How to be a test driver

John Barker
16 Oct 2009

Want to drive fast cars for a living? Then becoming a test driver or a motoring journalist are your best options

You’ve probably realised that the advert above isn’t one you’ll ever see for real. But there are people who drive supercars and get paid for it, people with as much experience of exotic, expensive and rare mid-engined motors as any multi-millionaire. Would you like to be one of them? Would you like to drive supercars for a living? Thought so.

You have two hopes, and they’re not the ones from the old joke (no hope and Bob Hope). The first is to get a job doing what I’m doing right now: writing about cars. The second is to become a supercar engineer, maybe to follow in the footsteps of supercar fettler Loris Bicocchi (who we interviewed back in issue 123), a man whose credits include the original Pagani Zonda, the Koenigsegg CC and Bugattis EB110 and Veyron.

As career goals go, they both sound like very long shots and it’s true that the number of positions available globally is quite small. But how much do you want to do it? Whether you set out to get there by the journalistic or the engineering route you’re going to have to be very determined, not to mention prodigiously talented in the right areas.

The first requirement is a long-standing and deep-rooted passion for cars, something we can take for granted because you’re reading this magazine. And the rest? Turn the page and we’ll point you in the right direction.

Supercar journalist

It sounds thunderingly obvious, but if you want to drive supercars as a motoring journalist, you must be able to write. Simple as. It doesn’t matter if you were miming opposite lock in the womb, said ‘car’ as your first word and have an encyclopaedic knowledge of compression ratios, if you can’t write in a way that informs and entertains the readership, then you’re not going to make it as a journalist.

So, if your ambition is to test drive cars for a magazine, newspaper or website, write. Write lots. About cars and experiences. Get published if you can, in student newsletters, club magazines, local newspapers, wherever, because knowing your work is going to be read by an audience makes you think about it more, and you need to hone your skills.

I got my first job as a road tester (with Motor back in the late ’80s) without even driving around the block, but I was expected to write publishable material straight away. The thinking was that I could be taught to drive to the appropriate standard, and the truth is that you don’t need exceptional driving skills to be able to describe a car’s handling characteristics or to relate the experience of driving it. In this business there are lots of very good writers who are average drivers and some brilliant drivers who are very average writers. We both know which we’d rather read.

So, you’re an enthusiast, you can write and you have ambition. How do you get a job writing about cars? A journalism qualification might not go amiss but you can expect to start on the bottom rung, as a staff writer or junior road tester. Occasionally jobs are advertised but the best way to get a foot in the door is on work experience. A week at a magazine, newspaper or website is useful on both sides. It gives you an insight into its workings, and reveals what a weird bunch of people have chosen the same career path (you might decide that no supercar is worth it!). Importantly, it also gives the publication’s staff the chance to assess your suitability, because if there’s a junior position going and the candidates have the same mix of skills, the one that fits in best is most likely to get the job. Both Henry Catchpole and Stephen Dobie got their positions at evo by the work experience route.

How do you acquire the driving skills to feel comfortable with a supercar? On a responsible title you’ll be given some good, basic training early on – they probably won’t let you near anything expensive or too powerful until you’ve proved yourself. Your skills will develop remarkably quickly, on test tracks and the road, as you rack up big miles each year in many types of car, always mindful that keeping a clean sheet is a great way to keep your job…

My early training was with the High Performance Club and the legendary John Lyon. At first I found it slightly odd that the lessons weren’t in on-the-limit car control but were about driving briskly and responsibly, with great smoothness, and always ‘matching speed with vision’. It didn’t take long to appreciate that this approach, making good progress without attracting attention or causing your passengers to feel ill, worked for every type of car, and the young me found everything – literally everything – interesting. And when I was handed the keys to a Countach QV less than a year into the job, I was most grateful for my training.

Supercar engineer

For the more technically minded enthusiast, the engineering route might appeal more. There’s less writing involved (well, less creative writing), but it might take rather longer to get to your goal of driving and developing supercars.

Working your way up from the ‘shop floor’, as people like Loris Bicocchi and recently retired Lamborghini test driver Valentino Balboni did, is not impossible, but it might take a decade or more. The long-established, more conventional route into vehicle development is via an engineering qualification. Though, as Jaguar’s Mike Cross describes, there has to be more than just a qualification. ‘An interest in motorsport is also a good thing,’ he says. ‘In fact, I’d find it a bit strange if someone who wanted to work in vehicle development wasn’t dabbling with some sort of motorsport in their spare time.’

Indeed, quiz most development engineers and you’ll find they’re involved in some form of motorsport. Dig deeper and you’ll find that many have some sort of competition machine tucked up in the garage – a car, motorbike or kart – that they like to tweak and improve and make faster. This, essentially, is what a development engineer does, fettling cars so that they meet a long list of objectives. Fast and fun will be on there, but so will all-weather stability, ride comfort, progressive responses and many more, and the skill is being able to strike the balance between them. Supercars are less compromised, but striking the right balance remains vital.

There is a second way into supercar development. Some who start their careers in motorsport make the transition, their feedback and set-up skills, and their ease with big power and speed, serving them well. There are famous names such as Walter Röhrl at Porsche, but there are some less well known ones making a good living too. Chris Goodwin drove single-seaters, Touring Cars and GTs before landing the role of test driver with McLaren in Woking. He worked on the Mercedes SLR McLaren and is now helping to develop the Ferrari F430-rivalling McLaren P11 – and he still keeps his hand in with a bit of racing, too.

And now there is a third way, a most unusual way but potentially the best way of all. This year, Loris Bicocchi set up a school for those interested in becoming supercar test drivers. The company he has created, Modena Driving Emotion (MDE), runs courses, led by Bicocchi, at the Nardo test track in southern Italy.

Catching up with Bicocchi and his team at the third running of the course, he explains that he established MDE in response to the number of people asking him how they could follow in his footsteps. ‘Since I was a young boy, my life has been cars,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t see any other job, and I know that somewhere there is someone who has the same passion as me.’

This initial three-day course covers what Bicocchi says are ‘the most important and influential aspects of set-up: camber, springs and dampers, anti-roll bars and tyres’. There are both theory and practical parts; explanations of the way a car’s handling is influenced by changes in its set-up, followed by behind-the-wheel tests to see if the students can recognise how the car has changed. For this MDE uses a pair of KTM X-Bows, which are adjustable every which way and sensitive to changes.

‘I know that in three days you cannot become a test driver,’ says Bicocchi, who took 33 years to get to where he is today. ‘When they get in touch initially I call them and explain that it’s a long way to be a test driver and to learn how to judge a chassis and the very small changes on a set-up. It’s a very long way and together we can make the first few steps, probably the most important steps. But then you have to be strong, you have to believe in this job, you have to continue. It will not be easy.’

The fee for the course is 2200 euros, plus tax, which sounds expensive, but the track hire at this world-class facility doesn’t come cheap, and there are six staff looking after 12 students. And MDE is not, says Bicocchi, a self-sustaining business. ‘I don’t want to make money out of my students,’ he says, explaining that he earns more than enough as one of the world’s most sought-after chassis engineers. What he’s looking for is an heir, someone like him when he was young. ‘I am sure this person exists somewhere,’ he says, ‘and I will give them all my experience, as much as possible, because I am not afraid to have a competitor. I would like to help someone, to save them spending 20 years learning.’ 

THERE MIGHT NOT be many jobs working with supercars and it might seem like you’ve got a better chance of winning the lottery and just buying yourself a collection of cars, but if you have the right skills, the determination and a bit of luck, it really could be you. No one is saying it’ll be easy, but then again, it’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it…

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