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|22nd August 2010, 13:51||#1|
Driving a Formula Renault at the Michelin Pilot Experience, Sepang!
I've driven some really fast cars, yet never an open-wheel racer. What makes things better is that I'd be driving a Formula Renault on the Sepang F1 track! Empty track, support from technicians and a professional racer to guide me. Perfect! This drive is part of the Michelin Pilot Experience, an annual event, held in Malaysia. Rahul Chodha (Michelin India) is leading the Indian group, and the participant list includes 4 contest winners. BTW, a BHPian had previously won an entry into the same event. Here (Michelin Pilot Experience Contest - I Won!) is a link to his report thread.
We arrive at the track at 0830 hours on Friday, the 20th of August. A group of BHPians had gone to the Sepang F1 race in '07 (Link to full report (Team-BHP @ Sepang 2007 report - almost a blog)), obviously as spectators. This time, I'm going to be spending all my time in the pit lane
Good thing about automotive events is, you always catch some interesting cars in the parking lot. Call me crazy, but it's the smaller stuff that matters. Few things make me happier than seeing some amazing cars belonging to fellow enthusiasts. I spent a couple of minutes checking these beauties out, before being pulled away. A clean W140:
Amazing GTIs wearing some killer BBS wheels. Worthy of mention : Every 10th car on the Malaysian expressway seemed to have a sports exhaust:
Aha! I spot some action in the pits on my way up:
We are introduced to key members from Michelin Racing. The Team lead (and event organiser) is Regis Jeandenand, who's been a part of the tyre maker's motorsport activities for 4 decades now. He's co-driven in over 105 rallies and has tyre testing experience as well. Get this, not a single glitch over the day's activities that included about 30 participants, 4 teams and several sub-events. Supreme management skills:
After the introductory session, the gang was split up into 4 groups (Red, Blue, Green and Yellow). The Indian gang formed the Yellow group. All of us head to the locker rooms, where we're given our racing suits & shoes:
The racing suit is surprisingly comfortable and fits your body "like a glove":
Racing shoes have virtually no sole to speak of. Allow you to communicate with the three pedals (brake gave heck of a feedback):
Anyone with a high blood pressure reading is not permitted to take part in the days events. In addition, you have to sign an indemnity form. All of us recorded BP readings in the safe zone (mine was about 120ish / 80ish), save for one Philippine gentleman. No rules meant to be broken, he had to sit and watch the rest of the day:
|22nd August 2010, 14:04||#2|
On the track:
All "dressed up", we proceeded to the tracks. The pit environment felt eerie without the usual F1 teams and cars. Such is their presence that you could almost hear an illusionary Mclaren V8 screaming @ 18,000 rpm somewhere in the background....that's the aura surrounding an F1 track.
Where the Podium celebrations take place:
We enter Pit garage no.6 (used by the Renault F1 team only a couple of months back):
The garage is completely empty, and everyone's staring at each other with a "where are the cars?????" kinda look:
Until Regis, slowly, rolls up the garage shutter. Awaiting us:
From the opposite side:
Group shot of all the participants of 20/08/2010:
This is the Formula Renault that I just cannot wait to get my hands on:
We're treated to a quick pitstop of a race-prepped Porsche GT3:
An engineer patiently explains to me the different kinds of Michelin racing tyres:
And it's time to prepare for the race car! What you see here is a Formula Renault simulator, with a running engine & drivetrain. The car is used to get newbies familiar with ingress / egress, the seating position, pedal & controls arrangement and even starting the engine. The gear lever on this car was extremely stiff. We had a practice run and were informed that the clutch is to be used only twice; once when starting off, the other when coming to a stop. On the track, we shift through the gearbox WITHOUT even touching the clutch pedal. The intoxicating exhaust note was only amplified within the confines of this garage:
The track layout. Michelin is using 1/2 the Sepang F1 track for this event. Everyone seemed to be excited by the long straight, but I was looking forward to T3 & T5 (taken in 4th gear, flat out):
Philippe Descombes is a Formula Renault driver and multi-race winner. He also runs a racing school in China. Philippe takes us around the track in a minivan, clearly explaining the racing line, and what gear is to be used, at each section:
Notice the MUV rolling on its RHS in this pic! Racing drivers can even make a van's steering feel special! Sitting with one is a seriously humbling experience:
Turn 4. Philippe emphasized on taking it easy here. Notice the tyre marks , many a novice driver ended up in a 360 in this turn. It's kind of a slope in the middle of the corner which makes for a tricky situation. Bad part of ending up in the gravel is, you are towed away and lose your remaining laps. I had Philippe repeat the corner instructions atleast 3 times:
Safety was continuously stressed upon at all times by the Michelin team. Philippe here illustrates the functionality of a racing seat belt, including how to unbuckle quickly (say, if your car caught fire):
Last edited by GTO : 22nd August 2010 at 15:37.
|22nd August 2010, 14:54||#3|
The Formula Renault:
The highlight of the day . Lets start off with some specs
Weight = 480 kg
Power = 196 BHP
Power to weight : 408 BHP / Ton!. To put that in perspective, a Porsche 911 Turbo's p2w is 318 BHP / Ton
0 - 100 = 3.5 seconds
Top speed = 260 kph
Extremely compact cockpit. With the 4 point seat belt buckled up, its nearly as tight at your racing suit. The compact steering is reasonably light. Push the silver lever on the RHS to downshift, pull to upshift. As the speeds rise, the gearbox becomes lighter, though it always required a hard yank to upshift. Top left are the warning lights, and a toggle switch + button to start the engine. To the bottom LHS of the steering is the engine-kill switch (red in colour) for emergencies. The revv limiter cuts in at 5,200 - 6,500 rpm (varied from car to car):
Rear suspension & exhaust routing:
Racing slicks, massive wing, rear leds and diffuser:
The white face mask not only holds your sweat, but it is also fireproof:
And jump into the car. The detachable steering is then clipped onto the assembly:
Rolling start to prevent newbies from stalling the engine. The ATV pushes you about 25 meters in the pitlane, then you are on your own:
A pair of Subarus are your lead cars. Driven by professional racers, believe me, its quite the tool on track. You have to always follow the STi who, among other things, shows you the line to follow. Philippe was leading me in the blue current generation WRX (pictured at the end of the post) on the first run of 4 laps. The Subaru paces itself, based on how good / bad you drive the Formula Renault:
"WHOA" is your first response when you move out of the pitlane. The engine is unbelievably revv-happy. Even a light push of the throttle immediately leads to the redline and its time to upshift. Of the 4 laps in the initial stint, I decided that I'll take the 1st lap very easy and learn. Second, experiment. Third and Fourth = Flat out. See, these open wheel racers running on slicks offer way too much grip for average drivers like us, so I wasn't worried about corner grip. Rather, I wanted to understand the steering / acceleration / brake response. What followed blew me away...the experience of a lifetime. Philippe could see that I'm accurately sticking to the racing line and taking measured decisions. On the outlap itself, he increased the pace. First time that I hit the long straight, I maxed out in 6th gear, the engine revv limiter reverberating in my ears. Most went ga-ga over the straightline speed. Me? I couldn't get enough of the cornering grip! By the 3rd & 4th laps, I was really gunning it through the corners (atleast as much as an average driver can), especially T3 & T5. The car's composure was unreal, not a hint of nervousness, and she does exactly what you want her to. You are sitting an inch or two off the ground, and the stiff suspension is always communicating the surface quality to you. The feedback from the steering was exemplary....it's almost as if the front tyres are talking to me on a one-to-one. It takes a little time to get used to the steering, even a slight adjustment results in the front end responding immediately. By the second stint (post-lunch), I developed a certain comfort level with the car. Once I got into a rhythm, it was a heck of a drive. The car is very tight and literally feels like an extension of yourself. You think you are approaching the corner too fast, but truth is, the Formula Renault is capable of much more. Flooring the throttle all through T5 was something else, your neck forced into a tilt. Your body is continually banging around in the cockpit, depending on whether you are accelerating, braking or cornering. I was expecting a lot from the Formula Renault, but not THIS MUCH!
Another Team member getting ready for his run:
Starting the afternoon session:
Mandatory tyre pressure check:
And we're off for another 5 LAPS:
Thumbs up : The Team studies your earlier performance, and this run is based on how you drove earlier. I didn't make any errors, hence the minute we drove out, Philippe was flat-out in the Subaru. It's not everyday you see a WRX slipping, sliding and rolling from side to side. Seeing my pace, Philippe gave me 2 extra laps. I remember Rahul telling me "Even the pace car driver has a chance to enjoy if you drive well". At the end of the session, Philippe walks up and tells me "Dude, I was going absolutely on the limit in the STi!" I clocked the fastest time of all participants in the second session, and was the only one from the yellow team who did NOT spin even once.
A new-gen WRX, the other pace car:
Last edited by GTO : 23rd August 2010 at 12:10.
|22nd August 2010, 15:01||#4|
Racing really doesn't get purer than go-karting. Power for these karts comes from a 270 cc engine while the top speed is 80 kph:
Pay close attention to the slippery-as-hell surface!
Waiting for my turn:
And on the track! Timing was calculated for a combined two laps. I was the quickest with a time of 53 seconds:
I made it to the semi-finals...
The start was everything, and overtaking in the semi-finals near impossible (both drivers reasonably quick). I made a good start and took the lead, but both of us jumped the lights and were asked to return . My second start was miserable, and all I did for the rest of the laps was watch my opponent's derrière:
Go-karting is so much fun, Nearly each corner was attacked with a slip & a slide. There really is no better way to fine-tune your driving skills. This session was a reminder that us BHPians should visit the gokart track more often, wot!!?
|22nd August 2010, 15:14||#5|
Two seater Formula car:
Next up was an experience that can seriously numb your brain or, depending on your perspective, one that is scarier than the most extreme 6 flags roller coaster...a drive in the two seater Formula car, at full clip, with a professional racer (Philippe) behind the wheel. Stats:
Weight = 1300 kg
Power = 380 BHP
0 - 100 = 4.6 seconds
Top speed = 280 kph
Notice dummy steering wheel for the passenger to hold on to:
Idling was never constant in these cars. The revv counter keeps fluctuating between 1,000 - 1,600 rpms:
An '06 build Formula car:
The V6 engine needed to be cooled (yellow pipe pumps air driven by a powerful compressor) each time she came to a halt. Stepping in for the ride of my life:
If there was an experience that came close to driving the Formula Renault car, this was it. Again, the acceleration is impressive, but what really blows your mind is the braking and cornering grip. Good thing is, I had a decent view of the road ahead. Hurtling at full speed down the straight, and the right-hander approaching, my brain seemed to keep saying "Brake now, no now, please now, NOW man!" and Philippe would stomp on the brakes at a point you'd never have thought possible. In fact, he starts downshifting only at the last corner marker. Your helmet bangs against his backrest and before you have time to fully recompose yourself, the car is working through T2 & T3 at an insane momentum. The g-forces can really put pressure on your neck, and the lateral force is so much that you feel you're going to be plastered on the track walls. Mental note to self "Hang onto the dummy steering wheel for dear life". Brake hard again in T4, then enter the T5 super-quick corner (I didn't hear him back off the throttle here). There is a continual left-right movement on my helmet, something that's just uncontrollable. I'm sitting real low off the ground and could see that Philippe was making full use of the kerbs, even feeling the rear slide just so much on some turns. The icing on the cake was the sweet harmony created by the V6 engine right behind you. We got 2 laps each in the two-seater Formula car, at the end of which some newbies wanted to puke
A much needed massage at the end of the ride:
|22nd August 2010, 15:23||#6|
Pitstop tyre changing activity:
We had quite a bit of competition between the teams here. Each team had to switch the car's dry tyres with wets (lying on the side), and vice versa, 4 times. You work in twos, with one person handling the pneumatic wrench and the other playing the role of a tyre-handler:
Pneumatic wrench has a switch that you push to the left to remove the lug nut (counter-clockwise movement), or to the right to tighten (clockwise movement):
Team Yellow in action. Those OZ wheels & Michelin tyres were super light! Even a kid could lift the wheel without effort:
While the teams were having their pitstop practice runs, I was trying out the racing simulator. Look closely at the hydraulics around the seat. These, along with units mounted on the steering, give you a race-car like feel. Feedback provided through the steering felt nearly like the real thing. With a racing seat, paddle shifters, big screen and sub-woofers, it was such a blast! I had to be dragged away from this seat.
Back to the tyre-changing competition then, each team took about 60 seconds to switch between dry <-> wets four times. We lost the first round, and won in the second.
|22nd August 2010, 15:26||#7|
Michelin ran a rather informative quizzing session that, among other things, touched upon its racing history, what goes into the development of tyres, how different governments mandate the disposal of racing tyres (after race weekends) and more. This was a multiple-choice quiz:
For each right answer, you got a card. That's ours....we ran out of space. We beat our competing Philippians team hollow
|22nd August 2010, 15:29||#8|
All in all, a dream day for any petrolhead. We drove some phenomenal cars, including an open wheel Formula racer, were driven around in the two-seater by a pro race driver, had fun go-karting, spent time in the pitlane / pit garages and met several interesting personalities from the Michelin racing team. Hugely entertaining, and all of us ended up gaining tremendous insights into motorsport. There's only one way for you to take part in this event: Participate in the Michelin PE competition. I highly recommend your giving it a shot next year. Special mention of the impeccable manner in which Regis organised the event. An uphill task, when you consider the many participants taking part in different concurrent events. As they say in racing terms, Regis didn't place a wheel wrong. I deeply respect this level of attention to detail.
BTW, at the end of the day, I walked away with a trophy. Not bad for a newbie, eh?
|22nd August 2010, 15:54||#9|
Senior - BHPian
Join Date: Mar 2005
Location: Chandigarh/Mohali/Ambala Cantt
Thanked: 1,534 Times
Just went through the whole Post.
Must have been quite an Experience,and i think many of us would be ready to give out an arm and a Leg for this
The go karting track looks too slippery
|22nd August 2010, 16:33||#10|
Distinguished - BHPian
Join Date: Jun 2006
Location: Speed-brkr City
Thanked: 3,661 Times
GTO, awesome ! And a trophy to boot - as if the experience of a lifetime wasn't good enough ! I'm sure it's going to occupy the best point in your living room for a long time .. Or should I wish something better to come your way soon ?
|22nd August 2010, 16:41||#11|
Senior - BHPian
Join Date: May 2004
Thanked: 266 Times
Exactly what I wanted and expected from you.
|22nd August 2010, 16:43||#12|
Join Date: Apr 2009
Location: NCR / BLR
Thanked: 3 Times
Wow GTO! This has to be the one of the ultimate experiences for any petrolhead .
The adrenaline rush must have been quite something.
Thanks for the awesome pics and report .
Looking forward to trying my luck next year
|22nd August 2010, 17:35||#13|
Senior - BHPian
Join Date: Feb 2004
Location: Mumbai, India
Thanked: 142 Times
Now that is an experience to have. Theres nothing more a petrol head could wish for than to have an experience such as this. Your words made me feel as if I was the track itself. This is to cherish for a life time and I'm sure that trophy will remind you of the memories. A drive in those Porsches would have been fun too.
Superb detailed pictures to go with the event report as well. And I agree that the Sepang parking lot makes for a very interesting car spotting place for sure. I saw some nice cars myself in '04.
Hats off to the Michelin guys for supreme organisation of the event.
P.S That racing suit picture of yours makes for a good shaadi.com pic
|22nd August 2010, 18:16||#14|
Senior - BHPian
Join Date: Apr 2008
Location: Austin, TX
Thanked: 610 Times
WOW!!! That's an amazing experience with cars that we can only dream of driving. I'm sure driving the Formula Renault would be an incredible experience.
GTO, were you one of the lucky winners of the Michelin PE competition or wot?
|22nd August 2010, 19:40||#15|
Senior - BHPian
Join Date: Apr 2010
Thanked: 684 Times
Congrats GTO, for the trophy and thanks for the wonderful write-up. I read it twice in one-go
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