Mrs Eau Rouge asked if I would like to do a guest blog in the close season and I said I would. So she asked what I would write about, and a discussion ensued. I suggested a lavishly-illustrated 4,000-word exposition on why the Lotus 79 was the greatest F1 car ever; or an open letter to the world on how I envisioned blown rear wings sometime around 1988. Instead Mrs Eau Rouge
hammered me into submission explained her audience to me and she suggested that I write a short blog about my experience driving a single-seater racing car around Brands Hatch, as I had raved on and on about how it gave me a little insight into what it must be like to drive an F1 car. So, sit back and let me try to convey to you how utterly thrilling, scary, breathtaking and exhilarating the whole experience was.
A little context first: I am a massive F1 fan. James Hunt, Alan Jones and Nigel Mansell were heroes in my household growing up. I lived in Argentina at the time of the 1981 Grand Prix and witnessed a country stopping for the weekend to go F1-mad). I was taken to Fangio’s garage in Buenos Aires and saw his title-winning Alfa Romeo. I cheered and wept (in a manly way) over Damon’s trials and tribulations. I even met Mrs Eau Rouge in 1998 after we got chatting about the tumultuous Belgian Grand Prix. And I proposed to her at La Rascasse restaurant in Monaco (all together now, ahhh).
|In my opinion, the greatest!|
BUT – I am not a boy racer. I drive fast but not like a demon (no, I leave that to Mrs Eau Rouge!!), nor do I sit at traffic lights revving my engine in an open invitation to have a drag race. The most exciting car I have owned was an MGF and I currently drive a Mazda RX8. While I like reading about the latest aerodynamic innovations in F1, if I need a spark-plug changing on my car, I wouldn’t know where to start. So when Mrs Eau Rouge gave me a racing driving experience at Brands Hatch for my 40th birthday, as well as being thrilled I was also secretly a bit scared. What if I was utterly rubbish at it?
|Perfect racing conditions|
My birthday is in late December, so we waited until the summer and better weather before actually doing the event. It was early September and (thankfully) wonderfully dry and sunny weather when we turned up at Brands Hatch to do my Jenson Button impression. Despite perfect driving conditions I was quite nervous, not least since I had watched two episodes of Top Gear in which both Richard Hammond and Jeremy Clarkson had embarrassed themselves trying to drive F1 cars. F1 cars are so difficult to drive because they’re set up to be on the limit: a lay person isn’t brave enough to drive that fast, so the car isn’t driven at the optimal speed for its aerodynamics to work, which ironically makes it harder to drive. Hammond and Clarkson had experienced the ultimate embarrassment of stalling when trying to pull off. If that happened to them, what chance for me?
Yes, yes, I know, I wasn’t going to be driving an F1 car, but I was still going to be driving a single-seater (a Formula Brands Van Diemen Audi, for those who are interested). The clutch would be tricky; the engines are designed to be revved high; wings generate downforce; and (horror of horrors) the gear change is a little pokey stick ON THE RIGHT HAND SIDE. The last time I’d tried to drive a car using my right hand to change gear was in Spain, which resulted in the crashing of mangled gears while I accidentally opened my door.
Anyway, before we got to play in the mini-F1 cars, we had to learn how to drive on a racing track, while also learning the (short) Brands hatch track itself. I remember F1 at Brands and in particular Mansell’s thrilling 1986 British GP win. It is a stunning combination of turns, climbs, dips and swoops, connected by some short straights. It has the fearsome Paddock Hill Bend, a fast right-hander at the end of the main straight which not only turns into a hurtle down Derek Minter Straight, but has adverse camber – i.e. the turn is banked the opposite way to what you would expect, so if you get off line it accentuates your slide off the track. Jacques Laffitte crashed there in 1986 and broke both legs, ending his F1 career, and so I was slightly surprised when we had the driver’s briefing and they told us to take it pretty much flat out.
|The drivers’ briefing|
After the briefing at which they talked us through a lap of the track, explained racing lines, the flag system and racing etiquette, we went down to the track and were given 3 laps in a BMW M3 to learn the circuit. An experienced racing driver was in the passenger seat to give us tips and hints, and in my case, act a source of potential embarrassment. Can you tell that I had started to develop a complex about this?
That first lap was a MASSIVE learning curve: I’d never driven a semi-automatic sequential gearbox car before, so my left leg was instinctively pumping an imaginary clutch pedal while I was changing gear with far too few revs on the clock. All the time my instructor was issuing a stream of instructions to watch for braking points, think about my line, watch out for other cars on the circuit (there were 12 of us doing the experience that day), keep my hands in the 10-past/10-to position without feeding the wheel and watch for blue and yellow flags. I ONLY HAVE TWO EYES!
|Getting to grips with Brands|
But you’d be surprised how quickly you learn, and by mid-way through lap 2 I was getting faster and it had started to come more naturally. The car was awesome, and the circuit more so – the sense of speed was fantastic. Accelerate up to the entry to Paddock Hill Bend, touch the brakes, – no more than that, and later and later as each lap went by – and back onto the throttle to accelerate through the corner and swoop down Derek Minter Straight, stay wide and change down for the double-apex Druids, twisty-turny through Graham Hill Bend, early on the throttle into Cooper straight, a jink through McLaren and keep the speed through what seemed to be three apexes on Clark Curve, and finally hammer along Brabham straight. I kid you not, my breathing got faster typing that because I remembered what it was like doing each lap.
So, we took our helmets off and let the adrenaline die down while we got feedback and then a briefing on driving a single-seater. My instructor gave me 7-out-of-10 for everything, except a 6 for hand position on the wheel (I kept on trying to feed it through, what a boy scout am I?) and a 9 for “mechanical sympathy”, whatever that means. I hadn’t embarrassed myself and my instructor seemed happy to let me out again. Phew!
We got shown around the Formula Brands car, and there it was: the right-hand gear-shift, glaring malevolently at me, daring me to chicken out and drive all ten laps in first gear. I put it to the back of my mind, clambered into the cockpit (not so easy in my 40thyear) and readied for the off. We lined up in our cars in the pits and as I feared, my mechanic confirmed that they were a bit tricky to pull off in, and I should “give it a bit of welly” and keep the revs high while letting out the clutch smoothly. Okay, I can do that, can’t I?
|In the zone (Schuey eat your heart out!)|
The first two cars pulled out with no problems and I increased the revs, let the clutch out – rrrrrowwwRRRRROOOWWWWWthufffttt – and stalled the car. Luckily Mrs Eau Rouge was right on hand to laugh at me. They re-started my engine and this time I was away! I was so excited and busy concentrating on changing up to second that I almost forgot to steer round the chicane at the exit to the pits. Now THAT would have been embarrassing. And then it was onto my first lap!
Strangely, it wasn’t that weird using the right-hand gear-shift. The whole package – sitting in a bathtub on wheels with wings and an engine attached – was so new and unusual, it felt no more strange to change gear with one’s right hand than it did getting used to the BMW’s gearbox. Instead, and I don’t want to sound too…er…Clarkson here, this felt like really driving – unfettered by speed limits, oncoming cars, road signs, parked cars, pedestrians and potholes, you could just drive as fast as you could. The vision in a single-seater is incredible, as you’d expect, so you can place your wheels where you want them, kiss the apex of a corner and zoom off onto the straight. The car is almost an extension of yourself – quite like riding a motorbike.
|Poetry in motion!|
There’s no power steering on these cars, so you have to wrestle them through corners, and you can feel all the powers being exerted on you – the car wanting to go straight on, the grunt of the engine behind you, the brakes straining to slow you down, the tyres and wings sticking you to the tarmac when your family car would be wrapping itself around a tree. It dawned on me by about lap 3 that to go faster and get the best out of this experience, I had to “find the limit”: not the physical limit of the car, like an F1 driver would, but my mental limit, so I would be driving out of my comfort zone. So each lap I tried to ignore the voice in my head screaming “BRAKE!!!! Slow down or you’ll kill us!” and tried to see how late I could brake, how early I could get on the throttle and how tight I could turn in. That was scary, but fun. It’s a bit like being on a roller-coaster – you get the best out of it when you’re terrified.
For those who want to know, I got my time down from 1:23:73 to 1:10:34, and I was 5th fastest out of 12 on the track. By the last lap, I felt quite comfortable and I understood what they are on about when they talk of an F1 driver being “in the groove” – you know where to brake and turn in, where to overtake, and where you can get better next lap. But I was ready to come in! My arms and shoulders ached from steering, my right knee hurt from where it had been bumping against the side of the car, and my posterior was numb from the bucket seat!
|Thumbs up…I have survived!|
But that aside, it was quite simply THE most exhilarating experience I have ever had. Honestly, if you like F1 and you like driving, do it! I pulled into the pits and found Mrs Eau Rouge and raved like a madman about how great it was, how it was the best present anyone had ever given me and was the highlight of my 40thbirthday celebrations. It took me about 20 minutes to come down, by which time Mrs Eau Rouge was on track as a passenger in a Le Mans Jaguar sports car, which I had convinced her to do. But that is another story…oh and if you do ever want a 4,000-word exposition on why the Lotus 79 was the best F1 car ever, let me know!