Call me old-fashioned, but when it comes to Formula One I’ve always been more of a fan of the gung-ho, open-faced-helmet era of Grand Prix racing peopled by the likes of Graham Hill, Stirling Moss and Mike Hawthorn than the modern-day equivalent with all its politics, mega-money deals and electronically managed cars. In fact, I’ve even been among those who occasionally describe watching contemporary F1 as “boring” (races such as June’s Canadian GP being one of the exceptions, of course).
Lately, however, I’ve been eating humble pie – and lots of it. The reason? I have now driven not one, but two modern Formula One cars and I can guarantee that, while watching the experts pilot such machines around a racetrack at speeds approaching 200mph might sometimes get a little tedious, being a duffer behind the wheel of one is anything but dull.
My first taste of life at the sharp end of F1 driving came at the legendary AGS Formula One school in the South of France. AGS, based at the 2.2km Circuit du Var in Gonfaron, is a March-October Formula One operation which builds, services and tests a range of historic and contemporary Grand Prix cars and, most excitingly, organises F1 driving lessons for anyone in possession of a valid road-car licence.
The course begins with a classroom session in which the already nervous pupils are made even more nervous by being told that they don’t know how to drive – not a short circuit racing car, at least. The theory is, you see, that the fastest drivers are the ones who know how to use the brakes as well as the accelerator, and the way to use the brakes is in complete contrast to road-car driving.
Rather than the light “progressive” braking we are brought up with, race cars at this level require degressive braking – meaning you stamp on the anchors as hard as possible and as late as possible, then ease off to let the car glide around a bend before mashing the throttle once everything is more or less straightened up and full traction is restored.
Also worth remembering is the fact that although their mid-engined configuration provides perfect balance, Formula One cars can quickly be destabilised by ham-fisted use of the steering and throttle, meaning that 100 per cent concentration is required to constantly redistribute the weight between front and rear using just the right combination of braking and acceleration. Brake too hard while the steering wheel is turned, for example, and a spin is almost guaranteed as the back end lightens and the front end acts as a pivot. Drivers with oversized egos always think they’ll be able to correct it, but never can. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.
With our new-found knowledge scrambled up in our heads, we rookies were then allowed to take to the track in Opel Lotus single seaters which are, essentially, the same as Formula Three cars, weighing 992lb, producing 180hp and good for 130mph. In the wrong hands they are certainly dangerous; just not as lethal as full-blown F1 cars. This was our probation, and if we proved to be simply too incompetent for our own good, then F1 was certainly going to be off the menu.
After four laps I was convinced I had missed my vocation – before, that is, I forgot all I’d learnt 15 minutes earlier, applied too much gas too soon emerging from a bend and ended up on the grass in an ignominious cloud of dust and clods of flying earth.
Following a ticking off from the instructors, we returned to the classroom for a really scary briefing. “There might come a moment when you feel you are driving exceptionally fast,” said our mentor.
“And that will probably be a millisecond before you crash. If you feel fast, you’re more than likely to be out of control.” The words were ringing around my crash helmet as I climbed into the F1 car proper.
Mine was an eight-year-old, AGS-built 3.5 litre V8 with paddle shift gearbox and 650 screaming horsepower propelling a framework of titanium, carbon fibre and rubber – and with a combined weight of far less than the smallest hatchback.
A particularly terrifying aspect of driving one of these is the actual “launch” from the pit lane. The technique is to build the engine up to around 6,000rpm (at which point it is churning out more than 300hp) while simultaneously releasing the clutch pedal. This results in no forward motion whatsoever until approximately the last millimetre of travel is taken up, at which point – well, you’re on your own and actually driving a Formula One car…
It is barely necessary to go further than a few yards onto the track in order to begin to appreciate just how extraordinary are the likes of Alonso, Vettel, Hamilton, Webber, Button et al. The concentration required to pilot a modern F1 car is beyond anything you are ever likely to experience, other than sword-swallowing or bomb disposal.
The physical act of achieving forward motion is actually perfectly straightforward. While the professionals have all sorts of other stuff to deal with, such as taking in instructions from team strategists, planning pitstops, making fine adjustments to the car from the incredibly complex switch gear mounted on the steering wheel and, of course, trying to win the race, beginners have little more to do than press the accelerator to go and flick a switch to change gear.
But doing so at a respectable pace is a different matter altogether, with the difficulty being to ensure that your brain keeps up with everything that is going on and that your body, harnessed rigidly into the seat, manages to cope with the massive forces of acceleration and braking.
Anyone who has watched an F1 race will be familiar with that banshee-wail of engines and will probably have noticed that, unlike a conventional car, the revolutions do not appear to rise relatively slowly from low to high. This is firstly because the engine only makes serious power high up the rev range, and secondly because its internals are so light that it “spins up” with remarkable rapidity. As a result, professional drivers almost never allow the car to drop out of its narrow powerband.
Keeping up with the engine, using the line of gear-change indicator lights that perpetually flash before your eyes, is somewhat taxing in itself – but the brain gets overloaded when you begin to factor in the important act of using the throttle to balance the front and rear weight distribution for optimum traction, all the while remembering to brake and accelerate hard only when the car is pointing forwards.
The directness of the connection from steering wheel to road wheels is also difficult to comprehend, the slightest adjustment of the former having an absolutely instantaneous effect on the latter. But it is the brakes that really astonish – the carbon discs are virtually useless when cold, but once operating temperature has been reached the stopping power is, quite simply, awesome and it soon becomes apparent that the quickest drivers are, indeed, the ones who know how to employ them to the best effect.
The AGS school is, in my opinion, the very best place in which to enjoy a first taste of GP driving, not least because the Premium Experience enables you to enjoy a generous (and exhausting) 10 consecutive laps. The one drawback, however, is that you don’t experience the ultimate combination of driving a modern F1 car on a contemporary F1 circuit – but there is a way of doing that, too.
Earlier this month, on October 3-7, the Lotus Renault GP team arrived at Budapest’s Hungaroring circuit to give 25 lucky individuals per day the opportunity to take part in its I-Race programme.
Lotus Renault is the only Grand Prix team to offer members of the public the opportunity to feel the pure, visceral thrill of driving an F1 car – and you really do get the full treatment, even down to the computer boffins providing telemetry readouts, which enable one to see, in black and white, the amount of acceleration and braking force that was used during those laps in which you imagined you were dicing with the stars.
In reality, the telemetry simply shows how badly a beginner does everything, especially when his or her readout is compared with that of a professional. But, as with the AGS course, you only really learn what a Formula One car feels like when, at the end of the day, you squeeze yourself in behind a professional driver for a couple of laps in a specially converted “tandem” two-seater. Now that, dear reader, gives the word “fear” a whole new meaning.