Learning to tame the beasts of Formula One
Ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone will soon be rolling into town with his Formula One circus. As he trots the world, from Melbourne to Japan and Bahrain (perhaps) to Silverstone, he will bring with him beautiful people, playboy drivers and billionaire team owners.
There is so much to be found within the big top of a Grand Prix that the actual racing is at times forced to take a back seat.
Yet somewhere beneath the cascade of what is known as the glitz and glamour will be 24 of the most finely tuned motor cars on the planet. And for everything that Formula One has become, it is the drivers’ taming of these beasts that remains the real highlight of the show.
Which is why I felt very fortunate recently to drive a single seater car at Silverstone, an experience that provided me with a glimpse into what’s involved when behind the wheel on a piece of tarmac on which the cars are only going one way.
The most powerful vehicle to have been in my control before the experience was a 1.3 litre Fiesta – not even the fastest car on my parents’ driveway, let alone on the road. So having signed myself up to drive one of Silverstone’s Ford race-prepared cars, with 140bhp and a top speed of 145mph, it would be fare to say I had a sense of trepidation.
This feeling of unease wasn’t quelled during the drivers briefing. 13 fellow drivers and I were taken through the technical elements of the car, the system of flags (the red one seemed important) and various other procedures. We were also told how to drive it – when to brake (and more importantly when not to), where to turn in to the corner, how to retain control on the exit, which gear to use and so on. It was a lot of information to take in, and certainly more complicated than driving the Fiesta to the local shops.
With the rain lashing down, waterproof all in one suits were essential. When topped off with the racing helmet, it was not difficult to imagine yourself as a budding F1 driver – which, in retrospect, was perhaps not the best way of controlling the 14 Sebastian Vettel wannabes about to be let loose behind the wheel.
Once strapped in, we were told to start our engines – at this point there was no turning back. Without stalling (according to our instructor, the record is 22) my fellow drivers and I were led out behind a pace car to familiarise ourselves with the vehicle and the track. The gear stick (on the right hand side) was tiny compared to a normal car – with a shift of just a couple of inches taking the car through the four gears. After a few laps the drivers were led back to the pits. Any questions or any qualms, this was the time to raise them. When no one did, we were let out one-by-one for the real fun.
The thrill of taking the car to full power along the back straight was incredible. With my foot pushed down to the floor in fourth gear my helmet wanted to part company with my head; the aerodynamics of the Ford defied logic and kept the car from flying off somewhere into the Northamptonshire countryside. And then in what felt like seconds, the straight was over and I was hard on the brakes to stop myself careering off the track.
I was overtaken a couple of times early on, with some other drivers acclimatising to the car and the track quicker than myself. A system of blue flags was used to instruct drivers when to let someone pass and when to make a move. Not a foolproof system, as I found out to my horror when I was cut up while making a pass – but a generally well adhered-to rule.
Overtaking is what motor sport is about, and what fans want to see, and as much of a thrill it is as a spectator, the buzz of being the one making the manoeuvre at top speed is incomparable. Thanks to the rain, the conditions were difficult and the visor needed regular wipes with the sleeve. But driving in such conditions was pushed to the limit when closing on the driver in front. The spray would lash at your face and upper body as you closed, meaning manoeuvres would for brief moments drift into the duress of instinct rather than measured control. I fully sympathise with the F1 drivers’ opposition to Ecclestone’s so-called ’sprinkler system‘.
Before the chequered flag made an appearance and we returned to the pits, I had time to lose my power over the car, with the back seemingly wanting to go faster than the front. I retained control (just), although had I not, I would have been in rich company judging by the numerous other drivers spotted facing the wrong way or stacked on the grass during my time out on the track.
With the engines silenced and helmets removed, we were presented with our fastest lap times (something which the organisers wisely hadn’t told us they were recording beforehand) so we could find out if we were Buttons of the Jenson or Benjamin variety. I was fifth fastest of the 14, and, considering my feelings of trepidation beforehand, very satisfied.
Short of dating a Pussycat Doll, this is likely as close as I will come to being an F1 driver. Those who do make it to the top are very fortunate; the thrill of racing at insane speeds while all the time just a few inches off the ground and split seconds from danger is exhilarating. Yet my envy is tempered by a realisation of the skill, precision and concentration that is required to drive such a highly tuned automobile.
With my better appreciation of the juggling act the drivers must perform, when the circus rolls into Melbourne this weekend, I know which part of the show I’ll be looking forward to.
The Silverstone Single Seater Experience is one of many driving and track days available via www.virginexperiencedays.co.uk telephone 0844 504 0844Tagged in: Bernie Ecclestone, formula one, grand prix, lewis hamilton, melbourne, sebastian vettel, silverstone, Sport
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