As far as cars go, Formula 1 machines are the pinnacle of everything, the ultimate predators in the race-car jungle. And to ever drive one, you’ve got to be either supertalented or superrich.
Well, I’m not rich. As for the talent, I prefer to tell myself that the F1 world simply isn’t ready for my brand of hotheaded wheel-to-wheel aggression and off-track exploits that make Max Mosley look like Tim Tebow. No, the sanitized world of modern F1 can’t handle a loose cannon like me, as you’ll read all about in my scandalous upcoming autobiography, Naked Under the Nomex.
So World Class Driving’s new F1 Experience and F1 Discovery programs are probably my best—and only—shot at F1 seat time. For the not inconsiderable sum of $3495, WCD will give you track time in an actual ex-F1 car. This isn’t some special, two-seat instructor car or a dumbed-down spec racer. This is Damon Hill’s 1997 Arrows A18. There’s nobody riding along to help you. Or to hear you scream.
The Arrows and a spare car are at the Monticello Motor Club, where the plan is to start the day on a short course and then ramp up to the full 4.1-mile track. This is the first day of the program, so nobody’s quite sure how it will go when you mix average drivers with superinsane machinery. But there’s an $8000 insurance deductible to remind us what happens if the Arrows outruns our abilities.
The race car is original, except for the fact that the 3.0-liter Yamaha V-10 has been replaced with a 3.5-liter Cosworth V-8 from an earlier F1 campaign. While the engine swap may diminish the historical accuracy of the experience, a historically accurate Yamaha V-10 would produce usable power from 17,000 to 17,100 rpm and then blow up.
The Cosworth is a fine substitute. As I discover, when you’ve got an open-exhaust, flat-crank F1 engine spinning 10,000 rpm a foot from your head, you don’t know whether it’s a V-8, a V-10, or a nitro-powered extraterrestrial jackhammer. And the Cosworth does produce enough power to generate some excitement. How much power, exactly, is a matter of question, but quotes are bouncing around in the 600-to-700-hp range. What’s not up for debate is the weight of the car: 1100 pounds. So even if the Cosworth were detuned to 265 hp, we’d still be talking about a Bugatti Veyron’s power-to-weight ratio.
On this inaugural day of the program, there are some unanticipated challenges. One guy stomps on the gas and the brake simultaneously and power-understeers off into the grass. Then the car’s gas pedal falls off. Another guy can’t get off the line without stalling, consequently requiring so many restarts that he kills the batteries on the external starter. And the Hewland transmission is powered by compressed air, so every few hours it needs to be recharged—it’s designed to last for one race, not an all-day parade of test drives. It turns out there are a bunch of reasons why we don’t all drive F1 cars to work.
Finally, it’s my turn. Under darkening skies, the crew fires up the engine, I get the green flag and . . . stall it. The transmission is a paddleshifted sequential manual, but you use a clutch to get moving. They restart the engine. I stall it again. After about my third stall, it’s clear that everyone’s patience is wearing thin. For someone who loves cars, this is pressure akin to defusing a bomb with everyone inside the orphanage looking over your shoulder.
I say a silent apology to the clutch and let it out a millimeter at a time while gunning the engine. Finally, the Arrows edges out of the pits and I’m on the track.
But I’m not alone, exactly. Ahead of me is accomplished race car driver Didier Theys in a Cadillac CTS-V. I’m a veteran of this game: If I stay on his bumper, I’ll drive a Formula 1 car as fast as a Cadillac CTS-V. If I intentionally dog it and let him pull out to a healthy lead, then I’ll have to catch up, won’t I? Oh dear, I seem to have fallen behind.
I come out onto a short straight and he’s already into the next corner. I get the car pointing straight and squeeze the throttle to the floor—Brrraappppp! BRRRaaappp!—through second, third, and up to fourth gear. Instantly, I’m back on his bumper.
And here’s the thing: the Arrows is entirely forgiving. I was sort of expecting some hammer-blow of torque, with wheel spin all the way down the straight, but that’s not the nature of the car. It’s a high-winding hummingbird flitting around the track, screaming with revs but linear in its delivery. There’s more drama, honestly, when you floor a Chevy Corvette ZR1 in first gear. The Arrows delivers its speed in deceptive fashion. For all the howling Cosworth racket, this thing is smooth. When I later look at video from a camera mounted on the Caddy, I see confirmation of the Arrows’ preternatural speed—one moment, it’s a distant speck at the other end of the straightaway, and then suddenly it just materializes, blurring right up into close range like the vampires in True Blood.
While I get a taste of F1 acceleration, I won’t get a chance to feel F1-level braking. Brake modulation seems to happen at the bottom 0.00001 inch of the pedal’s travel, but I don’t manage to heat up the brakes enough for them to really work properly—although I do push hard enough to thoroughly bleed the air molecules from my socks.
I’m trying to get the transmission down into first (the better for a screaming-loud exit from the hairpin) when the skies open and streaks of lightning course down into the forest surrounding the track. With rain starting to fall, Theys keeps pushing, but before long the deluge soaks the track. He flips on the hazard lights. We’re going cold for the rest of the lap.
I’m disappointed by the weather curtailing my wheel time, but on the other hand, I now have a moment to appreciate the situation I’m in. I’m driving a Formula 1 car, on slicks, in a thunderstorm on a private racetrack. Rooster tails are spraying off the front tires, my helmet is getting pelted with raindrops, the hills echo with the sound of thunderclaps and an angry Cosworth V-8. This is surreal, transcendent, the kind of experience that people normally go looking for at Burning Man, not a racetrack. And we’re driving 30 mph.
I’ve always been vaguely jealous of Formula 1 drivers. Next time I watch a race, I’ll know exactly why.
Written by Ezra Dyer, illustration by Tim Marrs