It was one of those days when I was glad that the weather forecast failed! Heavy showers with thunders were declared by the weather station over the Sepang International Circuit, Malaysia. Instead, we were greeted by the early morning sun spreading its warmth over this beautifully laid out Formula 1 racetrack. The weather gods too wanted to see us go racing!
So, we were all set to step into the shoes of a racing driver (literally) for a day, indeed a moment of glory for me! The Michelin Pilot Experience 2013 started off with the doctors examining us to ensure that we could handle the endless flow of adrenalin. Fully suited up, it was time to hit the pit garage.
The pit shutters rolled up giving us the first glimpse of the platter of serious racing machines that we were to sample. Our steeds for the day were the Formula Michelin single seater (Formula Renault 2.0), Renault Clio Cup and a Citroen C2 rally car. Needless to say, it was quite a sight!
Moments later, an Aston Martin DB9 GT3 piloted by Malaysia's A1GP star Aaron Say Joon LIM zipped past us on its reconnaissance lap giving us a taste of things that would follow. Aaron returned to the pits satisfied with the track temperature and grip level.
Well, you don't become qualified to drive racing cars by simply slipping into racing overalls. That's where Michelin's instructors who are also professional racing drivers, come in. The briefing was what it was supposed to be, brief but in-depth! We were also made to try our hands on the simulators before the real deal.
Formula Michelin Single Seater
It's every car nut's dream to drive a formula car and I'm no exception. After the customary tour of the circuit to get acquainted with the racing lines, I found myself getting tightly strapped within the cramped cockpit of the Formula Michelin, hardly believing that it's actually happening!
The Formula Michelin is basically the Formula Renault 2.0, a popular single seater that is known to have nurtured Kimi Raikkonen before he graduated to F1. The car generates 196bhp and weighs a mere 480kg. That's a power to weight ratio of more than 400bhp/tonne! No wonder that it has a 0-100kph acceleration time of just 3.5 seconds and a top speed of 260kph. The 6-speed sequential gearbox requires you to frighteningly take your right hand off the steering wheel every time you shift.
There is nothing subtle about the way the Formula Michelin reacts to inputs. It wakes up with a thundering sound (may be the meteorological department got the thunder prediction right), the razor sharp steering needs quite a bit of effort and the fierce brakes don't come with a servo.
With the pace car (a Subaru Impreza WRX driven by one of the instructors) leading the way, I exited the pit lane for the first set of laps feeling totally uncomfortable with the brutal power delivery and the super sensitive throttle that reacts violently even to the foot brushing the pedal from the minor bumps on the racetrack.
The first lap was spent completely getting to terms with the car's behavior. With every corner I started feeling less uncomfortable (still far away from being comfortable) and the times improved. The pace car driver sensed my progress and stepped on it.
That was the moment when a flow of adrenalin took over my senses. The brutal acceleration, vibrations from the screaming engine, furious G forces passing through my body and a shuddering helmet were cancelled out as I entered into a racing driver's state of mind. A whole new world opened up and all I could see is the Impreza beckoning me to follow it and draft its racing lines.
The single seater was so demanding yet very indulging, so much so that I still can't figure out how I managed to endure the action of the severe G forces! The stability and composure under braking was rock solid, it was only my body that was getting hustled in all possible directions (now the cramped cockpit which restricted the freedom of movement suddenly become a boon).
The car displayed supernatural handling prowess around the corners. No matter how hard you push, you would simply run out of the ability to withstand the lateral G's long before the Michelin slicks give up! It takes a professional racing driver to fully exploit the seemingly limitless grip of the car.
The second set of laps were even more intense and taken flat out. This time the pace car was a Lotus Exige and the overall speeds (close to 220kph at the end of the long straight), were much higher than before. I slowly started gathering courage to brake later and harder and to carry more speed around the corners. Unfortunately my stint came to an end before I felt fully confident! Nonetheless, it was by far the best driving experience I've ever had!
Citroen C2 Rally Car
The Citroen C2 rally car was the complete opposite to the Formula Michelin but was no less superior when it came to driving pleasure. While the Formula car was glued to the ground, the C2 was happy to kick its tail out of the line and let you play with the steering.
Stripped to a bare minimum, the hatchback was rally-ready with two racing bucket seats and a roll cage. The car puts out 150bhp and weighs 650kg. A five-speed manual transmission sends power to the front wheels. We were forbidden from using the handbrake for obvious reasons but as it turned out, you don't really need a handbrake to slide around in a C2 Rally car!
Unlike the circuit where you need to hit the apexes, rallying involves keeping the car right in the middle of the track at all times. The gravel rally stage was laid out in such a way to keep novices like us safe and at the same time let us have fun.
The Michelin rally tires with deep treads and reinforced side walls did the job with little assistance from the driver. All you need to catch a slide is dig your throttle foot down and point the steering in the right direction. If you get it right, the tires easily find traction to catapult you towards the next corner.
Playing tap dance with the pedals, and steering into the slide were so addictive that you exit the car unwillingly.
Read about the Renault Clio Cup in the next page.
Renault Clio Cup
The Renault Clio is hailed as one of the 'hottest' hatchbacks on sale and after a first hand experience, I can vouch for that claim. The Clio Cup is powered by a 2.0 litre petrol engine that houses 220 untamed horses. The car tips the scale at 1,000kg but is just 0.5 seconds off the Formula car in the 0-100kph dash. The front wheels are driven by a 6-speed sequential gearbox.
Just like the Citroen C2, the Clio Cup sports a purposeful roll cage, a racing bucket seat and an array of aircraft inspired knobs where the centre control of the stock car used to be. The starting procedure set my pulse racing, as I flicked up all the knobs and engaged the starter button.
It's not that I underestimated the car's aggressiveness, but the engine note undermined the overconfidence of having driven the Formula Michelin. The Clio Cup has all the qualities of a serious racing equipment - quick, brutal with razor sharp responses.
As usual, we got behind the wheel after a brief simulation and track tour. While the Clio Cup felt at home on the circuit, it warranted a different driving approach compared to the Formula Michelin.
The slick tires did their best to keep the car planted but you can sense the lack of heavy downforce that the single seater generates. Commit to the corner with conviction and the Clio takes you around like a dream but if you try to correct the driving line in between it punishes you instantly by snapping out of control.
It was quite a handful during the first lap but once you learn what not to do, the car comes back to you. The performance on offer was supercar rivaling and the Clio Cup didn't sweat a drop to keep up with the Toyota GT 86 (pace car). Speeds lingered around the 200kph mark just before the braking point on the back straight.
Hot laps with a professional behind the wheel
Wait. The day is not over yet without knowing what these machines are capable of in the able hands of professional racing drivers! We were taken for a hot lap in a two seater version of the Formula Michelin and a Porsche 911 GT3 Cup.
Riding with a professional driver in a race car is as equally grin-inducing as driving one yourself! It's only then you realize that you're a long way off from their capabilities. The sheer precision, capacity to endure indescribable amounts of G forces, and super quick reflexes to me make racing drivers a rare and respected breed of homosapiens.
While they were stretching their brains and bodies in steering, shifting and using the pedals with the highest precision, lap after lap, I barely managed to stay conscious. If an F3 car is this capable, how would it be inside an F1 car?
It's suffice to say that my respect and admiration for racing drivers multiplied after these shotgun rides.
To sum it up
In a nutshell, the Michelin Pilot Experience knocked many things off my bucket list on a single day! The insights gained under the tutelage of the instructors made us better drivers, not only on the track but also on public roads.
In retrospect, I would always see the Michelin Pilot Experience 2013 as a well organized driving event which I would love to participate again.
IAB finishes on top of the podium!
As the track experience came to an end, the day gets even better. Instructors evaluated every single driver for consistency and conducted a podium ceremony for the top three drivers. And yes, Indian Autos Blog finished right on top of the podium among publications from seven other Asian countries!
I simply couldn't have asked for more!