Over the years I know you have been driven round various circuits by a host of drivers.
Which ones were the most enjoyable and which were the least? In other words, who terrified you?
Over the years I’ve been driven by a good many racing drivers, and very rarely been frightened – indeed, the last time I saw the late James Hunt, once a hell-raiser of some consequence, he was a model of decorum as we drove into Wimbledon for a hamburger. We were, mind you, in James’s beloved A35 van…
There are too many tales of being driven round circuits by F1 drivers to recount here, so I’ll just mention one or two. As a youth, I went to the Brands Hatch racing school, drove Formula Fords and the like, and then later, as a journalist, drove such as a Lola T70 sports racing car. Thought I knew a bit about driving on a track, in other words. Then, in 1975, Chris Amon took me round Oulton Park in a Ferrari 330P4.
This, to me, was about the most beautiful sports racing car ever built, and had won at Daytona and Monza in 1967, driven by Amon and Lorenzo Bandini. Now, eight years on, its current English owner wished to see it driven properly once more.
Amon was an artist in a car. He could steer as readily with his foot as with his hands, and Old Hall Corner was a favourite. Crammed into a passenger seat never intended for actual use, I watched as he went to work with the throttle, his hands barely moving, beyond applying just the right touch of opposite lock. Every time round the left rear wheel would kiss the grass at the exit, and Chris would glance across, as if to say, “How was that? Was that OK?”
In 1978 the Le Mans 24 Hours was won by a turbocharged Renault A442B, driven by Didier Pironi and Jean-Pierre Jaussaud, and later that year I was invited to Paul Ricard, to be driven by Pironi.
That probably remains the most electrifying ‘motoring’ experience of my life. At first everything seemed stupefyingly fast, but after a lap or so I was accustomed to the pace, and able to concentrate on the road ahead, and how Pironi was dealing with it. There were great lunges of power, and brakes to drag the breath from you, but a pattern of the circuit took shape, and I thought the surprises were done.
The one really daunting corner at Ricard is Signes, a right-hander at the end of the back straight, and our last lap through there was altogether different from those before, with the Renault was sliding much more, and Pironi working harder, flicking the wheel this way and that.
The moment was over almost before it had begun, the car back on the straight and true. Pironi looked at me, winked, and gave one of those floppy-wristed French gestures that means something like, “That was a close one, huh?” At over 150mph, we had hit oil put down by a Renault F1 car (driven by Rene Arnoux), which was also out on the circuit.
Then there was the time – in his Benetton-Ford days – that Michael Schumacher drove me round Silverstone in a road-going Escort Cosworth, and what made the experience memorable was the realisation – yet again – that ordinary mortals have no clue as to what a car can be made to do. I was reasonably familiar with Cosworths, but the day was horribly wet, and at first Michael seemed to be going into corners at an impossible speed.
It was kids’ stuff for him, of course; on our last lap he simply showed off, rescuing the car from impossible angles – and doing it all with his right hand, while the left remained on the gear lever. “Did you enjoy that?” he grinned, as we came in. I nodded assent. “Well,” he said, “imagine what it’s like in F1 cars – when we mean it…”