How best to experience the new Yas Marina GP circuit? In an F1 two-seater driven at speed, of course…
By Maurice Hamilton
The handwriting in my notebook is distinctly shaky. I am trying to appear cool, flameproof overalls rolled to my waist – as racing drivers do – while attempting to jot down first impressions of travelling at 187mph with Martin Brundle between my legs. I mean, how can you be nonchalant about that?
I could never claim to truly understand what goes on inside the cockpit of a Formula 1 car. Having watched F1 in-car footage, talked to drivers in depth, and been driven indecently quickly in a proper GT car, I thought I had a reasonable clue. I knew nothing.
I know that now thanks to the organisers of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix fixing a ride in a two-seater F1 car as a means of introduction to the Yas Marina circuit. Talk about learning quickly – in every sense of the expression.
This was no joyride. You could gauge the seriousness of the operation by the two former Tyrrells, immaculately prepared by Dublin-based Aviation Display, sitting purposefully on opposite sides of the garage. Familiar faces – many of them ex-Jordan mechanics, headed by Stuart Cox – added to the impression that I was intruding on a test or practice session. Brundle was strapped into the car, ready to go. All I had to do was climb on board.
This was not the work of a moment. Elderly joints notwithstanding, it required serious contortion to find the necessary angles to allow my legs to move beneath the bulkhead separating driver and passenger, and then slide into the seat, my feet and shins now alongside Brundle’s thighs. Martin passed the message back that if I wanted him to drive this thing in the manner intended, I would need to pull my feet back as far as possible in order to allow his elbows room for manoeuvre when the going got exciting. I didn’t need second bidding. I did the best I could with knees bent, leaving just my feet in the line of fire. Cox fastened the six-point harness, hooked up my radio and gave the top of my crash helmet a reassuring pat.
Evening had descended. This was to be the last run of the day and the two cars would go out together to film action shots for BBC television. I sat listening as Brundle and David Coulthard discussed how they would work this. Any thought that the filming might preclude a decent fast lap was happily banished when Martin looked across at DC and jerked his thumb in my direction: “When we’ve done all that, DC, I’m staying out for another lap to give Maurice here a bit of a go.”
I had a couple of minutes to contemplate that as we sat in complete silence, waiting for the all-clear. On the instruction to start came a deep vibration from behind my back as the 3-litre Cosworth V10 emitted a familiar growl. Then a signal to remove the tyre blankets before a thumbs up as stands were taken from beneath the car and the jacks lowered us to the ground. It was a scene I had witnessed hundreds of times from countless garage doors. Now I was the man in the big picture.
Brundle is in third gear before he has reached the end of the deserted pitlane. But then a cautious downhill approach to a tunnel which, he notes, is bound to catch out someone during race weekend. Once free and rising to track level on the other side, we’re away!
I know where the track is going thanks to a couple of exciting laps earlier in the day with Bruno Senna in a Nissan GTR. But nothing has prepared me for what is to follow. The fast-forward button has been set to the maximum as the car flies through a left, crests a rise in the middle of a long right and then onto the brakes for a chicane which, previously, had seemed miles away. I’m so busy trying to keep my head upright and straight, I barely take this in. And Brundle hasn’t warmed up yet.
He completes the lap and then waits for Coulthard to begin the overtaking manoeuvres, all carried out at a brisk pace. “I’m coming through on your left,” says David, the floodlights adding an extra gleam to the smart turquoise and white colour scheme as the car shoots alongside and into the braking zone. The front discs glow a vibrant orange, the exhausts spitting a spectacularly long trail of blue/purple flame on the overrun. Seeing and hearing it close up is truly amazing.
As we follow Coulthard and accelerate onto the straight, there is a graphic display of the diffuser’s effectiveness as the overhead lights turn the spewing dust into a fine fog. It’s a surprise to my driver. “DC, have you noticed the amount of crap coming out of the back of the cars? They’ll have to do something about this. Go off line and it’ll take two laps to clean up the tyres.”
They overtake at the end of the straight and then chase each other through the tighter sections of the return loop to the pits. As I’m doing my best to take this in, I’m astonished as Martin and David chat casually as if on the way to the Yas Marina Sainsbury’s.
“This one is tricky.” “Yeah, adverse camber heeerree, oops, will drag them into the wall on a hot lap.” “This is interesting, the second right is tighter than the first – and no run-off.” “Yeah, that ’ll be worth watching.” “Okay, the GT car should be on track now – ah, there it is. You go right and I’ll go left, as we agreed.”
Now I’m beginning to unscramble my senses. There is a fast right preceding the two slower rights mentioned by the drivers. On the first run through, I had been keen to see if Martin would take it flat. I knew it was coming but by the time I tried to put my head to the right of the bulkhead to peer out, it was too late. Martin had already started to turn into the corner and, despite my best efforts, my head was off to the left, seeing nothing but a blur of concrete. I was powerless to do anything about it. Next time round, and I had my head hanging out to the right long before the turning in point, and I could barely keep it there as we swept through – with just the smallest lift. And this was when running in tandem. Boy, this last lap would be good.
“Okay, just checking the GT car has gone back to the pits. Yes it has. Here we go.”
And go we did. I knew we were really motoring now because Martin’s elbows were whacking my feet. Yet despite being totally aware – or so I thought – of what was in store, I was caught by surprise yet again as we moved up another level.
The most dramatic part is the long main straight. Being of 1999 vintage, the paddle-shift box is not seamless. So you have this ‘clunk’ and surge each time he pulls a gear. I love that. Seamless is faster, I’m sure, but the rapid-fire clunk-surge brings added drama and urgency. Now the engine is screaming. Well, I know it has to be because I had listened all afternoon as the car tore down the straight. In the cockpit, it’s not as noisy as I had expected. But, boy, is it quick.
My helmet, despite a snug fit, is being lifted off my head, the chin strap threatening to choke me. It’s the fastest lap of the day. The telemetry shows 302kph at the end of the straight. That’s 187.6537mph – but who cares about a few decimal points at warp speed? And yet, it doesn’t seem like 187mph. It’s the getting there that does it. And the slowing down.
Here comes the left-hander at the end of the straight. And the ‘ohmagawd when is he going to brake?’ moment. You know it’s coming and yet your head goes forward like a rag doll, your pelvis thrust into the bulkhead. The braking power is utterly phenomenal and, combined with the seat harness, literally takes your breath away. Then it’s left and then right. The way the car changes direction in the chicanes – the precise violence of the movement – is totally unexpected. My head is all over the place, in every sense.
A foam collar placed in the cockpit once I was strapped in has clearly saved my neck.
I’m helped from the car, exhausted, my overalls sticking to me, my body tingling, and yet I’ve done nothing but hang on and brace myself. You simply cannot comprehend how drivers do this for 90 minutes and more. And then you learn that we were not going that quickly.
“Whaddya mean, not that quick Martin?”
“Well, with the second seat, extended wheelbase, additional weight and so on, this is more like a sports car. We were about 14 seconds off what the F1 guys will be doing.”
I nod knowingly and try to appear cool. It’s at this point the handwriting goes to pieces.