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Vroom with a view

Bertrand D'Souza got to put pedal to the metal. In a real F1 car. He hasn't stopped talking about it since


When I chat with friends during the weekend Formula 1 circus, there’s one thing I can say that none of them can: I have driven one of those cars. And you can bet I say it often ! I didn’t just get to sit in one. I drove one of those beasts.

Fast. Very, very fast!

On a circuit as sensational as Monaco, as technical as Spa and as fast as Fuji. In eight years as an auto journalist, I have driven several supercars, sports cars and open wheeled race cars. That’s probably why Renault invited me to drive their F1 car, at the Renault ‘Feel It’ experience during the Paris Motor Show, at the Paul Ricard circuit near Marseille, France. It was an exclusive shindig shared with a few Olympic sportsmen, Italian filmstars and Russian oil barons. Experienced or not, you don’t just get into an F1 car without proper instruction.

That began with several laps in a Formula Renault. It has a carbon fibre chassis which gives it lightness with the strength of racing cars. The engine is tuned down for amateurs to 185 Brake horsepower (bhp). In race trim, she makes 195 bhp, and can do 0-100 kmph in roughly 4.5 seconds. After several instruction sessions, I was ready to get into the F1 car: The Renault R24, the 2004 title contender.

Well, not the actual car; this was one of the spare cars never used during the race season. The R24 is highly intimidating to behold. It dwarfs the Formula Renault. And not just physically. It has a monstrous big block V10 engine that summons up a colossal 710 bhp. And it can accelerate to 100 kmph in less than 2 seconds, 200 kmph in under 4 and 300 kmph in under 9 seconds. As I was strapped in, the first thought that came to mind was that the seatbelts were just too tight. The cockpit is claustrophobic; you can only move your head, hands and feet. There is no room to look over your shoulder. And then there’s the immense expanse of the nose cone just ahead. After which you realise that you’re sitting just a few inches off the ground.

Yet, visibility is clear and unobstructed. Like every modern F1 car, the R24 has to be fired up externally. One minute the instructor is talking me through the drill, the next God himself clears out his throat. The roar of 10 cylinders firing up feels like TNT exploding inside my head. All 710 horses are straining at the leash. I nudge the accelerator. What the instructors do not and cannot tell you is just how violently this car reacts, even to mild feathering. If not for the head restraint, something in my neck would have ripped. For a second the acceleration is excruciating, my mind fails to register the velocity. And yet I can’t find it in me to lift my foot off the accelerator. You have heard of G-force. If you own a fast car, you may even have experienced it mildly. It’s what pushes you back into your seat when your car accelerates rapidly. I can assure you, however fast your car, it’s not this brutal.

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The sessions in the Formula Renault had built an almost robotic ability to react quick — don’t think, just do — and by now my limbs are working at a frenetic pace. With any car, how reliably it brakes is more important than how quickly it accelerates. Three hundred metres ahead I pick a braking marker. I slam the brake pedal. It feels like someone switched off the lights. The R24 stops. Right there. “On the dot” suddenly has a whole new meaning. The R24’s carbon ceramic brakes retards speed with a force of nearly 4Gs within a fraction of a second. You can snap your neck with 2G if you are not prepared. I notice some gook on my visor and I’m hoping it’s just an insect and not flecks of my brain. My steering wheel is turned into the right-hander. I haven’t begun to unwind it yet because I have not made the apex and I give the car a little gas. Big mistake. In this baby, a little gas is like pushing the pedal through the floor in a Honda Accord. The rear fishtails, screams for traction, but in a flash the electronic stability control cuts in. I focus harder, steadying my nerves over the next few corners before the rear straight can begin.

Then I loosen the reins. The blood drains from my face. The landscape in my peripheral vision is a single sheet of green streaks. My head is bouncing around too hard from the wind buffeting it. It is on this straight I record my top speed, from around 50 kmph to a gut busting 235 kmph, all within 500 metres. Doing this at full race pace while fighting for position requires a surreal level of focus. F1 drivers do it routinely, simultaneously monitoring the car’s condition — hundreds of processes — several of which need to be corrected on the fl y. I still have a lap and half to go. On the chicanes, the R24 actually mocks me. For the first time I have this feeling of being driven by a car, not the other way around. So I hit it harder, try going faster around the next set of corners. Still nothing! Not even the remotest squeak. It would take effort far beyond my capacity to upset this car. In the Feel It programme, the R24 is electronically governed to curb overenthusiastic maneuvers. Not to say that it could not spin out of control; just that it would take a foolhardy-to-the-point-of suicidal driver to make that happen.

Lap one down. I am now beginning to understand cornering G-forces. The intense pressure to involuntarily eject from the car is directly proportional to the speed with which you attack the corner. So at the end of my little race with myself, how did I fare? Well, I was 23 seconds slower than Romain Grosjean, Renault’s F1 test driver who clocked 1 minute 27 seconds around Paul Ricard. Nigel Mansell holds the lap record: 1:08.012 Thanks to the F1 experience, I will now look at every F1 racing driver with much respect.

Even the guy who’s last across the chequered flag.

Bertrand D’Souza is Deputy Editor, Overdrive