What the F1! How tough is it really to drive a Formula 1 car
Once you have driven an F1 car, you’ll know: driving anything else is meaningless!
It was with a sense of déjà vu that I wiggled my distinctly non-F1 frame into the tight confines of the carbon fibre tub and, with knees pinned together, stretched my legs into the narrow nose to probe the pedals. This was an environment I had experienced twice before, first in 2001 and then in 2008. Ten years is a long gap, but the memory of piloting a Formula 1 car is so vivid that it seemed like yesterday.
I was at Paul Ricard, the same circuit in the south of France where only a month earlier, Lewis Hamilton won the 2018 French Grand Prix, and I was standing in the pitlane with eerily empty grandstands in front of me, waiting to be strapped into a full-blown Formula 1 car.
It was the same Lotus-Renault E20 that Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean raced in the 2012 Formula 1 season and notched up 303 points including a win in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. It was also the last of an era of high-revving naturally aspirated engines now lost to the current breed of dull-sounding turbo hybrids.
What is not lost is the shattering performance, which was why the Renault crew wasn’t going to let me loose with their fingers crossed in something capable of blasting to 100kph in 2.5 seconds and hitting a top speed of 260kph on one of the two straights at Paul Ricard, just yet.
The F1 car looked huge but surprisingly, the cockpit isn’t. You need a certain athletic ability to simply get in and out
A better part of the day went in theory lessons, sitting passenger in a minivan to learn the track and building up confidence in a Formula 4 car before experiencing the Full Monty.
Theory over, it was time to get behind the wheel. I got through the ritual of donning the race gear that’s essential when you drive an open single-seater. I picked XL-sized overalls but chose boots that were one size small. It was a good way to shrink my feet to slip them into the tiny pedal box.
The Formula 4 racer had only a 180hp engine but, weighing a scant 400kg weight, it felt really quick. It had all the sensations of a racing car: terrific grip, brilliant brakes, super responsive steering and supercar-busting acceleration. It helped build my confidence, but nothing could prepare me for the different world that was waiting out there.
The F1 car looks huge but surprisingly, the cockpit isn’t. You need a certain athletic ability to simply get in and out
After the F4, the F1 car looked huge but surprisingly, the cockpit isn’t. You need a certain athletic ability to simply get in and out. The way Messrs Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian leap out of their cars makes it look easy, but believe me, with a 36-inch waist, it isn’t. It was hot and claustrophobic in the tight cockpit, which felt like it had been shrink-wrapped around me.
The pneumatic starter was shoved into the Renault V8 and it bursts into life. Even at a 4000rpm idle, the sound of the V8 just inches behind my ears was exhilarating and I could feel my heart beating against the six-point harness. After getting the all-clear signal from the pit crew, I pulled the right paddle to engage first gear and slowly released the hand-operated clutch on the steering wheel. This was it!
More difficult to fathom than the speed are the brakes of this car – stomping on their pedal feels like slamming into a concrete wall
The elephant in the car
I took it a bit easy for the first few corners, gingerly feeling my way around the track in this rocket on wheels, and it was only when I reached the back straight that I got the confidence to nail the throttle pedal. The acceleration was so violent it felt like you’d been strapped onto a Brahmos missile, and the brutal way this Renault powered car rockets forward made it difficult for me to hold my head straight. The high-pitched shriek of the engine at 17,000rpm was spine tingling, and there was no let up in speed in any gear. Third, fourth, fifth, sixth, each gearshift gave a neck-snapping lurch and within a flash I touched 260kph. At this speed, buffeting from the wind blurred my vision and it was hard for my brain to process how fast I was going.
More difficult to fathom than the speed were the brakes, which were so effective that stomping on the brake pedal (you need over a 100kg force) felt like you’d slammed into a concrete wall. And then there were the grip and immense g-forces that pummel your neck. Through the fast corners it felt like an elephant was sitting on the side of my helmet.
It was all over and back to the pits sooner than I could shout ‘Formula 1’, but those handful of laps felt like the drive of a lifetime. The only problem is that every car I drive from now on, will seem miserably slow!
Hormazd Sorabjee is one of the most senior and much loved auto journalists in India, and is editor of Autocar India
Sunday Drive appears every fortnight
From HT Brunch, August 12, 2018
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First Published: Aug 11, 2018 22:37:29