The Asphalt Jungle

Single All the Way

Gloriously alone in a single-seater

Pardon me for a moment while I become antisocial. See, much as I enjoy sharing a compelling automobile with an enthusiastic passenger or five, it’s time to come clean and admit my favorite wheels of all have room for only one.

I experienced my first open-wheel, single-seat race car more than three decades ago at a Skip Barber Racing School class in West Virginia. As a teenager, I’d watched the sporadic Formula 1 Grand Prix on “Wide World of Sports,” so naturally I expected to find my first single-seater waiting under a palm tree in Monte Carlo. Instead, Summit Point Raceway, while a fine circuit, was conspicuously lacking in belle epoque casinos and sparkling Mediterranean waves. (It was more like a sleepy farm with a really long and twisty driveway.)

That first single-seater, though, did not disappoint. A so-called Formula Ford, it was every bit the fighter jet I’d long dreamed of piloting. It also, I had to admit, looked a little flimsy. After I climbed aboard and finagled my legs deep down into the cigar-tube cockpit, I realized the only thing between my feet and a possible encounter with a cement retaining wall were three pedals and a pie plate from Cracker Barrel.

But soon I was discovering the magic that is a single-seater. The slightest flick of the steering wheel and the car danced. The throttle was not merely a speed rheostat; it became a baton for conducting the music of balance. Lift the gas in a turn and the rear end would step out, but get the input right and the bantamweight machine would pirouette through the bend with all four tires slipping neatly toward the exit point. This was driving at its purest, most elemental: no electronic aids, no power assists, not a gratuitous gram of anything.

Years later, I climbed the single-seater ladder at the famed Ecole de Pilotage Renault-Elf Winfield at Circuit Paul Ricard in the south of France. This was the school that had turned out such F1 stars as Alain Prost, Didier Pironi, and Jacques Laffite. My instructor, Simon de la Tour, was the man who taught future four-time world champion Prost how to drive a race car. The single-seaters here were Formula Renaults — more powerful, with wings and slick tires. Everything moved up several notches — the speed, the grip, and the stakes. Though the five of us Americans in attendance wore Nomex suits, most of the French students back then drove in street clothes. As we watched the French blitz through Ricard’s downhill chicane, one driver lost control and spun into the Armco. The car burst into flames. I saw the driver struggling amid the fire, his body protected by a helmet and a stylish cable-knit sweater. Then somehow he leapt out — magically unhurt. I thought I was going to throw up. In sensations and risk, a single-seater magnifies everything.

By the late 1990s I reached the Everest of single-seaters: a test in a genuine F1 machine. By the time I drove the car — fielded during the 1994 season by the Footwork Arrows team and driven by Italy’s Gianni Morbidelli — the so-called FA-15 was 4 years old. It was still awe-inspiring. The carbon-fiber bodywork was polished to perfection. In back sat a Cosworth V-8 making almost 700 horsepower. When the mechanics started the engine, everyone in the pit lane ducked.

Finally driving an actual F1 car was like getting invited to one of those A-list celeb parties you’ve read about but were never sure existed. Everything was too much. The acceleration was like falling off a frat-house roof. The view through my helmet visor was pure IMAX. And even at my pace, as a driving mortal, the brakes stopped the car like a fastball being stifled by Johnny Bench’s mitt. To this day, the thought of pushing one of these fire-breathing dragons to the limit makes my legs shake.

If you’ve never done it, you owe it to yourself to sample a single-seater. (Intro classes can be found nationwide.) Then try telling me you don’t agree with Greta Garbo when she said: “I vant to be alone.”