Over the last decade of doing this job, I have gradually found that there are a few things that help me approach cars that make me nervous. Firstly, I tell myself that it is just a car, with fundamentally familiar controls. Breathe. Secondly, I try to think through the basic dynamics of what this particular mechanical layout should mean at the limit, so that I instinctively do the right thing – no point lifting off when you should be hard on the throttle. Breathe. Finally, I try to remember how it felt to drive anything that I think might be similar – in this case a WRC car. Breathe.
I still don’t feel very calm but it’s better than just panicking, and I’m at least feeling a bit more primed and focused before I’m given my briefing. ‘Be careful on the first corner because it is very slippery,’ says Sandström. ‘Remember to brake much earlier than you think on the straight because it switches to gravel halfway through the braking zone, so you need to be wiping off speed while you’re still on the tarmac. The fourth corner has a strange bit of tarmac just on the inside, so be careful. We’re not jumping the car much today, so please lift before the two crests. Do you left-foot brake?’
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My head still swimming with instructions about how to tackle a circuit I’ve never driven before, I try to remember whether I do or not. I decide that it must be like a WRC car so I nod.
‘OK, well just remember that you can flat-shift on the tarmac but you need to use the clutch when you are on the gravel.’
I decide there and then that I won’t be left-foot braking today. I feel like I’ve psyched myself up for a bungee jump only to be told while standing on the platform that I’ll have to tie the rope to my ankles with a very specific knot – on the way down. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
Normally some passenger laps would help me acclimatise and put me more at ease, but they go past in a blur. Even as an interested sack of ballast with nothing to do other than observe, the physicality of the acceleration is hard to comprehend. I can’t imagine what it must be like when you are the one in – and I use the term lightly – control. Only one way to find out.
The AP Racing clutch is mercifully friendly and will take a bit of slipping, so reversing out of the temporary garage isn’t too much of an ordeal. The steering is light, too, and with the anti-lag system turned off the trundle from the truck to the circuit is actually calm enough to lower my heart rate below 200bpm. Then Edward tells me to press the blue button on the steering wheel, which turns the anti-lag system on and promptly rearranges my perception of ‘fast’. A few seconds later, as I’m braking (early on the tarmac) for the slippery first corner, I realise that it was futile trying to prepare myself for this. How can you prepare when the ferocity is so far beyond what your previous reference points have been? Veyron? Don’t be silly. WRC car? Not even close.
With the ALS on, the throttle has turned into a trigger, seemingly firing all 600lb ft through the transmission as soon as you touch it. Out of the first right-hander the car spits sideways and I have to correct with one hand as I’m frantically pulling gear after gear. There are no shift paddles here, just a sturdy, high-mounted lever that you pull back to go up the ’box and push away to go down. There literally isn’t time to put your right hand back on the wheel between shifts. Never have I been in something that eats through revs and demands gears so quickly. Bang-bang-bang. I pile on the ratios as fast as I can yet still it feels like I’m lagging behind the angry rainbow of shift lights in my peripheral vision. An analogue needle would snap under the duress within the first half lap.