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GP Week : Issue 83
DRIVE FEATURE >> I had to stifle a laugh when BBC Radio producer Jason Swales returned to the pits with his front wing hanging off. In the history of the Formula BMW Racing Centre, down here at Valencia's Circuit Ricardo Tormo, no one has ever crashed before. That's what our instructors told us before we went out. It was reassuring. But five minutes in -- literally just five! -- someone's had to send for a new nose and a dustpan and brush. Jason is the most experienced racer in our group of amateurs, having raced Ginettas. He's even brought his own helmet. This is VERY funny. But I try not to smile because this is a serious day for me -- a fantastic opportunity to get to grips with a 140mph single seater. The guests include a couple of us F1 regulars, some lifestyle journalists, competition winners, a celebrity surfer and a German actor. As a result of this hodge- podge, Jason and I found ourselves stuck in more traffic than a pitlane-starting Alonso in Monaco. Maybe that's why Jason got frustrated and decided to launch himself at the pit wall. In one garage are racks of helmets, race suits, boots and fireproofs. The instructors have to wear many hats -- driver, teacher and tailor. Once sorted with this kit, we get a seat fitting in the main garage and are taken through the controls. Then it's time for theory. The cars aren't terribly comfortable. You quickly get a numb bum because you're essentially sitting on the floor. The wheel is so close that when you take a tight corner, you're liable to bruise your elbows. You can't move your head back at all -- your chin is practically resting on your chest. The straps are so tight you can barely draw breath. The controls are simple: three pedals, an up-down gear-shift on the right, and the power and starter switches on the dash. Pulling away is really easy. A few revs, clutch out and you're off. That didn't stop one chap completely knackering his transmission. It sounded like a band-saw picking a fight with a dentist's drill. The first exercise is to get used to up- shifting and down-shifting. We do this by driving the wrong way down the pitlane, turning around a cone, and then coming up the pit straight flat-out before re- entering the pit. You can up-shift without the clutch but you need to yank the little metal leaver hard. To down-shift, it's satisfying to punch the stick Karate Kid-style and blip the throttle as the gear engages. This isn't really a braking test, but Jason wants to feel the full force of the stopping power anyway, which is when he locks his rears and taps the pitwall. Red flag, red face. That was just the warm up. Next we follow the instructor around the circuit to learn the racing lines and gearing, before more classroom tutorial. We won't get a sense of the braking points until we get let off the leash. When we do, it's a total adrenalin rush. I push harder to ignore the instructor 's advice and take Turn 1 in fifth gear. No problems. At first, the steering feels quite distant compared to a kart but as you get used to the adhesion, you learn to feel the molecules of tyre grip by the seat of your pants. The steering is very heavy in the slow stuff, which is what Ricardo Tormo is wholly comprised of, bar Turn 1, but I would love to try this car around a circuit like Silverstone where you can really feel the benefit of these wings. As it is, though, the Formula BMW is totally planted and on the few occasions I got the back end out (my chum Greg offered £1 for each timeIdidso--Greg,youowemeafiver)it either settled by itself or was pretty easy to correct. Carlos Sainz Junior is down here in Valencia, looking on and giving us tips ahead of his first Europe-series race weekend in Barcelona (he would impress with a podium on that debut). After a day in the car, we were left yearning for that next step -- to drive one in anger, wheel-to-wheel. Desperately wanting to race a 15 year- old seems somewhat unhealthy on a number of levels, but every one of us had a look of envy on our faces as we waved goodbye and let Carlos go back to his training. 33