Thu Oct 20 23:21:48 CAT 2016

Wow, it's sheer hell on wheels

By unknown | Jul 23, 2008 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

Bruce Fraser

Bruce Fraser

Last Wednesday it was a steamy 31 degrees Celcius in the south of France.

While most people were flocking to the beaches for a bit of relief from the hot weather, I found myself in the picturesque town of Le Castellet at the Paul Ricard Racetrack, where for a day I had the rare privilege of being a Renault Formula One driver.

The day started early with a 5.30am wake-up call and a quick breakfast in the hotel across the road from the racetrack.

"Try not to eat too much," came the instruction from a grinning Renault representative.

The "Feel-It-Day" is designed by Renault to give corporate executives, celebrities, those with too much money in their pockets, and the odd journalist a chance to experience the thrill of getting behind the wheel of one of the most powerful vehicles in the world - a Formula One car.

Trying to put a value on a Formula One vehicle is tough, if not impossible. The budget for the F1 team is a mind-blowing US$300million (R2,4billion) a year, so the guys are playing for high stakes.

That is why it is not a simple process of rocking up on the day and thinking you'll give Lewis Hamilton a run for his money.

Throughout the day you are advised, guided and informed about a whole range of topics related to motor racing, with the eventual aim of getting you behind the wheel of this unique car.

First up you are kitted out with a driver's suit, helmet, gloves, fire-proof mask and the essential water bottle, which is filled with a specially formulated liquid to keep you properly hydrated throughout the day.

The morning basically consists of briefings and a few test laps in a Formula Renault 2,0 so that you can get the feel of the track and what it's like to drive a single-seater race car.

For me this was a whole new experience.

Sure, I've had the odd drive around Kyalami and Swartkops at vehicle launches, but this was new territory. Was I scared? You bet!

The Paul Ricard Racetrack is just more than three kilometers long. with two long straights - the mile-long Mistral Straight, which is followed by the long, sweeping Signes corner.

Driving the smaller Formula Renault was a pleasure. The car has a six-speed gearbox that consists of a metal rod on your right-hand side.

Just like a normal car it has a clutch, brake and accelerator. To change gears is a simple process of pulling the gear stick towards you to move up a gear and pushing it away to change down.

The car feels exciting but manageable, but I was worried about what was waiting for me after lunch - the Formula One!

Sheer nerves suppressed my appetite and then it was time for a 15-minute briefing session on the F1 car and then a physiotherapy session.

"What can I expect?" I asked.

"Imagine the fastest car you have ever driven," said the instructor with a strong French accent. "Then multiply by four!"

Before going out to the car you are given a quick medical and your reflexes are tested.

The physio then goes to work loosening up your muscles and making sure your body is supple enough for what lies ahead.

From the physio's table it's a short walk to the track where the car waits.

There is just one thing on your mind: don't mess up even when you are nearly two metres tall and just on 100 kg and expected to slide into the driver's seat.

Somehow I managed but didn't feel totally comfortable.

There are probably close to 200 people watching me. My stomach bunches into a knot and sweat pours down my back as the sun beats down at 63 degrees Celsius in the cockpit.

At this stage the vehicle hasn't been started but you are looking at the long straight and getting your thoughts together. I had set myself two goals: don't stall and don't drive off the track.

The paddle gears on the F1 vehicle are on the steering wheel. On the right hand side you tap it to go up a gear and on the left hand side you tap it to go down.

The idea is to keep the vehicle around the 10000 to 15000rpm range to make gear changes smooth.

Details are spinning through my mind when suddenly the vehicle fires up.

Even with earplugs, mask and helmet the noise is deafening.

"This is it," I said to myself. "It's now or never!"

I let the clutch out slowly and feel the car inch forward. So far so good.

The wheels are so damn big it takes considerable effort to turn the vehicle, which is something I soon discover as the first turn rushes up in front of me.

"Take it easy, take it easy," I tell myself.

We have the opportunity to do three laps of the circuit but, frankly, this beast is just too powerful for a novice like me.

The F1 has six gears but at no time can I get the revs high enough to go past third gear. My top speed? A mere 180kmh from a vehicle capable of more than 300kmh.

Pitiful, I know!

Coming into the pit lane after my laps I feel relief and also joy: relief because I didn't make a fool of myself and joy because I had experienced something very few people ever will.

What does it feel like, someone asks?

"Like a couple of jet engines strapped to your back," was all I could say.


Login OR Join up TO COMMENT