Trading Aces - F1/NASCAR Swap

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Publicity stunt or not, a car swap between F1’s Lewis Hamilton and NASCAR’s Tony Stewart still proved fascinating for both, especially on hallowed ground at Watkins Glen

BY ADAM HAY-NICHOLLS

Lewis Hamilton and Tony Stewart might come from different worlds, but put them in each other’s cars and they still impress. Hamilton’s Formula 1 McLaren is a 640kg single-seater built to NASA levels of performance and technical detail. US racer Stewart’s regular office is somewhat different, but no less fast: a 1542kg Chevrolet NASCAR, with its stock body, hardtop and no aerodynamic gizmos or driver aids. Both pack 800bhp V8s, both run at over 200mph, but in terms of handling and technique it’s like tennis and badminton.

And what a circuit on which to get their first taste of foreign-built thrills. Watkins Glen, close to the Finger Lakes in one of the most picturesque rural areas of the Empire State, first hosted Fl 50 years ago, but the Grand Prix circus departed in 1980. Now it hosts American series only. This was the circuit where Francois Cevert was killed in 1973, and it’s easy to understand how when you see how little room there is for error.

David Coulthard took me for a couple of hot laps in a Corvette in the morning, as determined rain lashed down on the greasy track. A number of ‘moments’ — wheelspin at 90mph — left DC a little pale after. He’d become a big fan of The Glen, but the ‘Vette not so much.

A black Suburban swung into the pit area and Lewis stepped out. He was still preoccupied by his crash at the Canadian Grand Prix 48 hours earlier. Yet as soon as he saw Stewart’s NASCAR, channelling the Dukes of Hazard as he clambered feet first through the window, his face lit up. “I’m nervous,” he said, “but it’s nerves of excitement.”

Mutual sponsor Mobil 1 had brought the pair together for this event. ‘Smoke’ — as Stewart is known — had more to worry about, for the track was damp and, as NASCAR never races in the wet, this was to be a whole new experience. Only once in his life had the 40-year-old raced in the wet before, in the Daytona 24 Hours. Also, he’d only driven the short circuit at The Glen, despite being a winner here. ‘The Boot’ — a section of track which resembles the shape of, well, a boot — was a complete unknown to Tony. Also, this McLaren MP4-23 has no traction control. Gulp.

On the grid, the McLaren team surrounded the car, keeping the tyre blankets on till the last minute, and firing the starter motor from the rear. No such attention to the Stewart-Haas Chevrolet Impala. It doesn’t have tyre warmers and the driver turns it on himself. The difference in height was startling. The F1 looked like a Matchbox car compared with the Chevy.

The noise was foreign as well. The 18,000rpm Mercedes engine plays a very different tune to a Chevy V8 at 9k — the latter’s low growl rattling one’s rib cage rather than piercing the ears. From inside the cockpit things also look different. One has a bolt-upright seat offset to the left, the other is as centred as a gun barrel and requires the driver to almost lie down. Lewis’s car has seven gears at the flick of a paddle and LED change lights on the wheel. The NASCAR has a four-speed H-gate and oldschool gauges. Its cast-iron brakes demand much earlier application than the McLaren, with carbon brakes that can stop on a dime.

For Stewart, the F1 car was intimidating. Not only was he unfamiliar with the machine, the track and the weather conditions, this was MP4-23 chassis No 2 he was stepping into. The one Lewis used to great effect at Silverstone in 2008, blowing everyone away in the wet, and then took to Brazil to win the title in historic, dramatic circumstances. “I’m not going to try and beat him,” says Tony with a half-smile. “The penalty if you miss here is huge.”

Stewart struggled to get away. He wasn’t giving it enough revs and the car dipped in and out of anti-stall as he slowly made his way down the pitlane. But it only took a couple of corners before he’d found confidence. Once he reappeared on the start/finish straight he was on the ragged edge, the crowd whooping as the McLaren’s engine deafened the rural area.

In addition to his NASCAR success, Stewart won the IRL Indycar title in 1997. He’s familiar with open-wheelers, but back then the IRL raced only on ovals. Downforce is a feeling he misses, and the McLaren serves up cordon bleu aero unlike anything he’s experienced.

“Darrian [Grubb, Stewart’s crew chief] isn’t gonna get any sleep cos I’m gonna want a car that drives like this all the time,” he says after his run. “That’s one of the coolest experiences of my life. Everybody told me how great the brakes were going to be. I knew they’d be good, but I didn’t know they’d be that good. It just handles so nice. It’s fun to have downforce again.”

Hamilton didn’t hold back in the NASCAR, either. The team asked him to pit after his assigned four laps. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you!” he fibbed, two laps later. The track was drying, and Lewis set a faster time than Stewart.

Ignoring the pit entry, he treated us to donuts — spinning the car repeatedly on the start/finish straight, choking us with burnt rubber.

“It made me completely forget about last weekend,” says Hamilton, referring to his collision with team-mate Jenson Button in Montreal. “This is probably the coolest thing I’ve done outside Fl. They don’t make tracks like this nowadays. I didn’t know how stiff the car was going to be but it handles really well and I loved driving it. The shifting and engine were fantastic.”

Asked if he’d consider following in the footsteps of former Fl winner turned NASCAR star Juan Pablo Montoya, he jokes: “With the problems I’ve been having recently changing might not be a bad thing!”

“I can tick this off the list. It’s amazing how far you can charge the corner,” reflects the double Sprint Cup champion. “You can understand why it’s hard for these guys to overtake because it’s not a lot of time between getting off the throttle, getting on the brakes and changing direction. So I have a much greater appreciation for how these guys manage to pass.”

Two great champions, revelling in two very different but equally awesome cars. And it might have given 26-year-old Hamilton a not-soretiring retirement plan. Next decade, he could be revitalising NASCAR just as he has F1.