Have you ever had a moment so vivid, so crystal clear, so colourful and bright, so stunningly perfect, a moment born of such passion, hope and expectation that as it unfolds before your eyes you are forced to question your very lucidity and thereafter to forever wonder if you really were dreaming all along?
Shifting into seventh gear, right foot planted to the floor, heading uphill on the back straight at Circuit Paul Ricard at the wheel of the Lotus E20, the Renault R31 V8 engine screaming behind me, its every vibration sending pins and needles through my fingertips, life flying past me at almost 300kph… I hold my breath.
This isn’t really real. Is it?
It had been quite a year since I first set foot inside a single seater, at the wheel of the MSV BRDC Formula 4 car at Snetterton on a cold and rainy British summer’s afternoon, to find myself in the sunny South of France about to drive a Formula 1 car, via Florida and the Ferrari Winter Series. But there was no way I felt anywhere near ready to drive something so fast and powerful… and expensive.
It’s not as though you’re thrown straight in though. We media types had been invited down to Ricard to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the iRace programme, run by the Lotus F1 Team. It was started back in the day when the team raced under the Renault banner, but the entire concept has been overseen by Frederic Garcia, whom I have known since my days in GP2. Our paths would often cross due to our Renault connection, and also in no small part to the amount of time we both used to spend at Circuit Paul Ricard.
I spent so much time at the circuit between 2004 and 2008 that Ricard became my one true happy place and to this day there are few parts of the world that fill me with as much joy. I’ve lost count of the number of track variations, days, laps and minutes I have seen pass by over the seasons at this place, and yet for the first time I was to get the chance to drive the track myself.
I’d be joined by colleagues David Croft (Sky Sports F1 HD), James Roberts (F1 Racing Magazine), Juan Fosarolli (Fox Sports South America) amongst others… oh, and ex F1 racer Taki Inoue. And our first task was of course to give the circuit a quick once over. We’d be driving formation 3D (my personal favourite from the GP2 days). From there, we’d get limbered up with some massages before taking a spin in a Formula Renault 2.0.
The cockpit felt familiar, and not overly dissimilar to the Formula Abarth I’d raced in Florida. The main difference was the simplicity of the wheel and the replacement of the sequential handle with wheel mounted paddle shift. In terms of aero, power and handling though, the two were very similar.
The first half hour is spent behind a safety car, taking things easy. Too easy. In spite of the pace picking up a little towards the end, I held back to try and find some space but on somewhat cold tyres, spun on the exit of Turn 1. I kept the rears lit and spun around to pick up the back of the pack having left a nice big black donut mark down at the first turn.
Then we are released on our own. It felt good to be back at the wheel of a single seater, even more so with the complete lack of any pressure at all. The day exists for fun, to allow anyone the chance to experience something that few think they ever could, and over the last 10 years iRace has given hundreds the opportunity to live their dreams and drive an F1 car.
I’m hitting the Formula Renault’s steel brakes at the marker points and they’re proving way too early, so I take larger and larger chunks out each lap through. A few laps in I go way too deep and lock the rears at Turn 1. I catch it… sort of… half spinning but not exactly making the corner either. I turn around and get going again, dialling the brake bias forward. The car feels better under braking, more on its nose, but as I exit the final turn I’m called into the pits.
“You’re braking too late and too aggressively,” I’m told. “You’re spinning under braking.”
“Only once,” I reply. “I just locked the rears for Turn 1 so I’ve dialled the bias forward a bit.”
“Oh… OK.” A knowing smile. “On your way.”
We are given our telemetry after the session. I’m happy with my braking shape and strength. The guys however say I’m braking too hard. At least I am for the steel brakes on the Formula Renault. Still, it puts a seed of doubt in my mind at precisely the time when I wanted my confidence to be up. But there’s a good reason for that. I’m about to be let loose in the car that won the 2012 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. We may be at Paul Ricard, one of the most advanced racetracks in the world with mile upon mile of run off, but sending out a relative novice high on confidence is a sure-fire way to a massive repair bill.
Pastor Maldonado arrives to give us a few final words of advice before stepping into the car. He tells us of his first laps in an F1 car when he drove a Minardi back in November 2004. Even for the hugely experienced, race and championship winning Maldonado, the experience was one he recalls in acute detail and one which he assures us for which he was nowhere near ready.
Which means we’re definitely not.
Our briefing on driving the E20 passes by in a haze of nerves. All in all though, we’re told it is not going to be as tough as we think. Wing levels are cranked up, traction control is at its maximum, there’s the blown diffuser… drive it fast or the aero won’t work. High revs. Brake hard to keep the temperatures up. Enjoy it.
And as each colleague returns, that’s the repeated phrase.
“You can go so much faster than you think. Don’t hold back, just go for it.”
The same line, almost identically, is repeated by everyone who gets out.
And then it’s my turn.
I drop myself into the car, but in order to hit the pedals I’m perhaps a touch too low in the tub. There’s no time for bespoke seats to be made, of course, so it’s the best we can do. Belts strapped tight, I’m now exceptionally nervous. I feel so silly. Why the hell am I nervous? I know the track, I’ve got my license, I’ve been racing against Marciello and Fuoco and Verstappen this season… I’m not an idiot, and the car has been set up for absolute novices.
The engine is fired up and it roars. The whole car vibrates with a beautiful, warming hum. We roll forward into the pitlane. Visor down. Hand clutch in, engage first gear, slowly release the clutch and off we go.
The E20 gently eases forward as the revs and speed increase. I lower my right foot down and we rocket forward. It’s the kind of immense response you get from the throttle on a trials bike when you’re used to a Vespa. The slightest touch on the pedal and you are thrown back in your seat. And it feels glorious.
Out of the pits and already up to fourth gear before braking for turn one and shifting down to second. Back hard on the throttle and hold it in third through the right hander, shifting up to fourth before getting on the brakes and dropping down again through the gears for the uphill, down dale esses.
I’ll be honest. By this point I already dislike the carbon brakes. There is maybe an inch and a half of feel in them. That’s it. I’d got so used to steel brakes and the relatively long brake pedal one gets to play with to modulate braking and control brake shape in the other single seaters I’d driven, that to suddenly have it all occur in a few centimetres of movement is nigh on impossible to wrap your head around so quickly.
For now though, I don’t care. I hit the right hand apex on the S, and the track opens up ahead of me. I press my right foot to the floor and hold my breath. Third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh… it’s like being in control of your own rollercoaster.
My eyes stand out on stalks, as my brain struggles to keep up with the speed of what it is having to compute. Its cogs simply won’t turn fast enough, and so what stands in front of you is a blur of colour and light and noise, rushing towards you along a strip of grey rising uphill to a vanishing point. It is the most exhilarated and yet the most terrified I have ever been.
The brake marker appears and I lift, shifting down to fifth, setting myself up for the final third of the track, a sequence of tricky turns which require quite delicate placement of the car to ensure you’re pointing as straight as possible under braking in the midst of seemingly never ending corners.
I still can’t get the braking right, but as I round the final corner I floor the throttle, and am shifting from sixth to seventh as a I cross the start line. My one flying lap has started, but inside the first 100 metres I’ve ruined it. I squeeze the brakes and run deep into Turn one. I was nowhere near hard enough on the pedal, not even close. I double back to the track and trundle through the turn, getting back on it through the fast right hander and into the S.
Back into that glorious back section, I hit the throttle early and feel the back end step out. My own reaction tells me to correct and get back on it, but the car has already reacted before me and I can feel the TC controlling the rear and pushing me on, back up the hill. The radio beeps on.
“Use the brakes harder.”
I look down at the wheel. Its like a bag of pick n mix. I can’t remember which button does what. I find the radio button, shout “COPY THAT” and look up. I have travelled practically the entire straight. In the time it took me to find the radio button.
The right hander at Signes is next. My one true challenge. I thought I’d held it flat in the Formula Renault but the telemetry said I’d lifted just a touch. Not this time though. I was going in hard and I was going in fast. Easy flat. Easy.
My brain said yes. My balls said no. Not quite as big as I’d hoped.
Into the next right, turn in, straighten up and hit the brakes. Hard. Too hard.
Having not been warmed up with my pathetic excuse for braking on my formation lap and into my flyer, the temperature has dropped and I lock up and fly off track, flat spotting the front right a touch and running over the blue high abrasion run off strips.
The lap is ruined (it was rubbish from the first corner) and so I just decide to enjoy myself, blasting the throttle a few times and trying to sort out how in the hell to get a feel for the brakes. The in lap is a blast, flying once again down that glorious back straight, this time taking in the surroundings and the speed with which they fly past me, all under my control.
And in a flash, those three laps are over and I’m back in the pits.
I’m instantly thinking back over the laps, which now seem to have gone past so quickly they’ve all meshed into one. I could have braked harder and later. I could have carried more speed into the corners. I could have got on the power earlier. The fact the TC only kicked in once… the car would have forgiven my inadequacies. I shouldn’t have been so cautious.
I jump out of the car and utter those same words about not holding back to the next driver. I know he won’t listen. I know he, as I, and for that matter all of us before, will hold back and emerge from those laps utterly exhilarated… and yet just that little bit gutted.
You see, driving a Formula 1 car is a drug. It is the ultimate buzz, heightening every one of your senses to levels you never realised possible. Never have I felt so alive. Never have I felt so thrilled. Never have I felt so scared.
And at the end, all you want is just one more lap. Just one. One more hit of that speed, of that adrenalin, of that immense feeling of being so joyously alive. But deep down you know that won’t be enough to assuage your thirst, your desire… your absolute need to taste that thrill once more.
You’ll always want just one more lap.
Perhaps, then, its best that the experience felt surreal at the time and as the days and weeks have passed since, seems now to be even more of a dream. How it must feel for that thrill to become the norm. How it must feel to then have it taken away. Its no wonder a driver will do anything to get to and then stay in Formula 1. Regardless of whether they’re Romain Grosjean driving that E20 to podiums, or hauling the E22 by the scruff of its neck into Q2, that thrill is what keeps every racer pushing.
For just one more lap.