Over the decades, the personalities of Formula One have changed — names like Senna, Mansell and Prost in the 1980s gave way to Schumacher, Hakkinen and Coulthard, and now Vettel, Raikkonen and Hamilton. Teams have faded along the way, and others have come to light. Technology has changed — the nuances of aerodynamics, tire wear, engine performance and braking have evolved. But one thing has remained: the ferocity of the Formula One race car. The spirit of wrangling that nearly unbridled power has stayed the centerpiece of this ne plus ultra racing series, and the machine — that low-slung rocket — has always been what makes F1 the fastest, most adrenaline-laced racing series on the planet.
MORE FIRST-HAND RACING: NASCAR Driving | Audi’s School of Racing | 24 Hours of LeMons
I, with a lifetime of fandom, have lived plagued by a question that first lodged itself in my brain 30 years ago. I sat, 14 years old, in my den with my Ferrari cap on, savoring the in-car camera views of a race, wanting to know one thing: What’s it like to drive that race car? I sensed how F1 contains a degree of magic in the man/machine partnership. I anticipated the feeling — those bulbous tires in my peripheral vision, the engine seemingly strapped to my back, the G-forces, the ground-level perspective — and I wanted to feel that energy in my own frame. I could watch the cars zip by, but what I really wanted was to grab that car and navigate it with my own two hands, my foot hard on the accelerator.
It’s basically a daylong car-porn fest, with the climax being the F1 drive.
Pirelli, the renowned tire manufacturer who provides nearly 40,000 of the carefully engineered rubber bits to Formula One every season (not no mention the other race series and millions of consumer vehicles), launched its Grand Prix Experience two years ago. Initially offering race enthusiasts the opportunity, to the tune of $1,000, to ride along in Pirelli’s three-seat F1 car, they upped the ante this year by introducing an actual drive event. For the first time, race fans can get behind the wheel of a Formula One car.
The vehicles aren’t quite current vintage — they’re former Renault and Benetton race cars with Cosworth, Judd or Peugeot V8 and V10 engines. They’ve been modified to help ensure safety and reliability, which is critical when your cars have to run all day long with a bunch of noobs at the wheel. But in terms of power, handling and overall geometry, they’re legit F1 cars, providing a comparable ride to current cars. “Many people share this dream”, says Jean Paul Libert, the visionary CEO behind the GP Experience. “So we set out to give our customers the opportunity to experience the impossible.”
To help enthusiasts realize these dreams, Libert assembled a collection of suitable cars, a team of engineers to maintain them and a cadre of experienced coaches to help ensure that everyone gets the most out of the experience — and keeps the precious Pirelli rubber on the asphalt. His instructor team includes sports car legend Didier Theys and Indycar driver Simona De Silvestro. The experience also includes practice laps in go-karts, less powerful open-wheel formula cars, and supercars like the Ferrari 458 and the McLaren MP4-12C. It’s basically a daylong car-porn fest, with the climax being the F1 drive. The cost for all this action is $10,000.
A rainy Wednesday morning at the Circuit of the Americas, the new and highly praised 3.4-mile F1 circuit outside of Austin, meant that the three F1 cars would wear wet-weather tires — treads instead of slicks. Because the weather was unpredictable, Libert dispensed with the go-kart warmup (too slippery for those little things) and we went straight to F1 prep. I rode with an instructor for three laps in a Mercedes-AMG sedan before taking the wheel of the same cars for three laps of my own. This was followed by laps in the three-seater F1 car, in which we truly hit the track at speed. I studied the racing line around COTA and evaluated the entries and exits into the turns — brake first, turn in, smoothly accelerate out. Simple in an AMG, but strapped to a skittish thoroughbred like an F1 car, the challenge loomed. Between sessions, as I milled about the immaculate, brightly lit garage, tension built. Would I spin out in the rain, ball it up at the end of the straight? In short, would I make a fool of myself and bury my driving dream in the wall?
As I turned toward the downhill segment, all hell broke gloriously loose.
The next round of coaching came in front of a big map of the track, on which Libert pointed out the most challenging turns, including three tight second-gear turns that would be our most likely points of spinning, stalling, or otherwise mangling the engine and gearbox. Then they warned us about the clutch. Though the cars use paddle shifters to change gears once you’re rolling, launch still requires use of the clutch. Releasing too fast will stall the engine. Releasing without having the revs high enough will also stall the engine. Not maintaining friction all the way through to the end of the clutch release will stall the engine. Essentially, it’s how any other road car’s clutch works, but the clutch travel is much longer here, and the forces applied far greater. In short, my stall probability was high — another entry on the anxiety checklist.
As mid-afternoon settled over the wash of wet Texas flatland, my moment finally came. I strapped on my helmet, put on my gloves, and writhed into the snug cockpit. The crew tightened my harness, and they started the engine. A loud roar came, followed by a tight, steady idle. I remembered the sequence: two throttle blips after the start, clutch in, engage second gear, raise the revs, release the clutch…slowwwwly. The team’s crew chief guided me through each step with hand signals. On the first try, the car slowly rolled off the line, and stalled. I popped it into third gear almost immediately, for no legitimate reason beyond a dose of over-eagerness. They rolled me back and restarted the engine. I eased forward, built up a hint of speed, and stalled. I’d let go of the clutch too early.
The third time I hit the instructions right and got off to a jittery start down the pit lane. I fell in behind the pro in the race car ahead — a more conventional race car you might see at Le Mans — and we exited the pit lane and headed to the top of the steep hill at the end of the main straight. There, as I turned toward the downhill segment, all hell broke gloriously loose. I rolled through turn one and stood on the throttle, awash in the sound of the high-revving 500 horsepower V10 engine behind me. Barely a nudge of the wheel in each direction got me through the first sequence of esses cleanly, and a half-turn took me through the first second-gear turn. Everything about the car felt firm and precise — no “play” anywhere, and nothing but instantaneous response to every driver input. It’s an exquisitely stressed machine designed to do but one thing: devour pavement, fast.
Fully reclined in the cockpit, tucked between the tires ahead and the engine behind, I powered around the circuit embedded in what felt like a tightly wound spring. There was a militaristic sense of focus and purpose. You don’t look up and down as you do in normal cars. In an F1, you simply look out and over; there is no up and down and it’s a refreshingly narrow reality. Even in the wet, everything felt collected and ready to strike. I hit turns as fast as I dared and felt confident even on this unfamiliar ground.
I powered around the circuit embedded in what felt like a tightly wound spring.
On the long back straight, I buried the throttle and shot up to 165 mph, my helmet pitching rearward in the slipstream. I expected the car to start somehow coming loose, but it stayed rock steady all the way down, thanks in no small part to the downforce generated by the front and rear wing. It was comfortable and precise. I could focus not on my own safety, but on driving the car as best I could. This is what an F1 car is built to do: take care of staying pinned to the road, so you can take care of pointing the car in all the right places.
Admittedly, I struggled with the gearbox during parts of my laps. I fell out of sync with what the engine wanted me to do and when I bumped up against either the top or bottom of the RPM range, the car knocked the gears up or down on its own. I finally made peace with it and managed a few clean, if not ideally timed shifts, and executed a flying lap that cemented within me the desire to never bring this thing back into the pits. But of course I had to. At the end of the third lap, I got the checkered flag from the corner worker and followed my guide into the pit lane. I glided up to the staging area and promptly stalled out 40 feet short of my mark.
Have I come close to knowing what this car can do when driven hard and well? Not a chance. Do I know what it’s like to pilot this machine in actual race conditions, with the best drivers in the world trying to make mincemeat out of you? Of course not. But I do know this: Piloting that thing around for a few hot laps at COTA was an unparalleled thrill, and in the end I managed to turn fear and jumpy anxiety into something approaching actual accomplishment. I kept my head, stayed “present” through every turn, and muscled my way into modest harmony with a car that’s far out of my league. The 14-year-old fantasy had culminated, and even with 30 years of hopeful anticipation, it was still better than I had dreamed.