x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Full throttle and no brakes on a new-found addiction to speed

I don't know whether it was due to or in spite of the 130 decibels pounding on my eardrums and causing internal vibrations in my chest, but the first time I heard a Formula One car, I got an adrenalin buzz.

Anna Seaman gets some tips about braking.
Anna Seaman gets some tips about braking.

I don't know whether it was due to or in spite of the 130 decibels pounding on my eardrums and causing internal vibrations in my chest, but the first time I heard a Formula One car, I got an adrenalin buzz. And that was before I saw them. As the starting 20 lined up on the grid at the Yas Marina Circuit for the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, I felt an unexpected excitement and, when the big race began, I leapt out of my seat and screamed at the top of my lungs. Of course nobody, not even my friend sitting next to me, could hear me.

It was the beginning of a new addiction, one I believe is known as being a "petrolhead". Although I prefer the more reserved term "car enthusiast". Still, it was quite a transition for somebody who was more interested in Beyoncé than Brawn before the grand prix weekend began. So, as the chequered flag waved Sebastian Vettel across the finish line, I knew I wanted more. I contacted the Dubai Autodrome to see if they could help me venture into motorsport and, immediately, they invited me to go for a ride in a three-seater Formula One car. It proved a baptism of fire.

Two laps of the Autodrome took one minute, 20 seconds. I don't think anything could have prepared me for the experience. It was like being strapped to a rocket on the straights and being squashed by a truck in the corners. The brakes were incredible. They were so strong, even a small tap made me feel like I was going to go flying through the body of the car onto the tarmac. It was intoxicating - I needed more.

And so it was that I found myself in the briefing room at the Autodrome wearing a fetching one-piece - otherwise known as a fireproof racing suit - and lace-up red boots. I was here for their single-seat race car driving experience, a chance for anyone to strap into a real, open-wheel car and try it out on the track. I definitely looked the part of a race car driver, but as the friendly instructor Jan Vanmeerbeek began telling us about the car, I started to feel a little out of my depth.

"There is no braking assistance on this car," said Jan. "So if you don't brake it won't stop, but if you brake too hard it will go into a spin." I didn't feel it was the right time to tell him of the problems I had with braking when I first learnt to drive. Aged 17 and over-confident, I used to drive my mum's Ford Mondeo around country roads near our house in England with her in the passenger seat. For some reason, I didn't trust the brakes, and I would wait until my mum would yell at me before I used them. Thankfully I got over it quickly, but sitting in the briefing room I was worried this problem would return. Worse, there would be no one to yell from the passenger seat.

"There are no home comforts in this car," warned Vanmeerbeek. And he was right. Finally outside, I climbed into a car and found that the seat was hard, the pedals were stiff and there was very little room to wiggle. A technician strapped me in tight, made sure my clutch pedal was in and pressed the start button, firing up the car. He told me to take it out with the rest of the group for a few laps. I promptly stalled.

I managed to catch up with the others, but it was far from an easy ride. The gear stick, a bar behind the wheel, was stiff and the steering, although very sensitive, was also heavy, and I needed both hands to turn it. Because of my unfounded and strange aversion to the brake pedal, I found myself changing down gears to slow down instead of braking. This made the car groan under my bad management skills and lost me a lot of time on the laps. We pulled over after a while and the instructors put us into two groups; fast and slow. Not surprisingly, I was loitering at the back of the slow group.

There was so much to consider while driving, the concentration was intense. I was supposed to be taking the racing line, I was supposed to be braking until the blue cone and accelerating at the yellow cone, I was supposed to be keeping four car lengths behind the person in front and following the course taken by the pace car. But actually it was all I could do to get the car around the track. I did eventually get the hang of it. Mainly after deciding that using the brakes was not scary and I could take the corners at much higher speeds than I thought - but by then it was time to stop. I was relieved. I don't think driving has ever been so tiring.

Afterwards Vanmeerbeek told me I was "as good as most girls who come here" and praised me for "at least keeping up with the boys". Next time, he said, I would be much quicker. "Was there going to be a next time?" I wondered. If I'm honest, all I really wanted was to do was go for another ride in the three seater. Maybe I was only a part-time petrolhead. But as I got back into my bouncy Ford Focus to go home, I found myself thinking, "I reckon next time I could get into the fast group."

I wonder if there's a petrolhead in me yet?

aseaman@thenational.ae