F1 fans get a taste of the action
London: Many armchair Formula One fans believe that, given the chance, they could be as good as Michael Schumacher or battle wheel-to-wheel with Lewis Hamilton. All that is stopping them is a lack of a break and/or money.
Motor sport being the expensive business it is, chances to test this theory are rare, so a recent two-day driving event organised at the Yas Marina Circuit was an eye opener.
The event, a taster for the second Abu Dhabi Grand Prix next month, was designed to show the media and a few fans as graphically as possible how tough it is to be an F1 driver.
Exceptional reaction times, strength, stamina , concentration and the ability to withstand high G forces are all pre-requisites for a top driver.
Doctor Riccardo Ceccarelli, who has spent 20 years working in F1, had devised mental and physical tests for the visitors, strapping five-kg weights to the side of helmets so their necks could feel simulated G forces.
The group had to hold a steering wheel loaded with weights on full lock for six minutes at a time to give them an idea of how heavy the steering is when on the limit, and Ceccarelli tested upper body strength and stamina.
Ceccarelli said there was a misconception that drivers were not athletes because they sat down to compete and their effort was not obvious.
However, races require drivers to sit in a cockpit for up to two hours in 50 degrees Celsius with their bodies subjected to forces of four to five G six or seven times per lap.
During a 90-minute Grand Prix a driver`s heart beats between 180 and 210 times per minute but, under heavy braking, the rate drops to around 50 beats for a few seconds.
Trying to simulate the drivers` effort with Ceccarelli, the exhausted visitors emerged rubbing sore necks and shoulders.
Upstairs, more cerebral challenges awaited. Reaction times were measured with a concentration exercise on a computer screen. The participants were given an electronic clicker in each hand and had to click for "True" or "False" about the colours of words flashing rapidly on the screen.
Most people managed around 75 correct answers out of 100. Ceccarelli said that Renault F1 driver Robert Kubica could do 100 correct answers in 60 seconds and go on to do 300 in a row without making a mistake.
"Drivers have something different in the brain because they have to be quick, clever, able to react and make decisions," said the doctor. "When I started in F1 I was the same age as the drivers and I was surprised at how much better they were at everyday decisions, clearly their brain is faster than mine."
"The driver is different from other athletes in that he has the capacity to take control of many things and make decisions in the right time," added Ceccarelli, who has worked on research and training with drivers from Jean Alesi to Felipe Massa, Fernando Alonso and Kubica.
"A driver must be fit to last the race without fatigue but after that if I want to improve the performance of a driver I have to make his brain run faster for a longer time."
Out on the race track the temperature was touching 45 degrees as the group began the driving part of the programme.
The team from Abu Dhabi Motorsports Management had assembled an array of machinery from karts to F1 cars and brought in a host of former, current and future F1 drivers to help.
Most F1 drivers start racing as children in karts. The group was mentored by former kart champions Jules Bianchi, now on the Ferrari young driver programme, and Aaro Vianio.
Karting teaches the racing lines, braking, turning and the ability to keep the minimum speed high, which is a key part of F1 driving. Most current F1 drivers regularly sharpen their skills on karts.
The next stage was Radical Supersports, lightweight, fun two-seaters. Former Grand Prix racer Johnny Herbert was on hand to coach drivers into quickly going up to their limit and then pushing that limit beyond their expectations.
"Consistency and fluency," repeated Herbert. "Let the car run out of the corners, no sawing at the wheel."
Having progressed in an afternoon through what would take about five years of a young driver`s career, it was on to the heavy Aston Martin GT cars of the type which compete at Le Mans, with paddle-operated gear changes, roll cages and engines which howl at high revs.
After that it was Formula 3000 cars, basically scaled-down F1 cars with wings and slick tyres and impressive performance.
The rules said the group had to follow like ducklings behind former Ferrari driver Alesi, but the irreverent French-Sicilian soon turned it into a high-speed chase.
Some found their limits quickly, spinning out, but this was a genuine taste of what it feels like to be alone in a single-seater racing car with huge amounts of grip, acceleration and braking power and with sweat running into your eyes.
The final ride was in the circuit`s two-seater F1 car, where the passengers felt the full brunt of the superb performance, coupled with the G forces simulated the day before in the gym.
"I think a lot of us harbour the thoughts that given the opportunity we could compete in motor sports at the top level," said Neil Donnell, 34, a British games developer, who was at the circuit as a fan competition winner.
"From my two days here I can safely say it`s not in the fabric of my existence. I have a lot of experience playing games and in various reaction time tests I normally perform well, but going up against these professionals was a real eye opener."