I’m almost through the first lap and I’m swearing, cussing, laughing and screaming inside my full face helmet. Then I hit the brakes, the laughter stops as the air is punched from my lungs and the car tried to snap my neck. This is madness, pure violence on wheels and the purest sensation of speed you’ll ever come across. I’m driving a real Renault F1 car on the Hungarian Grand Prix circuit, and you can too.
America might not have taken to Formula One like the rest of the world, but any car nut knows they are the most advanced machines on the planet. Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull and Renault spend up to $700 million a year to go racing and the lion’s share goes on the car that would easily cost $1 million. So how did I, a relative monkey, get my hands on this 2004 car with a 700hp V10 strapped to my shoulder blades?
Renault’s Feel It course, which started in 2005, and is open to anyone over 22 years old with a full license. That’s how. And though it costs 5,500 ($7,600), every fleeting second makes it more than worth it for the 240 people that drive the car every year.
The cars are prepped by ex F1 team mechanics, telemetry experts are on hand and a physio (personal trainer) violently pushes and pulls my head to ensure I can handle the up to 5.5 g under heavy braking and, if I get it right, 4.5 g in the corners. The Bugatti Veyron Super Sports, by comparison, manages 1.4 g in the bends. We’re in fighter jet territory here.
First, though, comes the classroom instruction and 40 laps in a 200hp Formula Renault that makes any road car feel like an unwieldy bus. I’ve driven single seaters before and feel fast, smooth and confident that the laptop-wielding engineers’ praise will flow free. I am so wrong.
I need to brake twice as hard, and slowly bleed off the pedal when the downforce drops off, I’m using too much curb and I’m five seconds off Renault F1 driver Vitaly Petrov’s time. My ego is smashed, but at least I’m good enough to drive the F1 car.
Soon I’m squeezing into the cockpit of the F1 that is based on the R26 that Fernando Alonso took to the Drivers Championship in 2006, staring at two huge, grooved Bridgestone tires and the 30,000 front wing. Then comes another shock as the engine fires up without my help and settles at its 4500rpm idle that sounds like a high revving chainsaw plugged into an amplifier.
The chassis is fitted with a 3-liter V10 that comes with 700 hp mated to a seven-speed paddleshift gearbox, but it’s limited to 12,000 rpm to save the team from expensive blow-ups. There’s a foot clutch, too, and a sort of traction control system that helps keep the car on the road.
It is more than enough for 650 kg of car and gives the Renault a power-to-weight ratio of 1,077bhp/ton. As a point of comparison the Veyron Super Sports delivers 638bhp/ton.
Thankfully there is no disastrous stall, the car trickles away from the line and then, suddenly, I am dragged out of the pitlane by some unseen force. The next minute is a total blur. The power, steering, everything are completely overwhelming and I forget about racing lines, braking points, even breathing. This is shock and awe in automotive form.
On anything approaching straight the wind rips at my helmet. Then there’s the downforce, where the faster you go through a corner, the harder the car sticks. An F1 car could stick to the ceiling of a tunnel and literally drive upside down. But knowing I need 50 kph more than feels safe is a difficult concept to grasp in the eye of the storm.
Then there are the brakes. There’s hardly any feel, the pedal is more or less a wooden block, but it stops so hard it draws tears from my eyes. And I’m still not on the pedal hard or late enough.