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Driving a Formula One car – The Sunday Times

driving-f1

It’s the ultimate racing series. A world reserved for the super-rich, the hyper-talented and the utterly beautiful. But if a rookie like Lewis Hamilton can walk into Formula One and put it straight up the reigning world champion, there’s hope for the rest of us.

Chances to drive an F1 car are as rare as seeing Halley’s comet. The usual “Formula One experience” offered as a track event typically involves bowling up to an abandoned second world war airstrip to receive a surly briefing along the lines of: “You don’t deserve to drive this car and we’re afraid you will crash it.”

After an hour of shock and awe by PowerPoint, you are strapped into an ageing F1 chassis that Gerhard Berger probably wrote off back in 1985. The car has a touched-up paint job and a vinyl name tag on the cockpit reads “Ayrton Senna”, but even your limited knowledge of F1 tells you it’s lying. The mechanic will sigh with relief when the car actually starts and then you will stall the engine as you try to select first gear. After two clumsy laps on cold tyres your experience is over.

At the Ascari Race Resort in Spain, however, your drive couldn’t be more different. The circuit was designed to emulate the best corners from renowned grand prix circuits and Martin Brundle reckons this makes it one of the most challenging circuits anywhere for F1 driving.

Fernando Alonso, the reigning world champion, enjoyed his trip so much he became a member, so perhaps his verdict is the most fitting: “Unusual, exciting, beautiful.”

To get the most out of a run in the 1996 Benetton, you must push the car to its limits. Only when the brakes are burning, the tyres melting and the engine screaming can the car respond in the way it was designed to.

The leap from performance-car speeds to F1 is so startling that Senna used to remark on how fast the cars felt after a winter break. The power, straight-line speed and cornering grip are exciting, but nothing compares with the sensation of beginning to slide.

Once you can accept the ballistic acceleration and drive the car hard into the turns, it reaches the point where the car can produce no more grip and the slightest mistake could tip the balance between gripping and sliding. You hit this speed so soon that even experienced drivers “run out of talent”. You are truly one with the car and sensitive to every adjustment of the steering wheel, movement in the tyres and the direction of travel.

Your brain is processing so quickly that time slows down and you become unaware of your own body, leaving you with nothing more than the most sublime feeling of movement on earth. On the Ascari track the brute force created on the banking makes every lap even more satisfying.

Gasping in the mountain air moments after my run, I was reminded of the famous words of Gilles Villeneuve, the grand prix legend: “Racing is life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting.”

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