How I Got To Drive A Real McLaren Formula One CarS

On a bitterly cold December morning in 2004, a slightly spottier version of me sporting a ridiculous haircut was readying to pilot a 980+ horsepower McLaren Formula One car at the legendary Silverstone racetrack. It would be my first time driving such a machine and I remember the emotions exceptionally well.

I was shitting myself.

This opportunity was gifted to me by way of winning the McLaren Autosport Young Driver Of The Year Award. That accolade stemmed from a two-day barrage of interviews, testing and driving, attempting to impress an array of seven formidable judges.

Six finalists were evaluated with the eventual winner being deemed the best British young driver for 2003. Winning would etch my name besides the likes of Jenson Button, David Coulthard and Dario Franchitti - providing me the necessary name recognition to elevate my career to the next level.

Plus the prize included a whopping $140,000 to put towards my 2004 racing budget, a delightful Graham watch and a day behind the wheel of a McLaren MP4-19 Formula One car. Naturally, I was most excited about the prospect of a new watch.

When I won the award at the glitzy Grosvenor House hotel in London (staying in none other than Madonna's penthouse suit) it was, needless to say, the biggest day of life.

Well, the following year at Silverstone probably topped it. Driving an F1 car is every guy's dream. It is the pinnacle of automotive creativity, speed and technology. This was the real deal.

How I Got To Drive A Real McLaren Formula One CarS

There would be three of us driving that day, myself, Lewis Hamilton and Jamie Green, all of us receiving our first sample of F1 machinery. The day was extremely cold but dry (unusual for December at Silverstone).

First wish granted: I really wanted to experience an F1 car in the dry.

The MP4-19 was an Adrian Newey-designed missile that, admittedly, didn't achieve the lofty results McLaren expected. In fact, later in the season McLaren brought out an improved MP4-19B that took "The Kimster" to victory at Spa.

While engine restrictions were being implemented, the Mercedes motor was still a 3.0-liter V10 producing an estimated 980-1000 horsepower. It was one of the last true monsters in the F1 world.

When I slithered into my race suit and pulled my snug helmet over my idiotic hair, I felt ready. I stepped into the narrow cockpit and my earplugs were connected into the car's radio system.

An emotionless man calmly told the team to "fire it up." The starter motor was inserted, I switched on the ignition and all of a sudden the deafening, inimitable sound of a Formula One car burst to life, amidst the magnitude of flickering dash lights (all of which baffled me) and the flurry of mechanics removing the tire warmers.

"Bloody hell," I thought. "I'm about to drive a Formula One car!"

I felt I should be prepared. After all, I'd been racing and winning in the Formula 3000 championship, which was known as a stepping-stone to Formula One. These were the F1 training machines, so the transition, I presumed, would not be too astronomical.

I was wrong.

The chief mechanic signaled me with a flick of his wrist, like something off Top Gun, to engage first gear and head onto the track. I depressed the hand clutch, selected first and pulled out.

First thought: "I didn't stall. Hoorah!"

Second thought: "Oh shit!"

How I Got To Drive A Real McLaren Formula One CarS

I knew my time in the car would be limited, just a couple of short runs, so I wanted to come out of the blocks sprinting. At the exit of the pit-lane I disengaged the speed limiter and hit the gas, embarking on a fierce acceleration completely unimaginable.

Genuinely, I couldn't feel any linear progression in speed. It felt like I'd gone from 60 mph to 200 mph in an instant.

Third thought: "Oh fuck, I'm dead!"

And I nearly was.

I approached the first turn, hit the brake pedal to unleash the notoriously impressive F1 carbon brakes, only to find that without temperature they're useless. It was as if someone had replaced them with the brakes from a child's bicycle.

I clenched my buttocks and serenely missed the bend, dodged a few cones, stayed on the asphalt (thank God) and prayed no one in the pits knew of my blunder.

"OK… Shake it off," I thought.

Again I hit the warp speed pedal and flew down the back straight, this time braking far earlier to get the damn things warm. I hit the pit straight and stayed flat through the kink at 140 mph. No problem under normal circumstances, but I wasn't used to the insanely light, twitchy power steering on a Formula One car. The steering is usually so heavy on most open-wheel cars it's like shoulder pressing 40-pound weights every time you turn the wheel. Easy enough for a few bends, but after a long session your arms want to fall off.

I negotiated the kink (despite relinquishing a little bit of poo) and hurled into Copse corner at 170 mph.

The next couple of laps were a bag of mixed emotions. I genuinely didn't think I could drive the car. It was too damn fast. My mind couldn't keep up. Rather than thinking a couple of corners ahead, I felt like I was a few miles behind.

Mercifully, after a few laps my brain began to adjust to the barbaric speeds and caught back up.

At the end of my first run I was in awe. The monotone McLaren engineers informed me that in order to get the brakes working optimally, I needed to apply over 100 lbs. more pressure. But other than that, they said to just keep doing what I was doing.

"My legs are like twigs," I thought. "Better pucker up."

A short breather was timely, as it let the emotion of driving a real-life Formula One car sink in. I was ready for another run. And this time I'd try to drive the car, and not let the car drive me.

How I Got To Drive A Real McLaren Formula One CarS

Again, the most beautiful noise I have ever heard resonated around Middle England as the McLaren was fired back to life.

I pulled out and embarked on another incredible, life changing journey.

I began to analyze the car and push. I felt comfortable (or at least less likely to produce further excrement). Applying more brake pressure allowed me to feel the magnitude of what was available. The stopping power is simply insane. You enter a bend and literally don't brake until you feel you're about to begin turning. But once you hit the pedal the speed sheds at an unfathomable rate.

The grip level is surreal, too. The downforce produced is incredible and it feels like you can go faster and faster. Every additional mile-per-hour you carry into the turn, the more downforce (and therefore grip) manifests. It seemed like limitless, never-ending grip. I'm pretty sure my head almost fell off a few times with the ridiculous G-forces amassed.

Of course, there was a limit of adhesion. And when you touch it, the car would snap violently. The key to driving an F1 car is to run it to its upper limits without exceeding. Hence the reason, when watching on-board cameras, things generally seem pretty calm and under control.

How I Got To Drive A Real McLaren Formula One CarS

I still struggle to elucidate the acceleration and speed. It is something I have never (and likely never will) feel again. Even a modern Indy machine does not come close. They are a million miles away from the 1000-hp F1 cars of old, that only weighed around 1,400 lbs. (including driver, fuel and on-board cameras). And likely an F1 car today does not feel anything like their more powerful older brothers once did.

If you have ever been to an F1 race I don't need to tell you about the sound. You know. It is emotional. Tear inducing. And erotic. Yes, erotic. No doubt. I bet there were at least 67 percent of male spectators in Austin attempting to conceal their erections. A few probably wore them with pride.

Driving a McLaren F1 car was one of the best experiences of my career, beat only by finishing fourth in the 2010 Indianapolis 500. And despite practically shitting myself those first few laps, it is a day I will take with me to the grave. It was one of the most marvelous, crazy, exceptional days of my life. Even if every picture of me with the beautiful McLaren was ruined by my ridiculous hair.


About the author: @Alex_Lloyd began racing in the U.S. in 2006. He won the Indy Lights championship in 2007. He's competed in the Daytona 24-hour twice and the Indianapolis 500 four times — placing fourth in 2010. The native of MADchester, UK began racing karts at age 8, open-wheel race cars at 16 and finished second to Formula One World Champion - and close friend - Lewis Hamilton, in the 2003 British Formula Renault Championship, followed by a stint representing Great Britain in A1GP and winning races in Formula 3000. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife Samantha (also from England) and three young "Hoosier" children. He also enjoys racing in triathlons and is rather partial to a good old English cup of tea. But not crumpets.