It’s the brakes that truly blow the mind, as I slam on the anchors at the end of the Hungaroring’s straight and 270 kph becomes 80 kph. My eyeballs make a leap for my visor, my internal organs try to meet the six-point harness and the g-force tries to snap my neck before I hit the apex, and the 700 bhp V10 seemingly strapped to my back fires me towards the next bend.
This is madness, pure violence, and it genuinely hurts. But inside the helmet, I am laughing like a maniac, swearing like a lunatic and sucking up the most immense driving experience known to man. I’m really behind the wheel of Renault Formula One car, and you can do it too.
Renault’s ‘Feel It’ experience is now in its fifth year. The cars are prepped by ex-F1 team mechanics, telemetry experts are on hand and a physio violently pushes and pulls my head to ensure I can handle up to 5.5g under heavy braking and, if I get it right, 4.5g in the corners. The Bugatti Veyron Super Sports manages 1.4g, by the way – we’re in fighter jet territory here.
This day is not cheap at € 5500, but then this is a unique experience that includes passenger laps in a three-seater F1 car and racing Meganes, classroom tuition and a night in the The Four Seasons hotel in Budapest. As for the people attending, inevitably most are men, but women drive too and on our day I am joined by a guest of Renault F1 team sponsor TW Steel, a Brazilian mobile phone executive and an Australian internal auditor who all had the burning desire to drive the cars they follow with a passion on TV. That and a clean licence is all it really takes.
First, though, are two 20-lap sessions in a 200 bhp Formula Renault, which makes almost any road car, even a Ferrari 458 Italia, feel like a truck. Lying near horizontal in the cockpit, my body harmonises with the vibrating two-litre engine strapped to the bulkhead. It’s an unnatural experience that makes everyone cough, but such petty complaints fade into black as we blast on to the home of the Hungarian Grand Prix. F1 drivers complain it isn’t the most flowing circuit on the calendar, but as we follow in their footsteps, it feels more than challenging enough.
The acceleration defies belief; the car will hit 160 kph in 4.9 seconds, and the car brakes like it’s hit the proverbial wall. Apart from one lurid slide, when I lock the rear wheels, I emerge confident of positive feedback from the laptop-wielding engineers. I’m wrong.
I’m five seconds adrift of regular F1 driver Vitaly Petrov, who dropped in to set a benchmark time. I should hit the brake pedal with twice as much force, it seems. ‘Oh, and by the way, we saw that slide, that is not the way to be quick,’ they tell me through wry smiles.
But then, with my ego in shreds, comes the good news: I can take the wheel of the F1 car. Nobody has been turned away from the F1 drive yet, but some have required ‘extra training’. Considering a front wing costs ¤10,000 to replace and the smallest spin can have serious financial consequences, that’s impressive. Putting a value on the car isn’t easy – Renault spends hundreds of millions a year on development, and replacing the component parts would take around €700,000.
And so I find myself squeezed into the barren cockpit of the F1 that is based on the R24 that Fernando Alonso piloted (with just a little more skill), staring at two huge, grooved Bridgestone tyres that look way out of proportion to the car. Inside, it’s a mass of switches, a rock solid brake pedal and an only slightly more forgiving clutch. With the paddle shifts and the LCD readout on the wheel, that’s pretty much all there is; even the seat is merely foam wrapped in tape. It’s a near-alien world.
The car’s fitted with a V10 3-litre engine that comes with 700 bhp, but is limited to 12,000 rpm to save the team from expensive blow-ups. There’s a foot clutch, too, to help novices get the car off the line, softer suspension and a ‘sort-of’ traction control system that helps keep the car on the road, but will only help a little. It is more than enough for 605 kg of car, and gives the Renault a power-to-weight ratio of 1153 bhp/tonne. As a point of comparison, the Veyron Super Sports delivers 638 bhp/tonne.
The breath is once again sucked from my lungs as the team fires up the car from behind; the noise is insane, like jamming your head into a speaker at a Death Metal concert. This is not carefully engineered road car music, it is brutal, aggressive, scary even, like a high revving chainsaw plugged into an amplifier. My gloved fingers tremble on the tiny, squared off wheel as my brain searches for the start procedure. Revs in, clutch down, first gear and then ease out the rock solid race clutch.
Thankfully, there is no disastrous stall or bunnyhop; the car trickles away from the line and then, suddenly, I am dragged out of the pitlane by some mythical beast. The next 30 seconds are a total blur. The power, steering, everything is completely overwhelming and I forget about racing lines, braking points, the works. This is shock and awe in automotive form. It is amazing, fantastic, brilliant and horrible, all at the same time.
On anything approaching a straight, the wind rips at my helmet. Then there’s the downforce, where the faster you go through a corner, the harder the car sticks. An F1 car could stick to the ceiling of a tunnel and literally drive upside down. But knowing I need 50 kph more than feels rational to actually get round the bend at all is a difficult concept to grasp in the eye of the storm.
Then there are the brakes to contend with, which are simply ridiculous. As I stand on the pedal as hard as I dare at the first corner, I come to a near-stop way short of the apex and need to get back on the gas. There’s hardly any feel, the pedal is more or less a wooden block, but it stops so hard it draws tears from my eyes.
I am already through the tight first hairpin, taken in second gear with two determined blips down the gearbox with the left-hand paddle, before powering out of the bend, through the third gear sphincter-tightening blind left that can take fourth, but gets third, and down the hill.
I am still swearing, laughing, wincing and almost crying, all at the same time, with the jumble of emotions, the sheer overload of power. And then, as I head into the final sequence of bends on the 4.3 km course, comes the tragic dawning realisation: I’ve got just one lap left.
The sad fact is you only get two laps of the 4.3 km Hungaroring in the F1 car. That’s four minutes of the wildest fun you’ll have in your life. Renault admits it’s partially to safeguard the car. Given 10 laps, some would find false confidence and plant the car in the wall. And while even two laps takes a physical toll, 10 would apparently rip our puny necks to shreds. So, I have two minutes left to savour this outrageous power, and as I round the final corner, a mental switch flicks. I cannot waste this. So I try to take the car by the family jewellery, plant the throttle, attack the main straight and drink in the noise as that buzzsaw of an engine climbs to 12,000 rpm and threatens to burst an eardrum.
Then I stamp on the brakes, blip down three gears and go for it; the car even moves at the rear on the slowest bends and I feel like a hero, for a fleeting second at least. And then again as my foot stays planted through the tricky fourth gear left and I get just one last drink of full F1 throttle.
They say smooth is fast, but smooth is relative and nothing like you’d think. The brakes take a virtual kick at first, as the downforce stops the wheels locking, before bleeding off the pedal with brain surgeon precision, and though the throttle must be fed in gently, it must also be fed in fast. Smooth is the last thing I’d call it; it feels like a physical war.
Before I know it, I’m being shepherded into the pit lane and the game is over. There is just one further ego crushing moment as we head out for the three seater and find out just how feeble our best efforts were. I’m humbled, knowing that I used 60 per cent of the car’s skills, possibly less. But then nobody really expected a lap record today. This is just a small taste of the ultimate car, the sweetest, briefest moment money can buy. It’s the chance to be an F1 driver, for four minutes, and though it costs a fortune, ‘Feel It’ is absolutely priceless.