“All your life you follow a dream to drive an F1 car – and then you have this chance...”

What’s it like to step up from a junior racing car to your very first test in Formula 1? It’s an experience that cannot be forgotten – by even the most experienced Grand Prix driver
By Alistair Weaver

The technicians here have a catchphrase that they recite constantly: “it is loud, it is normal, it is Formula 1”. An expression that might sound obvious from the grandstand or the comfort of your sofa sounds very different when you’re pinned to a bulkhead with an F1 engine vibrating through your bottom. The brutal, unmolested cry that first seduced me 30 years ago is being conducted by my right foot. The catchphrase carries a simple hidden message: don’t stall.

I tease the throttle gingerly and feel the engine take a sip of air as the revs rise from their 6000rpm idle. Give the right paddle a flick to engage a cog. Steady with the clutch. It’s like being 17 again: heart pumping, easing out the clutch, feeling for the biting point and the first sign of movement, wanting it so badly. The wheels start to move, the clutch is out and the engine is still alive. I let out a yelp of delight that is best described as uncomfortably girly. I am living the dream; I am driving a Grand Prix car.

For me, this is fantasy F1, an invitation too good to refuse from Renault sponsor ING. For others, such a chance represents no more than the end of the beginning. Just as I today have stepped from a Formula Renault to an F1 car, so they will be swapping the intimate world of the junior formulas for the high-budget, high-profile, high-pressure world of the GP circus.

It is a step into company that some find difficult to keep. The sport’s history is littered with protégés who fail to deliver where it really counts. When Jan Magnussen dominated Formula Ford and Formula 3, Sir Jackie Stewart described him as the next Senna, but the Scot would sack him four years later as his Grand Prix dream became a nightmare. Allan McNish and Tonio Liuzzi never really got on terms with Formula 1, while others, such as Nigel Mansell, found their niche in the highest strata.

In an environment where perception is as important as reality, the first F1 test can be all-important. An eye-catching first test in a Prost was enough to propel 19-year-old Jenson Button straight from British F3 to a race seat with the Williams team. Eight months later he qualified third for the Belgian Grand Prix. Kimi Räikkönen made an even bigger jump, from Formula Renault to the Sauber F1 team, having competed in just 23 car races.

Anthony Davidson, like Button, made the leap from F3 to F1, initially racing for Minardi in 2002. He still remembers his first F1 test, a year earlier: “Your first test is a nerve-wracking experience. I came straight from F3 into a V10 F1 car for a straightline test at Fiorano. It was seven years ago now but the emotion’s still there. I felt like I was the only one who didn’t know what I was doing. Everything around you runs like clockwork and you’re the only one who’s out of your comfort zone.”

Right now, it’s easy to emphasise with Davidson’s emotions – and I have no pressure of expectation. I’m not supposed to know what I’m doing. The end of the pitlane opens and I start to rotate my right ankle. The vibrations increase, the engine makes an assault on my eardrums and delivers a jab to my spine.

The car I’m driving is a hybrid, with a Prost monocoque, a Renault 3-litre V10, an aero package from the championship-winning R26 and the livery of this year’s ING Renault R28. It’s a strange cocktail, but its potency is not in doubt – over 700bhp powering under 650kg.

I snatch third gear and feel my head performing the tiny bobbing motion that I’ve seen so often on the on-board footage. It’s angry and brutal, but also refined and delicate. This car feels like a precision instrument. On the Paul Ricard circuit, corner one is a 90-right, taken in second gear. I give the middle pedal a determined stab and flick down a ratio.

Talk to any modern driver and they’ll tell you that the power of the brakes is the biggest difference between F1 and the junior formulas. Former Red Bull and Minardi pilot Robert Doornbos is here to offer advice: “When your brain says you have to hit the brakes, you can stay on the throttle for another two seconds. I remember my first braking point in an F1 test; I remember my head going down a bit and then when I looked up I hadn’t even reached the corner and I had to get back on the throttle. That’s the biggest challenge, and that’s why it’s such a huge jump from the lower formulas.”

This morning, in the Formula Renault, I’d been guilty of under-using the brakes. A comparison of my telemetry with that of GP2 race winner and Renault F1 test driver Romain Grosjean showed that I’d been using the brakes only half as hard as I should have. And, what’s more, I’d been inconsistent in my pedal pressure, creating an effect similar to cadence braking.

“Do that in the F1 car and you’ll almost certainly spin,” says my genial race engineer. “A Formula Renault allows you to make mistakes, an F1 car does not. It’s one smooth movement – on and off.” Telemetry is your friend and your enemy. It helps you improve, but gives you nowhere to hide – it’s a bullshit-free zone.

My telemetry trace for this first corner won’t make for pleasant reading. In my determination to brake hard, I’ve lost a ridiculous amount of speed. But at least I’m round. A spin now would result only in infamy and a missed opportunity.

To sit where I am, most drivers have expended 10 years of their life and at least over a million pounds. Years of karting, weeks wasted chasing sponsorship deals, and then a single-seater career spent wheel-bashing other post-pubescent wannabes, while ambitious fathers do battle in the pitlane. Sacrifices have been made and tears shed in reaching this moment, and yet in a twitch of a right foot it can all be undone.

“All your life you follow a dream which is driving an F1 car, and then you have this chance and of course you want to do your best and beat the others,” says Luca Filippi. The Italian is now part of Honda’s Young Driver Programme after a shoot-out at the end of 2007 with fellow GP2 racers Mike Conway and Andi Zuber. Conway was also retained, but Zuber was not.

Jock Clear, race engineer to Rubens Barrichello and the man who guided Jacques Villeneuve to the 1997 World Championship, helped run the test. “They were already very accomplished racing drivers, they were not kids fresh from karting,” he says. “When we see a driver in a car, we need to see a level of professionalism, a level of approach that we think is appropriate to a test drive or even a race role.

“As we all know, there’s a lot more to being a Formula 1 driver than just driving fast. And they know that this might be their only chance to get into an F1 car and prove what they’re capable of.” It’s something Conway acknowledges: “On the day you have to hold a bit of the excitement back, to keep cool and remember that you have a job to do. But that doesn’t stop it being mega.”

I don’t need to display a level of professionalism beyond thinking of something to write. But it still matters. I will never be a Formula 1 driver, but I don’t want to recall the moment that I drove an F1 car and made a prat of myself. This is the time to concentrate, remember the basics and apply a modicum of intelligence.

A small chicane leads into a third gear left-hander that opens up onto a sizeable straight. I depress the pedal as smoothly as I can until it will go no further. There is an angry shriek and my automotive reference points are redefined. In road car terms, even a Formula Renault is extraordinarily rapid – 0-100mph takes just 4.9sec – but the Formula 1 car is in a different space-time continuum. There’s a very real danger that your brain will fail to keep pace with the car and that you’ll still be computing the exit to the last corner when you arrive at the braking point for the next. Right now, I feel like a ZX Spectrum in the Internet age.

“The first time I tested an F1 car it was like jumping into a rocket,” says Doornbos. “I went out of the pitlane and released the speed limiter button and just shot away. I went from an F3000 with 500 horsepower to an F1 car with over 900. It was just a stunning, amazing feeling.”

The Dutchman, who will combine Red Bull testing duties with a drive for AC Milan in the nascent Superleague Formula, reckons the acceleration is the easiest thing to get used to. “It feels great and it’s just free time along the straights. It’s the braking and downforce that are harder to cope with. An F1 car on a small track feels very nervous, you have to fight the car. But through faster corners, like here at Paul Ricard, you can feel it being squashed down onto the track.”

This morning, I’d experienced the phenomenon of downforce first hand. At the back of the circuit, there’s a fourth gear right-hander that requires plenty of commitment. In the Formula Renault it required a downshift and a single, smooth steering input. The harder I went, the better it was, but the more removed from the car I felt. I was being taken outside my comfort zone by an alien concept.

Going faster to increase the grip is counter-intuitive and you have to reset your understanding of race car dynamics. Every Formula car beyond a Formula Ford now has downforce of some magnitude but, as with everything else, the effect is magnified to the nth degree in a Grand Prix car. In such a precious machine, where a new front wing costs £10k and an engine rebuild costs more than the price of a new Ferrari, going hard and fast from the off must take massive self-belief and sizeable gonads. I have neither.

Zuber reckons it took him around 50 laps to feel comfortable in an F1 car, having stepped out of a 580bhp GP2: “After 50 laps I felt good and more confident. Then I just went faster and faster.”

I have no such luxury today. Not only would I be outstaying my welcome, but my curry-honed physique wouldn’t take it. This morning I was passed fit by the resident doctor but only after an examination that demonstrated how hopeless I’d be at withstanding a force of 5g for any length of time. I have a six-pack, but it’s in my fridge.

Instead, I can only continue to fantasise. On the pit straight, I apply full throttle from second gear, reacting to the arrival of the rev limiter with a twitch of my right index finger. By the end of the straight I’m in fifth and the telemetry will reveal that my speed is in excess of 150mph. With around 70 metres to go, I stamp on the brakes, feel my head take an involuntary bow and shift down four gears.

The speed is scrubbed off in an instant, but without finesse or precision. There’s little feedback from the carbon brakes and my entry speed is all guesswork. This morning, in the Formula Renault, I felt confident and comfortable from the first lap, but this is very different. It’s intimidating. An F1 car demands and secures your respect.

Even for those who have been there and seen it all, the first taste of an F1 car remains a potent memory. In Turkey this year, Rubens Barrichello passed Riccardo Patrese’s record of 256 Grands Prix, but he can still recall the first time he was bolted into a Jordan, back in 1992.

“It was such a special day. I couldn’t sleep much the night before,” he recalls. “I drove six laps on the south circuit at Silverstone, then I did a full test day within a week of that. Then I got the confidence of the team and away I went.”

Barrichello joined Jordan for 1993 and made an immediate impact, although, intriguingly, he thinks the jump is easier to make today. “Today’s drivers are better prepared because a GP2 car is closer to an F1 car in its speed and its physical requirements than the old F3000 cars were.”

Barrichello has lived the dream for the past 16 years but his enthusiasm remains unabated. As I return to the pits and kill the engine, it’s not difficult to see why. No matter what or where you’ve driven, a test of a modern F1 car will still exceed all your other automotive experiences by a factor of at least a hundred. It’s no wonder that many drivers find it so hard to walk away. In the final analysis, the technician’s motto is only partially true. This is loud, this is Formula 1, but this is definitely not normal.