What's it like to drive a Formula One car?
99.99999999999% of the world will never
know, so the best 'armchair' racers can do is to read an amazing report
by Stéphane Samson, a motoring writer who managed somehow to
organise a drive in a 1997 Jordan F1 car. Lucky bugger ....
Take it away, Stéphane -
(reprinted, um, well, without permission, so don't sue, don't sue!! I'll remove it, if it's a problem. I'm just an enthusiast who loves stories like this and wishes to spread to good word)
Slight problem here: I can't breathe. Since the buckles on my harness were done up, I've been suffocating. It's agony and, according to the Jordan mechanics, my face has just turned purple. How the hell am I going to spend an hour and a half in these conditions, with my heart racing at 180 beats per minute and in a cockpit the size of a pigmy's coffin? I feel very fat (I'm not, honest). If I wasn't so excited, I'd make a deal with myself to give up hamburgers tomorrow.
My Nomex balaclava is getting creased under my helmet. Can I reach it and have a good scratch? No, better not. I've never seen Schuey do that. My legs are numb; I'm only average height, but I feel like I'm busting out of here all over. I try to flex my thighs, but fail. There simply isn't room. As a distraction, I rest my hands on the steering wheel. Weird. It's as though I've suddenly been propelled into the images of a TV camera. To my left and right, the huge tyres are smouldering away at 80 degrees Celsius under their heated covers. The digital dashboard shows information that I don't understand. It's the formatting of all the electronic systems, apparently - everything from gearbox to differential control to brake balance. I don't think I'll worry too much about that.
not scared. Well, at
least, I don't think I am. More just ... incapable. I repeat to myself
over and over, like a mantra, the advice that Jean Alesi gave me a few
days ago: "Work the clutch, get into first and then ease off. There's
no need to rev it up too much. The car will move off by itself." Sounds
The engine is still silent. I mime Alesi's advice. First, the clutch. Er, where is it? Oh yes, on the steering wheel. Two paddles, one each side - a bit like horn-pushes on a road car. The feel of these paddles is very supple, almost reassuring. There's no point in using both at once: one is enough. The choice is yours. Or mine, in this case. Above them are the gearbox activators. Up is on the right, down is on the left. On the steering wheel, there are a host of buttons I won't have to touch; they get the engine going. There's just one I will have to use: the green one for neutral when I come back to the pits.
The Jordan is still attached by its umbilical cord to two micro-computers. This cable also feeds electricity to the car, which is vital because the battery, behind the seat, is ridiculously small. The computers are constantly analysing a load of parameters and temperatures. The slightest anomaly, which flashes up in red on the LCD screens, prevents starting. No problem for us, though: the V-10 A14 has been pre-heated to exactly 50 degrees Celsius for exactly 25 minutes by an external pump. After that, the Peugeot engineers started it and revved it for exactly four minutes by using a little joystick attached to their PC. They tried out all the gears, and checked the power steering. Engine temperature was raised to exactly 80 degrees Celsius, and the engine turned at 6000rpm for 10 seconds. Exactly.
Once the oil level has been checked, the V-10 is ready to roar. As a precaution, the men from Peugeot have tweaked the engine mapping to regulate the power delivery. They give me a rev limit of 12,000rpm. "Move up a gear as soon as the red button lights up at the top of the dashboard," is the advice from Jean-Marc Liaume, one of three technicians from Peugeot at this test. I'll try to remember that.
In any case, why bother trying for just another 4000rpm-odd, getting towards 17,000rpm and tempting fate? The main thing is to get this million-dollar single-seater back to Eddie Jordan in one piece - and, of secondary importance, not to kill myself in the process. EJ was a bit worried about accident insurance: before getting behind the wheel, I had to promise that I wouldn't sue him if I ended up dead. If you see what I mean...
For the time being, my mind is busy trying to eradicate the sneaking feeling that my first attempt to start this monster will be a total disaster. The driving position is utterly unfamiliar. My feet are strangely high, and the steering wheel is surprisingly near my chest. My arms aren't outstretched but are bent at the elbows at a 45-degree angle. Big surprise: you can't go from lock to lock without taking your hands off the wheel, which I thought was de rigueur in all racing cars. You need to give the wheel another quarter-turn. The only pedals are the accelerator and the brake (which the drivers, who have worked their way up through karting, apply with their left feet). Oh, and you can't see the end of the car's nose. My field of vision is limited to the windscreen and the antenna, which are just in front of me. Although they are quite far from my face, they are at eye-level and block the view. Great.
My shoulders are squeezed hard against the high cockpit sides. These reinforcements, which block my field of vision on both sides of the car, contribute to a feeling of confinement. It's that pigmy coffin feeling again. I feel about as comfortable as I would do in a broken-down lift.
The Peugeot technicians give each other the sign, and the tyre covers are removed. A Pug man leans over to actuate the ignition button on the dash, while another one plunges the starter into the rear of the car near the gearbox. In just a couple of seconds, the Peugeot is screaming. It's as though some nutter is trying to attack the back of my helmet with a pneumatic drill. I'm thinking my heart is going to burst through my chest. I'd love to be at home in front of the telly. Honest, I really would.
The umbilical cord is cut. I go for the right-hand paddle. Keep the revs up, but not too many, release the clutch and ... stall. I feel ridiculous. In fact, it's not really my fault. The mechanics failed to point out to me that you should engage first with your left hand and change up with your right. So what I've just tried to do is pull away in second. Oops, sorry about that, lads. Another delay.
When the time comes for the second attempt, there's a problem: the V-10 is no go. The generator from the Jordan truck has provided too little power and the battery has gone flat. I've got to jump out of the car for it to be stripped down and have the conked-out battery, which is no bigger than a box of cigars, replaced. It takes me ages to get out of the car - about 30 seconds. Even then I nearly break the rear-view mirror and the antenna in the process. A real driver has to be able to get out of the car in less than five seconds, by the way...
At last, it's time to strap myself in again. We're ready to go. I think I know how a human cannonball feels while he's waiting for the match to light the wick of the cannon to which he's attached. Back on with the ignition. Back off with the tyre warmers. Back on with the engine. This time, I get into first and check the dashboard display. Yes, got it. I caress the accelerator like I'm stroking a Rottweiler: at 7000 revs, I ease off the clutch paddle. The car splutters. I press more firmly on the right pedal ... and the Jordan scorches away. This is it. I'm actually doing it.
Seven hundred and fifty bucking-bronco horses, and I'm in 'control' of them. I take the first corner with care. Then, when the car is all-square again, front wheels dead straight, I give it a tiny bit more welly. Into second, then third ... this ain't so bad. I've still got plenty of straight ahead, so ... why not? I squeeze the throttle down another inch, and then it happens. That extra squeeze was a bad idea. I'm travelling at around 160km/h, but even then the wheelspin is i-n-c-r-e-d-i-b-l-e! The yellow beast leaps forward diabolically, as though hurled by a gigantic catapult. Everything vibrates and goes mad. The landscape dances around in front of my eyes and the Silverstone scenery suddenly looks like Renoir. On speed.
Corner- already. It's Copse. Bloody hell. Brake! Change down. Hoooweee!, got round it okay. There's no time to look at the instruments, so I change up by ear. As soon as the V-10 hits the rev-limiter, I go up a cog. The gears go in like lightning: it takes less time for an F1 car to move up through its seven gears than it takes a sportscar to move up one. No point declutching: I keep my foot down and let the electronics take care of the rest. Fantastic! ·
Changing down is the same: the tiniest pressure exerted on the left paddle provides the juice required to move down into a lower gear automatically.
Steering is easier than I'd expected - given all my visibility problems. Granted, the end of the nose is out of sight - but this isn't really a problem. You drive by the position of the front wheels. Or I do, anyway.
Let's see how good these brakes are. A firm push ... er, powerful. And this when they haven't even got hot yet. They never will reach their proper temperatures either, because I'll never push quite that hard. I hurtle past the pits and the team show me an arrow signalling it's time for my first stop.
I bring the car to a halt in front of the pits, hit the neutral button, and the mechanics reverse me in. Just like on a race weekend. "I think a rabbit over-took you on the first bend," one of them says as I switch off the engine. Thanks a lot, mate. Straight away, Tim, the boss of the test team, kneels down beside the car. He asks me if everything's okay then just smiles as he listens to my ultra-enthusiastic comments.
Round two. Suddenly, there's that sledge-hammer scream as the V-10 is re-ignited. Now, get that start right again. Clutch, first, revs, paddle... Yep, done it. We're away. Let's try a bit harder this time. Maybe even overtake a few rabbits at Copse.
Here it is, let's brake a bit later. Yes, much faster this time, turn in, clip the apex, run out to the rumble-strip. Sheer bliss. Pure, unadulterated grip. The whole lap is bliss. And I'm definitely quicker. Now we're in the Luffield complex, and I change down to first. Too low. I pop it into second in the middle of the bend. Another bad move. The car flicks sideways like greased-lightning. There's no coming back from there, and I spin in a puff of smoke. Idiot.
knowing what to do, I sit
still in the cockpit. A tow-truck appears soon after and pulls me back
to the pits ... to the hearty applause of the mechanics. My next set of
laps will be much smoother. I promise.
Last chance. I remember a bit of advice a friend gave me this morning: "Enjoy it, Stéphane. Don't forget to enjoy it. " I know I've embarrassed myself, but I'm damned if I'm going to pussy-foot around. I'm in a Formula 1 car, for Chrissakes!
No earplugs, right foot down, big wheelspin, now maximum acceleration, the lot. Go for it. And I do. At least I try. But it's impossible to get used to the H-bomb response every time I goose the right-hand pedal. When road car testers talk about acceleration pushing them deep into the driver's seat, they're talking crap. Sorry, but it's true. This is real g. My flesh is stretched back across my cheekbones; my eyes hurt. This isn't acceleration - more like a natural disaster! A straight 10 on the Richter Scale.
Enjoy it, Stéphane. Floor the throttle, feel that catapult, smell the smells, see the sights. Above all, listen to that V-l0 sing. Concentrate on it, savour it, let it pop your ear-drums. And never, ever forget it.
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