Walking into the garage, the team turn around and greet me like an old friend. I place my helmet and overall bags down on the table and introduce myself to the men in front of whom I will now have to do my all to not embarrass myself. They show me around the car, and talk me through the specs.
Built and designed by Van Diemen’s Ralph Firman, the MSV F4 013 has superb pedigree. A spaceframe chassis in compliance with FIA A.277 safety standards including front and rear carbon fibre impact structures, Diolen anti-intrusion side panels, cockpit head surround protection and wheel tethers. It’s a proper slicks and wings racer with adjustable front and rear wings, eight inch front and ten inch rear OZ wheels, fitted with Yokohama tyres. In the back, a 2 litre Duratec engine, using a Cosworth management system, kicks out 185bhp. The steering wheel features padel shift for the six-speed Sadev transmission, with Cosworth having also provided the gearbox control system. And to slow the thing down, AP Racing 4-piston brake calipers with cockpit adjustable brake bias.
I take this all in, wondering if anyone in the garage has any idea that I have literally only passed my race license moments before meeting them.
And then I see it… my name, on the side of the car. Today has just officially become the coolest day. Ever.
I get changed into my spangly new Alpinestars kit, looking very much like the new kid at School in his shiny uniform, and settle into the cockpit for the first time to get acquainted to what will be my office for the afternoon. Richard Gates, Team Manager for the Test and Development Project of the F4 championship oversees everything, as Christian Vann is back on hand to ensure that I am comfortable and that the pedals are in the right position.
There is a foot clutch for first gear and a double pedal brake in the centre. Throttle on the right, naturally.
Andy Wildman, the Chief Mechanic, wrings the changes up front, and when I feel comfortable, everything, including me, is bolted into place.
I’m reminded of the advice Vicky Piria gave me the day before. “Just find your braking points and work from there. Build up your speed steadily. You’ll do fine.”
Richard gives me a smile. “You’ll be great,” he says. “There’s no pressure, nobody to beat, nothing to prove. Just get a feeling for the car, the track, the conditions. It’s going to feel a lot faster and very different to the Peugeot. Just enjoy it.”
Christian is the last voice I hear. “You OK?” he grins.
I nod my head. I can feel my eyes are out on stalks.
“Just to warn you, there are two McLaren GTs testing out on track today too. They will be MUCH faster than you. Don’t change your lines. Stick to your line. They will drive around you. OK? Have fun.”
And with that, the engine is fired up.
It’s a lovely and yet brutal feeling, somewhere between the most gorgeous back massager in the world, and a pneumatic drill made out of rubber pointing at your kidneys.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. Closing my hands around the steering wheel, I push down the clutch and select first gear with a flick of my right fingers. I raise the revs, lift off the clutch, and the car jumps forward. I keep the revs up, Richard smiles and waves me on, beckoning me towards the pitlane.
Somehow I’ve managed not to stall. I push the throttle down, pull my visor shut and then, for the first time, I’m all alone.
“Don’t screw it up, don’t screw it up, don’t screw it up…” is all that is running through my head.
I know the track from earlier in the day. But do I know it THAT well? I really don’t.
I use the same gearing as in the Peugeot, and for this first tentative lap it seems to work out fine. I delicately press the throttle, not wanting to unleash all the power to the rear tyres and spin myself around. I have no idea how much torque this thing has, I have no idea how much downforce it produces at high speed. Hell, I don’t even know what a car with downforce even really feels like. It’s cold, the sky is grey. Is that going to make a difference? Will I spin easier in conditions like this? Theoretically. Yes. I’ve seen the pros do it, so I sure as hell can. Oh what am I thinking, this is my first lap… Stop talking to yourself. STOP TALKING TO YOURSELF!
I reach the back straight and for the first time I push the throttle all the way to the floor. The lights shoot across the steering wheel and I shift up. And again. And again.
OH MAN! Now that’s what I’m talking about. I feel my helmet lift up slightly as the air buffets underneath and I am pushed back into my seat. I lift off, coasting into the left hander, brake, shift down, pull right, through the Bomb Hole… the lap is almost over.
I bring her back in. I haven’t spun. I haven’t hit anything. I haven’t crashed into a McLaren. Huge relief.
But wait, crap… I have to brake with my right foot now as I need the left for the clutch. The footwell is small and cramped and, unsure of the exact placement, I hit a touch of throttle as I come back to the team. I slam on the brakes, aim for the clutch, miss and stall.
The friendly faces are back. All is OK.
“How was it?” asks Richard.
“Immense,” I reply. “Can I go again?”
“Absolutely. Five laps, build up your speed. Steady increases, remember your braking points.”
The engine is fired up again, and I’m back out. With that first lap out of the way, I have a confident base to start from. I know I’m not going to fall off. I can see where I’m going. And, if we are being completely honest, it feels an awful lot more natural to drive a single seater than to drive the Peugeot. The steering is direct and with no driver aids, you know exactly where you are. You feel the engine through your right foot and your arse, you feel the tyres and the grip through your fingers.
Each lap, I gain in confidence. I am on the brakes later, on the power earlier, I am carrying more speed through the corners. It is starting to feel really good.
Tony Kent is the Systems Manager back in the garage, and when I come in after my five lap run I’m feeling pretty good.
“20 seconds off Jolyon’s best,” is not the news I was hoping for. Reality sinks in. Jolyon Palmer may be the F4 development driver with Christian Vann, he may be a GP2 race winner, F2 championship runner up and all round quick racing driver (the best overtaker in the current GP2 field it should be added)… but 20 seconds?
My disappointment is clear to see. But then I buck myself up. I’ve done six laps. Ever. At least I’ve not done anything stupid yet. And the guys seem not to think I’m a total idiot. I’ll take these small victories.
The next run, Jason, my friend and producer at NBC, attaches GoPros to the car to catch some footage for a piece we are filming about the day. One of them sits in the middle of the tub, right in my line of sight.
“I hate that,” Christian admits. “It screws up your focus and line of sight. Try to look though it, just forget it is there.”
I listen, learn, and get ready for my next run.
There’s one corner that’s been catching me out so far: Hamilton. It’s a fast 4th gear left hander. There’s a bollard on the apex, but I’ve been miles from it all day. This time I pick up the pace, determined I’m going to nail it. I turn in way too late and way too fast. Trying to compensate for missing the apex so desperately I tighten the lock.
Buxton, you’re doing it wrong.
The back snaps around on me in the blink of an eye. I follow the front around as the car is launched up over the curbs and onto the grass. I look around and see one of the McLarens blast through the enormous puff of dust I’ve left behind.
What an idiot.
The car isn’t broken, so we go out one last time before the rain hits. But just as I leave the pits rain starts to fall. At speed, the rain streaks effortlessly off my visor and I can see with absolute clarity where I’m going. But grip? Forget it. I spin at the second corner. Then again at the chicane under the bridge. I’m sitting in the middle of the track, on the exit of a blind left hander and one of the fastest parts of the track.
Clutch in, first gear, hit the start button. The engine fires up. Full lock right, light up the rears. The back swings round and we’re off and out of the way of the speedy McLarens.
I don’t think I’ve ever sworn so much in the space of 30 seconds. But I’m back off again, and the car and thankfully I, too, are still in one piece.
I try one more lap, but the grip and my confidence are being erased with every passing corner.
We have some down time while the small rain storm passes, and so we all pour over the telemetry with Tony, while eating Cornish pasties. I can’t eat though. I’m buzzing on adrenalin. We look at Jolyon’s trace against mine. There are so many places I can be making up time. We decide to concentrate on Turn 1.
My first run, that of the 20 seconds off the pace, had seen me braking 156 metres before Jolyon. By the end of my second serious run, I had brought the gap down to 8 seconds, and the braking at Turn 1 down to 71 metres.
I still had some way to go, clearly.
Once the rain had passed and the McLarens had created a dry line we out again on the old tyres. My first lap was incredibly tentative. All my confidence had been wiped out by that wet run on slicks and the spins. But then, out of nowhere, a revelation. I carried way too much speed into Palmer, the fast left hand third turn. But the car stuck. And it felt great.
So I pushed a bit harder and faster into a few more corners. And the car loved it.
“So THIS is what downforce is supposed to do!” I screamed. It was a Eureka moment.
I came back into the pits, buzzing and eager to get going again.
“Not just yet,” smiled Richard. “We’ve just got to change your tyres.”
A brand new set of Yokohama slicks were brought out. I honestly hadn’t expected this.
“You’re doing really well,” Richard said. “So we want you to see what new tyres will do for you. Experience the increase in grip. Enjoy.”
Christian sits down by me again and explains how to work the tyres for the first two laps. Long progressive braking, building up brake temperature to put heat into the tyres is what is required. Then, after one flyer, go for it.
I’m now in absolutely determined mood. My missions are two-fold. Get my braking as close to the final marker as possible at Turn 1, and get the most out of these new tyres.
I call to mind the final piece of advice I was given by Antonio Felix da Costa on Snetterton’s unique challenges. “You can take more speed through Turn 1 than you think. It’s a really late apex. Oh, and enjoy the final corner. A long right, keep one lock, late apex, hit it and get set up for the final left. It’s tough, but a buzz when you get it right.”
I enjoy every second of the run. I have no idea what times I’m running but the car feels great. The extra grip in the new tyres means I can push hard, take more speed in, the car goes where I want it to. It’s better on throttle, it is better under braking. It just feels alive. And so do I.
I bring it in, and everyone seems impressed.
A 2:00.61. My fastest lap of the day, and less than 4 seconds of Jolyon. My braking for Turn 1 is now down to 11 metres.
I am jumping inside the cockpit. I want one more go. I know I can go faster. I’m convinced. There’s so much more I can do, so much speed I can make up. I know where I’m losing out. The rain has meant I’m not attacking the curbs because they spun me, and I’d lost my confidence. If I attack them more, there’s tenths to be gained in each one. I can hold Bomb Hole faster, I know I can. I can brake later for Turn 1!
One final run, then. But after just a few laps, a red flag. The day is over. Time has run out.
I’m bummed not to be able to attempt a real run at my best lap, but (cue racer’s excuse) I think I’d already taken the best from the new tyres.
Did I improve anything on that last run? Tony grins. My braking for Turn 1 is down to 5 metres.
I am absolutely exhilarated. It has been the most incredible day. From passing my license to a full afternoon testing the Formula 4 car, I can barely believe the progress made in one sitting. I want to get back in. As I sit here writing this now, weeks later, I want to get back in the cockpit. And race.
With the world going through a period of economic austerity, you might ask whether there’s room for another junior championship. But with the death of Formula BMW, Formula 4 fills an incredibly important void.
The championship carries the BRDC label, and the Club’s President Derek Warwick explained early on why the new championship was so crucial to him and the BRDC. “I have been very worried over the last few years about how our young British drivers of the future are supposed to make that big move from karting to circuit racing. Back in the day there was a relatively simple ladder if you had the talent; Formula Ford, Formula 3, Formula 2 and then Formula 1 if you were good enough. We currently have total confusion within our sport in terms of formulae, cost and the best way to gain experience in a cost effective way.
“The “BRDC Formula 4 Championship” gives us exactly what our sport is missing; reliability, slicks, wings, good horsepower and affordability. Most drivers want to gain the right experience as quickly as possible before moving up the racing ladder and this is why the BRDC is backing F4 and MSV.”
Jonathan Palmer himself is no stranger to running race championships, and the costs associated with F4 make it hugely tempting to anyone aiming to get onto the single seater ladder. Incredibly, the car, minus engine, can be bought new for less than £30,000. That’s actually quite astonishing when you think about it.
The car itself is responsive, but forgiving. For a novice such as me, it was a blast. I can only imagine what it must feel like to race it.
And trust me, I’m in discussions to do just that.
I’ve got the F4 fever. And the only thing that can cure it, is more F4.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Jonathan Palmer, the entire F4 test and development crew and all the staff and marshals at MSV and Snett for the most incredible day. I’ll never forget it. And hopefully I’ll be back, at the wheel of a car, on the grid, soon.
For more info on Formula 4, please visit the website