DRIVING EXPERIENCE: F4 MASTER FIFTEEN MINUTES OF RACING FAME
MN gets a grip on the experience that allows you – briefly – to be a racing driver. By Jack Cozens
Just keep the revs high. Every piece of advice I’ve been given before now has gone out of the window. At about 3500rpm – 1000 or so lower than what has been advised – I start to crawl my way down the Brands Hatch pitlane, gradually picking up the throttle before heading out onto the Indy circuit. Totally alone.
I’ve been to Brands Hatch plenty of times before. Heck, I’ve parked my Honda Jazz on the Clark Curve banking, yards from the track, crossed the footbridge to the inside of Druids, and watched touring cars slam on the brakes from Paddock Hill, all countless times – you name it. But this is the first time I’ve driven on the circuit. It’s no biggie, though; just a single-seater that until last year was the fastest bit of kit on the junior ladder in the UK.
The car in question is the MSV F4-013, that which was used in the BRDC F4 (which has subsequently been upgraded to BRDC British F3) Championship. Built by Ralph Firman’s crack squad, the two-litre Ford Duratec-powered car with flappy paddle sequential gearshift, is capable of producing 185bhp at its original 6500rpm and a top speed of 165mph, though that’s understandably slightly less with the engine limited to 5000rpm for safety.
At this point, it’s probably correct for me to acknowledge that you’re unlikely to have come here to read about how someone with no racing experience and limited technical knowledge found a driving experience that’s on offer to anyone. But allow me, if you will, to indulge myself for a brief moment and tell you the story.
In truth, it’s not my first experience on the track. Half an hour earlier, I was out in a BMW M4 with MSV instructor Alex Read, getting to grips with the circuit and learning how to approach the corners – even if I think I can drive them blindfolded. There’s plenty to learn but, save for a lock-up into Druids after attempting to turn in too early, there are no major problems and both the car and myself are returned to the pitlane after the orientation session intact.
A brief recess follows, before we’re prepared for the F4 experience and sent to our cars; it’s at this point that I’m most nervous (and judging by faces around the room I’m not the only one feeling like that). Forget any limiters, forget the orientation, this is me heading onto the circuit in a single-seater.
Visor down, I’m focused. There’s some manual clutch control (necessary to get you going and stopped in the pitlane) to be done and then a slow trundle before blending into the racing line. My first lap is a slow one, maybe too slow, while there’s some adaption to be made, too – as each corner tends to be taken one gear higher than in the M4. But that’s more a case of feeling as opposed to a numbers game.
Two laps later and I’ve begun to settle down, still overawed by the thrill of the wind sweeping past me, especially on the straight, but so impressed by the responsiveness of the brakes and the feel of the car on turn in. But then I catch every driver’s worst nightmare: traffic.
One of the great things about the experience is the level of tuition and coaching you receive to make sure you’re fit to go out on track, but of course when everyone’s out there it’s the driver in control who has to remember that training. There’s a ‘pass on the left’ rule in place, but I’m baulked a couple of times past the pits, and buzzing into the limiter there’s nothing I can do to overtake. Throwing my hand in the air does little other than to distract me as it flies backwards against the wind, so stuck I am for another lap.
I duck back in and let someone braver than me attempt the overtake around the outside at Paddock Hill, but the momentum lost by that kid Verstappen ahead of me (that’s how it’s playing out in my mind) gives me my break. I show a nose into Druids, cut back on a tighter line and slam on the anchors later than I have before into Graham Hill. I’m too close, I think to myself. My exit from the corner is compromised, but I’m just about able to draw alongside. ‘F*** it, go for it’; holding a tighter line through Surtees, I lend some trust to the other car (the same driver that’s stayed on the racing line on the Brabham Straight for the past four laps) not to come across my side, and stay foot flat to the floor around the outside through Mclaren before coming back onto the racing line. Finally, I’m through.
The red mist that built while stuck behind the car serves me well at first; my next lap is my fastest of the session. ‘ Come on’, I say, gritting my teeth. But after that I push too hard, and miss plenty of apexes on the remainder of my laps. My last is a good one, but a slightly botched upshift onto the Brabham Straight means I can’t improve my time.
As it turns out, competition isn’t probably for me. My best lap when I get into clear air is four seconds off the ultimate pace, time largely lost through messed up gear changes and cornering – the latter particularly concerning given Brands only has four real braking zones – which is good enough for the middle of the pack of the 13 cars on track. I’m not happy with that performance, having missed the barrier time of a minute that I’d set myself, but you wouldn’t know it looking at my face.
And that’s exactly the point of the narrative. Every time someone drives one of these cars, they’ll come away with a brilliant story to tell. It might be how they nailed braking, corner entry and exit for Paddock Hill, how they set their fastest lap, or how they negotiated someone holding them up. Whatever reservations you have beforehand, you’re bound to leave with a smile on your face – though it’s probably best to have a few excuses lined up too for when you see your colleagues the next day.
For what’s effectively 30 minutes of track time, £229 might seem a little steep – but there’s so much more on offer than just a standard drive. As a punter, the F4 Master experience is simply pure fun, and gives you a great appreciation of just how good those who do it for a living are. Still, it’s nice to live the experience of being a racer for quarter of an hour. And one can always dream... ■
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