The sound of an F1 car is the one thing that sticks with you forever once you felt a race live. It’s a symphony that traverses the span of guttural exclamation to keen wail. When the same sound resounds off the massifs of the Karakoram, swirls through the gorges and echoes back astride the bone-chilling wind, it no longer sounds like a plain machine; rather it appears that some atavistic force has made the mountains hum alive.
It was a concert between elements ancient and technology latest when Red Bull Racing lugged a Formula 1 car to the arid Ladakh desert. The outlandish plan was to pit the beast of the tracks against the big daddy of all roads in the world. At 18,380 feet, Khardung La is the highest place on this planet that anything on four wheels can get to. But a Formula 1 car? You got to be nuts!
Where there is will
“It’s been one year in planning, has taken over 3000 man hours and cost above $200,000 (about `1 crore) to execute,” informs Anthony Ward, the man at Red bull who sanctions all such hair-brained schemes which has given the brand it’s maverick marketing image.
No matter how much you plan, the mountains have a way of making a monkey out of man — they pare down the bubble of modernity and put you back where your ancestors once were. Red Bull Racing may be the best outfit to propel fast cars round and around circuits across the world but against the mighty Himalaya they too had to bow and look to scrape along when the weather deigned.
Red Bull sent the guys who help develop the edge that allows the bull to run rampant year after year in F1. The nine-strong team tweaked the car for over two hours before she purred to life at the 10,500 feet oxygen deprived altitude of Leh.
Once she reached the ambient running temperature of 70 degrees Celsius through generator spawned heat, they kept her warm like a baby, muffling her with blankets. Then, they kept stroking her en route to keep her gurgling content. But even more than their acumen, in the end it was a mix of logistics and sheer cussedness of the human spirit that saw the record-making attempt to fruition.
RBR drove the car around scenic bits of Leh to facilitate a film being shot on the project. The maximum speed that Swiss driver Neel Jani, best known in India for winning the A1 GP season 2007-08, reached was 210 kph. “It was just too bumpy. Apart from one run, the rest were all uphill and the corners were tight and twisty. It was important to have fun while staying safe,” said Jani.
They all surmounted the technical challenges just fine, but it was the bite of the heights that cowed them. The team spent close to three hours on top of the pass. That night Jani woke up and lay shivering for three hours in the wee hours.
“I was just so dehydrated. I had to drink a lot before I could go back to sleep. At that time I was not sure if I could drive on.” Only two of the support team went back close to the pass the next day.
At Khardung La, it was 11 below zero. Swirling snow and biting wind along with a rutted road made conditions all the more demanding. Jani got heated at the sight of tourists littering and proceeded to show just what refuse bins are for. Chaotic traffic made unloading and running the car a lesson in balancing mechanical challenges and people management. In the end, it was about 20 metres of run that notched up a world mark. Altitude induced headaches and worsening weather hurried the team down.
“The ride height was increased and we modified the suspension to take on the bumpy roads,” explains Tony Burrows, support team manager and a man with 24 years of experience in F1. One would presume that only sub-zero temperatures would be a problem. However, it was also about keeping the car cool on account of the extremely slow speeds that it ran at. Jani touched barely 125kph uphill to Khardung La and averaged about 50. “Fans were fitted to the radiators and we put a tray of dry ice behind it.” Along with that, the team could not let the car cool to lower than 70 degrees. “That was the toughest part. Even though temperatures go down to minus three at tracks like Barcelona during testing, there is no swirling wind and snow to contend with.” If the car slips below, it can’t be fired up lest the shrunk components smashed up the innards of the engine.
Using 97 octane fuel, a new software was written for the engine to manage the fuel mixture — the air to fuel ratio on account of less oxygen. It was a deft bit of tuning that allowed the car to fire at 18,380 feet.
It is possible to view this endeavour as a publicity gimmick. It can also be hailed as an example of mechanical brilliance.
For this writer, it was just the plain incredulity of watching an F1 car swerve through the sinewy bends of the mighty Himalaya and wonder at the limits that brand image allows boys to play with their toys.