Two weeks ago, I headed out to the Mallala Race Circuit to experience driving a Formula Ford car. The day was organised as part of my twenty-third birthday, and I think I can safely say that I will never get a better present (unless Vettel lets me drive his RB9). The Mallala track, situated on an old air-force base, is 2.6km long and has everything you’d want from a track. Long straights, sweeping corners, a couple of hairpins, and a chicane for good measure. The day started with a driver briefing which took place in what I could only imagine the same kind of tin shed the F1 drivers’ have their FIA conferences…
There was quite an amusing moment while they took the roll of everyone signed up (again, I’m assuming this is exactly what happens in F1 as well). The room was full with the other drivers taking part in the track day, most of them were middle-aged men, but all men. The only females in the room (apart from myself) were either mothers or partners to the drivers. As the session started, the instructor was reading out the names “Ok do we have a Adam Smith? Ah yes theres Adam. Ok, Alex Thomson?” – I put up my hand with a casual “yes”, and he looked over in the direction of my voice and his eyes fixed on the man sitting next to me (who happened to be my friend). My friend smiled, pointed to me and said “No, not me, she’s Alex”. The instructor seemed a little taken aback and just said “Right! Excellent! Ok Alex Thomson. Here”. I had to smile as half the middle-aged men turned to look.
After a thirty minute briefing, which consisted of 25 minutes of “This is dangerous. You could die.” and 5 minutes of “This is amazing. Have fun.”, we were taken on an observation lap around the circuit in a V8. This was the first time you got a real feel for the track, and everyone seemed a nervously excited when after the hot lap our driver informed us that we’d be cruising at nearly twice the speed in our Formula Ford cars. My Formula Ford car was powered by a mid rear mounted Ford 1800cc Zetec engine mated to a Hewland racing transmission with a 4 speed manual and Formula specification clutch and flywheel package (I’ve included the full specs at the bottom).
My heart was racing by the time I had to get into my car. I had my own technician, which made me feel like a real driver (until I had to ask him to fasten the strap on my helmet). He strapped me into the car, saying “Struth! You’re the right size for a Formula Ford driver aren’t ya?”. I took his comment as a kind of compliment, and with that I was set to blow everyone away with my raw talent and speed on track. I had eight laps around the circuit. I was quite cautious on the first lap (as advised to do in our drivers’ briefing), and gave it a little bit more on lap 2. It was amazing, I’ve never experienced driving like that before. I could feel the engine behind me pushing me forward, rather than the pulling feeling you get with normal road cars. The power you got from gear changes was instantaneous, and the speed just didn’t run out. By the time I made through the esses and down the start/finish straight I was directly behind the car infront. The other driver was on the racing line (on the left hand side of the track) so I went to the right of him which allowed me to overtake and position myself nicely to make the apex of the next hairpin corner. It felt fantastic, and from what I heard from those watching, looked alright too. Over the next five laps my confidence grew and I began to take the corners at higher speed, this was when you could really feel the mechanical grip going to work, and the car just stuck to the track.
My confidence got the better of me by lap 7 however, as coming through the southern hairpin corner I pushed the car a little too hard and lost the back going in to quite a unspectacular spin (trust me, it was nothing like Sutil in Canada this year). So I got the session temporarily yellow flagged as I restarted my engine and manoeuvred myself back facing the right way. My final lap I took a little easier, and slipped off into the pit lane while muttering “Bawks, Bawks, Bawks!” to myself in my helmet. When I unstrapped myself from the car I was shaking again, not from nerves this time, but from the pure adrenaline that was pumping through my entire body. At the end of the pit I was met by my friend who, without hesitation asked “Alex, what happened?” – “I spun” “and uh.. a bit of a disaster then for you, and the other drivers with the yellow flag?” – “I don’t care what happened to the other drivers, I just pushed a bit too hard and lost the rear” (I feel Kimi would be proud). If I could have stayed out all day I would have, the feeling you get from driving those machines is just addictive, there really isn’t any other way to describe it. So… if any teams are looking for a new test driver I’d be more than happy to come fill the position (hire me please).
With that, my day as a Formula Ford driver drew to a close. It took me quite a few hours to come down from my adrenaline high, but eventually I was calm enough to function like a normal person. The next track day is in September, and I will definitely be going back.
*For those readers who are in Australia, you can go for a track day like I did through Formula Ford Experience Australia.
Chassis: Tubular space frame construction confined to maximum dimension.
Engine: 145 PS (143 hp or 107 kW and 140 lb·ft or 190 N·m) DOHC four-cylinder Ford Zetec engine, sealed on cylinder head and front and rear crankshaft seal covers
Steering: Rack and pinion
Suspension: Front & Rear – pushrod activated dual damper system. Full racing car suspension designs are required to ensure maximum tyre grip at various cornering speeds. Chassis balance is adjustable and controlled by damper, spring and anti-roll bar combinations
Brakes: Four-wheel disc brakes have independent front and rear activation. Front/rear bias is adjustable
Gearbox: Limited to 4 forward and 1 reverse gear. Ratios can be changed to suit various circuits and conditions
Fuel tank: 41-litre
Tyres: Front & rear – 5.5 in Avon (ACB10) tyres. A grooved Avon racing tyre is chosen for optimum grip under all weather conditions. The Avon tyre and compound are specified, ensuring an economical wear rate