Being driven by racing drivers


It sounds boastful, but if you do this job for long enough you get to sit next to a reasonable number of decent racing drivers. They tend to fall into three categories.

First are those who are so good that you’d only stand a chance of getting near them were you given your time all over again and devoted your life to the cause. Then there are those whose talents are so abundant that, while you can understand what they are doing at the wheel, it is even clearer that you’d never be able to do it yourself, regardless of circumstance. And then there are just a few – two in my recollection – whose abilities are such as to appear genuinely not of this earth and therefore cannot even be understood, let alone emulated.

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Of course, so much of your experience with these people is defined by whether your paths cross on road or track, and in a street or racing machine, so what follows is no kind of judgment on any of them, it’s just 10 of the more memorable experiences, a few, all or none of which might be in some way illuminating.

Derek Warwick: The first truly fast person to drive me, he took me around Castle Combe in 1991 in a vast array of fast cars. Oddly undramatic and appeared not to be trying, save for the unmissable fact that he overtook every other car out there.

Lunch with Derek Warwick (April 2010)

Patrick Tambay: Drove me on ice in a mid-engined Renault Clio, a somewhat challenging environment for an absurdly tricky road car, but was able to maintain a perpetual slide with one hand, gesticulating with the other and telling stories about his former life as a professional skier. Out of the car, perhaps the most entertaining F1 driver I’ve met.

Interview with Tambay (September 2005)

Gerhard Berger: Drove me around Fiorano in a Ferrari F512M looking like he’d rather be anywhere else in the world. Did one slow lap, one quickish lap then returned expressionless to the pits. Other journalists were allocated to Jean Alesi, who was apparently a hoot and spectacular behind the wheel.

Gerhard Berger on Jean Alesi (January 2008)

Dindo Capello: Drove me in an Audi DTM car and provided by far my least enjoyable passenger ride (at least of those where the car stayed on the track). He was absolutely brutal with the car, drove it with all the sensitivity of King Kong on a blind date, throwing me against the roll cage leaving bruises that stayed for weeks. Had he not kindly explained beforehand that this was the only way to get the best from the car, I would have been rather put out. In fact I was just amazed by his commitment.

Audi R10 diesel wins Le Mans (August 2006)

Jonathan Palmer: Probably my most vivid experience as a passenger, because we were in a prototype McLaren F1 at a wet Nürburgring that he’d not visited in 11 years. He wasn’t entirely sure he could remember which way it went, not that it stopped him. As a demonstration of purest car control in a difficult car in bad conditions at a merciless circuit, it’s probably as impressive as anything I’ve witnessed.

Jonathan Palmer’s Brands top five (December 2005)

Hans Stuck: Also at the ‘Ring, but in a one-off BMW X5 powered by the engine that won Le Mans in 1999. He was on it from the first corner, grinned at my every gasp and when near Hohe Acht he drove into an impervious wall of fog his only reaction was to say ‘Ah, fog’ and continue at unabated speed.

Lunch with Hans Stuck (December 2011)

Walter Röhrl: Porsche wheels out Walter for most of its track-based fast-car launches and I’ll always grab a few laps next to him. Usually he’s pretty sensible, probably because he’ll have to drive 10 journos per day for three weeks straight, but just occasionally you can find yourself at a preposterous angle of attack and see that old glint in his eye. Walter is not far off 70 now, but he’s never stopped using his skills, which is why he still has them.

Röhrl back the years (June 2010)

Guy Smith: The man who helped Bentley win Le Mans has only driven me once, but it was in a truculent original EXP Speed 8 prototype (well known for being tricky to drive), at a sopping Silverstone on inters when full wets were needed. So he just drove it like a rally car, balancing a 21st century Le Mans car in one massive powerslide all the way through Luffield. It was ridiculously impressive.

An Audi with a roof? Put a lid on it… (April 2012)

Sébastien Loeb: I drove his WRC Citroën on the loose and thought I’d done pretty well. Then he drove me. To this day it is the most inadequate I have felt in a car. I looked at his hands, looked at his feet, looked at the attitude of car, fed it all into the brain which came back with one simple message: “Does not compute.”

Finding Loeb’s comfort zone (December 2010)

Ayrton Senna: Imagine the best a driver can be. Now imagine just a bit better than that. That good.

Senna’s dirty weekend (May 2014)

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