Health

My first time in an F1 simulation: ‘I spectacularly skid off the track and crash’ | Australian lifestyle

Driving – or rather, pretending to drive – an F1 car has a yoga-like beginning: shoes off. I walk up two small steps placed next to a full-size replica Lotus E20 racing car. I slide into a deep black hole that places me right near the ground. The racing simulator owner, David, calls it the bathtub of death: “You get an idea for how small and fit the drivers are.” My legs stretch out in front of me to reach the pedals. In real cars, the seat is moulded to fit the driver’s body. Here it’s more like sitting in a bowling ball.

This is where the yoga (and bowling) similarities end and the high stakes begin. I want to understand what it’s like to travel at hundreds of kilometres an hour. But since I haven’t driven in eight years because of an eye condition, I do this at a Sydney racing simulator, facing a large curved screen with simple graphics showing the Melbourne grand prix circuit on a clear sunny day.

Once I’m in the car, it’s time to change gears. Literally. David explains how to change gears by using the paddle shifts on either side of the steering wheel. As someone who never learned to drive a manual, I worry that this will not come to me … automatically. But it is the least of my worries as I begin a trial race.

A curved screen shows the Melbourne grand prix circuit. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

My problem is not speed but sharp turns. Probably anyone with a lead foot can floor the accelerator and go at 250km/h on the straight, which is what I do. The pedal’s revs become loud vrooms as the minimalist scenery on screen whizzes by. But even with pre-emptive braking in the lead-up to corners, I spectacularly skid off the track and into gravel, crashing into safety barriers. At one sharp bend, I turn the steering wheel with such force that, when I hit a wall, it begins to spin quickly by itself in protest.

“It’s out of my control!” I cry out. “Now you’re sounding like a real F1 driver,” says David drily. “Nothing is ever their fault.”

After a few minutes of a trial run, I attempt a full lap of the Melbourne grand prix circuit, which is 5.303km long. The full race is 58 laps and the race lap record was made by Sergio Pérez in 2023, who completed it in one minute, 20.235 seconds. Pérez can travel more than 5km in less time than it takes to cook two-minute noodles.

‘It’s out of my control!’ Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian
‘It’s more like being snug inside a bowling ball.’ Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

In contrast, it takes me half a minute to recover from some of my more dramatic crashes as I put the car in reverse to screech off the gravel and back on to the road. I spend so much time recovering from one sharp turn that my controls lock for 17 seconds. And then the session times out. Which is a record in its own way, although sadly one without a prix. Or, thank goodness, a shoey.

I hop out of the Lotus E20 and walk away from the experience appreciating how much it takes to stay on track and succeed. The 20 drivers zooming their way around Albert Park will drive almost the equivalent distance of Sydney to Canberra, all the while experiencing gravitational forces that can be up to five times their body weight. Their teams, meanwhile, are also no stranger to speed and fast response times, and can change four tyres in less than two seconds.

Imagine being that fit and that mentally sharp. I had no preconceived notions about F1 but, after being in the driver’s seat, I am no longer … neutral.

  • Jennifer Wong’s new standup show, The Sweet and Sour of Power, is playing at Melbourne international comedy festival from 9 to 21 April, and then in Sydney, Perth, Brisbane and Canberra.

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