The Motul Driving Experience 2016 in Sepang, Malaysia, was an event organised by the French lubricants company as a reward for its customers. It also showcased the company’s expertise in motorsports.
As the staff strapped me into the tight cockpit of a Formula Four racecar, I thought: “I’ve got this. This will be fun.” Then the engine started with a roar, and as I tried to pull away, it sputtered.
I had stalled right in front of other participants in the pit garage waiting their turn. The car had to be restarted, and I was reminded to let the clutch out gently while applying more throttle. Misjudge it and the car will come to a shuddering halt, as I’d just demonstrated.
This event was the first that Motul had independently organised. In the past, Motul teamed up with French tyre company Michelin for the Michelin Pilot Experience (MPE), a similar event which also saw customers and the media drive race cars around the Sepang circuit.
I previously attended an edition of the MPE, during which I drove a Formula Renault junior single-seater racer around the track. That explained my cockiness towards the Formula Four machine.
Formula Four cars are used in junior racing championships, a stepping stone for budding racers. From Formula Four, drivers strive to reach Formula One via Formula Three and GP2, or through other similar single-seater series.
On paper, the Formula Four machine I drove didn’t seem intimidating. Its 1.6-litre engine “only” produces 160bhp.
But since it only weighs 470kg, or a third of the weight of a regular midsize saloon, it can still hit a top speed of 210km/h.
However, Formula Four machines aren’t easy to drive. Aside from the starting procedure with the clutch and throttle, these racecars have sequential gearboxes. You must swop cogs yourself, albeit via paddle-shifters instead of a gearstick.
The gearbox wasn’t as much of a problem as the gearchanges, which could jolt you back and forth with force powerful enough to make you sick.
Reasonably smooth gearchanges require absolute precision with the controls, something that I never managed as I lurched around the track like a learner driver taking the wheel for the first time.
It didn’t get any easier as I picked up speed. On the long back straight, I felt the buffeting crosswinds unsettling the lightweight racer.
Indeed, it took plenty of concentration just to keep it in a straight line. I imagined how exhausting it would be to drive dozens of laps in an actual race.
Driving a Formula Four car was awesome, but I was also glad that it was over. This humbling experience had shown me up as a lousy amateur. Lewis Hamilton, I certainly was not.