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.
I’m already through the tight first hairpin, the Third gear sphincter-tightening blind left that can take Fourth, but gets Third, and down the hill. There’s no speedo, just the rev counter and shift lights, I just know it’s hellish fast.
I am still swearing, laughing, wincing and almost crying, all at the same time, the jumble of emotions, the sheer overload of power. And then, as I head into the final sequence of bends on the 4.3km course comes the tragic dawning realization: I’ve got just one lap left.
The sad fact is you only get two laps of the 4.3km Hungaroring in the F1 car. That’s four minutes of the wildest fun you’ll have in your life. Renault admits it’s partially to safeguard the car. Given 10 laps, some would find false confidence and plant the car in the wall. And while even two laps takes a physical toll, 10 would apparently rip our puny necks to shreds.
So I have two minutes left and as I round the final corner, a mental flick switches. So I try to take the car by the balls, plant the throttle, attack the main straight and drink in the noise as that buzzsaw of an engine climbs to 12,000 rpm and threatens to burst an eardrum.
Then I stamp on the brakes, blip down three gears and go for it, the car even moves at the rear on the slowest bends and I feel like a hero, for a fleeting second at least.
It’s the brakes that truly blow my mind, as I slam on the anchors at the end of the Hungaroring’s straight and 170 mph becomes 50 as my eyeballs make a leap for my visor, my internal organs try to meet the six-point harness and the g-force tries to snap my neck before I hit the apex and the 700hp V10 seemingly strapped to my back fires me towards the next bend.
Before I know it I’m being shepherded into the pit lane and the game is over. There is just one further ego crushing moment as we head out for a passenger ride in the three seater and find out just how feeble our best efforts were. I’m humbled, knowing that I used 60 percent of the car’s skills, possibly less. But I don’t care. It was the greatest drive that money can buy and the chance to be an F1 driver, if just for a few minutes.
And that is a truly priceless thing.
The power, steering, everything are completely overwhelming and I forget about racing lines, braking points, even breathing.
Formula One Renault
Power: 700 hp @ 12,000 rpm
Torque: 400 lb-ft @ 9000 rpm
0-60 mph: 3 sec.
Top Speed: 183 mph