The road to becoming a grand prix driver is lined with potholes big enough to swallow those lightweight, yet thunderous racing cars. There are 22 seats available on the Formula One grid and to earn one you need huge amounts of talent, money, luck, and quite often a blood relative who’s already been there before you. You also need to be a teenager. If you’re over 25 you’ve had it.
I fail to tick any of these boxes, but the dream is still attainable if only for a day. I first got into F1 in 1993, the year Damon Hill started winning races, and I found myself strapped tightly into a car from that same championship season. It’s a Footwork that had originally been raced by Japanese hero and certified madman Aguri Suzuki. Behind me was a 600bhp donor engine, which kicked into life as I was bump-started by a quad bike and rolled onto the Three Sisters race track near Wigan. I slowly released the clutch and sunk the throttle as the Footwork’s splutter turned into a roar and my brain desperately clung to everything I’d been taught that morning.
Three Sisters is more used to hosting national go-kart races than F1 cars. It’s very short and only has eight turns – which is good because you can’t get lost – but also narrow, with little run off and threatening barriers. Not ideal when you have an insanely fast, valuable and tricky car to tame, plus a queue of other enthusiasts waiting for you to bring the car home in perfect working order. However, one is eased from the shallow end into the deep by The Racing School.
By starting the training at the wheel of an Alfa Romeo Giulietta hatchback, one learns the circuit’s racing lines in a car that’s pretty normal and undaunting. Then you get to sample some powerful thoroughbreds, an Aston Martin V8 Vantage and a Ferrari 360 Modena which pack 380 and 400bhp respectively. Both are capable of over 180mph, not that I ever kept my eyes off the road to look at the speedo during my ten laps in each. Each time you’re sat alongside an instructor, talking you through the lines and where to brake, and giving you lots of encouragement.
From here you go down in power and dramatically down in weight, too, to experience the rather alien sensation of being in a single-seater on your own. The junior car weighs in at 600kg, and with a 115bhp Zetec engine reaches 60 in 4.8 seconds. Sat less than an inch off the ground, legs fully outstretched, and with suspension as stiff as rigor mortis it felt much faster. It looks like a pussycat compared to what’s coming next, though. The Racing School has two Formula Three cars from the 1980s that look more aggressive than their modern counterparts, like IndyCars. There’s a step up in power to 170bhp. On slick tyres, we’re warned, this could be more of a handful than the F1 car. However, it wasn’t as scary as it first looked, even if the ride meant my eyeballs were rolling around like the dials on a fruit machine. At the end of the straights I was hitting the rev limiter, indicating I was getting the power down nice and early.
And so to the main course: driving ten laps in a car that once shared the track with Michael Schumacher’s Benetton, Alain Prost’s Williams and Ayrton Senna’s McLaren. If the progression of power and speed had been gentle till now the graph suddenly took a sharp upward spike.
Not that I was scared. I was excited and impatient to get going. Being the first out meant I would be on cold tyres, which require a couple of cautious laps to warm up. I’d been outfitted with treaded tyres, rather than slicks, to speed up the process. I was instructed to start in second gear, work up to fourth and leave it there, the Judd-engine’s torque pulling away even at low revs and the danger of wheel-spin neutered. The throttle is sensitive, with each inch worth about 200bhp. The noise is part opera, part punk rock – beautiful yet angry. Around low speed corners the car felt cumbersome and heavy, but once the back-straight at this circuit opened up so you could confidently nail the gas the sensation was like that of a scud-missile and your brain pops and whizzes as it tries to calibrate just how quickly the next turn is arriving. After this I will never watch a grand prix again in the same way. How they get their braking points exactly right lap after lap under those forces is superhuman.
Those ten laps go quickly. I was always playing the last lap over in my mind, and needed to snap my attention back to the present so as not to miss a critical braking point. It’s like an out of body experience. The GoPro mounted to the roll hoop means you can play that angle over and over again when you get home.
Ten laps over, but it’s a lifetime’s worth of longing that’s complete; finally experiencing what it’s like to be a Formula One driver, if only for a day. The rush of adrenalin and the thrill of control feels like nothing this side of piloting a fighter jet. Another strange satisfaction is that, in returning the car with all the wheels still attached, I managed to do what Aguri rarely did!
The Formula One Experience, from suburban hatch to F1 beast, costs £1,599. I and all the other drivers on our day at The Racing School were clearly there to live out our childhood dreams. But The Racing School, which also operates at former grand prix tracks Donington and Brands Hatch, offers wannabe racers as young as 11 the chance to drive a supercar from £89. You might have missed your chance to be a world champion, but you can still play a part in the inspiring the next generation.
To book the ultimate driving experience call 01942 270230 or visit racing-school.co.uk.