The 2009 Formula One season kicks off this weekend with the first Grand Prix in Melbourne on Sunday. It’s time to look at what goes on inside an F1 car during a race.
If you were to rank extreme habitats for living organisms, the cabin of a contemporary Grand Prix racer would be right on par in harshness with deep sea hydrothermal vents, Subantarctic islands and outer space.
You are squeezed into an iron maiden of a carbon fiber tub with no padding whatsoever. The lack of suspension knocks the very phlegm off the walls of your bronchi to drown to you in your own mucus. And ever since the black art of downforce is applied to racing cars, you can expect to have several g’s of acceleration and deceleration hit your body multiple times on every lap.
It is easy to underestimate the power of g-forces. We have become so used to reading about the wild cornering capabilities of modern supercars with wings and diffusors that it takes a lap on a racetrack to drive home this fact: one g of lateral acceleration means that a force equal to the Earth’s gravity is acting on your body from a wholly unusual direction.
Experiencing it for the first time is a very humbling experience. One g of deceleration at the end of a straight results in your entire body weight hanging helplessly off a four-point racing harness as you try to control your flailing limbs to no avail. Unsecured objects fly about the cabin.
There are corners on Grand Prix circuits where a modern F1 car will generate seven g’s. It is absolutely superhuman to even remain conscious under such circumstances, let alone drive a car with utter precision in excess of 200 MPH. Corner after corner, lap after lap. And there is no cruising in an F1 car: you either stand on the throttle with all your might or you do the same on the brake pedal. It is a brutal environment to live in.
The number of people who have driven Grand Prix cars is roughly the same as the number of people who have left the Earth’s atmosphere in a space rocket. One of the former is my friend Nino Karotta, who was flown down two years ago to Bernie Ecclestone’s private track Circuit Paul Ricard in the South of France to drive the Renault R24.
This was the car that Jarno Trulli and Fernando Alonso drove in the 2004 Formula One season. Alonso would go on to become World Champion the next year with its successor, the R25. The R24 is powered by a 3-liter V10 and in an episode of Top Gear, the Stig drove it around the Top Gear Test Track in 59 seconds: a full 18 seconds quicker than the fastest road cars.
Nino was given a full day of training by the Renault team. He began his day in a 200 HP Formula Renault racer on his way to the R24. Along the way, he received training on the BATAK device—designed to boost your reaction times to things on the edge of your vision—, learned about the counterintuitive way to apply the brakes in a car producing tons of downforce and learned what said downforce does to a human neck (hint: nothing particularly pleasant).
His epic day out was made into a 20-minute TV special which is now up on YouTube with English subtitles:
Part Three (watch his neck)
And if you’ve already consumed enough hallucinogens for the day, you can hit Google Translate and see how it copes with translating the Bohunk of his written account to something resembling English. Here’s an example:
Seven o'clock in the morning, start the track. Get a fire-resistant clothing, shoes, gloves, Balaklava (under the mask of the helmet), plugs and Smee. We are twenty, and everyone is in the size of each. Fire-resistant, wear clothes labeled comic sensation tingled. Anyway, that's clothes, and the sweat félelemszagú sloppy at the end of the day to be given only to people in return for the buzzer childhood itself.
The Australian Grand Prix begins at 5PM on Sunday, Melbourne time.
Photo Credit: CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP/Getty Images, Bryn Lennon/Getty Images