Time Out turns up a little late at Dubai Autodrome – having driven several confused laps around Motor City – and a tad nervous. The situation isn’t helped by the fellow driver that greets us on arrival – his jaw is chiselled from granite and he owns a handshake that manages to squeeze every ounce of anxious sweat from our hand.
‘Don’t worry,’ he says, sensing our nervousness. ‘I’ve never done this before either.’ He then sets about pulling on his personalised overalls and a helmet with his name emblazoned across the back. We weren’t reassured.
Michael, our tutor for the day, was at pains to point out that we were here to have fun – whatever level of driver we considered ourselves to be.
‘Don’t feel pressured into going faster than you are comfortable with,’ he explains. ‘Just have fun.’ Thankfully, our heart-rate dips below 100 for the first time since we arrived.
As we get into one of the Autodrome’s 180bhp single-seater F1-style cars, our only thought is: Just don’t crash. For safety reasons, these beasts are less powerful than a real F1 car, but we still feel as if what we’re about to embark upon is a battle for survival rather than an experience to savour.
Our worries soon evaporate: after one bold depression of the throttle, we feel a smile starting to cross our face. And, in a flash, we’re off.
Before we know it, the instructor’s specially tuned Audi TTS hurtles around the first bend before we get the chance to change up into second gear. We’re in a convoy of three cars: the instructor is in the Audi, we’re second, while the so-called novice we met on the way takes up the rear.
We’re quickly out of second gear. ‘Clunk’ goes the gear box and the roar of the engine is deafening. We push into fourth and there’s just enough time to hurry into fifth gear before the TTS slams on the brakes and throws itself into a right-hand hairpin turn.
We’re caught short by a gear change that comes too late. We go too wide and into the rumble strips. Overtaking isn’t allowed, but we see the third driver coming up in my rear-view mirror. As the instructor flies out of the corner he re-opens the 40m gap that we’d closed on the first corner. While the tuned 2.2 litre turbo engines of the Audis make them incredibly quick out of the corners, the single seater’s greater down-force gives it unrivalled grip around corners that you can really feel as you drive.
We’re back up to fifth with a double chicane in front of us. Do we brake? It’s all happening so quickly. The TTS is through the first turn and there’s no sign of him applying the brakes, so we follow suit. If he can do it, we can… right? With our right foot flat to the floor in fifth gear we prepare for the second turn. The instructor later tells us we were doing something like 180 to 200kmph through those two bends. But at the time it feels more like 300; you feel every bump in these purpose-built machines, where comfort is about as relevant as fuel efficiency.
Then it’s hard on the brakes, a sequential shift down to third gear and about 80kmph as we tackle the final corner. We don’t think we took a breath for the first 10 minutes of the 20-minute track experience. But breathing was the least of our concerns. Put simply, we didn’t have time to breathe. It’s incredible that a sport in which the most physical activity you do is turning a wheel 30 degrees either way can leave you staggering, psychologically and physically drained, from the cockpit.
‘How was it for you?’ enquires my fellow driver as he clambers from the car. Time Out semi-collapses in fits of laughter. We think he gets the message.
Dubai Autodrome (04 367 8700). Dhs875 for a two-hour experience, with full safety briefing and 20 minutes of drive time.