What Was It Like to Race in Formula One?
I get asked this a lot. I certainly was very privileged to have run a stint in F-1. It was an emotionally tumultuous time for me. There were many aspects to my season in F1 that take much more space than what I have been available here to write, so I will concentrate on that actual driving of the race car.
Spin em at 120 MPH
I never considered driving fun. To me, it was always satisfying to get the maximum out of a race car and do better than all the other competitors. I won in just about every category in which I competed. That changed when I entered F1. I was with the smallest team with least powerful engines, no testing and antiquated chassis technology. Having said that, my race car had about 950 HP in Qualifying and about 850 HP during the race. Acceleration was unbelievable. The car had the ability to spin the rear tires in 5th gear at 120 MPH on cold tires. Braking performance was crazy, with HUGE wings on the front and back, just lifting off the throttle would equate to a full panic stop in a road car. The high speed cornering forces were very difficult to judge. Remember in those days the tracks that we used were not any of the cookie cutter Tilke designed circuits of today. There were amazing elevation changes and fast turns. I miss tracks like the old Osterreichring…
We never did any testing. My first race was the USGP on the downtown streets of Detroit. Walls everywhere. Ken Tyrrell told me just before my first practice that “The best thing that I could do this weekend was to keep it on the island.”
Once I was in the cocooned in the race car (it took 2 mechanics to do up the belts they were that tight). it was a sense of pure concentration. The cars were so fast that you had to look way way down the track in order to anticipate the next turns. You had to be on the ball all of the time, not let up in concentration at any point because you were driving dangerously fast and any accident that you had could be the big one.
I found the most stressful time in a race for me was being lapped by the leaders. In those days there was no radio communication (at least on my team) so I was reliant on the flag marshals. It was an incredibly competitive season and usually the leaders were always coming around together. Guys like Mansell, Piquet, Prost, Senna, Rosberg etc. The last thing that you want is to create an effect on the outcome of a race or the World Championship be being in the wrong place at the wrong time. However it’s not simply a matter of pulling offline to let them by. Offline the tracks were usually incredibly filthy with dust, debris and tire clag, so you put yourself at risk whenever you moved offline. Hard decisions to make looking driving a 950 HP 1200 lb race car at its limit and making judgement calls by way of information from two 1-1/2″ x 3″ mirrors.
Driving the race car was physically taxing particularly in the warm climates. I would lose 8-10 lbs in a race and would typically finish the event with blisters on my hands and feet. Kind of like running a marathon and arm wrestling for 1-1/2 hours at a time. I remember at Austrian GP in the Bosch Curve I had to shift from 4th to 5th in the middle of the turn, it took all of my strength to keep the wheel turned while I shifted gears.
Of course, what most want to know is the acceleration performance. I cannot give you any specifications but most estimations were that a Formula Once car in this era would reach 100 MPH from a standing start in about 3.0 seconds. One thing about the Alfa Romeo engines that my team used was that the engine was anemic below 7500 RPM, once you reach 8000 the power started coming on, at 8500 RPM onward you had over 900 HP under your right foot, the throttle was almost an on-off switch! I remember spinning the wheels on cold tires in top gear.
Driving in Formula One was one of the highlights of my racing career and of course one of the major characteristics that defines me as a person.