With Abu Dhabi’s first Grand Prix just around the corner, we thought that Time Out should finally get a taste of what Formula One drivers go through first hand. So we headed off to the Dubai Autodrome to investigate our sneaking suspicion that F1 driving may just be glorified, albeit faster, go-karting.
I turn up a little late, having driven several confused laps around Motor City, and a tad nervous. The situation isn’t helped by the fellow driver I’m greeted by on arrival, with a jaw chiselled from granite and whose handshake manages to squeeze every ounce of anxious sweat from my own hands. ‘Don’t worry,’ he remarks, unconvincingly. ‘I’ve ever done this before either,’ while pulling on his own personalised overalls and a helmet with his name emblazoned across the back. I wasn’t reassured.
Michael, our tutor for the experience, was at pains to point out that the day was about us having fun as individuals, and that it’s the facility’s priority to make that happen – whatever level of driver you are.
‘Do not feel pressured into going faster than you are comfortable with,’ Michael explains, ‘Just have fun.’ My resting heart-rate thankfully dips below 100.
Getting into one of the Autodrome’s 180bhp single seater F1-style cars, my only thought is: Just don’t crash it. These beasts are – for safety reasons – less powerful and don’t have the grip of an F1 car, but it suddenly feels like a battle for survival rather than an experience to savour. After one bold depression of the throttle, however, I feel a smile on my face starting to emerge. And, in a flash, we’re off.
Before I know it, the specially tuned Audi TTS in front hurtles around the first bend before I get the chance to change up into second gear. We’re in a convoy of three cars: the instructors are in the Audi, I’m next, followed by the so-called novice I met on the way in.
Quickly out of second gear, ‘clunk’ goes the gear box and the roar of the engine almost deafens us. Pushing into fourth there’s just time for a hurried fifth gear before the TTS in front slams on the brakes and throws itself into a right-hand hairpin turn.
I’m caught short by a gear change that comes too late and a driving line blurred by the throttle noise and the adrenalin rush of steaming along no more than 15cm above the tarmac. I go too wide and into the rumble strips. Overtaking isn’t allowed, but I see the third driver coming up in my rear-view mirror. As the instructor-driven TTS flies out of the corner it’s re-opened a gap of about 40 or so metres that I had eaten into 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 through corners that you can really feel as you drive.
I’m back up to fifth gear with a double chicane in front of me. Do I 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 I follow suit. If he can do it, I can… right? With my right foot flat to the floor in fifth gear I prepare for the second turn. The instructor later tells us we were doing something like 180 to 200kph 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 here as fuel efficiency.
Then it’s hard on the brakes, a sequential shift down to third gear and about 80kph as we tackle the final corner. I don’t think I took a breath for the first 10 minutes of our 20-minute track experience. Breathing was the least of my concerns. Put simply, I 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 a fellow driver as he clambers from the car. I semi-collapse in fits of laughter. I 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.