I’ve been strapped into this car so tightly I can barely draw breath. My steering wheel is clipped on, and then a pair of mechanics fit the snug cockpit surround in place, banging it fixed with what seems the finality of nails in a coffin lid.
Not that I’m scared, or resigned to an early grave. I’m excited, impatient even. And this moment – punching the start button on an F1 car and feeling its mighty V10 beating menacingly behind me – is something I have dreamed of since I was a kid.
We are at the Paul Ricard High Tech Test Track near Marseille, where Renault has invited a small group of VIPs to sample two laps each of an F1 car, to gain a better understanding of the skill required to drive one of these machines. They promise that we will never watch a grand prix in the same way.
And no, this is not a two-seater with a professional up front – I’m on my own in here.
This Renault is the 2004 car but with an ’05 front wing to give it a downforce boost. The grip promises to be mind blowing at speed, but I’m a bit anxious about the slower stuff combined with the hyper sensitive throttle. Each centimeter of pedal travel is worth about 200 horsepower.
Altogether I have 700hp to play with, slightly down on its original 900hp, but weighing only 580kg it’s still like, say, driving a hatchback with 2000hp.
I’ve been briefed on the starting procedure: Clutch in, select gear, a dab of throttle – enough for the first of ten rev lights to illuminate atop the steering wheel. Gradually pull back on the clutch, feel the bite, and gently away… A sense of relief that I didn’t stall.
The pit exit lights are green, so lets experience the Scud-like acceleration. The noise is part opera, part punk rock – beautiful yet angry. I pull on the right paddle: third gear, fourth gear – watching for a red light before shifting. Only a few seconds have passed and I’m at the first corner.
The steering is heavy, particularly at slow speed. The tyres are cold, so I need to be cautious when feeding the power. To brake, apply maximum pedal pressure at first, then back off a little to avoid locking a wheel.
Use the brakes to slow, not the cogs. Get the engine revs down before dropping each gear. Downshift too early and the rear wheels could lock, making it very difficult to control.
It comes as no surprise that the brakes are phenomenal. They make my eyes want to pop out of their sockets. What is unbelievable is the aerodynamic grip at speed, throwing the car in sixth gear into a long 90 degree right-hander with only the lightest of lifts, it seems to defy physics that I’m still facing forward as the corner opens up.
My head is thrown left, and I have to strain my neck back into the turn. I’m pulling about 3G, whereas Fernando Alonso, taking that corner flat, could pull 5G – that’s a lateral force five times the weight of the driver.
Two laps. That’s all I’ve got. Enough to experience the sensations of a grand prix car, but not enough to push. I keep reminding myself: Alonso didn’t become the best driver in the world in two laps. Just get back in one piece!
I’ve been rattling around in this carbon-fibre cigar for all of three minutes, and I feel dizzy. I ache, but I’m elated. It’s like a champagne hangover, but after the best party ever – one that I’d been planning for years – where I managed to pull the hottest girl in the room.