How to drive a real F1 car

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But we hung the tail out anyway. What the heck, right? It came back.


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But we hung the tail out anyway. What the heck, right? It came back.

Let_s back up a little: First of all, we all agree that F1 is cool, right? The cars represent the pinnacle of technical performance. There is nothing faster around a road course than a Grand Prix car. If you are reading this magazine/website, chances are you grew up wanting to be a great race car driver. You might even get up at four in the morning to watch the Grand Prix of wherever-the-heck, even if it_s broadcast in German or French or Japanese because you just love the idea that these are the best cars in the world and the guys in the cockpits are better than anyone else anywhere. But the idea of driving an F1 car yourself never entered your mind. It's like dating Kate Upton or being the president. Somebody is/does but it_s not ever going to be you.

Well now it can be you (the driving, anyway), and for less than the price of a used Hyundai. Sure, a good used Hyundai, but the price won_t put you out on the street. A company called GP Experience will grant you three laps in a real, live F1 car for just $6995, or $9995 if you want to drive at Circuit of the Americas. That_s almost reasonable. A guided climb of Mt. Everest will cost you $65,000 and take two months of your life. A short flight to the edge of space will cost you $250,000 and you might not come back in one piece. This GP Experience is relatively cheap compared to those other thrill-of-a-lifetime deals, and it_s run and done in a day.

And what a day it is.

The average GP Experience day starts, like all F1 careers, in karts. You race around in karts for a while after getting a chalk talk about understeer, oversteer and not hitting the wall with their beautiful and expensive F1 car. This is followed by laps in whatever supercar they happen to have on hand. We had a Lotus Evora, but GP Experience lists on its website the Ferrari 458, McLaren MP4 12c, Porsche Turbo and Infiniti G50 Eau Rouge. (No offense, but praygod you don_t get the Infiniti G50 Eau Rouge.)

Then they feed you lunch. After lunch, or sometimes before, you may also get some laps riding in the side pod of a three-seater Formula 1 car, or what they call an F1x3 car. This is an interesting experience. A professional sits in the driver_s seat while two passengers ride in the side pods like saddle bag beef. We rode in the side pod while professional driver and sports car championship winner Didier Theys manhandled the three-seater around The Thermal Club (The Thermal Club is a really fun couple of race tracks that will one day, hopefully, if they get all the permits, become a full-blown motorsports club with condos and swimming pools. It's located out in the desert east of Palm Springs). They strap you in tightly to your sidepod seat but in ours there were only lap and shoulder belts, no _crotch strap._ As a result, unless you find somewhere to brace your feet, your carcass tends to submarine into the footwell while the rest of you gets a little car sick. Better to be driving.

The most interesting thing about the sidepod ride was seeing where Theys got on the brakes, slowed for corners, then turned in and got back on the gas. It turns out even F1 cars have limits.

_It_s just a car,_ Theys said later. And ultimately, it was. Just more so.

After all that you are ready to drive.

GP Experience had just one car on-hand the day we were there. No one seemed to be sure exactly which F1 car it was. The invitation and the paint scheme sure made it seem like we_d be driving Kimi Raikkonen_s E20 Lotus in which the Flying Finn took third place in the world championship in 2012. Later, it seemed the car we_d drive was a 2006 Renault (or maybe a 2005 Renault), painted to look like Kimi_s Lotus. Then they said they would ask someone at LRS Formula in France, with whom GP Experience is partnered. LRS has been letting average Joes and Jacques drive F1 cars in Europe for years. Now, when winter hits Europe, GP Experience will run the cars in the U.S. Eventually we got semi-confirmation that the car is a 2006 Renault chassis. That would mean it might have been driven by either 2006 champion Fernando Alonso or his Renault teammate Giancarlo Fisichella. No one was entirely certain.

Regardless, one of the most interesting things about an F1 car is the sheer volume of guys it takes to keep it going and in tip top shape. There were three real F1 mechanics and a whole squadron of support personnel. Our 2005/2006 Renault had a Peugeot V10 it because Renault will not let GP Experience use its engines for this. The car has a sophisticated paddle-shifted transmission massaged by McLaren to make it easier for mere mortals to shift. If you don_t upshift or downshift when you should, the McLaren shifting algorithm does that job for you. There might have been Pirelli guys onhand, too, since the car ran on real Pirelli F1 tires. Peak output of the Peugeot V10 as it sits in this Renault chassis is listed at 620 hp. So you really do have to ease onto the gas.

You climb into the thing and soon everyone at the track in any capacity has gathered around it. A drive of an F1 car is a pretty big deal anywhere in the world, even just to watch. Thus everyone from the chief instructors to the guy assisting with the catering was gathered around, perhaps to see if this driver/poseur would stall.

Ha! He would not! The clutch would be no problem, said the French-speaking mechanic, in Franglais. At least that_s what we thought he said. He kept making hand and arm signals of what we think was a clutch pedal and a gas pedal. One went up, the other down.

Just before they started the engine we hung a hand outside the cockpit and spun an index finger in the air, just as we_d watched real F1 drivers do it in Europe years ago. We were going to get the full experience.

Once it fires, your job as driver is to rev the engine several times. Waaaaa! Waaaa! Waaaa! That's fun.

Renault R26 at speed

Then you set off. The clutch was, indeed, easy to operate and had been modified to make it easier for average humans to use. We didn_t stall, which no doubt disappointed the many media colleagues who were onhand.

Leaving the pits the car hesitated somewhat. We wanted to launch down pit row, but the car wasn_t responding. Regardless, we were following instructor Didier Theys, who was driving a Lotus Evora for the first lap. If we made it around the first lap in decent enough style and Theys thought we were safe enough about driving this car we_d be allowed to head out unsupervised.

Even behind the pace car, the first lap wasn_t slow. Theys was hammering that Lotus for all it was worth. We were smooth going into the corners, following the line Theys had suggested earlier when he had us drive an Evora while he sat in the passenger_s seat. He suggested a sharper turn-in than we might have used, and some trail braking, which we also might not have used.

_You cannot make it understeer,_ said Theys.

You can, however, make it oversteer, and pretty easily. So we eased onto the gas at every exit, while Theys hammered the Evora. Likewise, we didn_t trust the braking points. Sure, we knew this car, with its carbon ceramic brakes, could stop better than anything we_d ever imagined, but our brain didn_t really believe it.

_What_s the matter with you, you stinking wimp?_ said the little devil figure on our right shoulder.

_Don_t crash, we_ll get hollered at!_ said the angel on our left shoulder.

We balanced the two voices out and then lap one was over and we were waved past on Thermal_s front straight. The right shoulder guy won out and we hammered the throttle. Waaaaaa! Waaaaaaaa! Waaaaa! A series of lights on the steering wheel tells you when to shift: three greens then a red. You shift at the red by pulling up on the right paddle. You downshift by pulling on the left paddle as you go into corners: bwaaaaaammmmm, bwaaaaaammmmm, bwaaaaaammmmm! It_s just like you might imagine it is, only much more__ and a little less.

Ultimately it drove like a larger, more powerful formula-whatever-you_ve-already-driven. The tires were bigger, the engine was a lot bigger, and the weight was greater. The problem was pushing it hard enough to probe any kind of limit _ in your first three laps in an F1 car you can_t possibly know how fast to go, and you certainly don_t want to exceed the car_s grip, no matter how massive. So while Theys had said to hit the brakes hard at the number 5 braking point to get as much heat into them as possible, we were easing onto them at number 7. (He later admitted that he was hitting them at braking point 3.) And while Theys said to go into corners hard and fast, that the car wouldn_t understeer, we were still well below the Renault_s capacity to hold onto the track, gently approaching the speed Theys carried when we were riding saddlebag in the F1x3.

So while we were going fast, we were not at the limit. Nor anywhere near it.

If we_d had another three laps we would have hammered harder. As it was we did get oversteer exiting one of Thermal_s second-gear hairpins. We caught it with some countersteer and by easing off the gas before powering off down the short straight. A subsequent fellow media hack did the same thing, didn_t catch it, spun, and was unceremoniously escorted back to the pits. Everyone else_s day after that was spent behind the pace car for all three laps. Ha! Suckers! We got two unrestrained laps!

But that_s the thing: Even if you_ve just dropped 10 grand on your credit card, they will not hesitate to end your session right then and there if you spin. If you_re a paying customer they will talk you through it and explain how you should do it better so you can go back out and get your three laps. If you_re a freeloading car writer like us they just end your session. We didn_t want _ nor did we get - that ignominy.

But we still wanted to get all three laps with some sense of the capability of this car. With more time a driver certainly could have experienced more of the braking and more of the lateral gs. As it was, yes, this was pretty thrilling, but no, it was nowhere near the limits of the car. Who jumps into an F1 car for the first time in their life and is immediately at the limit? No one, that_s who.

Which is the idea. Your first shot of whatever drug is free, remember? It_s after that, when you_re addicted, that you really start to pay. To that end there_s something called the GP Drivers_ Club. If you complete the GP Experience for $6995 (or $9995), you are automatically in the GP Drivers_ Club, where you can spend $13,995 for ten laps at Circuit of the Americas _ two series of three laps and one of four. If you_ve done everything right, the four laps at the end of your ten-lap day can be had in the real 2012 Lotus E20, the very car in which Kimi Raikkonen finished third in the championship. You have to know how to left-foot brake to drive that car and that takes some time and a few more laps. But they are happy to sell you more laps.

Autoweek | Mark Vaughn

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