'F1 drivers do come from another planet!'
The first Indian journalist to drive an F1 car relives the twice-in-a-lifetime experience.india Updated: Oct 16, 2011 01:14 IST
It's been over ten years since I first wiggled my distinctly non-F1 frame into the tight confines of the carbon fibre tub of a Formula 1 car. Making the experience even more unforgettable was the date. I flew out from India on September 11, 2001, the day the Twin Towers were bombed. Since 9/11, the world has changed, but a Formula 1 car still continues to be the ultimate machine on four wheels.
I can't remember when I've shouted a more emphatic "YES!" to what was undoubtedly the best offer I had ever received in my motoring life. It all happened so fast - Lucy Lervis circuit, three hours south of Paris, 8:30am, two Larrouse LH 94s powered by 700bhp, 3.5-litre Cosworth V8s waiting in the small pit area. Our very French instructor threw some stats at us - 100kph in 2.4sec, 200kph in five, a 320 kph top speed. And this is in 2001.
I remember slipping into the Larrouse and finding the cockpit not as claustrophobic as I'd feared. Mechanics strapped me in with a six-point harness and clicked the 'half' steering wheel into place. Back then, paddle shifters weren't as common as they are now, and I had to remind myself that 'right' was to shift up gears and 'left' was to go down.
In my first 10 laps, it was difficult not to get overwhelmed by the situation. I was nudging 280 kph and it was difficult to keep my head straight. After 20 laps, pummelled by the g-forces, I was panting so hard that my visor misted up. By the end of the day I don't thing must have gone beyond 50 percent of the car's capability. Part of the reason I couldn't push further is because I just wasn't fit enough.
In 2008, I was back in France to drive the quickest breed of cars on the planet. I was at Magny Cours for my second tryst with a ground-bound ballistic missile and had at my disposal a Williams FW21 and a Benetton B198 once piloted by champions like Ralf Schumacher and Giancarlo Fisichella. And this time, there's an H Sorabjee behind the wheel. I relived the ritual of donning race gear and remembered to choose boots one size small; it's a good way to shrink your feet to slip them into the tiny pedal box.
Ignition on, foot off the throttle, starter pressed, the FW21's V10 bursts into life. Revs raised to 6,000rpm, I pull the right paddle to engage second gear (first is blanked off in this case). My foot is beginning to ache against the incredibly hard clutch which I slowly ease out. I feel it bite and let the last millimetre out a bit too quickly. When I leave the pit lane, I flex my right foot and the acceleration is so violent I feel like I've been shot out of a cannon.
Corners that could be taken absolutely flat out, I was braking and downshifting for. And though I thought I was going at an insane pace, the on-board video footage made me look like I was driving with the speed-limiter on. True, you acclimatise quickly to the sheer speed these cars are capable of, but only up to a point. To put it in perspective, if a genie granted me a wish and put me on the grid (on pole, please) the whole field would pass me in just four laps!
Yes, F1 drivers do come from another planet. Narain Karthikeyan, I salute you!
The author is editor, Autocar India.