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Driving a Modern Formula One Car

Sam Smith
Photo credit: DW Burnett

From Road & Track

1: The Load-In

They left it plumbed overnight. On stands and under blankets, an umbilical running to an external coolant pump. Gauges monitored temperature and flow as liquid gurgled softly. The pump sat in a tall box flown in from England, one node in a network of equipment required to wake the car and keep it from imploding from the simple act of being itself. By morning, the engine was too hot to touch, which meant mechanics could start it without waiting an hour for the pump to warm the car from cold.

Strictly speaking, you don’t have to preheat the driveline of a 2007 McLaren MP4-22 Formula 1 car. You could slide an external starter into the gearbox tail and use a laptop to override a few fail-safes, and the thing might fire and idle for an instant. Then it would eat itself. Specifically, it would wipe its bearings, which are fitted to such close tolerance that the engine cannot be turned by hand when cold. And even if the bearings managed to survive that abuse, other engine or gearbox bits would no doubt become deeply unhappy, and the whole assembly would maybe last for a bit or maybe just grow so hot as to seize and then blow the hell up.

Repair estimates on F1 cars are a unique brand of gambling, but if you’re budgeting a factory rebuild on a 19,000-rpm McLaren Mercedes-Ilmor V-8—and at the moment, no one outside the factory is capable—you should probably set aside at least a quarter of a million dollars. In peak tune, that engine gives more than 700 hp and a few hundred miles between rebuilds. Pull the redline down by a thousand rpm, the mileage might double.

Therein lies the kicker: F1 cars are designed for abuse, but it’s a specific kind of abuse, and so the nicer you treat one, the longer it lasts. Which means they preheat the sucker. And when I walked into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that morning, in the quiet just after dawn, that preheat was all I heard.

Who knew F1 cars gurgled?

We went to Indy to strap a writer into one of the most complex and expensive racing machines the world has ever seen. Our test car first ran 12 years ago, and 12 years is a lifetime in Formula 1, but the sport’s unique blend of hypercompetitive moonshot engineering is unchanged. You can learn a lot by looking at a 12-year-old F1 car and even more by driving it.

Our test car won Monaco, Monza, and the European Grand Prix in the hands of Fernando Alonso. It is owned by two friends of the magazine and one of the few modern McLaren F1 cars in private hands, because Woking balks at selling them. A small team of factory engineers flew in from the U.K. for the day in order to orchestrate the small ballet of tools and people required to put a car like this on a racetrack.

I got eight laps at the wheel. I also gurgled.

Photo credit: DW BURNETT

2: The Gossamer Bits

F1 cars are some of the fastest human-guided devices on the planet, but they are also race cars, which means they are defined by rules. In this case, those rules come from the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, or FIA, the world’s chief motorsport-governing body. The Formula 1 name dates to 1946, but the FIA has been in charge of European grand-prix racing since the pastime’s inception in the early 20th century. For most of that time, the cars have been single-seat, open-wheel, and open-cockpit. Since 1981, teams have been required to own the intellectual rights to their cars (albeit not the engines), which generally means they must design and build those beasts from scratch.

This design process produces a finished car at the beginning of the season, but it also carries on during competition, a constant reinvention. Parts can be designed overnight and flown from the factory to an ongoing race. Aero and chassis bits change with the moon, often following a decades-old pattern: a team invents some genius advantage, the FIA finds out about that advantage and bans it, and then the engineers invent more genius. Championships are tilted by grams and hundredths of a second. Somewhere in the middle of all this, a handful of humans strap into cars and run a race.

Photo credit: DW BURNETT

Win or lose, the process starts early and depends on hundreds of employees per team. Sketching and discussions for McLaren’s 2007 car, the MP4-22, first occurred in December of 2005, before the marque’s 2006 race car, the MP4-21, had even turned a wheel in testing. The first CAD files were built in March of 2006, under the supervision of design director Neil Oatley. Computational-fluid-dynamics simulations started later that month. Wind-tunnel testing began in May.

At no point in this process was there a lack of urgency. The MP4-21 served as starting point, but each of its more than 11,000 parts was obsessively reviewed or redesigned. If there was a way to add speed, efficiency, or reliability, they took it, and cost was generally of little issue. Front-running teams spend hundreds of millions of dollars per season to design and campaign their cars, and the MP4-22 was no exception.

Photo credit: DW BURNETT

To the untrained observer, the process produced little change. The McLaren’s tub is still a molded composite of carbon fiber and aluminum honeycomb, the engine serving as stressed member. The latter phrase means that the car’s central structure essentially stops where the V-8 starts; the engine bolts to the tub, the gearbox hangs off the engine, and virtually everything aft of the crank nose attaches to one of the two parts.

F1 cars have been built like this for decades, but that doesn’t make the practice any less elegant. As with most modern open-wheelers, the McLaren’s nose can be removed to change wings or service components like the steering rack. The latter is a power-assisted tube the size of a large cigar, machined from bright alloy and tucked neatly onto the tub’s front bulkhead.

But then, everything is done neatly. Suspension is by twin carbon-fiber A-arms front and rear, with inboard torsion bars; F1 cars once used coil springs for that purpose, but coils are heavier, they have more hysteresis, and they’re more difficult to package.

Photo credit: DW BURNETT

The primary suspension dampers are carried inboard, atop the gearbox and near the driver’s feet. Each damper connects to a suspension upright by a bell crank and a willowy carbon-fiber pushrod with alloy ends.

The pushrods resemble an airfoil in cross section and taper to a razor point. Like many of the car’s parts, they are so dainty and finely hewed that you know on sight they could not be any smaller and still do their jobs, because if those reductions were possible, someone would have made them happen.

The theme carries. Formula cars are not large, and at just under 171 inches long and a bit over 37 inches tall, this one is no exception. Picture a carbon sliver 10 inches shorter than a 2019 Mazda Miata and just over two inches wider. Every bit of it is consciously tucked and dense, a ziggurat of gossamer, some panel gaps too tight to hold a piece of paper.

Photo credit: DW BURNETT

And oh, that mass. F1 design engineers have a relationship with heft like cats have a relationship with water. Their work is generally designed to come in beneath a rules-mandated minimum weight, then ballasted up to legality. That process is competitively valuable, so teams don’t talk about where their ballast goes or even what materials they use. The car is as light as possible, but it has to be the right kind of light, mass in the right place, so the whole gem cracks through a corner and loads its tires correctly. Teams go to great lengths to make that happen, from design to setup to day of use.

Case in point: In 2007, an F1 car had to weigh 1334 pounds with driver and all fluids but fuel. At the first session of that year’s United States Grand Prix, in Indianapolis, our test car, MP4-22 chassis number six, weighed 1340 pounds.

Photo credit: DW BURNETT

Setup records show that 168.5 of those pounds were Alonso, then 25 years old. But by the next day, he had lost just over a pound in body weight, so his engineer noted that change in the car’s logs and increased its fuel load slightly, regaining the desired balance. At that race, the McLaren carried 48 percent of its mass on the front axle, which means the car had at least one thing in common with a $49,000 BMW i3S.

But very little else. The MP4-22’s 10.9-inch carbon front rotors are the color of lava rock and fibrous in appearance, part of a carbon-carbon AP/Hitco/Akebono (pads/rotors/calipers) system that can slow the car at more than 4 g. In max use, the system requires around 350 pounds of force at the pedal. The dampers are made by Koni, though they probably include some McLaren parts, and about half as large as you’d think.

Photo credit: DW BURNETT

They are the crux of a complex suspension that includes front and rear heave springs, to manage ride height under aerodynamic download with millimeter accuracy, because this 1340-pound car makes 3174 pounds of downforce at 160 mph. There’s also a rear heave damper, to control the speed of the ride height’s change, and an inerter, or separate jounce damper, for the heave damper itself, controlling that part’s acceleration. (If that’s not complex enough, some F1 cars also run two more inerters, one for each pair of “normal” dampers front and rear. In Indy trim, at least, the MP4-22 does without.)

All of it is connected by gorgeous linkages and castings. These parts are mostly hidden under bodywork, space-program small, and finished in such a manner as to make the average Indy car look like hobo soup. It all makes zero sense the first time you look at it, and your head hurts a little at the work hours and the money, but oh Lord, isn’t it cool?

Photo credit: DW BURNETT

And 12 years ago, against all odds, it worked right out of the gate. The McLaren was a cannon, staggeringly fast even in the heady company of an F1 grid, and reliable as a stone: An MP4-22 led the 2007 F1 drivers’ title fight from the second race until the season’s final round. Alonso was then a two-time champion, fresh off a killer run at Renault; his wunderkind rookie teammate, 22-year-old Lewis Hamilton, stacked up nine podiums in the first nine races of the season. The two men tied for second place that year, each one point behind Ferrari’s Kimi Raïkkönen, with Hamilton in the chase until the last race.

At the Speedway, a man plugged a small cable into the car’s left side. Two more men sat nearby, monitoring laptops that had just lit up. Someone notched a starter into the gearbox. I would have paid more attention, but I barely knew it was happening; I was kneeling near the exhaust and lost, staring at welds on the radiators.

Photo credit: DW BURNETT

This happens around F1 cars. You try to walk by and end up glancing at some tiny perfect bit of chassis or driveline, and 10 minutes later, you’re still there, dreaming down the rabbit hole and imagining what it took to engineer that happy little confection from scratch. And maybe that bit was made on a day’s notice, maybe in the middle of the night, to instructions that arrived over email from some distant country, and then it was carried onto a private jet waiting in the dark, winging to a race garage in Asia or Europe, where it was handed to a mechanic who didn’t go to bed until the car was back together at 4 o’clock the next morning, because that’s how F1 works.

Someone yelled “Starting!” in an English accent. The engine erupted into blare, thrashy and unpleasant. Blast furnaces are more musical.

I threw earplugs into my ears just in time for the blare to stop. Someone murmured something about oil pressure. Faces stayed fixed on laptops. The blare began again.

Photo credit: DW BURNETT

One of the laptop men briefly hovered an index finger over his keyboard, and then his finger hit the key, and the engine burst awake.

The blare resolved into a whole note. Maybe 6000 rpm at idle, bright and sunny, the difference between a trumpet and a Chevy caught in a DisposAll.

Nineteen grand! This year’s F1 engines turn no more than 15,000 rpm and sound like mutant appliances. This is partly because they wear turbochargers, and turbos are a form of exhaust gaggery. But years ago, I saw the old cars race in person, when they ran the big rpm. At one point, I tried briefly to listen without earplugs; the shriek was musical but also insufferable. A piercing, ice-pick pain, as if a tiny knife was lodged in my ear canal and was attempting to burrow its way out.

Wonderful.

Photo credit: DW Burnett

3: The 209-Pound Wonder

If current F1 cars sound like blenders, it’s by choice. Several years ago, the FIA wrote a rule that saw Formula 1 go low-rpm and hybrid and turbocharged, and the snoozy sound followed. The change was partly intended to improve the sport’s relevance without harming its spectacle. Whether that happened is up for discussion, but then, so is the flat-earth theory, if you ignore certain aspects of reality.

Thankfully, relics of the old world exist. The MP4-22’s 2.4-liter V-8 is officially known as a Mercedes-Ilmor FO 108T. The design is an updated carryover of Mercedes’s 2006 engine that first barked to life in the labs at Mercedes High Performance Engines in Brixworth, England. In keeping with the past few decades of F1 practice, the 108T’s valves are held against their seats pneumatically, no valve springs, their buckets lofted by an onboard bottle of compressed nitrogen. (Reason: stratospheric redlines without valve bounce or excess spring pressure.) When installed, the engine is barely visible, so low that its valve covers sit roughly even with the centers of the rear wheels.

Photo credit: DW BURNETT

For 2007, F1 rules dictated naturally aspirated engines—no turbos or superchargers—a displacement cap of 2.4 liters, a 90-degree vee angle, two intake and two exhaust valves per cylinder, and a 95-kilogram (209-pound) minimum weight. The FIA also dictated a freeze on engine development—hence the ’06 carryover—and a 19,000-rpm rev limit. Those choices came on the heels of two great eras: the 2006 rule set, which produced the nuttiest redlines in F1 history (as much as 20,000 rpm), and the 1995–2005 rules, a more open, 3.0-liter formula that gifted the world exotic-alloy V-10s of almost 1000 hp.

Like a lot of F1 rule changes, the 2007 moves were designed to reduce cost and lap speed. And they did, briefly. Then, in a move that surprised absolutely nobody, the teams simply spent that same money elsewhere and clawed the speed back. If this sort of forest-for-the-trees push-pull seems silly, consider that the FIA once banned the use of hyperexpensive beryllium alloys in F1 engines on grounds of the metal’s toxicity. At the time, more than one team designer groused publicly about the ban, because... well, logic doesn’t live here, much.

Photo credit: DW BURNETT

Power reaches the MP4-22’s rear wheels through a McLaren-built, seven-speed, carbon-cased, paddle-shifted, automated-manual transaxle. The clutch, a multiplate carbon unit, is a cylindrical component stack a few inches tall and the diameter of a tea saucer. It is electrohydraulically actuated, controlled by both computer and a small paddle on the steering wheel. Its discs normally see around 500 degrees Fahrenheit but can stand twice that in moments of slip, as on a race start.

Later in the morning, I met the laptop guy who lit the engine, a Mercedes-AMG engineer named Martin Bourne. Bourne traveled with teams for years, he said, “looking after Lewis Hamilton from 2007 until 2012.” He called the McLaren an old car, which made me laugh, and he smiled at it as you might smile at an old pet.

Photo credit: DW BURNETT

If you do not keep the 108T in its happy place, Bourne told me, grinning, it will shut itself down and tell you to pound sand. That place is essentially a 40-degree window of water temp, from a mandatory start-up minimum of 90 degrees Celsius to 130 degrees max. If the V-8 falls below 70 degrees while running, it will decide you are either faffing about or simply not interested in being an assassin that day, self-limiting its grunt from a 295-lb-ft max to a puny 110.

The whole thing is basically doing a tap dance between monitoring its own health and keeping the nut behind the wheel from being a particular kind of too stupid. This is nowhere more famously represented than in the car’s anti-stall system: a software trick, common across F1, that automatically snaps the engine to idle if the driver does anything unusual with clutch and throttle. And while all of this can sound finicky, Bourne said, the engine is relatively tolerant of abuse.

“On the dyno,” he shrugged, “we’d run them to whatever the failure point is, come back 25 percent, and give them that [mileage] to race in. Because, hopefully, that’s a comfortable, reliable margin.”

Photo credit: DW BURNETT

The owner belted into the car first, taking a series of installation laps. I stood by the pit wall, watching heat rise off the Speedway’s empty bleachers. R&T’s editor-in-chief, Travis Okulski, stood near me, bathing in the Doppler shift: the engine’s intoxicating, high-pitched whoop rising and falling and gone again. Echoes made the car seem to be in three places at once. I could literally feel my bones tingle as it passed.

“It’s just weird to hear that noise solo,” I said. “Like one-twentieth of an F1 grid.”

Travis raised his eyebrows. “Well, it doesn’t sound like that. It is that.”

The moment felt vaguely religious. Travis and I each hold a club-racing license, but that’s the bottom of a mountain. How often do you get a private audience with the peak of anything? A 19,000-rpm F1 McLaren, I decided, is a kind of race-car pope: pomp, procedure, rare air. Habemus whoopem.

Photo credit: DW BURNETT

4: Squealy Eyed Missle Man

The fit check was deeply surreal. I am 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, and my narrow, bony hips would not cram between the edges of Alonso’s seat, this insulated, carbon-alloy thing that looks like the rump of a satellite. So the mechanics removed it, visibly disappointed. I was then strapped, with much grunting and yanking of belts, directly to the cockpit’s carbon floor.

Seven to 10 laps, they said, over two sessions. Get a feel, come in and chat, then back out. No data to parse. “Telemetry just isn’t cost-effective for a program like this,” one of the mechanics told me. “You need the big mast, a container’s worth of stuff, a couple IT guys to run it.” Plus, I thought, you need inputs worth looking at, and the last time I leg-pressed 350 pounds was that day three years ago when I kicked an engine block across a friend’s shop and nearly threw out my back. I bet Alonso also feels old every day and can’t drink a cup of coffee without somehow spilling it in his hair, because we’re pretty much the same human.

Speedway personnel set us up with the track’s 14-turn road-course layout. This is slower than the 13-turn layout used for the 2007 U.S. GP, where the fastest corner was roughly 190 mph. By F1 standards, either track is a stroll: little camber and only a few high-speed corners, so the car’s wings and floor don’t produce much lateral shove. The McLaren would abuse me, the mechanics confirmed, but less than at somewhere epic, like Albert Park or Spa.

Poking at the car before strapping in amounted to dreamy privilege. There were little turning vanes and writhing foils hidden everywhere, tapering wickers and subtle curves packed into corners where the air tumbled and rolled. The paint was thin enough in places to show the texture of the carbon weave below, mostly where TV cameras wouldn’t look. Every so often, a long, flowing surface would be interrupted by a fin or a bigger fin or some other organic shape just hanging out, waiting to nudge air somewhere it needed to go.

Photo credit: DW BURNETT

Every bit of it mattered. In 2007, Martin Whitmarsh, McLaren’s chief operating officer, told reporters that when his team changed from Michelins to Bridgestones, the swap cost them 11 points of downforce, a huge cut. The car had to be retuned to suit, he said; even small details like the shape of a tire can alter the dance and path of air over a wing. (My laps were on specially developed Avon slicks. The Avons are stickier than the ’stones and less picky about treatment, and they can be run safely without the tire warmers long standard in F1.)

The car’s owner, a tall man from Ohio, clapped me on the shoulder, cheerful.

“This is not a lap-record exercise,” he said.

“Just enjoy it.”

I stood there and wondered how to define “enjoyment” in a world where I was simultaneously geeked and spooked out of my nipples. Then they tightened the belts so much my ribs compressed.

I’m 38 years old. In 1966, at age 36, the writer George Plimpton famously tried out for the NFL. The experience produced a funny book called Paper Lion. “Good swearing,” Plimpton wrote, “is used as a form of punctuation.” I looked over the car’s high nose and swore. The seat and high footwell place you low, legs up, toes at chest height. With steering hardware and bodywork in the way, your left foot can only fall on the brake, and your right foot is limited to throttle.

It’s difficult to overstate the lack of visibility. The cockpit somehow manages to be both an oddly comforting suit of armor and a claustrophobic onesie. You see tire tops, shift lights, the gear indicator above the tiny, rectangular wheel, little else. If you’re close enough to an apex to steer toward it, you probably can’t see it, because the nose and tires get in the way. The delicate carbon mirrors sit on twiggy little stalks barely larger than drinking straws. They also redefine the word useless, which is probably why some of the sharpest drivers on earth still crash into each other. The steering wheel gives maybe a quarter turn before hitting a leg, and every control not on the wheel is essentially invisible. A T-shaped knob for brake bias sits on the left side of the cockpit. A fire-system button lives to the right of that, near a spring-loaded toggle that kills the engine. If you sit in front of all this, immobile, for more than 10 minutes or so, absorbing your surroundings, your legs cramp and go numb.

Photo credit: DW BURNETT

The cockpit conversation is Journalist Drives Swank Race Car 101: Don’t touch these, a mechanic says, waving at nearly everything. The eight rotary switches on the bottom of the wheel adjust, at one switch each, traction-control gain, traction-control map, differential locking on corner entry, differential preload, differential locking on corner exit, engine braking, engine-mixture map (settings for qualify, race, safety-car rich, safety-car lean, different end-of-straight rev limits, and so on), and engine braking at the apex of a corner. Save the traction knob, each switch has nine settings. I couldn’t read their positions in motion. Drivers regularly adjust them at speed.

The engine cranked, that blare again. It sounded different now, vibrating the whole car, nastier and rougher. The vibration quit the instant the engine fired, replaced by a pleasant tingling buzz through the floor.

I twitched a toe, pretending I’d been there before, and the thing erupted animal.

They pushed me out of the garage. Butterflies the size of Cleveland. The steering was light with a hint of greasy stiction; the wheel moved a way that recalled egg white slipping through your fingers.

You have mere moments to get going. The McLaren’s engine temperature rises one degree Celsius per second at idle, so that 40-degree window that Bourne outlined gives you around 40 seconds to use the clutch paddle without waking the anti-stall. Less if you’re pushed out of the garage before leaving. Hit that 40—the temp is shown on a stark red display just above the wheel, numbers counting up like on the arm of the Predator, not stressful or anything—and you have to shut off the engine, sit there as fans go on the car to cool it. Everyone watching.

I got lucky, and the clutch hit the first time out. The mechanics later told me this was incredible chance; the paddle has no feel, and the anti-stall allows almost no slip, but the car rolled from a stop as if I’d been in it all my life. My heart went pit and then pat, and then the butterflies evaporated.

Photo credit: DW BURNETT

As did large parts of reason. A modern F1 car is probably humanity’s best insight into the mind of a hummingbird, and that fact was clear after five feet of roll. Flit and flit and flit, batting around masslessly, nuts even by the standards of pro machinery. Open-wheel cars move from your spine, but this was something different; the McLaren seemed at once hung off a house-sized gyro and capable of reclocking itself on a breath.

Unsurprisingly, it was staggeringly quick. But road cars have come a long way, and in a straight line, the MP4-22 merely leaps forward in a manner that recalls current Bugattis. The difference, of course, is in lateral grip, transition insanity, and the absurd fashion in which the McLaren warps off an apex. A Bugatti is to this as North America is to a housefly. There’s a breathless, plasma-like immediacy baked into everything, iced with a delicacy so refined, you might call it grace, if it didn’t feel so ruthless.

The powerband is narrow and blisteringly immediate. Time in gears is often less than a whole Mississippi, as fast as you can say the words: One-mis, two-mis, three-mis, and then you’ve ripped from the bottom of first to the top of third. The rapid gear handoffs mesh into a perpetual crescendo, acceleration tapering noticeably only in sixth and seventh gear. The engine is so crisp and brassy, it doesn’t seem real. It would feel more violent if you didn’t go in expecting it to feel violent. It’s still crushingly violent.

Alonso’s setup notes talk of mild understeer, a sharp or dull nose, slides on exit. All normal racing stuff, and in low-speed corners, the McLaren is deceptive, because it just feels like a car. The nose will wash or the back tires will step, and on the Avons, at least, in the chassis tune I tried, it recovers easily. Input and state changes are reacted to with such resolution as to suggest that the dampers are made of Pegasus feather. They dictate wheel behavior in a language I could listen to all day but do not speak.

I did a few laps, then a cool-down lap where I blinked about 10 times a second. A short debrief followed. (Mechanic: “Everything fine?” Me: “Yes.”) Leaving the pits for the second time, I activated anti-stall. Then again after that. It happened so many times I lost count, and then the car had to be shut down to cool, rolled back in the garage, fans plugged into the sidepods were otherworldly. Compounded lunacy.

In anti-stall, the cockpit display flashes and the engine rpm self-corrects, like a small intake of breath. Or maybe a patronizing sigh. You sit there feeling impotent. Two mechanics finally had to help, pushing the car to a rolling start. It was normal, they said; everyone does it. My grandmother used to say that society runs on kind fibs.

The second session revealed slightly more. Mostly that the car’s true guano lay in braking and high-speed corners. I do not have enough aero seat time to discuss the downforce other than admit that it was present and spooky and much. But the brakes were otherworldly. Compounded lunacy.

On the second lap out, once the pads and rotors were warm, I rolled up to Turn 1 in the middle of seventh gear. After the “5” brake board—the earliest brake marker in the line—I laid into the left pedal with everything I had. So much pressure that my leg flirted with cramping. The forces at work threw my internal clock for a moment; as the car slowed, I couldn’t breathe. A fifth of a heartbeat after getting into the pedal, I began releasing the brakes, to avoid lockup as the car shed downforce. As the “4” marker passed my head, the McLaren fell beneath highway speed. It was then comically slow for the upcoming corner, the slowest on the track, a second-gear right that 2007 Alonso took at around 56 mph.

Later, in the garage, a McLaren technician said that the middle of seventh gear in that day’s trim—he couldn’t share specifics on gearing—was “160 to 170 mph.” My mind took a moment to reconsider the braking and promptly went to oatmeal.

And then it was over.

Photo credit: DW BURNETT

It’s funny how the brain can trick you into believing the improbable. As I climbed from the cockpit, the McLaren’s abilities felt reachable, just around the corner, even though they were clearly not. Wide-eyed, I mentioned that to one of the mechanics. He tilted his head and thought for a moment. With enough test time and data, he said, and a low-g track, a competent amateur driver could manage laps near race pace. He had seen people pull it off. The key, he said, is having someone tell you how to push the aerodynamics—advice like, “Take it flat in sixth, you’ll be fine.” (“Most people see the data,” he said, “and just go, ‘I had no idea.’”)

I don’t know what to say about that. I do know that when I climbed from the car, the world felt smoky and calm. A few minutes later, I sat down and was hit by a rush of nervous energy so strong, my toes twitched.

I know one other club racer who’s driven a modern F1 car. My friend Mark Gillies, a former editor at Car and Driver, once tried a 2007 Honda. We talked before Indy. “It’s one of the only ways you can realize how good drivers are,” he said. “I met Humphrey Corbett once, Alain Prost’s engineer. He said that when they put [2009 world champion] Jenson Button in the car for the first time, he was on pace in the first 10 laps.”

And then you see the horizon.

Not for nothing are these people widely viewed as some of the best drivers on earth. They’re definitely athletes: In 2007, F1 cars were capable of more than 4 g in corners; in 2017, when the series went to wider tires, a Mercedes-Benz peaked at 6.5. Imagine simply trying to hold your head up in a corner when it weighs six and a half times normal. Much less asking it to play 200-mph chess for 90 minutes. What must it feel like, a life training for that? First, building the skill required to simply play the game—normalizing the car, driving it like anything else. Then being so comfortable with its magic that you can learn to develop and tune it. Finally, weaponizing the thing and using it tactically.

Now consider that every so often, a quick F1 driver will look at one of the legends on the grid, a Senna or a Hamilton, and say something like, “I don’t know how he does it.”

Operating a machine, in other words, versus using it as a paintbrush.

This all served as a kind of light in the dark—a hint at why people chase a place in the F1 circus from childhood, or settle for hopelessly uncompetitive teams there, or stay in the sport years too long. Because you’re at that peak, a frontier of human striving. We only have so many. It all sums up into a strange little piece of awe, a feeling that surfaces in the days after you leave the car, hanging there before you go to sleep and popping back to light when you wake up. A phrase that fogs through the slack in your mind, turning over and over and melting into sweetness like so much candy on the tongue:

“I didn’t know humans could do that.”

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