You’re dressed in your special Formula One race-morning gear, leaning back snugly into the seat, feet stretched out ahead, with the view of the track vee-ing in your vision towards turn one over the nose. Engines are revving around you as you watch for the start lights to blink out.
The problem is – you’re in your PJs not a flame-proof driving suit and you’re sitting on your couch, feet up on the coffee table. The track view is provided by a behind-the-cockpit camera and the engine noise comes from your surround sound system. And all you’ve got in your hands are a coffee cup and a muffin, not one of those dinky little racing steering wheels.
But hey, that’s cool, this is the way millions of racing fans around the world vicariously enjoy the sport of motor racing every weekend. It’s a good bet that every one of them has wondered what it would be like to actually sit in the cockpit of an open-wheeled racing machine and accelerate out onto a track.
Well, it’s pretty neat actually, as I recently discovered at the Bridgestone Racing Academy located at the Mosport International Raceway near Toronto. I was strapped into an open wheel racer and I got to display my driving “talent” under the watchful eye of Canadian IndyCar racer James Hinchcliffe, a graduate who turned up for the day at Bridgestone’s behest. Other famous names on the alma mater list include Jacques Villeneuve, Ron Fellows, Alex Tagliani, and Danica Patrick.
As a starting point, the academy offers the aptly named Thrill of a Lifetime program.
At $295, it worth doing, even if a couple of controlled sessions in a real racing car will only whet your appetite while showing you what it’s like “out there.” If you want more there are other one-day programs ranging in price up to $1,695. If you really want to come to grips with going seriously fast in one of its Van Diemen Formula SCCA open-wheelers, sign up for the $2,495 two-day Learn to Lap program we’ll discuss further. Tack an extra day on to this high level program, and you could apply for a racing license.
As on a real race day you turn up early at the tight and twisty Driver Development Track adjacent to the Mosport circuit and file into the classroom where school owner Brett Goodman’s practised patter explains the procedure that will take you from first day racing “kindergarten” to day-two “university.” Goodman’s very keen on your safety – and his $72,000 cars.His program has operated for 26 years without hurting anyone.
The academy’s racers are built by respected Van Diemen International of Great Britain and sport Formula One-style bodywork over a tubular structure powered by a 2.3-litre, 170-hp Mazda engine – all of which makes this 455 kg fully-winged car one of the fastest of North American open wheel classes, and something to be taken very, very seriously.
Students are then turned over to Chief Instructor Jamie Fitzmaurice who explains the techniques involved in going fast. Covered are heel-and-toe downshifting, acceleration and braking, the “lines” through the track’s up and downhill corners and much more. Also dealt with are emergency procedures in case you get it wrong - the “both feet in” mantra means push the clutch in and lock the wheels with the brakes if you spin off the track. It’s an awful lot of information to take in if you’re a complete newbie to track driving and some pre-school homework on driving techniques would definitely be a good idea.
The next step is getting kitted out in flameproof suits, gloves, balaclavas and helmets. There’s an expensive “if-you-drop-it-you-bought-it” policy on the latter. Once suited up, drivers are walked out to pit lane to be introduced to the cars and the teams of young mechanic/instructors who look after them.
Wriggling into the confining cockpit, threading your feet and legs through a tiny tubular opening at knee level, is a bit of a trick. Seating arrangements are a tad primitive, just foam pads to accommodate different body types, but the crew make sure you’re snug and tightly belted into the six-point harness. Expect your knees and elbows to take a black-and-blue beating.
Firing the engine on the button generates a loud blatting exhaust note and a hard buzz through the car’s tubular structure and the tiny thick rimmed wheel with which you’ll steer front wheels you can almost reach out and touch. And likely a quick squirt of adrenaline into your system. You keep the tiny clutch pedal depressed as there’s no neutral. Abbreviated forward and back quick clicks on the stumpy metal gearlever select the five-gears. Stiff throttle return springs and abrupt clutch engagement mean it’s easy to stall on your first attempt to get rolling.
The learning curve as you accelerate out of pit lane behind a Van Diemen mounted instructor arcs just about straight up, and the first few laps are a blur as you figure out how to shift, brake, accelerate and find your way around the track’s bendy bits.
There’s no pressure to keep up with the car ahead. You take these initial steps at your own pace, increasing your speed as your comfort level increases and you come to terms with the car’s responses. Acceleration is fierce, steering input just about go-kart quick and braking astonishingly powerful and cornering grip high on the street Bridgestone RE-11 Potenzas.
After each 20 minute session you return to the pits, clamber out of the car, pull your helmet and balaclava off take a deep breath and collect your thoughts. By the end of the day, with cars spread out, you’ll likely find yourself starting to go quickly enough to give yourself little “moments” as racers call them, as you begin to explore cornering and braking limits.
Day two builds on what you’ve learned and begins with a discussion of more refined and faster approaches to cornering and a track walk that takes you past an impact-jumbled section of tire wall. It’s not just a matter of “holding your breath, gripping the wheel tighter and braking later,” says our instructor.
No instructor car heads the groups on day two, you’re on your own to chase or be chased. Observers at various corners assess your driving and give you pointers back in the pits. Indy car racer Hinchcliffe drove his first racing cars here and offers keen insights to our group.
A brief shower allowed us to tentatively explore the “rain lines” we’d been taught about and the delicacy required of the driver on a damp track.
By the final session of the day we’re really flying, using most of what the engine can give, as much of the prodigious braking as we dare and a considerable amount of the cornering grip the Bridgestone RE-11s can generate. I manage a best lap in one minute three seconds, but one quick member of the group cuts the timing lights at 59.561 seconds. Then Hinchcliffe jumps into one of our cars to show us how it’s done. And after just a handful of laps, during which the car produces a distinctly different sound than any we’d heard all day, turns a close to the lap record 56 seconds flat.