Thursday, 10 January 2013

What is driving a Formula One car really like?

The Ferrari left a lasting impression
'It's just driving a car' or 'I can do that, easily', just two of many phrases people say about Formula One who don't appreciate just how different it is to driving on the roads. In fact, my sister is adamant that she'd be amazing driving a Formula One car given the chance. 

A worrying claim considering she doesn't see how different her Kia Rio is to Sebastien Vettel's RB8. In reality it's like comparing a snail to a cheetah. 

So to find out just what driving a high speed, high powered, high downforce F1 car entails, I spoke to European F3 race winner Michael Lewis who, back in 2011, was given the chance to test Ferrari's race winning F60 Grand Prix racer.
Michael Lewis currently races in F3

Michael Lewis' F1 test came in 2011 as his prize for being the highest placed rookie in the Italian Formula 3 Championship. The test, organized by Ferrari's Driver academy, took place at the Autodromo Vallelunga Piero Taruffi just outside of Rome, Italy. He completed approximately 50 laps of the circuit, the equivalent of round about 200 kilometres. He currently races Formula 3 cars, something similar to an F1 car, only smaller and considerably less powerful. Think of it like this, Formula 3 is like a weekend jog, whereas Formula One is the Olympic 100 Metre Final. This would perhaps lead you to think that F3 was closer to a road car than an F1 car. However, as Michael tells me, this is not the case. He describes the similarities as "Mainly just the fact that the Formula 3 has 4 wheels and a steering wheel". So; smaller and less powerful but still a potent track weapon. 

How does this compare to a Formula One car then? Well, they basically look the same, wing at the front, wing at the back, engine and driver in the middle; but despite the relative aesthetic similarity, they are hugely different. In F3, power comes from a four cylinder engine producing approximately 210bhp at around 6000RPM, F1 engines on the other hand have twice the number of cylinders, produce an astronomical 700-850BHP and rev to around 18,000 RPM. That RPM figure is around twice that of a high powered supercar and near enough four times the figure of your average family car. An obvious feature of a Formula car is the wings. In F1 they are bigger than F3 due to the higher speeds achieved (F3 cars can achieve around 160MPH whereas and F1 car can achieve between 200-230MPH depending on setup).

With a road car, you get something suitable for all occasions. A Formula One car can be adapted depending on the track you're driving it on, the weather, temperature, driver and thousands of other parameters. The lack of traction control allows the car to slide around but this effect can be adapted by the engineer by altering the aerodynamic setup of the car. The wings ensure the car sticks to the track at high speed, a feature definitely not needed on a road going vehicle. In fact, legendary Ferrari test driver Luca Badoer once described a Formula One car as 'an aeroplane with wheels'.

'I'll do whatever I can to get back into an F1 car again'
As a successful single seater racer, Michael is more suitable than you or I to drive an F1 car, but that didn't mean he didn't  need to prepare for the occasion. Racing drivers have to be fit to cope with the physical demands of driving a race car. 

"Physically I trained my neck and shoulders even more than normal just to make sure I wouldn't get tired" He tells me. 

Michael also remarked about how his F3 experience gave him an advantage in terms of driving the car round the track. "In terms of mental training/studying the track, I just used my references from Formula 3. F1 & F3 are really similar in braking points and overall line".

Michael's prior knowledge and skill from F3 was all he had to rely on as Ferrari didn't want him to study any of their data or use any kind of simulator, even adjusting to the 7 speed gearbox after racing with 6 gears all season was left to the driver. 

However, this was little hindrance as he became more comfortable with the car as the session went on, running around 50 laps overall. The similarities in line and braking points obviously served him well as Ferrari were to only show him how to start the car & also how to complete the bite point finder procedure using the hand clutch - an unusual feature when compared to a road car, the hand clutch works in exactly the same way as a normal clutch, albeit operated by hand. Conversely, it is not used when changing gear, only when setting off as the immensely fast paddle shift gearbox does all the clutch work, as well as change gear in a seamless 0.05. Setting of in a F1 car is no mean feat, as Top Gear's Richard Hammond once so aptly demonstrated by stalling 8 times whist just trying to get the car moving. Luckily for him F1 cars have an anti-stall feature which automatically engages the clutch at low revs, saving the car from shutting down, and saving the driver from massive embarrassment.

From the driver's seat, the view of the road ahead is hardly a big one, although it's is similar to an F3 car, albeit with a wider nose and front wing. Despite this, the cockpit is still smaller than an F3 car even though the junior formulae racer is smaller in overall size. Michael tells me that it is "not that loud" on board an F1 car, a shock for me considering the first time a stood behind a revving Formula 1 car without ear protection, I couldn't hear properly for a week afterwards! Maybe I'm just soft.

The cockpit of the F60
is hardly a lounge
In terms of actual driving, the first thing Michael noticed was the huge power of the 2.4 liter Ferrari engine.

"I will never forget that raw power" he tells me.

Dealing with the power and maximizing the potential of the car in his short test was something that Michael said was the biggest thing to adjust to. Power steering (something absent from an F3 car) takes some load off the arms and chest, but the neck still has to take a load courtesy of the high G forces. The left leg also takes a big load due to it operating the carbon brakes. General road cars use brake discs and pads made of steel whereas an F1 car has these components constructed of carbon fiber. This allows the brakes to tolerate more stress and operate more efficiently. A road car will stop gradually even with full pressure applied to the brake pedal, an F1 car on the other hand stops almost instantaneously.

Sitting behind the wheel of an F1 car is an experience few get to sample. In his test, Michael Lewis drove Ferrari F60 - 279, a significant fact as it was the exact car that Kimi Raikkonen won his final race for Ferrari in. He also used Giancarlo Fisichella's actual race seat from the 2009 season. Driving for the most fabled F1 team in history is obviously going to be a special occasion. Michael Lewis actually became the first American to drive a contemporary works Ferrari since Mario Andretti in 1982. "Seeing that prancing horse logo on the steering wheel was pretty special. As I was getting faster and faster on track and really pushing the
 car, I was thinking, man...I'm really doing this?"


You can read my full interview with Michael Lewis HERE


About Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis hails from Laguna Beach in California, USA. A man always seeking to push himself, he came to race in Europe to further develop his skills rather than sticking to the American racing tradition of IndyCar or NASCAR. In 2012 he competed in the  Formula 3 Euro Series with PREMA Powerteam, 2011 he was the highest ranked rookie and 2nd place overall in the Formula 3 Italia Championship. Prior to this he raced Formula BMW and Go Karts in America. his aim is to become America's next F1 star, telling me 'I'll do whatever I can to get back into an F1 car again'.

For more information on Michael Lewis' career, and to find out his plans for 2013, check out his website - 

Images have been taken from various sources across the internet. No copyright infringement is intended.

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