar with the Ibiza. I knew that, to get past, I needed to get out of the previous corner faster, thus allowing me to carry more speed on to the straight, which in turn would mean that I could be alongside as we braked for the bend.

Well that's b*******. Through each turn there is one correct racing line and you can bet your last penny that the car in front will be on it. Therefore, to get past, you have to be off the racing line, which means you'll be going more slowly. It is that simple.

When the cars .have a similar performance, motor racing is basically a very expensive and dangerous version of noughts and crosses.

Reprinted from the Sunday Times

© Jeremy Clarkson