The KEY Questions: How powerful are we?

“See that concrete wall over there at the end of the circuit? What do you think would happen if we headed towards it at 130mph, then braked at the last minute, say, twenty feet from impact?”

“We would die.”


I was having a driving lesson at a well-known racetrack and we were sitting in a top-of-the-range sports car, a Porsche. I was in the passenger seat while my instructor was doing the driving. He was a former Police Pursuit Driver, one of those fearless guys who go after runaways in stolen cars. Having put me through my paces he had just informed me that I wasn’t driving too well, and now he was going to teach me a few things. I was a little offended but also intrigued. I knew that he knew his stuff. In his former job he had to know not just how to drive at breakneck speed but how to do it safely, when there were pedestrians around, a whole other ball game, a huge responsibility.

But now he had made the kind of suggestion that would have sounded more plausible coming from one of the drug-crazed car thieves he used to chase. For me it was a no-brainer. Being a lifelong petrol-head myself I knew well enough what it meant to travel at that kind of speed. The fact is it’s effortless. You feel like you’re flying – Superman on Wheels. The only thing that could possibly convince you that you were travelling very, very, very fast would be if you suddenly met an immovable object …

Like a concrete wall.

At least the end would be quick. That was the not-very comforting thought that occurred as he slammed his foot down and the car leapt forward like the proverbial bat out of hell, pinning me back in my seat with the force of about 3Gs. And – you guessed – he headed straight for that wall. We just kept flat-out accelerating and I have to admit my heart was in my mouth, but if the car’s immense power had impressed me, it was nothing to how impressed (and relieved) I was when – so close you could have reached out and touched the concrete, at 130mph – he slammed on the brakes and the car stopped on a sixpence. I reflected on what an interesting life I’d led, having just watched it play out in a matter of seconds.

Demonstration Number Two:

“See that bend up ahead? What kind of speed do you think you could take it and still stay on the road?”

“I would say about 45mph, maybe 50 at a pinch?”

“So what do you think would happen if we took it at 85mph?”

“We would die.”


And we did go round it at 85. And the car hugged the road, even at that speed. And we were perfectly safe.

So what was this driving lesson really about? I knew well enough that my instructor friend wasn’t simply trying to impress me with his skill. And he certainly wasn’t trying to encourage me to take risks. He was simply showing me the power of the vehicle I was sitting in, what it was capable of. Why? Because until I knew what it could do naturally, with no real effort either on my part or the part of the engine, brakes, suspension and the rest, I wouldn’t really know how to drive the car safely and effectively. And it seems to me now that this lesson doesn’t just apply to our vehicles but to our lives. We’re all walking around with a Porsche-sized ‘engine’ – the brain in our heads – but we’re unaware of it, so we don’t really know how fast we can go, how high we can climb, and just how much we can achieve effortlessly. It follows that some of us never even try to live our dreams. We’ve already decided that we don’t have that power.

All very well, but how, you ask, was it going to benefit me to drive so fast when I can never legally use those skills on the road anyway?

That’s where Demonstration Number 3 comes in.

“See that little old lady pulling out from a junction right in front of us at 40mph when we’re doing 70mph? What do you think would happen if we slammed on the brakes?”

“We’d be safe?”

“Wrong. At that speed? We would definitely crash head on. But here’s the thing: if we reacted quickly and put our foot down we would easily have enough power to go around her and avoid a collision. That’s the only way we’d all come out of it alive.”

… Exactly!