It was a pretty exceptional invitation: normal bloke to racing driver in 48 hours. Come to Abu Dhabi, flights and hotels paid. We’ll pick you up from the airport, put you up in the Yas Circuit Hotel (yes, the one that spans the track) and for the next two days you will be a racing driver. We’ll train you mentally, physically and we’ll put you in some exceptional racing cars with tuition from F1 drivers past, present and future.
You just don’t say no to something like that.
And so it was that, immediately after the Singapore Grand Prix, I flew to Abu Dhabi for two of the most amazing days of my life.
On arrival in my palatial room at the Yas Hotel, there was a bag waiting on the desk. In it sat a pair of Puma racing boots and gloves in my size, an itinerary, a welcoming letter and a disclaimer to sign in case I nerfed myself into a wall.
After a restful night’s sleep, I met up with my colleagues and friends for breakfast, where we were told how the two days was going to pan out.
First up for me was a morning of mental training with Dr Riccardo Ceccarelli, head of Formula Medicine and Robert Kubica’s personal trainer. The tests were tough. All based around a computer programme created by Formula Medicine, we would have our reaction times, concentration and memory put through their paces. Then we’d learn breathing techniques to calm us and focus the brain, before being put through the challenges once again.
I impressed with my concentration. Kubica has the record of 100% on this challenge, but I achieved 92% on my first try and 96% on my second. The good Doctor seemed impressed, as he did when I underwent a resting heart rate challenge. I scored an average of 60 beats a minute, which I then lowered under pressure to average under 57.
“Are you sure you’re not a racing driver?”
“No,” I replied. “I trained for this in Burger King yesterday, I had a few beers on the plane and I’ve already had a few cigarettes today.”
Unfortunately I failed almost all the other tests. Shockingly, and as my wife will attest, my memory is appalling.
From there, it was off to lunch, again prepared by Formula Medicine to provide exactly the correct levels of nutrients and vitamins a racing driver requires. A fillet steak, steamed vegetables, cheese and a banana. Healthy, but tasty too.
The afternoon of day one saw us in two different cars. First up for me was an Aston Martin GT4. And to show me how to drive it and where to go on the track? None other than Jean Alesi.
And I will tell you this much. He. Is. Bonkers.
So bonkers, in fact, that when I went out myself in the car, my instructor was most alarmed that I kept putting all four wheels over the kerbs and jumping them into the heavy braking zones.
“What are you doing? All four wheels on the track always.”
“I’m just doing what Alesi told me to do.”
“Fucking Alesi. Everybody he’s taught this morning says the same thing,” he grinned, through gritted teeth.
I must admit that I did have a massive moment coming up towards the hotel. I’d been carrying about 160kph through the double right hander on each of my previous laps, but on this lap I missed the first apex and was carrying about an extra 5kph. Having missed the first apex, I was miles from the second and was pulled over the kerbs and onto the painted blue lines on the run off. I hit the brakes and… nothing. The car just carried on going. With the shiny surface of the paint being compounded by the dust, there was just no grip. We stopped just in time before hitting the barrier.
“Everything OK?” my instructor asked.
“Fine, I just fancied a drink at the hotel bar,” I smiled.
Next up, go karts. We had Jules Bianchi, among others, showing us the ropes and having commentated on his driving all season in GP2 it was great to get out on a track with him. There was a big tyre chicane on the main straight which I tactically shunted with the rear of the kart on the first lap of the qualifying session to open it up a bit and basically allow us to straight line it without lifting. But it was still tight. Side by side wasn’t going to work.
I was dropped a place on the grid for doing that, which meant I started the race third behind Sanjeev from Star Sports and one pole, Nabil Jeffri who a few weeks previously had become the youngest driver to test an F1 car when he drove for Lotus.
At the start, Nabil slowed to the back of the pack to fight with Bianchi and the pros including karting superstar Aaro Vainio (watch out for him), and by the time we reached the chicane they were all over us. On the second lap, it started to get messy. When I told you two karts side by side into the chicane wasn’t going to work… imagine five of us. Tyres went everywhere. The chicane was no more.
Sanjeev and I had a great tussle until he ruthlessly punted me in my right rear and sent me spinning. I lost half a lap, and the red mist descended. Whatever else happened in this race, he was mine.
And I got him. On the penultimate lap. Exactly where he’d nerfed me. I preferred a wider line into the first corner, while he took it very tight. So on the exit of the final corner I pulled up alongside him, taking his preferred line but trying to carry my speed from the wider line. I held it… just, but Sanjeev’s heavy braking into the corner meant he couldn’t get on the power early enough to take the position back when I ran slightly wide on the exit.
Nabil won, of course. I was second. Sanjeev came home third.
And that was it for us from a driving point of view on day one, but it wasn’t the end of the fun.
First up we were driven to the Yas Marina drag strip to meet Hot Rod Fuller. Rod recognised me from SPEED and said he was a fan, which made me blush a bit as he’s a total legend in Top Fuel drag racing. He showed us his car. And it had two passenger seats.
1000 horsepower, tyres almost taller than me. We’d hit a quarter mile in around 5 seconds.
The Yas three seat dragster is a stunning piece of kit. By far the coolest thing for me was that our cockpits were just like Rod’s. Pedals, steering wheel, buttons, dials… the works. It really felt like we were driving. But when those lights went out, I was so glad I wasn’t.
For the first 1-2 second your brain just completely bricks itself. It hasn’t got a clue what to do. The world is coming at you so fast that it cannot take it all in and instead you just see a blur of colour and light… think about it like hitting warp speed in a sci fi movie.
It was an insane rush, and one which even the F1 drivers loved as it was such a new experience.
“You think that’s fast?” Rod smiled. “You should try my Top Fuel car. That baby’s got 8000 horsepower. We’ll hit 400kph in four seconds easy in her.”
As if that wasn’t enough, we’re then transported back to the race track, where the distinctive and familiar sound of an F1 car screaming around the place greets our arrival.
It pulls into the pits, the passenger gets out and the driver beckons me over.
“I’m glad you got here mate. Listen, I’ve only got another two runs left and I want to take you out. Tell them I want you next.”
I did as I was told, pulled on my helmet and got strapped in.
The red glove lifts out of the cockpit and swirls a finger in the air. The engine fires up and the car is lowered onto the ground. My feet and legs are pushed into the driver’s side. He reaches down and pats my leg, and we’re off.
As we exit the garage he leans his head to the side and the yellow, green and blue of Bruno Senna’s helmet become visible for the first and pretty much only time in the next three minutes.
I’d been in a two seater F1 car before, with Alan van der Merwe in Kylami back in 2004, but this ride just felt so ferocious. My residing memory of Kylami was the mineshaft, but here in Abu Dhabi the lap felt much longer and much, much more brutal.
Down the long straight your helmet feels as though it is being lifted off your head, and as Bruno hit the brakes I nearly headbutted the retaining piece of carbon fibre between us. Your body is pushed down into the seat before your head is thrown to the side as he flicks left, then right and then back on the power. The acceleration is intense, but the braking and in particular the high speed cornering just blows you away.
At one point I think I’m going to faint. At quite a few others I feel as if I’m going to be sick.
But we get back to the pits after two laps, and I am buzzing.
“How was that?” Bruno asks.
“I’m lost for words mate. It was amazing and horrible all at once.”
“I really wanted to show you how violent it is inside these cars, to give you a proper understanding of what it takes. And you need to remember that this two seater probably isn’t as fast as a GP2 Asia car, let alone an F1 car.”
“Wow. You have to do that, for 70 laps, and keep one eye in your mirror all the time to let the other guys through? Hats off to you mate. I genuinely don’t know how you do it.”
“It’s fun though isn’t it.”
“It’s something else. It really is.”
Aching, sore but elated, I returned to the hotel and watched as Jean Alesi and a certain Mr Herbert took over chauffeur duties in the two seater. Dinner was being served soon, but nobody lasted very long. We were all too tired.
I went to bed that night with a brand new appreciation for what these guys do. I’d always valued the job that they do and for me the men I get to report on, write about and spend time with have always been my heroes. But after experiencing at first hand the ferocity of what they go through corner after corner, lap after lap, I had an even greater level of respect for them.
With another day of driving and training left to come I honestly didn’t think the experience could get any better.
But I was about to proved wrong.
All Photos c/o Darren Heath, with the exception of the first (Sutton Images) and last (Will Buxton)