When I first sat in a racing car three years ago I was certain that I was the next Grand Prix star in waiting and duly confirmed this (in my mind) by winning my first race.
Since then the ascent to F1 has been slower than expected, hampered by a lack of money (a little) and a lack of Senna-esque talent (quite a bit more), which is how I’ve wound up in the 2005 Formula Vee Championship.
Formula Vee is the most competitive single seater championship in the UK and regularly attracts entries of 50 or more cars per meeting. The cars themselves could crudely be described as Volkswagen Beetles with Formula Ford bodywork. This is a dramatic oversimplification, they go a heck of a lot quicker that a Beetle and are to all intents and purposes thoroughbred racing cars.
Last Thursday was my first test in the car in which I will be competing at Brands Hatch next weekend (big thanks to Cordoba Consulting – my sponsors). Leaving the flat in London at 7am it was overcast but brightening; at Brands it wasn’t. It was wet – very. Although I love Brands I’ve never had the best luck there – indeed my last visit for the Formula Ford Festival resulted in two 100pmh+ crashes in one weekend. So obviously the omens looked good for a first test in a car I’d never seen before on a track with rivers running on it!
I was out in what is known as a ‘General Test Day’, when basically you can run anything. Now, for Mondeo man a Formula Vee is fast, but compared to the Formula 3s and Formula Renaults that were lining up behind me in the pit lane it isn’t. Me: bald tires, never sat in the car before, no downforce. Formula 3: you’ve got to be good to race one, wet tires, loads of downforce.
In the first session I was tentative to say the least, as I found my way round the track and the gearbox and tried not to put the car in a wall. In achieving this I managed to cut up quite a few of the faster cars. By the end of the third session I’d got the hang of it, still not put the car in the wall, set reasonable times and had Calum Lockie (six-time Le Mans driver) come over for a chat (yes, I’m a petrolhead namedropper!). However, not cutting up cars was still a problem. Formula 3s in the wet produce a lot of spray, so you can’t see them very well in your rear view mirrors, and you just have to guess where the faster cars are coming from and hope you don’t hit them – and vice-versa. Even though the Formula 3s were lapping seven seconds a lap faster, the difference in velocity seemed like warp speed.
Despite this the Formula Vee was a great car to drive and infinitely more user friendly than the Formula Ford I drove last year. Furthermore I’m being run by Andy Storer and Scarab Racing, who have forgotten more about Formula Vee than I’ll ever know. He is a great teacher and helps me to get the most from my time in the car. Handling wise the Vee is very neutral, not tending to oversteer or understeer, whilst the amount of mechanical grip (even in the wet) is astounding. Consequently whilst the straight-line speed is not great, the corner speed is comparable to slicks and wings. For anyone not sure where to first try out a racing car -Vee is a pretty good place to start.
The other major characteristic of the general test session is red flags – you get loads of them. Unlike racing, whenever a car goes off in testing it brings out the reds. So on a wet day, you can only really expect to do five or so laps at a time and get used to rubbernecking wrecked exotica. Luckily I managed to complete the day without visiting my friends in the Brands Hatch Medical Centre or even spin the car, although the guy who took both ends off his Formula Renault wasn’t so lucky (that’s more or less Â£10k by the way).
Despite that, testing can be great fun as you get to play with the car in a no-pressure environment. It tests your concentration in ways racing never does as you have to push for a fast lap as and when because of traffic, and continually judge closing distances. Test days also offer a great opportunity to see tracks when they’re quiet away from the buzz of raceday. As for how I’ll get on next weekend – we’ll see.
P.S. You may have read my article on underrated drivers a couple of weeks ago. The F1Fanatic editor vetoed the inclusion of one-time Ferrari driver Nicola Larini in the article on the grounds he was soundly thrashed by Johnny Herbert at Sauber in 1997. Larini was testing his Chevrolet World Touring Car at Brands on Thursday. He was incredible to watch – the only driver all day to use the kerbing at Paddock, carrying more speed through the corners than you would believe. He may not have made it in F1, but believe me: this guy can drive.