I’ll be blunt. I’m shitting myself.
There’s nowhere to hide as my instructor tells me that I’m first-up. The car is ready and, with the track sufficiently dry, slicks are still being bolted on to the car as I make my way towards it, ushered by one of the crew members holding an umbrella over me. Photographers thrust cameras into my face and an army of mechanics continue to do their work on all four corners of the car. I feel like a Formula 1 driver making his way on to the grid.
The umbrella’s purpose is two-fold. The searing heat and monsoonal rain of Malaysia’s Sepang International Circuit combine for an electric atmosphere. It’s hot, very hot. And humid. And it’s been raining. A lot.
But now, the track is showing glimpses of a dry line and it’s decided, just moments before I am to climb into the car, to switch to slicks. In motor racing terms, I will be the pioneer on a drying track. That’s daunting enough in and of itself, let alone the fact that I’ve never driven around here and I’ve never driven this car before, an FIA Formula 4 open-wheel race car.
With no experience of either the track or the car, I was keen to get some insider knowledge. And having spent most of my working life as a motorsport journalist, I asked the only bloke I know who has raced at Sepang for some advice and insight.
“Don’t overheat the tyres!” Aussie F1 star Daniel Ricciardo tells me.
“It’s a very technical track with long corners and long braking, and for that it is very easy to pinch the front wheel. So the key to a good lap, I would say, is have a good brake balance. Don’t lock the front brakes, and don’t overheat the rear tyres.”
His colleague and rival, fellow F1 racer Romain Grosjean agrees.
“Keeping your rear tyres alive for the whole lap is very tricky,” the Haas F1 pilot says. “The first corner is already a bit of a shock on the rear tyres. Then turn two requires big traction. And then the high-speed midsection is quite fun.
“Then you go onto the hairpin which needs big traction. The next-to-last corner is hard on the tyres. It’s just about having a good balance, not too oversteery, and making sure that your rear tyres are always working nicely.”
I remember these bits of advice as I twist and contort my body into the narrow confines of the car’s cockpit while the mechanics bolt on some Michelin slicks and look nervously at the sky. I wriggle down into the car until I am cocooned safely inside. The seating position, such as it is, is surprisingly comfortable. You’re not so much sitting down, as lying down on the floor, your bum mere centimetres from the track surface with only a thin plank and a layer of carbon-fibre separating you from the worst gravel rash in the history of gravel rashes.
It takes three crew members to strap me in securely in a matter of seconds, the six-point harness so tight I have no forward movement whatsoever. This is, as I am soon to find out, a good thing. With my hands on the wheel, I take in my surroundings. Forward visibility is okay. I can see both of my front wheels and a strip of tarmac that is the Sepang pitlane. Rear visibility via two tiny side mirrors is crap and I now understand why so many F1 drivers say ‘I just didn’t see him in my mirrors’ when trying to explain a seemingly idiotic accident. It’s entirely believable.
There’s not a lot of time to think about what I am about to do. With a thumbs up, I’m given the signal to fire up the engine via an ignition button to my left. With my left foot pressed on to the clutch, I select neutral by simultaneously selecting the down- and up-shift paddles and then quickly hitting just the up-shift paddle to engage first gear. My leg is shaking uncontrollably, partly because I’m still shitting myself and partly because it’s a firm clutch and keeping it mashed to the floor while in a prone position takes some effort.
But I don’t have much time to think before a seemingly disembodied arm flashes in front of my visor and waves me on. Having been told to keep the revs up to over 3500rpm, I ease my shaking foot off the clutch and slowly start to roll forward. But I let the revs drop and the car jerks forward in a kangaroo hop that wouldn’t look out of place on an L-plater trying his or her first start in a manual car. A quick blip on the throttle steadies it and I’m off down pitlane trying to keep the car at the mandated 40km/h speed limit.
Progress is jerky, my head buffeting back and forth even at this low speed. These cars are not designed to move this slowly and every nerve of its being is screaming at me to go faster… please! But I ignore its pleas and continue to hold the car on a tight speed-limited leash, keeping revs low and the gearbox in first. It fights back with an ear-splitting rumble and bone-rattling and eyeball-shaking vibrations. Then, slowly, the world opens before me as I am greeted by a green light and the narrow confines of pitlane magically open up to a vast expanse of race track that is still liberally covered with damp patches.
And I’m on slicks.
Tentatively, I push my right to the floor as far as it will go and the response from the car scares the shit out of me…
Just 10 days earlier I had no idea this was in my future. As CA’s resident production guy, I spend a large chunk of my working life bound to a desk. But when the invite came through from Michelin Australia for CarAdvice to take part in the Michelin Pilot Sport Experience (MPSE), my status as the office’s motorsport tragic saw me preparing for what is, undoubtedly, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Ostensibly, I’m heading to Sepang for the launch of Michelin’s latest performance tyre, the Pilot Sport 4. But, really, the day is about one thing and one thing only – driving a variety of racecars on a race track. Fast. Maybe…
To get to the fun bit, I have to take in the corporate spiel about the Pilot Sport 4. But with my mind already shutting down at the prospect of having to sit through a half-hour presentation on a rubber donut, I am pleasantly surprised when the event co-ordinator instead takes a small group of us out to the track and lets us loose in a pair of Audi A6s, one shod with the new Michelin tyre, the other with a rival brand’s similarly-specced rubber.
Armed with a wet track, some witches’ hats and a whole lot of A6 grunt under my right foot, I put the rival brand’s tyres through their paces over a wet slalom course. Next up, the Michelins. Same car, course, same conditions, same driver – not exactly scientific but I did get a feel for the differences between the two and which one featured the superior grip in those conditions (hint: it’s the French one with the fat guy as its logo).
But, really, this was just the canapes on a degustation menu that left the best ‘til last. Next up, laps in a fully-fledged touring car. As far as tin-top racecars go, the track-tuned Renault Sport Clio IV is not at the top of the evolutionary chain. But it is light (1080kgs) and it has decent enough power output (165kW) to ensure a good time for even the most inexperienced. Power is sent to the wheels via a six-speed sequential gearbox operated via paddle-shifters, making this a very driver-friendly racecar.
With an instructor riding shotgun, I complete around 16 laps of the Sepang circuit in two sessions, each one quicker than the last. Despite the wet track, the car isn’t nervous or twitchy and, by the final laps, I am confident enough to tip the Renault into a fearsome right-hander supposedly taken at full throttle at, well, full throttle.
Previously, I had been braking, somewhat nervously, for the corner (more of a sharp kink really), before graduating to merely lifting off the throttle. But, with my time in the little hot hatch coming to an end, and with my instructor egging me over the intercom, I dialed up a ton of hope, kept my right-foot firmly planted and pointed the little Clio at the apex at around 150km/h. My heart was pounding, but the Clio (and, sponsor plug, its Michelin wets) held true and we came through the other side unscathed and in control.
The rush of euphoria at nailing that one corner is akin to a hack golfer hitting the sweet spot just once during an 18-hole round of golf. It’s enough to leave you wanting more and I wished I had trusted my instructor and the car earlier.
Not content with testing our limits on a race track, the next course served was Rally experience. Staged on a special dirt track inside the Sepang circuit precinct, Michelin’s weapon of choice for this part of the day was a pukka Citroen DS3 rally car. It’s fair to say this challenge terrified me. I’ve done plenty of high-performance driving in a variety of road and racecars. But all of it was done on a race track. I have never driven a rally car, much less one on a course lined with trees and ditches on a loose surface where one wheel wrong can hurt.
But, the rain that had fallen all morning and had conspired to dampen our ardour behind the wheel of the touring car, actually played into my weaknesses. With the once dirt track now simply a quagmire of wet, deep, slushy mud, any forward progress in the rally car would be slow. And so it proved.
With an instructor again riding shotgun, we edged the noisy Citroen out on to the track, made our way through the gears… to second gear. And that’s where we stayed, relying instead on the throttle to help steer the car around the tight and twisty track. The speeds weren’t fast, but they didn’t need to be to enjoy the experience. As a bespoke rally car, the Citroen enjoyed plenty of low-down torque and, by dancing on the throttle and gently correcting the wheel, I was able to navigate several laps of the track without incident.
And while not at break-neck speed, the experience was thrilling – because about 80 percent of each lap was spent sideways. Who doesn’t love sliding the rear of a car in a majestic arc around a series of corners? (Note, it felt majestic behind the wheel but to an observer probably looked like a series of tank-slappers performed by the worst driver in the world). I probably didn’t exceed 40km/h but, in this car, in those conditions, it felt like 1000!
And with that, it was time for the main course, the F4 open-wheeler. Designed by the governing body of motorsport, the FIA, as the first rung of the ladder into Formula 1, the pint-sized F4 is a potent race car.
Tipping the scales at just 470kgs, the 1.6-litre engine packs a fair bit of punch at 120kW. That might not sound like much, but when wedded to the lightweight car and aided by some pretty gnarly aerodynamic aids, this baby F1 car is capable of speeds in excess of 220km/h. But, as I found our when I exited pitlane and pushed my right foot flat to the floor, it’s not the straight-line speed that gets you. It’s everything else. It’s the acceleration, the squirming of the car underneath you, the almost unimaginable stopping power and the cornering, oh the cornering.
My first laps were tentative. I was, in short, scared of the car, the track and fearful of my own abilities. But with every visceral gear change, and believe me, you feel the gear changes in your body – your head, neck, shoulders and arms all shudder and reverberate with each gentle pull of the paddle. And with every hard stomp on the unassisted brakes and with every corner taken where the car didn’t spin uncontrollably and embarrassingly into the F1-sized sand traps, my confidence grew. The first element to benefit was acceleration, my foot on the throttle earlier, off later. Next, braking, the 150-metre marker now just a blur as my eyes adjusted to the speed and the 100-metre sign became my braking point. And finally, cornering, as the 40km/h hairpin at the end of the main straight became 50, 60 and finally 70.
But it’s the cornering that really bamboozles you, the ability of the car, thanks to its huge wings and deliciously-crafted aerodynamic shape to hold you to the track at speeds faster than your brain is capable of calculating. And one corner, more than any other, typified this. Before I was let loose in a fully-fledged open-wheeler race car, I completed one lap of the track in an Audi A6 with my instructor in the passenger seat. He talked me through each section of the track, each corner and what to be wary of. At turn five, somewhat laughingly called a fast chicane, he urged caution.
“You take this fast, almost flat but… but don’t suddenly come off the throttle or you will spin over there and we will have to dig you out,” he said pointing to the vast area of sand designed to catch cars and drivers who have found, then stepped over, their limits.
The first time, I was in fourth gear at about 110km/h and it felt slow. The second, still in fourth, 120. The third, fifth gear and 130, then 140, 150 and finally, fifth gear at 160km/h. At this speed, the car is wrestling with you. You can feel the grip. It pushes down on your head, your arms and legs while your brain is trying to deal with the visual inputs telling you that you really ought not to be going this fast around this section of the track.
But that’s the beauty of this experience.
This, this is what motorsport and the art of driving fast is all about, the challenge of ignoring your brain and simply placing your trust in the car and its abilities. The truth is, for most of us, cars are capable of so much more than we are as drivers. And unless your name is Daniel Ricciardo, most of us will never get to experience a car’s supreme capabilities.
That’s not to say it isn’t fun trying. The adrenaline rush is huge, the speed, the g-forces and yes, the fear, all combining to heighten your senses and surge a dose of that oh-so-sweet adrenaline through your body.
Lap times? There weren’t any nor do they matter. What matters to me in that moment is knowing that I am in control of this thing, this car that is fighting you for that control. It’s a mental challenge as much as a physical one and when it’s over, it leaves you feeling drained, exhausted, spent.
And wanting to do it all again.