Ride of a lifetime … we’ve heard that expression used before with previous generations of Formula 1, Champ Car and IndyCar two-seaters, and to me it always sounded so cliché – so when I was asked to help promote the F1X2 (Formula 1 times 2) two-seater program (for the ChampCar World Series) I promised myself that I would find a more apt description for the experience. Unfortunately I have to admit that there really is no better way to sum it up … it is a thrill of a lifetime … every race junkie’s dream … something you’ll never forget.
The Formula One Minardi team is the worlds’ only regularly running two-seater program being operated on a commercial basis. Before the Champ Car World Series (CCWS) and IndyCar merged, Team Minardi brought several of these machines to North American tracks in order to give fans an opportunity that they would never otherwise have had. CCWS didn’t hide the fact that this was indeed a full-blown Formula One car by calling the programme the Champ Car F1X2.
The F1X2 is the only car in existence capable of carrying two people, while providing the most realistic sense of what Formula 1 driver’s experience. With its F1-specification 700hp, V10 engine – it has the power, down-force and manoeuvrability necessary to provide real-to-life Formula One speeds, cornering and braking
While at the beautiful race track at Mont Tremblant in Quebec, ex-Formula One drivers Zsolt Baumgartner and Patrick Friesacher were reaching top speeds of 185mph with passengers on board, and in some instances even practiced their over-taking manoeuvres!
Passengers of the Champ Car F1X2 were clocking laps at an average of 1min 20sec – just 3 seconds off the fastest race lap clocked by Sebastien Bourdais at 1:17.327 at Mont Tremblant! Really, there is no better evidence for why the Minardi F1X2 is the car for the job.
(NOTE: Minardi no longer offer the F1x2 programme, but it is still available at select tracks during the 2013 Formula One racing season operating as “Formula One 2-Seater Experience” – definitely available at Australian and Abu Dhabi races 2013 & 2014)
When I was first offered the opportunity to experience the Champ Car F1X2 excitement literally surged through my veins … then disbelief … and finally panic! Sure, I love racing – don’t get me wrong, but could I actually handle the speed, the G’s and the overwhelming power? Obviously I couldn’t say no … I’m no wimp, and besides it’s not every day you have the chance to experience a thrill that is available to an elite few!
As we approached the Circuit Mont-Tremblant on the Wednesday before the race, I couldn’t help but grin as we heard the sweet, unique sound of the F1X2 V10 engine echoing across Lac Moore and through the hills. Unfortunately grins turned to grimace as we drove into the track and came upon the bridge over turn 12 where I realized that the elevation changes are far more impressive in person! Panic once again rushed through my mind and I began questioning my ability – could I honestly handle this ride? After-all, I didn’t want to embarrass myself!
Fortunately I didn’t know what day my F1X2 experience would take place, so I simply tried not to worry too much. Unfortunately though when our friend and race car driver Andreas Wirth arrived to the track the following day, he immediately began to tease me, insisting that he be trackside when I experienced the F1X2 … he wanted to see the panic on my face before and after! Thanks for the vote of confidence Andreas!
After photographing morning warm up for Champ Car and the Atlantics Series’ which included a good long walk around the outside of the 4.2 km (2.6 mile) track, I was famished and had an unusually large and late lunch. Feeling gastronomically satisfied I decided to check my voice messages. Much to my dismay there was a message from Brandi Latimer (the ChampCar F1X2 Two-Seater co-ordinator) instructing me to arrive at the two-seater garage by 2:45pm that day to sign my life away! Oh my goodness! What had I done? If only I had known … I wouldn’t have eaten at all! I was horrified that perhaps Andreas was right … perhaps I would lose my lunch!
Stepping into the Fast Lap transporter I was presented with the dreaded waiver forms to sign. They really should read something like “Yes, I am of sound mind yet just crazy enough to strap my unprepared body into a tub that will be hurled around a track centimeters from the very hard ground at break-neck speeds … and yes, my family promises not to sue anyone for my rather insane decision to do so, should something go horribly wrong!”
But seriously, I felt completely at ease putting my life in the hands of the very professional F1X2 team. Leaving nothing to chance and looking out for their passenger’s well-being, the team and F1X2 questionnaire is thorough, covering your medical history and current state of health. After that, since some people will say just about anything to get what they want, all passengers are examined by the team’s very own doctor. Having shared a few laughs with the doctor and his wife to help overcome my nerves, I was given a clean bill of health and the all clear to suit up … it was a go!
It was a comforting to be around this professional crew, and to be among such friendly faces and fellow passengers that included to name a few Patrice Brisbois, Claire Bourdais (Sebastien’s wife) and Jeremy Hinchcliffe (father of IndyCar driver James).
Concern grew among us as sunny skies turned grey and light rain began to fall. Quickly, the question was raised … “do you really run these things in the rain?” The answer unfortunately was “yes”! I say unfortunately because I really didn’t relish the idea of this encounter on a damp track! Thankfully, as would be the case throughout the weekend, the weather changed quickly and the track was dry by the time the two-seaters were fired up.
Having suited up, Claire Bourdais emerged from the trailer. Looking rather worried and standing all by herself, I took the opportunity to chat with her for a few minutes … she was anxious too … not so much about the ride, (because she had driven with Sebastien before at Le Mans in the Prototype cars) but more so that Sebastien was going to be late to act as her high-speed chauffer! With places to be and fans to see Sebastien arrived fashionably late to the Fast Lap paddock, received a quick briefing on the F1X2, and then he and Claire were hurriedly strapped into the car. In no time at all, the Bourdais’ returned from their less than leisurely stroll around the track greeted by a crowd of fans and photographers.
After Claire had a chance to catch her breath she was happy to relate her experience: “We only did 2 laps, but it was the most exciting time I’ve ever had in a race car. My husband took me around the Le Mans track in an LMP1 Prototype car before, but this is just something else! It’s another league, and the braking is just phenomenal, and the acceleration – it’s just awesome! This car brakes deeper and accelerates stronger, and the G’s that you feel in the turns are just really strong and it’s really hard for you to hold your neck and to hold your head, it’s just much faster and a very, very impressive experience – I’d definitely recommend it. It’s a great experience and I’m just glad I got to do it today.”
One by one I watched as passengers put their balaclavas and helmets on and squeezed into the cars. You really can’t appreciate what it’s like though until it’s you! Thankfully my nerves weren’t unravelling – I was excited, but almost clinically so – trying to make sure I would remember every second of the experience, remembering to breathe, trying to ignore the fact that Andreas Wirth was standing on the sidelines having a giggle about his PR Consultant in a race suit.
What I found most overwhelming though was the heat of the fire suit and then the silence and feeling of being alone once the earplugs went in and the helmet was on. I also found it amazing that I pretty much lost the ability to do anything for myself once I put the helmet on … I felt like a top-heavy bobble head! Thankfully the team is there to help with gloves and straps … and ohhh, the straps! Once I managed to step into the deep cockpit and sliiiide down into the seat, straddling my driver Zsolt Baumgartner, I was strapped in tight … and just when I thought it couldn’t get it any tighter … it did! There was no turning back now … no chicken button to hit in case of panic … just hold on and enjoy the ride … concentrate on breathing and try to enjoy!
Still feeling rather deaf and all alone in my big white bobble head, I only knew it was time to go when the team backed away from the car and the engine fired. The revving of the engine was surprisingly quiet and I felt very calm. With that the F1X2 screamed out of the garage laying yet another patch of rubber. So much for the “rolling out of the garage” that I’d read about! Wasting no time to deliver thrills, Baumgartner stomped on the throttle and made haste for the track.
“Whaahoooo!” … a scream of delight just couldn’t be contained. Then in seconds we were on the track flying up the hill to turn 12. I was amazed at how smooth the acceleration was … I didn’t feel pinned to my seat like so many said I would (likely because I was already strapped in so securely) and the quick rise in elevation was exhilarating! Holding on tight I was surprised how comfortable I felt strapped into this strange machine … then suddenly extreme braking into turn 14 as we approached the front straight. Oh my god! I didn’t know it was possible to stop with such force and control! Sure – you see it on track during every race .. how many times!? … but trust me, you can NOT appreciate the power of these machines until you experience it for yourself. Then, split seconds after beaning my bobble head off the front restraint, incredible acceleration around turn15 and onto the front straight! Incredible! And what was more amazing was the fact that I could actually see all the little faces huddled around the fences watching as we whizzed by! Then, the dreaded chicane at the end of turn 1 … unbelievable force as your body bounces from one side of the cockpit to the other, in a space that at first didn’t appear big enough for you to move. Flying around the corners through turn 2 and 3 and then hard braking into 4, quickly into 5 and full throttle again down the back straight and bends of 6 and 7. Braking again into 8, but this time gently through the turn and back toward the Fast Lap paddock. Amazing!
….. But wait, there’s more! That was NOTHING! That was just the out lap! The gloves were off, so to speak, and Baumgartner gave it all he could. There … that feels more like what I was expecting! Sheer terror! At least at first. Holding on tighter, bracing my body against the front restraint, trying not to surrender my body to the advances of this mad machine, it became harder and harder to observe the world as it flew by.
Concentrating on breathing, body placement and stability I became aware of the closeness of the cockpit as I felt my legs making contact with the man in charge of this wild beast. Trying harder to control my movements, I lost track of much of our flying lap but I’m proud to report only one bruise on my elbow (although it’s almost disappointing that it’s only a bruise … bruises heal … scars are souvenirs that last forever!). Winding down on our in-lap I was again able to enjoy the sights, sounds and breeze, and managed to give our photographer a thumbs up as we zipped through the crazy chicane on our last lap. As we geared down and made our final approach to the paddock I was truly disappointed to know that my F1X2 experience was already over in just a few short minutes.
Back in the garage it was a much quicker process getting out, and proudly I must report that it wasn’t on wobbly legs. My biggest problem again was my bobble head and a visor that I couldn’t seem to get open. Greeting me with a big smile and a hug was F1X2 coordinator Brandi Latimer. She was eager to hear my experience … as was Andreas who seemed mildly disappointed that I wasn’t scared out of my mind.
As I watched the next pair of passengers getting strapped in, I couldn’t help but think to myself once again … this really is the thrill and experience of a lifetime. I think it goes without saying that I highly recommend the F1X2 experience to everyone!More Pictures For more Pictures visit our gallery on Facebook… F1x2Experience
Not wanting the experience to end, I took the opportunity to chat with drivers Zsolt Baumgartner and Patrick Friesacher and asked them a few questions about the importance of the F1X2 experience, how hard they push on track with passengers in the car, if they’d had any funny experiences in the program and how they like the circuit here at Mont-Tremblant.
Zsolt commented: “It’s really good fun. This is a real Formula One car – it has similar horsepower, a bit older generation than today’s Formula One car but still a great experience for passengers who have never been in a race car as close as Formula One, and I think this the closest one as possible on the market at the moment. For us drivers as well it’s pretty good because it’s not that much slower than an F1 car, so it’s really good for us to keep us on the speed because we’re still trying to get a racing seat as well, and this keeps our speed up.”
“I think it’s very interesting and very good for the crowd – something new that can be really well used because someone who gets in there, like you definitely saw yesterday, and they are just overrun about the experience because it’s really amazing”
On the issue of how hard they push with passengers on board, Zsolt explained: “It depends – if you have a smaller passenger we have more room to steer the car and control the car. It’s very difficult to keep on doing controls and corrections while the car is running so that we are more steady and not trying too fast and not trying too hard. We always like around 80% of our maximum because we don’t really want to scare our passengers, and we don’t want to make any stupid mistakes because you know it’s not just ourselves who are running in the car – there’s someone else as well.”
Talking about the Mont-Tremblant circuit and speeds, Zsolt told me that “speed really depends on the tracks, but that we probably hit something like 300kms or 180mph.” His favorite part of the track is the combination of turn 5 and 6, and when I asked about the chicane after turn 1 he said, “It’s a bit tricky so we don’t try too much the curbs with this car, so we don’t follow in as much as we normally would. But it’s pretty tricky, especially the approach, so it’s challenging.”
Patrick Friesacher commented: “It’s great for Champ Car to have the Formula One two- seater car here because it’s interesting for the people. The sound of the Formula One car it’s different, and it’s just fun to have the people in the car because they’re normal people that don’t know how it feels to be in a race car, and they get the chance what it is to be in an F1 car. It’s just the corner speed the braking the acceleration, it’s just a feeling that you cannot really describe – you have to be in the car.”
“The whole circuit here, it’s just great – up and downhill, really fast corners, long corners, chicanes – it’s a great circuit!”
Patrick went on to explain, “You never push too hard, especially with a passenger – like 70 – 80%, somewhere around there. We had a funny experience in England – once, a girl there, she knocked out, she passed out. But most of them, no – it’s different, some guys are getting out with a really big smile on their face, some guys are completely white – it’s always different. It’s a lot of fun traveling with Champ Car – it’s really great.”
Despite the fact that my personal experience in the two-seater was over I returned the following day to soak up a little more atmosphere. There, I was treated to the opportunity to watch Champ Car owner Kevin Kalkhoven strap in and experience the speed and excitement for himself.
When the excitement finally died down I chatted briefly with Kevin about his experience and asked him how important he feels the F1X2 is to the Champ Car World Series, to which he commented, “I think it is absolutely a fantastic opportunity for people to experience what a race car is really all about. These are very professional drivers. And it’s just a great thing to do, I recommend it to anyone.”
When I asked for Kevin’s comments on the ride he explained, “I’ve never done this before – It was like flying in an aerobatic aeroplane – only twice as fast. I think my favorite part was going through the chicane, but I think the most impressive part was just how smoothly these drivers operate these machines. They’re just so smooth and so professional, it was really very exciting.”
After seeing Kevin on his way, Paul Stoddart, founder of the Minardi F1X2 Two-Seater program took a moment out of his schedule to chat with me about the program. When I asked him about the importance of the program and how he feels to bring this opportunity to Champ Car he said; “I’m absolutely thrilled to be honest, and think you can tell by the look on people’s faces that we either give them the ride of their life or the fright of their life – sometimes it’s both. And I have to say that being here in Canada is like a bit of a homecoming because Minardi has always been so popular here, and you just have to look out here today – a fantastic facility and what a lovely part of the world and look at the smiles on everybody’s faces – not just the ones riding in the car but those that are standing on the fence listening to the sound, watching them go around. And of course when you speak to the passengers, that’s when you get the biggest reward because it really is for some of them a life changing experience.”
Curious about whether Paul had ever been in the back of a two-seater, I asked the question and was treated to an interesting story. “I drive them” he said. “Yeah, I only ever went as a passenger once which was behind Michael Schumacher in 2002. I had to drive the next day, and of course you get behind somebody that’s that talented. I did 7 laps behind him at the Ferrari track and the very next morning I drive at Imola, and on the second lap I crash the car for the one and only time” he related with a chuckle.
“I think this is great for Champ Car because Champ Car is all about bringing a festival of speed to the people and this is an integral part of that because not only can you get up close and personal, but now if you’re one of the lucky few you can also get to experience it as well.”
Knowing that this program means more to Champ Car than just providing entertainment, I inquired about the importance of the F1X2 for sponsors. “I think it’s very important that a sponsor doesn’t just put their money out on having signage and a bit of hospitality” Paul explained. “This is a unique opportunity for those that are really, really into their motor racing to actually feel what those drivers go through every weekend for 70 or 80 laps – they can do three or four laps, and believe me that’s enough – because at the end of it all they really do realize what racing is all about, and racing at the absolute sharp end of it because it doesn’t get any faster than this.”
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Iain Shankland & Gail Shankland started blogging in order to inspire and motivate people to travel the world from their perspective – specializing in having the most fun while using the least amount of money, travelling on the cheap without sacrificing comfort.
Copyright © 2013 Iain & Gail Shankland / TravelBloggers.ca (at)Gmail.com
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