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Driver's seat: Narain Karthikeyan on what it feels like to drive an F1 car

Narain Karthikeyan describes the surreal, thrilling and scarcely believable — the feel of driving an F1 car. He goves the basics on just what it feels like to go from an average car to an F1 monster.

india Updated: Oct 26, 2013 10:24 IST
Narain Karthikeyan
Narain Karthikeyan
Ferrari-to-launch-their-2012-Formula-One-car-in-time-for-the-first-pre-season-test-in-February( )

When I was first asked to describe the experience of driving a Formula 1 car for this column, I was at a loss for words. How can you put down something so surreal, thrilling and scarcely believable — the feel of driving an F1 car — in black and white? But I decided to take a stab at it, so you’re the judge!

Four wheels and a steering

Yes. That’s about the only common thing between a road car and a Formula 1 car. And I’m not just talking about your humble hatches and sedans, but even thoroughbred supercars like Ferraris and Lamborghinis, or even the Bugatti Veyron for that matter. Even though a lot of technology from F1 eventually makes it to road cars, the extremely focused, purpose-built nature of an F1 car is impossible to match. In its pursuit to lap a circuit as fast as possible, performance is the overriding factor and there are no compromises.

In that sense, everything is really extreme, so an F1 designer doesn’t need to worry about airconditioning, lumbar support or ride comfort. The basic formula is simple — lightweight, lots of power and the most critical factor which sets F1 apart from other categories of racing — aerodynamics. Combine these three in the right proportions and you get a sub-12 second 0-300kph acceleration time.

That’s 300kph, not 100!

For comparison’s sake, an average hatch-back will do well to get to a 100 under 12 seconds, whereas even the most powerful of supercars will struggle to get to 300 under 25 seconds. Even the mighty 1000bhp Veyron takes 19.7 seconds. And mind you, an F1 car has only 750-odd horses to play with. So where does the performance come from? The answer is in the three factors mentioned before. Weight (or lack thereof!) is one of the prime contributors. While a Bugatti may have 1000bhp, it still has a portly 1.8 tonnes to lug around.

So, even though an F1 car produces 250 fewer horses, the weight of 650kg (and that includes the driver!) puts it at a massive advantage when it comes to what is known as the power to weight ratio, which, to a large extent, decides the straight-line performance of a car. And then there’s the engine itself — which is easily the epitome of automobile engineering technology — hardly surprising since F1 is the pinnacle of motorsport after all.

Even though going into each nitty-gritty of the amazing 2.4-litre V8s is impossible with the word limit I’ve been given, a simple comparison will give you an idea of its bonkers potential.

Did you say 2.4 litres?

Yes, nowadays your average luxury sedan may come with a similar cubic capacity (cc) engine, but whereas a 2400cc Accord or a Camry will produce maybe 200bhp, an F1 engine with the same capacity makes a staggering 750bhp — and that is with loads of restrictions which includes the requirement to use normal pump fuel and ban on super exotic metals like titanium amongst other things to cut costs.

How? Simply put, it is just crazy engineering; aggressive engine designed to operate at extremely high engine rpm — nowadays F1 engines are restricted (so to speak!) to an 18,000 rpm redline. An average road car comes with a sub-7000rpm limiter (on an empty road, try accelerating in first gear and see how far the needle goes on the rpm counter), and road cars that can go past 9000rpm can be counted on fingertips.

Considering that, the heart of a Formula 1 car is truly an engineering marvel. Then, there’s the seven-speed gearbox, operated by paddles behind the steering wheel. I know what you’re thinking — loads of cars have paddle-operated transmissions nowadays, but still they’re not even close to an F1 gearbox in terms of sophistication.

Made out of carbon-titanium, an F1 gear-box is capable of withstanding an exceptionally high amount of abuse — like hard downshifts from seventh to first in a couple of seconds, and torturous upshifts while clattering over the kerbs during acceleration. For example, in Monaco, there are around 4300 gearshifts during the 78-lap, 300-odd km race.

A road car will have to do several thousand kilometres to get to the same number of down-shifts, and they won’t even be 10 per cent as violent! All this hardware is nestled in a bespoke carbon-fibre chassis, which is designed to offer the best weight distribution and suspension geometry for exemplary handling.

Steering wheel a marvel

On a road car, the steering wheel is a means of controlling the front wheels, but in an F1 car, it is literally the command centre of a spaceship. Including the rotary switches, buttons and paddles, there can be up to 32 individual controls on the wheel! And, while you may have a little digital readout that shows odometer, trip and maybe fuel efficiency, an F1 car has approximately 10 options for displays including speed, KERS, split lap times, gears display and so on. This allows us to adjust a myriad of settings on the car while driving.

For example, we can play around with the brake bias to change the way brakes work on front and rear wheels — on the move! In fact, it is a switch which you can see drivers frequently fiddle with in on board shots as some corners may require different percentage of rear and front braking force compared to the others. Considering the amount of engineering subsystems integrated into it, a Formula1 steering wheel can cost a cool `25 lakh!

Eye-popping performance

On an average, an F1 car can brake to a complete standstill from over 200kph in less than 65 metres. But to get that sort of performance from the brakes, the driver needs to hit the brake pedal with almost 120kg of force. May sound easy for those pumping out leg presses at the gym, but remember we need to do it several times over a lap and for over 90 minutes continuously, using just the left foot.

The corresponding G-force, which sometimes can be over 4.5 times that of gravity, can sometimes force a tear from your eye and splatter it onto the visor. Don’t try this during your commute though — you’d be lucky to stop from 100kph in that distance, if you manage to keep the wheels pointing in the right direction, that is. Even the tyres are radically different — you need to warm them up and get them to around 100-degrees before they start gripping.

A normal road-car tyre will never see those kinds of temperatures in its lifetime, unless you do a standstill burnout that is! It isn’t skill; it is just that the equipment is designed for performance. To get the maximum performance out of that equipment is a different ball game, though. For instance, if you’re lucky enough to find yourself behind the wheel of a Formula 1 car unprepared, let me assure you that you will not even be able to get the car out of the pit garage, let alone get out on the track and get close to the limit of the car.

It is like me wanting to launch off an aircraft carrier in an F16 fighter jet. The point is that you need a lot of training and go through a lot of steps if you want to handle any cutting edge hardware — and F1 is as good as it gets when it comes to automobile engineering.