My hands are shaking as I pull on my gloves. There’s no logical reason for this: the equipment is top rate, the safety precautions bang on, and these are experienced professionals. But still my nerves are set on edge. Recently Pirelli launched the new-for-2012 F1 tyre compounds at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, and a passenger ride in a two-seater F1 car was the curtain closer.
Nobody had left early, hoping to miss the traffic. Throughout the day, the V10 had shaken the ground we gawped on as it repeatedly fired into life.
Repeatedly. Since my group was the last to go, this didn’t quell any lingering butterflies: What if the engine let go?; What if a terminal gearbox problem crept in before our runs? Engine cooling issues had already befallen one of the cars, and some not-too carefully disguised frowns from a few mechanics didn’t bode well for the second.
Then there was my other concern: standing over 6’ tall, would I fit in the car at all? The doubts refused to leave as I snapped commemorative photos for colleagues on a plethora of iPhones and Canons. Having wrestled myself into a race suit and waited the entire day for this moment, to fall at the final hurdle would be heartbreaking.
Another dazed journalist walked tentatively away from the repainted Minardi F1 two-seater as I put in my earplugs and threw on a helmet. A quick thumbs up to the mechanic who fastened my straps confirmed that, yes, they were cutting off the blood circulation quite nicely, and I was called forward for my run.
Getting seated was a delicate procedure, requiring brute force and swearing in equal measure. Assurances from the touchlines that I ‘would go in’ were plentiful, though threading my legs through a gap half their size suggested otherwise. Inch by inch, and with a mechanic pulling on each leg, gravity finally took control. I was sitting on the floor – the seat had been removed – and the tightened safety harness meant breathing occurred only occasionally.
But I was in.
A nod from mission control – a laptop connected to the car’s onboard electronics – and the tyre warmers are removed. Seconds later the V10 explodes into life inches from my back. The driver between my legs – GP2 race winner Giacomo Ricci – slams his visor down as we roll out of the box. A limiter pegs us at 50kph down the pitlane until we cross the white line. Then he guns it.
My helmet is wrenched backwards with an alacrity I’m not expecting. I’ve been told to avoid covering the air inlet behind me and up against 4G, it takes no little effort to comply. Having succeeded, my head is suddenly wrenched forward again: as Giacomo hits the brakes, I hit the padded headrest in front of me. Through the opening left-right complex, and we’re into the tight left hairpin. Hugging the apex and feeding the power in gently, Giacomo opens the taps on the back straight.
Much as I’d like to describe the circuit and its technical configurations, I’m too busy giggling to pay attention. We’re pulling 250kph before I can snap my fingers, the wind buffeting my helmet as I strain to look ahead. We hit maximum revs (all 16,000 of them) under heavy acceleration, and gear changes come with pinpoint precision. Despite the high-pitch, the engine notes sound raw, primal, and aggressive. The helmet straps strain to fight back the g-force, my field of vision getting smaller as they fail to do so. The 100m board sails past before we open the chute at the end of the straight.
Another tight left hairpin, hit the rumble strips, and flat through the next right. With my legs in the way, Giacomo doesn’t have much room to throw opposite lock, and as the car squirrels under braking, a succession of minute corrections puts the rear back on its leash. Power is thrown back on as we cut the apex into the fast sweeping left-hander, no lift as we crest the wave and fight opposite camber on the other side. A spit of flame as we brake hard onto pitlane, and all is calm again.
The run has lasted two minutes. I’m exhausted. Back at the box, a mechanic at my right ear asks, “so, how was that?”, but I can’t speak. A hive of activity buzzes around me and I stay seated in the car, waiting for the shock to subside. For all the excitement, there’s a twinge of disappointment though: never again will I experience that blend of power, precision, and violence.Inside my helmet I’m reliving the moment again and again. It’s still there when I reluctantly get out of the car. Three weeks later, and it’s still with me. I doubt it will ever leave >>>