The cockpit of a Formula 1 race car is the size of a tiny coffin. You step over the fragile side wings and directly onto the single seat, then shimmy-slide into the narrow hole until your body is swallowed, leaving only helmet and shoulders visible.
Open-wheel cars are pure racing machines and the only place you’ll normally find them is on top-tier series like Formula 1 and Indy Car. Tightly wound and fragile, they have wheels positioned outside the frame at each extreme corner. There are no fenders or windshields. A full-face helmet and fire-resistant driving suit are mandatory.
For an amateur to get the opportunity to drive an actual F1 race car is basically unheard of. Yet that’s exactly what I had a chance to do in July, thanks to a program put on by the company World Class Driving. For $6,995, you get to pilot the 700-plus-horsepower Arrows Yamaha A18 which took second place in the 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix.
In 5 screaming seconds you could be at 100 miles an hour (160 kph). Top speed is 220.
Luckily, I also had the chance to warm up in a much less powerful open-wheel race car only weeks earlier, under the guidance of two-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser Jr. Now retired, Unser was putting on his first-ever speed clinic, at New Jersey Motorsports Park, in Millville.
The event was for charity -- to find a cure for paralysis - - and participants won their seats at an auction site. Unser will put on four more schools next year.
“Racing is a science and it can be taught,” the slow-talking and amicable 48-year-old told me. “Open-wheel racing is pure, exciting and very difficult.” His race-car-driver son, also named Al, assisted in the coaching.
Speeding Through Curves
We were driving Formula 2000 cars with four gears and about 150 horsepower, ideal for amateurs. Broken into two groups according to experience, we alternated between classroom and track.
The car was unfamiliar, yet I often drive here, so by lunchtime I was spitting down the straightaway at the top of fourth gear and about 120 mph, the wind shaking my helmet like a Bobblehead. Gargantuan tires sticking to the asphalt, I carried boggling speeds through a series of undulating curves. This may be Open-Wheel 101, but it certainly heated my blood.
Damon Hill’s Ride
Two weeks later, I got my chance to pilot an actual F1 car at the Formula One Experience, a program offered by World Class Driving. It has a number of unusual programs such as the chance to break 200 mph on an airport runway in a Lamborghini ($5,000).
The car was the Arrows Yamaha A18 once driven by Brit Damon Hill, a former F1 World Champion, and, according to the company, worth about $250,000.
There’s nothing like piloting an F1. If the Formula 2000 is a strenuous hike, this is ascending Everest, equal parts skill, bravado and stupidity. Even experienced racers court disaster.
(Why pony up $6,995 and risk life and limb? Because it’s there, of course.)
We were at New York’s Monticello Motor Club, one of my favorite venues. I couldn’t wait to strap myself into that minuscule coffin.
Unfortunately, this was also the company’s first-ever F1 event and the team had to work out some kinks. A few customers turned up with little track experience. Trouble.
The initial hurdle was getting the car to move without stalling. In first gear, you have to apply the perfect amount of gas at exactly the right moment as you release the clutch or the car dies. With no battery to ignite the engine, it’s started externally by the pit crew, which is time consuming and physically taxing.
The very first customer stalled a half-dozen times. It’s something you notice, since the V-8 is absurdly, phenomenally loud, like the noise of 10,000 chainsaws being piped through a stack of Marshall speakers. Over and over, the car would start, surge forward and die. The poor guy was eventually pulled out before getting anywhere.
When it was my turn, I was sure I wouldn’t stall. I was wrong. Three times over, actually, until I was sweating and embarrassed, and then, finally, I pulled onto the track.
Two laps, that’s all I got. Just enough to feel the ludicrous speed and dart-like handling. Just enough to shift gears at 12,000 rpm and begin to fathom its potential, the closest you can get to an earthbound F-14 Tomcat jet fighter.
Then disaster, as the gas pedal snapped off under my right foot. It was there, and then suddenly it wasn’t. An interior cable had broken and the pedal fell to the floor, impotent. I coasted into the pits, not believing what had happened.
Would it be worth $7,000 and the risk? Well, I can’t say I’ve ascended Everest, but I can claim to have driven the gas pedal off a Formula 1.
Information: for the Al Unser Jr. Racing Experience, contact Rhyan Sharkey at Motor Media on +1-732-203-7787 or firstname.lastname@example.org; for Formula One Experience, contact World Class Driving at +1-877-597-6403 or http://worldclassdriving.com.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)