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JULIE WILKINSON MOTORSPORT JOURNALISM AWARD - presented by Bridgestone/Firestone

Entry Number 2: "New/Old" Formula One Test Driver

(Originally appeared in The Toronto Star Wheels section)

 

The Driver’s Seat

by Jim Kenzie

Formula One Fantasy

 

VALENCIA Spain - “Lucie, get me Frank Williams of BMW-Williams Formula One Racing Team on the line, will you? Thanks - I’ll wait...’‘

“Frank! Willi Weber here. No no, don’t fall out of your chair, Frank - I’m not calling to demand you renegotiate Ralf Schumacher’s contract. I’m not like some of those other drivers’ agents!

“Frank, I’m sorry to bother you the day before Imola, but I’ve got something hot right now and I want to give you the first opportunity at it.

“Listen, you know I think your team could well win the Constructors championship this year, and either of your drivers could be World Champion. If not this year, then next.

“Of course, I think it’ll be Ralf. But even if it’s that nasty little Colombian chap, I know you’re not going to want to re-sign him. If you didn’t keep Piquet, Mansell, Hill or Villeneuve, you won’t keep these guys either.

“Sure, I understand - it’s business. You agree with Niki Lauda, that a trained monkey could drive these cars today - although I guess with his two spins in ten laps a few months ago, maybe he didn’t get quite enough training...

“But I see your point - why pay big bucks to a reigning World Champion, when you can get an equally-good and much cheaper unknown and pour the money you save back into the car?

“Don’t worry about me, Frank - I’ll still be able to flog Ralf to the highest bidder.

“But you’ll have to put somebody in the car, and I might have found just the guy.

“Now I know you hate it when the school busses drop today’s drivers off at the track. They are so young! You need to get a note from their Mommies before they can travel out of the country. We have to attach their driving gloves to strings pulled through their sleeves of their suits, sew their names onto their Nomex underwear.

“Yes, I know you went through all that with Jensen Button two years ago. It all went to his head and he’s washed up at 21.

“Frank, hear what I’m saying - why keep putting young kids in the car, trying to appeal to the younger demographic audience? Those kids already love Grand Prix racing, and you can’t tell what the drivers look like with their helmets on anyway.

“Besides, in these tough economic times, the people we really need to cater to are sponsors. So why not get a driver who fits THAT demographic? A middle-aged, fat, white guy with gray hair?

“I may have found him here at Valencia, attending a program called the Michelin Driving Experience - yes, your tire supplier. Already a nice fit.

“He’s currently a working journalist... What’s that Frank? You say that’s a contradiction in terms?

“Very funny, Frank...

“He’s also a Canadian - so the continuity with Jacques Villeneuve works for you too.

“Michelin brings in customers, partners, even journalists, into the same circuit where you guys test during the winter.

“First, they run the course in Renault Clio Trophy Touring Car racers - 250 horsepower in a rear-mounted, transverse-engined turbocharged fully race-prepped beast. Quite a handful!

“Then they graduate into F3 cars - Martini chassis, Ford Zetec 2.0 litre four cylinder twin cam 16-valve engines, about 205 horses, five-speed sequential gearbox.

“Then if they don’t screw up too much, they get a lap in an F1 car. OK, so the 1997 Arrows with a Ford Cosworth V8 out of an F3000 car is hardly Formula One state of the art.

“But they have fitted modern paddle shifters to them, and with 650 horses in about 650 kg of car, it makes a pretty potent ride for a civilian.

“Yeah, just one lap. Not much. But this guy - name is McKenzie, something like that - seems like a quick learner. Says he has one year of racing experience 34 times, in everything from old Minis to a BMW North American Touring Car.

“Yes, BMW - another nice tie-in with you...

“Actually, I had a tape recorder when this guy got out of the Arrows. Let me play that back for you...’‘

 

***

 

“HolyCowwhataridethepowerinthatthingtromponthethrottleandyourheadgetspinnedbackintotheheadresthetrackwasdampandIwasafraid

IwasgoingtospinbutIdidn’tthebrakesareunbelieveablewhenIcaughtfourthgearonthefrontstraightgeezthatmusthavebeenalmost200

kilometersperhourandIhadtobraketokeepfrom...’’

 

***

 

“Frank, Willi here again. Yes, I guess he was a little excited...

“I caught up to him again later when he had taken a bit of a breather. Let me play back for you his comments on the experience:’‘

***

 

“Actually, Willi, the car is easier to drive than I feared. The instructors here kept warning us about taking it easy, to make sure the steering wheel is straight before dialling in the power.

“But I found I could get on it gently as I was unwinding out of a corner.

“The car was very tractable - once you got it rolling, that is. Those multi-plate racing clutches are very touchy. I wasn’t the only guy who stalled on the launch! (Hey - so do some of the pros...). So they push-started me - easier frankly than using the remote starter stuck up the back end...

“The paddle shift is a bit different than other sequential shifters I’ve used - you can’t keep your foot on the gas while you pull back on the right paddle to upshift - it’s to prevent you from revving the engine too high if the gearbox misses a shift. I gather it’s also a safety factor so you don’t get too many revs if you’re spinning and try to pull off a shift.

“So for a few of the short straights on the backside of the course I was stuck in second because it wouldn’t give me third!

“Fortunately, I remembered to ‘lift before you shift’ before I got to that nice long front straight.

“Geez - what a rush 650 horses gives you in a car which weighs only 650 kilos, driver, tires, fuel and all.

“Downshifts are easy, though - pull the left paddle, and BAM! So fast, yet smoother than I remember from my Ferrari 360 Modena test!

“When I first got in - no easy task - I wondered - how can these guys SEE anything out of these cars? You sit SO low.

“It didn’t help that the “fog-off’‘ they had given me for my glasses had pretty much wore off. It had rained very hard at lunch, and we feared they wouldn’t let us go out in the cars. It cleared just in time, but the air was still very humid. As soon as I closed my face shield, it fogged up completely, so I went into Turn One more or less by memory...

“Somehow I found the presence of mind to flip the shield up for a second to clear it.

“The lap was over ‘way too soon. I felt that with a few more laps I’d really get the hang of it. But that’s why the Michelin people DON’T give newcomers that extra lap - it’d be all too easy to become complacent, and when you have a crash in one of these things, you have it at a very high, very dangerous, and very expensive speed.

“Only one guy actually spun the car (I’ll never tell...) and he works for Michelin, so the honour - what there is of it - of journalists was upheld.’‘..

 

***

 

“Hi Frank - Willi again. So there you have it - I think we might be on to something.

“I’m not saying he’s a shoo-in for the job - in fact, he might be a “shoe-horn’‘ in - he’ll have to lose maybe 40 pounds. Hey - Tom Hanks did it for ‘Castaway’...

“So, whaddya say, Frank? Can I bring this guy around to see you?

“What’s that? ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you’? What’s that all about, Frank? Frank?!...

“Rats... Must be a bad cell...

“Lucie, get me Jean Todt of Ferrari, will you? Barichello is history-in-the-making there, so tell him I’ve got a guy named “Giacomo’‘ he just has to see...’‘

 

- 30 -

 

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