I’m just about to board a flight back to the real world. It’s going to be a long flight because I have just been on the other side of the planet living in a dream world. I have been here for five days and managed to experience some things that I have long dreamt about but never thought I would actually get to do.
For the past five days I have been in Nice and Monaco and I got here just in time for the Monaco Grand Prix. As a Formula 1 fan I have watched the spectacular pictures that come out of Monaco for years and often dreamt of being there to be part of it all. When I did picture myself there watching the race I always thought I’d be peering through a cyclone fence or sitting in a tree trying to get a glimpse of the cars as they whizzed by, but believe it or not I actually got to sit on a 143 foot super yacht in the harbour for the weekend! It was an amazing and very surreal experience that completely blew away my very high expectations.
Whilst flying across the globe to attend the Monaco Grand Prix would have been enough, it’s not the only reason I came all this way. On the Monday after the race I drove a real Formula 1 car! Yes, you read that correctly.
As an amateur race car driver, I have always marveled at the engineering genius that is Formula 1. The sheer power and technology that these cars possess make them the ultimate racing machine and whilst I’ve always dreamt of driving one, I never believed it would actually happen, how could it?
It turns out that there is an old Formula 1 team that raced in the world championship during the 80’s and 90’s and they are based about one and a half hours out of Nice. Their name is AGS Formula 1. They have some Formula 1 cars and access to a private circuit that was once a Formula 1 test track. For a not so small fee, they will let you drive the cars on the track. You cannot possibly imagine how excited I was to learn about this and to find out that a spot had opened up for me on the Monday following the Grand Prix.
Getting up at 5:30am on the Monday morning following a weekend of serious cocktail consumption was less than ideal. As we drove along the freeway to the track I was very surprised at how calm I was feeling about it all. In fact I was a little concerned that I wasn’t excited and jumping out of my skin. I wasn’t nervous either. I think I was actually just worried. What if this day wasn’t going to live up to my very high expectations? What if this car was too much for me to handle and I would just be riding around in it slowly rather than actually driving it? The other guys that are heading to AGS with me want to tick a box and be able to say they have driven a Formula 1 car, which I think is fantastic, but now I’m worried, my expectations are much more than that. I want to experience the whole thing, not just the power and the noise. I want to experience the amazing aero grip and the g-forces that go with it. I want to experience the braking power that only a Formula 1 car with carbon brakes can produce. I want to feel the rapid down changes from the flappy paddles and that quick fire noise that goes with the associated throttle blips. I’m now worried that I am expecting too much, after all, most of the people that sign up for this aren’t expecting all of those things, what if that is all AGS cater for?
We arrive at their impressive facility and are quickly ushered out the back to the drivers changing room where I am shown to a very smart timber locker with my name printed on it – nice touch. We are kitted up with some racing gear and ushered into the drivers briefing room where we are greeted by Stephan who will be our driving instructor for the day. Stephan runs through the obligatory safety drill and then goes into a rather in depth lesson on race car dynamics involving weight transfer, throttle application and so on. Whilst I know most of this stuff, it is good to be reminded of it all before stepping into a very different type of race car.
Stephan goes on to explain that we will be driving Formula 3 cars in the morning to practise what he has shown us and prove to him that we are capable of controlling a Formula 1 car. I was actually looking forward to driving the F3 car because I think I felt a bit more confident that I could handle it and explore what it could do. The chassis for the F3 cars we will be driving were made by Lotus and they use a 2 litre Opel engine that produces 180 horsepower.
Stephan explains the clever system of cones that they use to mark braking, down changing, turn in, apex and corner exit points on the circuit and then takes us on an observation lap in a van. The Circuit Du Var is about 2.5 km long with a couple of reasonable straights and what looks like a fun back section. The grass hasn’t been cut for a while and it isn’t exactly what I had pictured as a Formula 1 circuit but it looks like it will be fun.
The first session in the Formula 3 involves a braking exercise on the start/finish straight. We have to accelerate up to some double cones, brake hard initially whilst the car has speed and aero and therefore grip, ease off the brakes and start down changing at the next cone before driving around to do the exercise again. On the drive around I started to push the car and explore what it was capable of and, as I suspected, loved it. How good is aero? No wonder those GT cars with the massive wings carry so much more corner speed across Skyline than we do in the Exige. This thing is great fun and the faster you go through the twisty bits the more grip you have, it is brilliant. The only problem I have is the traffic which was a little frustrating as there is strictly no overtaking in this session. When the session finishes we are given some feedback on what to work on – I need to work on braking harder on the initial application.
In the second session they put four or five F3 cars on the circuit at the same time with strict instructions to only overtake in the specially marked overtaking lane on the start finish straight. This proves to be frustrating as some of the cars were very slow and you had no choice but to drive slowly behind them for what seemed like ages until you got to the overtaking point. The traffic and a couple of red flags meant that I never got to do a complete lap or even string a few corners together and find any rhythm around this circuit. Worse than that it meant I never really got to find out what an F3 car can do and the small taste I had made it even more frustrating. Worse still was now I was even more worried that I didn’t get enough preparation to get the most out of the F1 car.
They take us into the nearby town of Le Luc for a very nice lunch. As we drive back into the complex I get the first look at what we will be driving in the afternoon. A Prost Formula 1 car is sitting outside of the workshop and immediately I’m excited. That’s what I thought I would feel earlier but it took seeing and touching the car to bring it on and now I’m as excited as 3 year old twins on Christmas morning.
AGS Formula 1 has a couple of 1999 Prosts, a 1999 Arrows, a 2001 Jordan and a couple of cars that they built themselves to compete in the 2003 championship but never did. The cars all have the 3.5 litre Cosworth V8 engine that was run in that era. The engines produce 680 horsepower and rev to just under 11,000 RPM. The car weighs about 520 kg and has flappy paddles to change gears. They are the real deal and look amazing.
Another briefing from Stephan, which was mainly an attempt to put the fear of God into everyone about making sure the car is pointing straight before pressing the loud pedal. During the briefing we can hear the cars being warmed up which adds to the excitement. We head back over to the circuit and there are three F1 cars lined up ready to go. My name is called to hop into the second car and despite the excitement I’m still not nervous and am relatively calm. I slide into the car and let the mechanic make some seat adjustments. When he is done I’m pleasantly surprised about how comfortable I feel despite squeezing some size 12 boots into the very tight foot well. The pedals are very close together so whilst I await my turn on the track I constantly move my right foot between the brake and the throttle hoping that it will become natural before they call me out.
The mechanic rocks the car back and forward and gets me to slowly let the clutch out so that I can find where the bite point is. We do this a couple of times until he is happy that I can let the heavy clutch out slowly enough to slip it and get the car moving. He then tells me I’m ready, hands me an umbrella for shade and walks off leaving me there with just my thoughts whilst sitting in a Formula 1 car. What amazing thoughts they were. This was really going to happen, I was about to drive a real Formula 1 car. I could not wipe the smile from my face. I wanted to concentrate on racing lines and gears and driving stuff but I couldn’t, all I could think about was how happy I was to be here. It was at this point that I decided to stop worrying about how I would get the most from this experience and I would just go out there, get a feel for the car and if I could drive it fast then great, if not then so be it, I already had gotten more from this than I expected.
I’m called back from my day dreaming as the time had come to run through the start procedure. The pneumatic starter whirs and the engine is alive. This just gets better, I’m now sitting in an F1 car with the engine running. I’m instructed to build the revs to about 5000 and slowly let the clutch out. It works and we get off the line without any problems. I head onto the circuit and feed in some power. My god, this thing is amazing.
The shove in the back is massive and brutal. The low to mid-range torque is epic. I was pleasantly surprised how controllable all of that power was though and already I was feeling comfortable.
The short run to turn one arrives surprisingly quickly and I cautiously hit the cold carbon brakes which pull me up in about half the distance I thought they would, what the hell will they be like when they warm up? This car can accelerate from 0 to 200 km/h in 5 seconds pulling 2.5 G’s in the process which is very impressive. What is even more impressive is that it can go from 200 km/h to 0 in 2 seconds pulling 4 G’s, which is astonishing.
As the lap goes on I feel more and more comfortable and confident that I can actually drive this car fast. At every corner I ask a bit more from it and it answers back with “Is that all you want?”. It was truly incredible that the faster you went the more grip it had and there seemed to be no end to it.
I get more confident with the brakes and quickly discover that the braking markers they had placed on the track were very conservative. I found that the car stopped so well that I had to ease off the brakes early to carry some corner speed. I think I could have gone at least another 20 or 30 metres past the marker on the long straight but we had been told that if we don’t follow instructions then our session would be called short. So, like a typical Australian Formula 1 driver, I followed the team orders and did what I was told.
Just a couple of laps into my session and I felt like I was driving the car fast. I was feeling incredible G forces under brakes and in the corners. Whilst I was concentrating trying to find places to make up time I was still taking it all in and loving every split second of it. This to me was driving nirvana. On the last couple of laps I pushed pretty hard and the car just took it all in its stride. I started to feel that perhaps they were not going to like how hard I was trying. I kept sneaking a quick glance at Stephan who was camped on the last corner hoping that he wasn’t going to give me the slowdown and back off signal which thankfully he never did.
All too soon I got the signal that my time with the latest love of my life was up and I have to return to the pits. Stephan gives me big thumbs up and a clap as I head in and I’m relieved to see he was pleased with how I drove rather than annoyed. I kill the engine and roll into pit lane and I’m suddenly overcome with some amazing emotions. I find myself screaming with joy in my helmet whilst the euphoria makes me feel like I’m floating on air. I’d imagine it was how Nico felt the day before in Monaco. I had just driven a Formula 1 car and I had done it in a way that I wasn’t sure I could – fast.
I get out of the car and I just can’t stop smiling, it would be hours before the adrenaline and sheer joy would wear off. I’m not sure how I’m going to cope with the three week wait for the on board video so that I can relive it. But I somehow did – you can watch it here.
The whole day was truly amazing and far exceeded my very high expectations. I only hope that this is not just a once in a lifetime experience.♦ End