We take a ride in a two-seater For­mula 1 car, with F1 Ex­pe­ri­ences

Ever wanted to ride a For­mula 1 two-seater? Well, now you can thanks to the F1 Ex­pe­ri­ences pro­gramme. We sent crash-test dummy Stu­art Codling to find out what it’s all about…


Ten min­utes to zero hour and the rain is ham­mer­ing off the garage roof. Out in the pit­lane, it’s splash­ing into pud­dles so large they bring to mind Dr Fos­ter’s prover­bial mis­ad­ven­ture on the road to Glouces­ter. A sky that had been pos­i­tively azure half an hour ago is now a glow­er­ing grey ex­panse. The capri­cious mi­cro­cli­mate of Spafran­cor­champs has done it again.

That mo­ment when it’s quiet on track, so the TV feed cuts to a tight shot of a team operative glumly re­gard­ing a huge splodge of green and blue on the weather radar? We’re liv­ing that now, me and ex-re­nault, Toy­ota and Lo­tus tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor Mike Gas­coyne: him with one head­set cup slipped ca­su­ally off his ear, lips pursed, eyes flick­ing be­tween the screen and the sod­den vista out­side; me dressed like an im­pos­tor, head to foot in crisply clean flame­proof garb – a Nomexed ver­sion of Alec Guin­ness in The Man in the White Suit. If the rain fails to re­lent, we’re go­ing nowhere. Dra­peau rouge. In a dis­tant cor­ner of my brain a quiet voice is sug­gest­ing that, this be­ing Spa-fran­cor­champs, for­merly one of the

most dan­ger­ous cir­cuits in the world and still one of the most chal­leng­ing, scur­ry­ing back to the warmth and dry­ness of the me­dia cen­tre wouldn’t be such a ter­ri­ble out­come.

Around us, the busi­ness of For­mula 1’s un­of­fi­cial 11th team pro­ceeds just as it would in any of the other ten garages fur­ther down the pit­lane: uni­formed crew tend to the pair of two-seater F1 cars in a space lined with neat tool chests and in­stru­men­ta­tion, and the con­crete walls are cov­ered with plain white plas­tic sheet­ing. If the win­dow dress­ing of this flag­ship el­e­ment of the sport’s new ‘F1 Ex­pe­ri­ences’ hospi­tal­ity pro­gramme looks au­then­tic, that’s be­cause it is – the garage set-up is all ex-manor.

The cars, too, are au­then­ti­cally F1, un­like, say, the San­tander two-seater that was do­ing the rounds a few years ago, which was a hacked­about Rey­nard Champ Car chas­sis. They started life as 1998 Tyrrell 026s. So avert your eyes from the metal wish­bones and 1990s aero, and look upon the three-litre Cos­worth V10 sit­ting ahead of the rear wheels. And don’t for­get to stick your fin­gers in your ears when they fire it up.

“We could have put a turbo en­gine in,” says team man­ager Keith Wig­gins, an­other old F1/in­dy­car hand. “And ac­tu­ally it would have been cheaper to run, be­cause it wouldn’t need re­build­ing so of­ten. But the For­mula One Group guys were adamant that they wanted the noise…”

Tick-tock of the clock. It’s now or never, be­cause in half an hour or so the rest of the af­ter­noon’s track pro­gramme – For­mula 2, GP3 and Porsche Su­per­cup prac­tice and qual­i­fy­ing – gets un­der way. Paul Stod­dart, former Mi­nardi team owner, strides over with a hel­met and HANS de­vice in hand. “Bet­ter get these on, mate,” he says. “You’re go­ing out.”

There’s a flurry of ac­tiv­ity in the garage as en­gine cov­ers are bolted on each car, and it’s fin­gers-in-ears time as the V10s fire up in uni­son, a wall of sound that al­most brings a nos­tal­gic tear to the eye. To­day’s driv­ers – Pa­trick Friesacher and Zsolt Baum­gart­ner, Mi­nardi F1 driv­ers of mid-2000s yore – are al­ready strapped

in, and with an im­pa­tient fusil­lade of V10 blare and wheel­spin they exit the garage for a few sight­ing laps to as­sess the con­di­tions.

Ear plugs in, bal­a­clava on and hel­met low­ered into place, I wait as ‘Stoddy’ checks the hel­met’s chin strap for me and at­taches the HANS de­vice. Now I cer­tainly look the part (you ef­fect your change in a room within the race truck, walk­ing in as a civil­ian and out as a rac­ing driver, in a seam­less process that read­ers of a cer­tain age might re­mem­ber from kids’ TV show Mr Benn), and in homage to the look that For­mula 1 style icon Lewis Hamil­ton was rock­ing ear­lier on to­day, I’ve even tucked my fire-re­tar­dant un­der­wear into my socks.

We see the two-seaters fly by once on the main straight – well, we see the plume of spray, for the cars go past in the blink of an eye, leav­ing just noise and un­set­tled mist in their wake. Then they re­turn, are pushed back into the garage, and as Zsolt cuts the en­gine the am­bi­ent noise of hu­man ac­tiv­ity rushes in to fill the void left by the qui­eted V10. Tech­ni­cians shine torches into the brake ducts. Wisps of steam rise from the sur­face of the Pirelli wet-weather rub­ber. A wooden plat­form is pushed to the side of the car so that the pas­sen­ger can em­bark.

Ah, that’ll be me. We’ve reached the point of no re­turn. Poker face on, eyes be­tray­ing no fear, vi­sion let­ter­boxed by the crash hel­met, I step up and step in. First im­pres­sions: this cock­pit is

tight. No won­der the dis­claimer form ex­cludes pas­sen­gers over 88kg. You sit with your legs astride the driver’s seat in a pose akin to the birthing stool in The Hand­maid’s Tale.

“You need to get both feet on the footrests,” says Stod­dart, lean­ing in to ar­range the har­ness. Eas­ily said, but I can’t see where they are, and all I can feel is some­thing slightly squidgy putting up some re­sis­tance… ah, that’ll be Zsolt’s hips. Un­seen, a hand grasps my left an­kle and ush­ers the foot to its de­sired po­si­tion. Stod­dart reaches in again and con­nects the har­ness straps, then pulls them as tight as they’ll go, so tight that I’m be­ing pulled al­most into a foetal crouch in the seat. Then he gives each shoul­der strap a fur­ther yank. Now, surely, they’re as tight as can be.

The en­gine turns over again and bursts into life, and I can feel the chat­ter of the con­rods, crank­shaft, pis­tons, valves, every­thing, through my back and shoul­ders. First gear en­gages with a bang that makes the whole car – and my teeth – rat­tle. With a tickle of the throt­tle we de­part, Zsolt’s el­bow dig­ging into my leg as he ap­plies steer­ing lock, and as I turn my head to ex­plore the view – bounded above and be­low by the hel­met’s aper­ture, and ahead by the roll bar – I won­der if the ex­pres­sion on the re­ced­ing faces of the crew is one of pity or sym­pa­thy, or nei­ther.

Zsolt clearly feels that the tyres need some tem­per­a­ture in them, be­cause no sooner has he straight­ened the car af­ter the right turn for the pit­lane exit than he stamps on the throt­tle. Or at


least that’s what it feels like. This is a For­mula 1 car – it could have been but a ten­ta­tive prod. Ei­ther way, the en­gine spools up with a screech, the tyres briefly chirrup in protest, and we burst for­wards in the man­ner of ev­ery cliché that’s ever been ap­plied to sud­den and vi­o­lent ac­cel­er­a­tion. All the parts of me that aren’t al­ready strapped down are pinned back against the un­yield­ing car­bon seat. On my right, the old pits pass by in a blur of colour and spray and, as the down­force builds, the car just ploughs through ev­ery pud­dle with a twitch of grip-and-slip, the en­gine jab­ber­ing an­grily as the back wheels spin up and then bite down on as­phalt again.

I briefly close my eyes and try not to think of Pier­luigi Mar­tini in the 1991 Aus­tralian Grand Prix, nor of the mis­chief of a press­room col­league who an hour ago glee­fully an­nounced that he was about to search for “Zsolt Baum­gart­ner crashes” on Youtube. Or, in­deed, of Ser­gio Pérez, who said to me yesterday: “If you have a shunt, it’ll be a big one…”

Right now, Ted Kravitz and F1 Rac­ing’s very own colum­nist Pat Sy­monds are pro­vid­ing pun­ditry live on Sky Sports F1. Kravitz cocks an ear in the di­rec­tion of all the slip­ping-and­grip­ping and opines, “Zsolt Baum­gart­ner’s feel­ing brave to­day.”

“Not as brave as the guy sit­ting be­hind him,” chuck­les Pat.

Ah, Pat, the guy in ques­tion is hav­ing a bit of a fail­ure in that department. I can’t see Eau Rouge, but I know it’s there, hav­ing prac­ticed the rac­ing line on my bi­cy­cle – Michael Schu­mach­er­style – last night. Now as we plunge to­wards it at

grand vitesse I am like a wrestler pinned to the mat and ready to sur­ren­der.

If only there were a way to sig­nal this in­tent to the driver. But there isn’t, so plum­met­ing down­hill to Eau Rouge we go… mer­ci­fully and cir­cum­spectly he lifts, which in a rac­ing car with down­force feels like a sharp ap­pli­ca­tion of brake. Then we’re through, care­fully avoid­ing the wet kerbs, and he’s back on the ac­cel­er­a­tor for the surge up­hill through Raidil­lon. Cran­ing my neck, all I can see is sky and spray, and then, as the gra­di­ent tails off, the prox­im­ity of the walls as they scroll past in a blur.

We twitch and shimmy our way around Les Combes and Malm­edy, and I can feel the weight trans­fer within the car – at low speeds it’s clearly a hand­ful. Zsolt wants to go quicker and build some down­force as­sis­tance, ac­cel­er­at­ing to­wards the down­hill dou­ble-right at Ri­vage, but it’s still too slip­pery and he brings the car to heel again, then re­peat­edly prods the throt­tle as we round the bend, elic­it­ing just a touch of a slide. He ne­go­ti­ates the name­less left-han­der with­out touch­ing ei­ther kerb and gets on the gas again, down­hill all the way to Pouhon. A cau­tious lift on the en­try slows us down just enough for me to be able to focus on the Max Ver­stap­pen fans on the other side of the bar­rier, wav­ing flags and beer cans in en­cour­age­ment.

Con­fi­dent now that the pi­lot is press­ing on, but not sui­ci­dally so, I re­lax my grip on the seat shell, un­stiffen my shoul­ders and al­low my­self to be thrown about. What we’re miss­ing in sheer G-forces through not go­ing at full tilt, we’re gain­ing in the feel of an F1 car tippy-toe­ing its way through haz­ardous con­di­tions. You imag­ine a sin­gle-seater to be su­per-stiff, but when you’re

belted into place and in­er­tia is do­ing its best to rear­range your in­ter­nal or­gans, you ex­pe­ri­ence those same forces send­ing the car into pitch, yaw and lean as it ne­go­ti­ates the ma­jes­tic roller coaster that is Spa.

And what a feel­ing it is! Zsolt is still press­ing on, tak­ing a wide line into La Source, which both gives him a bet­ter drive out of the cor­ner on less pud­dled as­phalt – and an­noys the hell out of F1 Rac­ing pho­tog­ra­pher Lorenzo Bel­lanca, who’s been wait­ing there in the rain since the F1 prac­tice ses­sion ended. One last flat-out spurt down the hill, back wheels flail­ing and grip­ping again through the pud­dles, an­other lift (phew) at Eau Rouge, and then we’re climb­ing again. Zsolt tries dif­fer­ent lines through Les Combes, Malm­edy, Ri­vage and Pouhon, seek­ing out the dri­est lines and the great­est speed. The car plays along all the way to Blanchi­mont, where­upon it yel­low-cards him with a mighty twitch. I catch an el­bow on the leg as he cor­rects it, and then we cruise back into the pit­lane, ela­tion tem­pered with a touch of re­lief.

Very soon, you’ll be able to do this. As a late ad­di­tion to the week­end bill un­der the sport’s new man­age­ment, it’s been the prov­ince of VIPS and com­pe­ti­tion winners so far this sea­son. But in the full­ness of time the in­ten­tion is to make more times­lots avail­able and give more peo­ple the op­por­tu­nity to try it. Over the win­ter, Gas­coyne and his team are go­ing to re­design the cars to give them a more con­tem­po­rary look and re­vise the roll-hoop ar­range­ment to give the pas­sen­ger more of a for­ward view.

It cer­tainly won’t be cheap, but this re­ally is a once-in-a-life­time ex­pe­ri­ence. Just make sure you only eat a light lunch be­fore­hand.


F1 Rac­ing’s Stu­art Codling is dressed the part, but that ex­pres­sion be­trays a hint of ap­pre­hen­sion…

It might not be vis­i­ble from the pas­sen­ger seat, but there’s no mis­tak­ing the plunge down to Eau Rouge

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