Drive of a Lifetime
Magny-Cours Club Circuit - August 2002




Driving a Formula 1 car has been listed amongst my "impossible dreams" for many a long year and as such was something I could happily contemplate with a large degree of over-confidence, safe in the knowledge that I would never have to prove myself! When faced with the reality, thanks to an invitation from one of our suppliers, I found the idea absolutely terrifying but totally irresistible. This was one invitation I simply could not refuse!

So one August morning, I found myself sitting on Eurostar on my way to Paris and onwards to Nevers, in company with thirteen males who were variously equally "terrified", "a bit nervous" or "not really worried at all", but all just as excited as I was :-) The fifteenth member of our party was awaiting us in Nevers with a fleet of Volvos (in ironic contrast to the cars we were going to drive the next day) to ferry us to our chateau.

   Circuit map

Click pictures to enlarge

My car

My car for the day - 1994 Larrousse

Ready to go

Ready to go

My assistant

My assistant straps me in

Push start

A push start made it impossible to stall!

On track

On track - turning on to pit straight

On track

A bit fuzzy, but that's me in front!

On track

On track - the uphill twisty bit

Benetton

The other car - a 1998 Benetton

On Monday morning we headed to Magny-Cours, where our "team" awaited us at the Club Circuit (above right), a 2.5km track designed as a training circuit with a good mix of different corners spread over undulating terrain - a hairpin, chicanes, long, fast curves and the all important long straight.

There were four cars at the track - two 1994 Larrousse, a 1996 Arrows (apparently driven by Damon Hill, although it must have been only in testing given that he didn't join the team until 1997) and a 1998 ex-Fisichella Benetton. All however are powered by the same 3.5 litre Ford Cosworth V8 engines, with six-speed semi-automatic gearboxes, so apart from aero differences (pretty much irrelevant at the speeds we reached!), performance is the same in all the cars which are allocated according to driver size!

We were kitted out with boots, race suit and balaclava into which we changed before a one hour briefing on how to drive these beasts, covering the effects of weight transfer under braking and acceleration, the lines we would need to take through the corners, rules of the track and above all the importance of driving within your limits - no new world champions would be created today, but we were promised an experience we wouldn't forget in a hurry!

Our instructor, Stefan, then took us round the circuit in a road car, talking us through the lap ... just three laps and the next time we'd be on our own in an F1 car - nerves were definitely beginning to show now! The track was helpfully marked out with cones to show the braking points, turn-in points and apexes, without which I doubt any of us would successfully have navigated the circuit!

Hugely relieved not to be the first out, I watched as the first two safely negotiated their 10 lap allocation ... the grins on their faces when they returned almost sufficient to ease the ever-rising terror! But as the next two went out, my name was called and the butterflies returned full-force. I went off to collect my helmet and handed my camera to Philip to get as many pics of me as he could, with a quiet aside that he could stop shooting if I went off!

I was allocated the red Larrousse, and having squeezed in was pleasantly surprised at how comfortable it was considering there was no proper seat ... judicious use of padding made for a one size fits all solution! One of my biggest fears when I was anticipating this day was not being able to pull away ... I was relieved therefore that a problem with the gearbox for which a part was awaited, meant that a bump start was called for. Clutch in, two guys pushing, then "GO", snatch your foot off the clutch, the engine roars into life behind you and you're away.

I will never forget the exhilaration of feeling that power for the first time and although I'm pretty sure the grin stayed on my face throughout, I was very quickly at the first corner and trying to remember what all the cones meant! I crawled round the first few laps, not that it felt like crawling at the time, but I was worried if I went too fast, I wouldn't be able to brake hard enough to stop. Around my 4th lap, I came up behind the other driver on the straight and, slightly unsighted, missed my braking point ... braking late and hard, I was delighted to find I could indeed stop and from that point, built up speed lap on lap.

The first time I really let it go down the straight, hard on the throttle, up through the gears to 6th, was an absolute blast ... even thinking about it now, I can feel the incredible acceleration ... but just as you're thinking, "wow, I could get to enjoy this", it's hard on the brakes again for the chicane and another huge buzz from controlling that sort of power! My favourite bit of the circuit however was the sweeping right hander, followed by a tighter left hander that came next ... if you get the line right going in, you just hold the steering wheel still and accelerate right the way through the first part, then a slight lift, switch direction and power on again for the second part ... I LOVED IT!!!!

At the end of that section stood Stefan, counting laps and giving the signal to come in ... for the last few laps I was expecting the signal each time I came around and even got to the point of thinking "oh, not another lap!" ... it was only when I came back in that I found he'd had to return to the pits part way through my stint and I actually got 13 laps :-)

These words and pictures give you some idea of what the day was like, but I'm a poor wordsmith and cannot do justice to the mind-blowing nature of this experience ... if you EVER get the chance to do it, don't hesitate, it really is the "drive of a lifetime".

Medics

The medical team on standby

Getting in

Getting in - easier said than done!

Last wave

A last wave - too late to bottle it now!

On track

On track - pit straight (sort of!)

On track

On track - final corner

On track

On track - pit straight again

Certificate

Just to prove I did it!

Larrousse

Larrousse in focus!

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