Sunday Express, November 11, 2008

Lapping it up just like Lewis

Emulating the feats of newly crowned world champ Lewis Hamilton doesn’t have to mean a succession of speeding fines. DUNCAN CRAIG gets behind the wheel of the next best thing to an F1 car during a track day at Silverstone

MY FIRST two laps were completed at a blistering pace. By the third, I was dreaming of a lucrative F1 contract and my very own Pussycat Doll.

Then the pace car I had been trying to follow stopped abruptly and instructor Mark got out and wandered over. “Everything OK, Duncan?” he asked. I gave him an enthusiastic thumbs-up. “It’s just that you haven’t yet gone over 40mph.”

The promotional material had assured me that Silverstone’s Single-Seater Experience would “release my inner hero”. Somehow I’d freed up my inner granny.

A mangling of your speed perception is just one way that the chasm between a race car and your average family saloon reveals itself. A few inches off the ground, surrounded by little more than a fibreglass shell, your visor coated with spray, 50mph feels like 100mph, and 100mph…well, you don’t even want to go there.

At least I didn’t. Not initially anyway. It is little wonder that everyone finishes the day with a new-found respect for Lewis, Kimi, Felipe and the rest.

Silverstone was nothing like I had imagined. The circuit sits on the edge of the village of the same name, half in Northamptonshire, half in Buckinghamshire. Nearby is the pretty town of Towcester (pronounced “Toaster”). After Hamilton’s success, Silverstone is buzzing and already gearing up for next June’s British Grand Prix, possibly the last one to be held at the famous track.

The Single-Seater Experience is run from a cluster of buildings and workshops inside the main, three-mile Grand Prix track and uses the 0.9-mile Stowe Circuit.

By lap three I was dreaming of a lucrative Formula One contract and my very own Pussycat Doll

The day begins with a 30-minute briefing. With the aid of a whiteboard and interrupted only by the occasional rocket-like roar of a passing race car, Mark initiated our small group into the arcane world of racing lines, apexes and downward thrust. Adrenaline levels rising, we were fitted with waterproof suits, white balaclavas, helmets and gloves, and taken outside for the next phase, car “familiarisation”.

At our disposal were customised Formula Silverstone cars, less than a year old and designed to offer an authentic, Formula 1-style experience but with a modicum of comfort. My head rested on a cushioned pad that would no doubt come into play during the four seconds it takes the car to reach 60mph from stationary. To the right of the tiny, angular steering wheel was a gear stick little bigger than a cigar, its four settings just a flick of the wrist apart.

The layout was functional but surprisingly snug. On Mark’s signal we flicked our dash-mounted switches, touched the starter buttons beneath them and hit the throttle. Deep growls reverberated around the circuit and through our seats, bringing an involuntary smirk to everyone’s lips. We moved off down the track, tentatively testing the immense power with little blips on the gas that caused surges of speed.

The idea of the initial pace car session is to follow the instructor in his souped-up Ford Focus to give you an idea of the racing line. As he gradually ups the speed, you must try to maintain three car lengths between yourself and the car in front – a lot harder than it sounds.

The first few laps I found myself slipping and sliding all over the track. Understeer, oversteer, wobbling free. I locked the wheels on a couple of occasions and generally turned the racing line into a meandering stream.

The lack of a speedometer (the dash has only a rev counter) was unsettling but one of the great things about the Single-Seater Experience is the time you get to spend behind the wheel. About 35 laps gives you ample opportunity for trial, error, more error and, eventually, incremental improvement.

Forearms burning from wrestling the wheel and G-forces tugging my head one way then the next

As we moved into the Open Lapping session, in which drivers are left to their own devices to overtake and jostle for position, I found myself relaxing, my line improving and my speed increasing.

Through the wheel and the base of the seat I could feel every dimple in the track, every slight pooling of trademark Silverstone drizzle. The pay-off for this lack of a smooth ride is quite astonishing handling. I was marvelling at this as I exited one of the track’s five tricky corners when one of my fellow competitors cheekily overtook, with the slightest hint of a superior nod in my direction.

This provoked an exhilarating cat-and-mouse for the next few laps as, forearms burning from wrestling the wheel and G-forces tugging my head one way then the next, I sought to reclaim my position.

Cheered on by friends and family in the spectators’ stand (we wished), we began to push the envelope by accelerating harder, braking later and trying to follow an ever-tighter line. When you meddle with physics, however, something has to give. And it wasn’t going to be the physics. I soon found myself facing in the wrong direction and sheepishly waiting for the safety car.

The two-hour experience gave me a real sense of just how thrilling Formula 1 must be. The day even ended with me emulating our newest sporting hero when he clinched the world championship in that thrilling final race in Brazil last weekend. I also came fifth.

Sadly, it was out of five.

* INFORMATION: Silverstone (0870 458 8270/www.silverstone.co.uk) offers its Single-Seater Experience for £155 (other driving experiences available).