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
“IN A DISTANT CORNER OF MY BRAIN A QUIET VOICE IS SUGGESTING THAT THIS IS SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, FORMERLY ONE OF THE MOST DANGEROUS CIRCUITS IN THE WORLD”
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.
IF YOU HAVE A SHUNT, IT’LL BE A BIG ONE SERGIO PÉREZ’S WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT TO F1 RACING’S STUART CODLING
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