French GP: How it feels to drive a Formula 1 car
"Push as hard as you can on the brake, I mean really hard, and then release."
I'm sitting in a Formula 1 car and a Renault Sport engineer is giving me an important task.
I thrust my left leg as far and as hard as it will go on the pedal, and release as instructed. The engineer glances at a value on a laptop and nods his head.
"OK, this is the pressure you need to apply… you really have to give it as much force as you can."
This is the same E20 V8 machine that Kimi Raikkonen won with in Abu Dhabi in 2012. The race where he famously barked back to the pits during a safety car stint over team radio: "Leave me alone, I know what I'm doing."
The straps are pulled so tight there is zero movement in the seat. My feet are at the height of my hips, if not higher, but it feels extremely comfortable.
The steering wheel, with its plethora of switches, is shunted into place on the quick-release mechanism. It's surprisingly close to my face, literally no more than six inches away. A quick test reveals I can turn the wheel left and right 90 degrees no problem, and easily reach the engine cut-off switch to my bottom right. I'll need that later.
It is difficult to believe that I am actually here. I have to make the most of it. The run would comprise just three laps, well actually one flying lap, book-ended by an out-lap and an in-lap either side.
The backdrop to this once-in-a-lifetime event is at the Paul Ricard circuit in southern France. Paul Ricard is where the French Grand Prix returns after a decade away from the F1 calendar. It's a familiar haunt for sportscar racing series; the long and fast Mistral straight - punctuated by a chicane - and equally as exciting Signes right-hander make it a classic circuit.
Some may raise eyebrows over the amount of run-off, but Paul Ricard doesn't pretend to be Monaco. Go too far off track, from the blue strips to the red, and the tyres will be destroyed because of the abrasive surface.
Just don't stall it
A million thoughts race through my mind in the moments before the tyre blankets are removed.
I'm mentally rehearsing pulling away using the clutch paddle on the bottom left hand side of the wheel.
"Just slowly release and allow the car to move without any throttle," my instructor had told me.
Bearing in mind that I had stalled the Formula 4 car twice earlier that morning during training, that didn't bode well. "Don't exceed 60kph in the pit lane and don't floor it on the exit, or you'll end up in the barrier on the right."
As I thought about the slow run down to pit exit, suddenly the mechanics move forward and pull the blankets from the fresh slicks. The engine has already been fired up - a cacophony of V8 goodness wails behind me. The car is lowered and pushed out into the pit lane.
"Treat this drive as an experience," the team said. "If the car spins it's a red flag and that means half an hour of track time gone."
Suddenly, I'm waved to go… I release the clutch slowly and the car obediently moves forward… and with zero throttle coasts down the pit lane exit.
As the front wheels cross it, I apply about 30% throttle and I'm off. Nearly 800bhp in a 690kg car is now on tap for the next few minutes.
Eyeballs at the top of their sockets
My first impression? Incredible... In comparison, the F4 car felt agricultural with its harsh, abrasive gear changes, engine vibration through the chassis shaking my teeth and blurring my vision.
In contrast, the F1 felt so smooth, completely contrary to my expectation. The only thing to interrupt that seemingly silky smooth experience was the sudden, violent G-force jolt of the gear changes. As for the power, it just kept coming, up to 18,000 revs - and remember this is not the turbo era engine but the aspirated 2.4L V8.
Steering was very positive, pleasantly weighty and enough to feel the tyres connected to the track. I didn't have any DRS or KERS, just an internal combustion engine which was occasionally pushed towards the engine rev limits. I only dared to find those limits on the straights.
It's easy to go fast in a straight line. It's through the corners where skill is needed. That's where my guts stopped me.
A cheeky session in a simulator before my trip, indicated that Signes, the fast right hander, could almost be taken "flat" - the accelerator almost fully to the floor. But when it came to the real thing, there was no way.
My foot refused me to do what I did in the virtual world. Instead I ended up almost cruising around Signes - the car seemingly giggling during the audible downshifts.
Because of my caution through the corners, I never really experienced the neck ache that so many talk about.
The nearest I got to it was on the straight at full whack. Here the helmet seemed to get rushes of air caught under its lower front lip, therefore forcing my whole head back.
To compensate I pushed my head forward but it didn't feel enough. So I tried another tactic; tilting my head slightly downwards looking into my lap, preventing the air force problem in the first place. This worked even if it meant looking down the straight with my eyeballs at the top of their sockets.
How do you start the engine again?
So, came the final corner and the slow trip to the pits. But, in my over-excitement, I hit the neutral button on pit-entry.
I tried to get the car back into gear but forgot the sequence with the clutch to do so. "How was it? Take it into second gear first, then engage the clutch, or ... first?" I said to myself as the car slowed rapidly. "What if I'm wrong on that sequence? Will I mess up the engine and/or the clutch?"
This scenario was too awful to contemplate so I opted to accept the situation and do nothing. The car stopped near the entrance to the pitlane and the V8 - which idles at around 6,000rpm - was still purring in the back.
"Chris, turn off the engine. Turn off the engine... turn off the engine..."
"The engine's going to overheat," I thought. "How do I turn off the engine?" The I remembered the strangely old-fashioned cut-off switch. I looked down, fumbled around, found the switch and killed the engine.
My head moved up again and I became aware of a group of mechanics running towards me in the pitlane. Clearly the cavalry had been despatched to bring me and their very precious motor back to base.
I apologised, with some embarrassment. "I'm really sorry guys, I hit the neutral button by mistake" as they grabbed the pre-defined points on the car and pushed me home for my rather ignominious return.
Back in the garage, buckles were released and I got out, very carefully. My mind was still buzzing and in a whirl replaying the drive.
A data engineer gave me a briefing on my performance... the clear weakness my braking. I was only braking at 30% of the amount a professional driver would deliver. Instant, hard stamp and a slow release are vital requirements in single-seater sports cars.
If there's one thing I've learned, there's no glory in nursing the brakes.