The perfect busman's holiday

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Damien Smith

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If you spend your working hours immersed in racing, what do you do for a break? Drive racing cars!

Earlier this year, zak Brown enjoyed a privileged once-in-a-lifetime chance to drive four Grand Prix cars from four decades. As a true enthusiast, he revelled in the experience – and even tried to switch off from business for the day (but probably not his phone…). As Brown admits, he’s not exactly the best shape for a single-seater driver. But the feedback of an
experienced amateur offers some fascinating insight into the changes F1 has gone through over the years, from a pure driving perspective. His thoughts on the last car he drove are particularly illuminating.

1977 McLAREN-FORD M26

Both Jochen Mass and Patrick Tambay raced this car, but the reason Zak bought it was because of its world champion pedigree. Chassis M26/3 won the 1977 Japanese GP in the hands of James Hunt. The reigning World Champion also scored a podium in this car in France, while Mass drove it to third place in Canada. Gordon Coppuck’s design couldn’t live up to the success of the preceding M23, but it would be the last McLaren winner until John Barnard’s carbon-composite MP4/1 heralded a new direction in 1981. Brown bought this M26 direct from Ron Dennis.

ZAK BROWN: “This was a lot of fun to drive. It doesn’t have the power of the other cars, so you can really chuck it around. But of the four I drove that day, the M26 is probably the most physically demanding to drive.

It’s got the heaviest steering and the gearbox is a little bit dificult. Every change, you wonder ‘will I get it right?’ It would be the hardest to do an hour and a half in, physically. The gear lever will chew your hand up and it was certainly the rawest of the four.”

1986 LOTUS-RENAULT 98T

In the heart of the turbo era, Ayrton Senna drove this car to fourth place in the 1986 World Championship. Chassis 98T/3 won the Spanish Grand Prix in Jerez in the great Brazilian’s hands, famously beating Nigel Mansell to the line by just a nose, and he also claimed the US GP in Detroit. Five pole positions confirmed to the world Senna’s incredible speed in the heat of qualifying, and he also claimed podium finishes in Brazil, Monaco and Belgium. This Lotus is the most successful of Senna’s cars to exist in a private collection.

ZAK BROWN: “It’s staggering to drive. The turbo is violently aggressive. I’ve got a Porsche 962 which is quite nice to drive in regards to the turbo. But this thing… it just keeps pulling and it doesn’t have much turbo lag, either. And we were only running it to 850-900 horsepower at Paul Ricard, not the 1300 it potentially has.

“It was awesome sitting there thinking ‘Senna’s won races in this car’. It’s got his belts, his steering wheel – it’s very original. To drive it was nostalgic for me because Senna’s my hero, as he is for many.”

1991/92 BENETTON-FORD B191B

Nelson Piquet signed off his F1 career in this car in Adelaide at the end of 1991, then Martin Brundle made his Benetton debut in it in South Africa at the start of the following season.
but it’s because Chassis 06 is a Michael Schumacher car that brown bought this Benetton. In his first full season in F1, Schumacher scored podiums in the Mexican and Brazilian GPs, before switching to the new b192 for the start of the European season. Benetton’s star designer, John Barnard, originally intended the B191 to run a version of the paddle-shift semi-automatic gearbox he’d pioneered at Ferrari. But the team struggled to integrate the software and electronics, forcing the Englishman to revert to a normal manual gearshift. It would be the last Barnard design to feature a gear lever.

ZAK BROWN: “I’m not comfortable in this car at all, because that was the peak of the attitude among designers that if the driver fits that’s just an added bonus. The steering wheel hit my legs and I was pressed up against the gearshift. But it is unbelievable on the brakes and is the hardest of the four cars to drive. It’s the most aggressive, and as it’s the last of the traditional gearbox cars you’ve still got to get your heel-and-toe right – and the footbox is small. The Ford V8 has got tons of torque and the car is super-light. It’s a blast to drive – I always thought Benettons were cool.”

2010 RENAULT R30

Having sampled Grand Prix cars from tHe 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, Brown ended his day by bringing his F1 experience up to date, in this ex-Robert Kubica Chassis from 2010. The test was a ‘thank you’ from Lotus F1 boss Gerard Lopez and Team Principal Eric Boullier for Brown’s work in landing a major sponsorship deal with consumer goods giant Unilever. In 2010, this car was a Renault. Now, as the team has changed hands, it’s a Lotus… for Kubica, it might well be his final F1 car following the rallying accident that appears to have ended a Grand Prix career that promised great things.

ZAK BROWN: “The car is extremely comfortable to drive. You don’t want to use the word easy because trying to race Kimi Räikkönen or Fernando Alonso in it, I’m positive that’s not easy. But from a pure driving experience it’s just a beautiful thing. When you sit in the car the steering wheel is very close to you. In the footbox the brake pedal is big so you don’t need to feel for it. You can’t go anywhere but on the pedal, and there’s a divider down the middle, so you have no choice but to left-foot brake. I don’t left-foot brake but within half a lap I was comfortable. I had zero fear.

“The aerodynamics are unbelievable. The car just feels stuck to the ground. Once I got into fourth gear, I could almost feel the car take a set aerodynamically. Really inspiring.

“The brakes, you can hit them as hard as you want, especially at high speed when you have all the grip. And you can’t lock them. The gearboxes, they’re really automatic, but because of the rules you have to be seen to do it yourself. But there’s no kick when you shift up, it’s just seamless. There’s a beep in your ear when you need to shift, it’s hooked up to your radio, so you don’t even need to look at the rev limits – you just wait for the beep…

“And when you downshift, how it sounds is just how it feels. In the car it’s cool because it’s almost like a video game because it’s so smooth. The steering wheel has three variable power assists, so you can drive the thing with one hand, whether you’re at high speed or low.

“My neck went, as everyone talks about. It doesn’t go laterally because your head cannot move, but you feel it forwards and backwards under braking and acceleration. I did eight timed laps and other than my neck I felt I could have done an hour and a half. How these guys drive with these steering wheels is beyond me. There’s so much on them. It has things like differential adjustments for [corner] entry, mid and exit. So you could, as these guys do, spend all day tweaking it.

“You can see how the current cars have equalised the field. I can see why all these guys are qualifying right next to each other. Back in the past you had to wrestle these things and I now understand why there were bigger discrepancies in driver talent. Now the car does the work: in 1977, the driver did the work.

“Of the four it would be the easiest to put someone without much experience into it. If I was to take one of my buddies out and put them in a car, this is the one I’d choose.”

Damien Smith

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