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GP Week : Issue 121
Motorracingchampions Lewis Hamilton and tony Stewart come from different worlds, and played the ultimate game of swapsies last tuesday, trading cars for a series of demonstration laps at the historic Watkins glen race track in upstate new York. Hamilton’s Formula One McLaren is a 640kg single seater built to NASA levels of performance and technical detail. Stewart’s regular office is somewhat different, but no less fast. A hulking 1542kg Chevrolet NASCAR, with its stock body, hard top, and no aerodynamic gizmos. Both pack 800bhp V8s, both run at over 200mph, both use Mobil 1 lubricants, but in terms of handling and technique it’s like tennis and squash. Mobil 1 were kind enough to take GPWEEK over there to watch. The Glen is somewhere I’ve always wanted to go as, for an F1 fan, forget Indianapolis, Long Beach, Caesar’s Palace et al – this is the home of the US Grand Prix. It first hosted F1 in 1961, when Innes Ireland gave Team Lotus their first victory, and last held a GP 31 years ago. David Coulthard took me round the track in a Corvette and I discovered why it is such a widowmaker – no run off at all. The morning was wetter than It’s a Knockout and the ‘Vette was getting wheelspin in 3rd at 90mph. But the course is stunning, with long corners, off camber, with a lot of late apexes which reminded me of Brands Hatch. DC was swearing the whole way round – not a Corvette fan. A black Suburban swung into the pit area and Hamilton stepped out. He looked like he was still smarting from his crash at the Canadian Grand Prix 48 hours earlier. Yet as soon as he saw Stewart’s NASCAR, channeling the Dukes of Hazard as he clambered feet first through the window, his face lit up. “I’m nervous,” he said “but it’s nerves of excitement.” The pair gave each other driving tips. ‘Smoke’, as Stewart is known, had more to worry about, for the track was damp and, as NASCAR never races in the wet, this was a whole new experience. Only once in his entire life had he raced in the wet before, in the Daytona 24 Hours. Also, he’d only driven the short circuit at The Glen, despite being a winner here. On the grid, the McLaren team surrounded each corner of the car, keeping the tyre blankets on till the last minute, and firing the motor up from the rear. No such attention to the Stewart-Haas Chevrolet Impala. It doesn’t have tyre warmers and the driver turns it on himself. Next to each other, the difference in height was startling. The F1 car looks like a Matchbox car compared with the Chevvy. The noise was foreign as well. The 18,000RPM Mercedes engine plays a very different tune to a Chevrolet V8 at 9,000 – the latter’s low growl rattling one’s rib cage rather than piercing the ears. From inside ‘the office’ things look very different. Obviously, one has a tin-top and one’s topless. One has a bolt-upright seat off-set to the left, the other is as centred as a gun barrel and requires the driver to almost lie down. Lewis’ car has seven gears at the flick of a paddle, and LED change lights on the wheel. The NASCAR has a 4-speed H-gate and old school gauges. It required a bit of adaptation to suit the conditions: a windscreen wiper, a de-foger, and a set of wets. Its cast iron brakes demand much earlier braking than the McLaren, with carbon brakes that can stop on a dime. But, for Tony Stewart, the F1 car was intimidating. Not only was he unfamiliar with the machine, the track and the weather conditions, this was MP4-23 chassis No.2 he was stepping into. The one Lewis used to great effect at Silverstone in 2008, blowing everyone away in the wet, and then took to Brazil to win the title in historic, dramatic circumstances: “I’m not going to try and beat him,” Tony said with a half-smile. “ The penalty if you miss here is huge”. This being the 2008 car, there’s no traction control. Stewart struggled to get away. He wasn’t giving it enough revs and it dipped in and out of anti-stall as it slowly made its way down the pitlane. He’d lulled us into a false sense of security, though, because once he reappeared 3.37 miles later and booted it down the straight he was on the ragged edge of the redline, bringing the 2,000 spectators in the grandstand to their feet. He was ‘wide open’, I believe the Americans call it. Once he had a feel for the car he pushed it hard through the turns, the crowd whooping as the McLaren’s engine deafened the rural area for miles around. In addition to his NASCAR success, the polyvalent 40-year-old took the IndyCar title in 1997. So he is familiar with open- wheels, but back then IRL just raced on ovals. Downforce is a feeling he misses, and the McLaren serves up cordon bleu aerodynamic performance unlike anything he’s ever experienced. “Darrian [Grubb – Stewart’s crew chief ] isn’t gonna get any sleep ‘cos I’m gonna want a car that drives like this all the time,” he said after his run. “ That’s one of the coolest experiences of my entire life. Everybody told me how great the brakes were going to be. I knew they’d be good, but I didn’t know they’d be that good. It just handles so nice. It’s fun to have downforce again.” Hamilton didn’t hold back in the NASCAR, pushing harder each lap, regularly getting the rear loose. The team asked him to pit F1 FEATURE >> STATESIDE SWAP-A-RAMA 27