Formula One is many things. It is entertainment, it is the pinnacle of motorsports, it is a rich man’s past time, or it can be all of that. But is it a sport? Critics often lambast the riches the stratosphere of F1 drivers are being showered with, wondering how hard can it be to drive a million-dollar sled quickly?
In its defence, pundits and racing drivers will pontificate over the sheer physicality of driving an F1 car, the brutal G-forces drivers have to endure, the kilos of water they lose over the duration of a race, and not to mention the pressure of jostling with a dozen rivals while being boiled alive in the cockpit. However, more often than not, these explanations are met with a gaze of utter incomprehensibility.
It isn’t the fault of the listeners, after all, how are most audiences to grasp such concepts if their frame of reference is the optioned-up family SUV that sits on their driveway? Even if you possess the keys to a V12 Italian exotic and the lease to a circuit, the idea of 4G cornering forces is still inconceivable. It is like asking a hot air balloon operator to related being blasted off to the moon based on their prior experience of ascending into the clouds.
All things considered, the only way to understand what the commentators and drivers are on about is to get behind the wheel of an F1 car, and there are two problems with that. For starters, good luck getting your hands on one, and secondly, even if you are lucky, you won’t be able to experience the full extent of an F1 car unless you are, well, qualified enough to be an F1 driver.
Formula One has long moved on from Enzo Ferrari’s infamous “aerodynamics are for people who can’t build engines” quip. F1 cars of today owe its blinding cornering speeds and G-forces to its plethora of air deflecting aerodynamics and the sticky compounds of its tyres. These characteristics raise a Catch-22 situation. To get an F1 car to go fast, you have to go fast enough to generate the necessary downforce and put some heat into the tyres, but how are you to go fast enough if you don’t have the downforce or the heat in the tyres in the first place?
To drive an F1 car you pretty much need the superhuman skill and bravery of an F1 driver, something that 99.999999% of humans on the planet don’t possess. Even if you were to work your way to achieve the physical and mental capacity to earn a Superlicense, you would have been largely acclimatised to the rigours of motorsports by then. So for the rest of us mortal, to properly get a handle on what F1 drivers experience is to get an F1 driver to drive the rest of us. Enter the two-seater F1 car.
A few years ago I had the good fortune of being invited to take a ride in a two-seater F1 car, courtesy of the people who run the Sepang International Circuit. The two-seater in question was based off an old Minardi, you know, those lovable backmarkers from the early-2000s who were more of a fixture at the back of a grid than an actual championship contender. It didn’t help that piloting duties fell to the backmarker drivers of backmarker drivers, Alex Yoong. Not to throw rocks, even a backmarker F1 driver is still a god amongst people. At least he has the mental mettle to punt an F1 car around a track rather than dissolve into incoherent screaming, which is what I often wont to do in fight or flight situations.
Though the Minardi’s chassis has been extended to accommodate a passenger, it is no cushy pew. In fact, you are squeezed up against the rear bulkhead with a whacking Cosworth V10 attached on the other side, while the driver’s tub sits right at your crotch with your legs wrapped around the driver’s cell. If a crash were to occur, the driver would have an extra layer of human on the sides and back to cushion the impact, good to know.
The plan was to go for an out-lap and an in lap and to make sure that I would be able to call quits, I was given a pressure switch to hold on to. If, at any point in the run I’d want to opt-out – or involuntarily pass out – I’d just have to let go of the button. Surely, it can’t be that bad. Even the car’s mighty V10 rumbles invitingly through the many layers of insulation around my ear, head, and fire protection gear.
That serenity wasn’t to last. As the nose crossed the pit lane and the pit limiter was taken off, I knew this was not going to be an afternoon cruise. The car rockets forward with the sort of inescapable gravitational pull that you’d feel when released from the summit of a roller coaster track. My gut churns with the sensation of a free fall, but my mind is disoriented by the seemingly level horizon I’m spearing across. Though my bearings were snapped right back as Yoong gets on the brakes for the first corner as I feel as though we slammed into a wall.
Yoong nursed the first two corners at a relatively sedentary pace, before opening the taps on that V10 engine. As the engine went ballistic, it wasn’t the close proximity of its ear-piercing crescendo that overwhelms your senses, but the growing intensity of the vibrations to a point where it feels more like an electric current being fed through the base of my spine. It might be an old and stretched Minardi chassis, but it is still lighter than anything with two seats, and its conservative power figure of 750hp is still more than enough to squash time and space between Sepang’s turns.
As the speed builds so too does the sensation that the car is digging harder into the tarmac, pressed down by the invisible hand of physics. On the run-up to the 90-degree Turn 4, I anticipate the braking force and sure enough, the way it sheds speed just knocks the air out of you like the harness strain to restrain me to the bulkhead. The car’s turn-in is immediate, so quick was the way it changed its direction that it would even disorient a fly. It rearranges your perception of what fast means.
The charge down Turn 5’s sweeping downhill left-hander is over before I knew it, and Turn 7 and 8 melded into one fast corner. By now I was getting my head into the accelerative, braking, and cornering forces. But then came the switchback pair of Turn 12 and 13.
Now, I’ve driven V12 supercars and Formula racers around Sepang before. Turn 12 is a sweeping left-hander that connects to a right hand, with enough space to let you settle the car and set up for Turn 13. In an F1 car, even one as slow and hobbled by its own dimension like this, that space doesn’t exist. It is a quick left and an immediate quick right. As Yoong entered Turn 12, I leaned left in anticipation, but before I knew we entered Turn 13 and before I could respond, my face was shoved into the helmet. I tried to lift my head up to lean right but it was impossible as Yoong pressed through the longer Turn 13 to Turn 14, and the gravitational forces kept my feeble neck pinned down and pressed my face further into the helmet’s padding. It was as though the invisible hand of God had me in a neck lock.
As Turn 14 deposited us on the back straight I was knackered. The exhilaration was now replaced by a sense of dreaded fatigue, and this was only the opening lap. My hands were feeling the strain too, but as Yoong braked for the hairpin I gripped the pressure switch tighter, I certainly didn’t want to be known as the guy who pussed out on the out lap of an F1 car. Around the hairpin and the pit lane entrance’s point of no return we went and I steeled myself for another gruelling lap back to the pits.
Even with prior knowledge of what to expect on the corners ahead, I felt exhausted and out of my league here. The accelerative power of an F1 car and its sheer pace through the corners transforms what I knew about Sepang. Almost to a point where it feels almost unrecognisable. Things happen so quickly that the circuit shrinks around the driver. And before I knew it, Yoong goes straight for the pit lane at the end of the back straight, much to my relief. Even so, I kept the switch pressed tightly, lest he thinks that I might have given up before reaching the pits.
With the restraints removed, I staggered wearily out of the tiny occupant cell. My legs had turned to jelly from the engine vibrations and the adrenaline had fried my nerves. Even so, I still cannot comprehend the sheer physicality of driving an F1 car. In the span of a lap and a half I was spent, and drivers would have to do at least 300km per race.
Say what you want about Yoong, the F1 veteran had already done a couple of laps earlier with a handful of passengers, and rather than jump out to take a quick break, he just sat calmly in the car as technicians ran some checks and the next occupant prepared himself for what will certainly be the ride of his life. Again, gods among men.
As for me the ride just confirmed that I have neither the physical nor the mental prowess to properly drive an F1 car. Based on my experience of driving a tiny Formula Renault, there is nothing like driving a full-on Formula-series race car, no supercar comes close. But the requirements to drive an F1 car, much less to compete in one is mind-boggling, which is why few can understand just why F1 drivers and the cars are deserving of their status in motorsports. There is certainly nothing else that demands so much, technologically, physically, and mentally.