I’ve been a motorsport fan since I was a young boy. Formula 1 was and is a particular fascination. I didn’t go to my first Grand Prix until the 2005 Belgian Grand Prix, which was an amazing experience. A few months after that, I moved to Melbourne, a stone’s throw away from the iconic Melbourne Grand Prix Circuit at Albert Park. Since then, I have been every year to watch the drivers at motorsport’s zenith battle it out for the top spot on the podium on a Sunday evening.
I always book my tickets early to ensure I get the best seat that I can afford and have enjoyed every single race. The Australian Grand Prix being at the start of the season makes it singularly exciting as it’s the first time that the fans get to see what the teams and drivers have been working on over the (Northern Hemisphere) Winter months. We find ourselves with muddled-up grids at the end of breathtaking qualifying sessions and this guarantees an interesting race to the first corner (and beyond) on the Sunday.
I booked my ticket for this year’s Melbourne Grand Prix back in July of last year and didn’t give it another thought until I got a phone call from the Australian Grand Prix Corporation on a Friday morning in September. They told me that I’ve won a ride in the 2-seater F1 car at the 2012 Grand Prix weekend (subject to some Ts & Cs) just for buying a ticket. I nearly fell off my chair. I couldn’t believe it.
Skip forward to this weekend.
It’s dark at 6 o’clock on Saturday morning at Albert Park when I’m greeted by our host at the circuit and presented with a ground pass that says, “Minardi 2 Seater Passenger” and some ear plugs. After signing my life away (gulp), I’m taken to the garage to have a look around the cars. There are a few photos here.
Shortly after taking a few snaps, I’m led out to get changed into my fireproof outfit and am told that there are two drivers, Cam McConville and Zsolt Baumgartner. Zsolt, I am told, does not hold back with passengers and goes full-pelt from the word “Go”, whereas Cam would ease them in gently. Guess who was driving me!
In pit-lane I’m taken to the car, where Minardi boss Paul Stoddart explains to me how to get in, how I’d be strapped in and also the Dead man’s switch, should I succumb to the immense g-forces to which my body would be exposed in the minutes ahead. Paul helped me secure my helmet and gloves and I was ready to go.
Stepping into the car was a dream come true. I was absolutely thrilled to be there. My visor fogged up as the team tightened the race harness around me. There was no moving now, my body is now one with the car with just my lower arms and my head afforded any movement and my left hand was gripping the dead man’s switch for all it was worth (if I let go, then engine would cut out).
Before I knew it, the Cosworth V10 a few centimetres behind me was fired up, the jack dropped the Minardi to the track and Zsolt’s right foot took us hurtling along the pit-lane almost without any warning.
The cool morning air seemed to clear my visor but I still couldn’t read the names above the garages in pit lane as they whizzed past to my right. We were travelling at such velocity so quickly. I wasn’t forced back into my seat as I might have expected: the harness was that tight!
"Oh my word, I’m in a Formula 1 car!" I think I said aloud as we reached the end of the pit lane. It was exhilarating and felt a bit like the initial buzz when an extreme roller-coaster sets off. But then we were out on track…
Zsolt Baumgartner changed up through the gears in a heartbeat. And I thought we’d gone quickly in the pit lane, that was nothing! We were travelling at amazing speeds along Aughtie Drive and then bam!
It was a bit like receiving a slap to the back of the head, followed by a thump to the face as my helmet hit the padding at the back of the driver’s seat. We’d reached Turn 1 already and Zolt had applied the brakes, I suddenly realised. "Unbelievable"! We turned sharp right and then left through Turn 2 and then the power is back on…
This machine and its operator are truly phenomenal!
Thump! Turn Three! Now I’m relaxed and completely enjoying the experience. I’m watching the tyres as they stick to the track like the stickiest glue imaginable.
I’m grinning like a Cheshire cat as we pummel down Lakeside Drive; the palm trees on the right are a part of my mental image of the Melbourne Grand Prix from watching it on the television back in England. Now I’m speeding past them in a Formula 1 car!
The three sharp corners at the Southern end of the circuit try to hurl my head out of the car, but my neck works hard to keep it attached to my body and before I have time to think any further about it, the main straight is right there and Zolt’s heavy right foot is flat to the floor taking us back to Turn One at Ludicrous Speed.
I can’t stop smiling as we trace the racing line on Lap 2. I’ve acclimatised to the speed and can now take in some of the smaller details: the hot air balloons up above and the track marshals dotted around the outside of the circuit. If it were not for these great people there would be no motorsport, I feel a deep gratitude for them. I also spot quite how close the Minardi’s tyres get to the green-painted concrete barriers on Lakeside Drive but I feel perfectly confident that there’s no danger of them actually touching.
A few seconds later, after the absolute ride of my life, we enter pit lane. I’m buzzing as the car is pushed back to its start position, jacked up and the engine stopped.
"Amazing!", I say to anyone who’ll listen as I vacate the seat for the next lucky passenger. It took me hours to come down from that high.
It was only as I caught a Melbourne taxi home that night when I realised quite how astonishingly safe I had felt with Zsolt Baumgartner driving me in the Minardi F1x2 at those astounding speeds. All credit to him and the team for putting together such a package!
The rest of the four days at the Melbourne Grand Prix were great, but somehow less significant than those few minutes where I really got to experience Formula 1 first hand.
I’ll certainly be booking early for the 2013 Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix!