Pre-Brit GP fun with Renault and Caterham

Our young and eager correspondent Matt Bird has been working hard to help get PH content out this week so, by way of thanks, we sent him to Silverstone on Thursday to join the winners of our competition to spend the day behind the scenes with the Renault-engined teams, and then to spend the evening drifting at a kart track thanks to Caterham (F1 and Cars).

As it turns out, he might be one of the few people to have actually made it to Silverstone and back this weekend... This is his story.


Silverstone with Renaultsport F1 on 'set-up' day
Following a quick briefing, we (PH competition winners Paul Cox, Gareth Tucker and myself) head straight off to Williams. And almost before we’ve walked through the ‘invited guests of the team only’ door, we’re hit by the terrifying noise of an F1 engine start-up just a few feet away. At such close proximity, the noise is truly violent; revs spike when directed by an engineer’s laptop, accompanied by a terrifying scream that is incomparable to anything else. And this is even after watching F1 from the stands!

And there’s just so much garage activity on a Thursday, more than I expected; in all four garages, around a dozen men are working busily on the cars. Their work almost resembles a surgical operation; the garages bathed in harsh white light as components are intricately adjusted, tinkered with and gradually assembled into what you see on TV.

When the V8 from Bruno Senna’s Williams is silenced, our guide Tariq explains more about the engines. He says there would be scope for the engines currently used to rev up to 23,000rpm(!), but they are specifically designed to work only within the current 18,000rpm limit. They are made with the lightest components possible to cope with these loads, to such an extent that just going to 18,500rpm could cause terminal damage.

My highlight is being shown a steering wheel from last year’s Lotus. I struggled to comprehend everything at the time, so apologies if I miss details now! The back of the wheel features eight paddles, controlling clutch, gearchange, KERS and DRS. There’s a toggle for different engine mapping settings so that, for instance, extra fuel can be burned during safety car periods (this ensures the car finishes at its required weight). Most amazingly, there are three dials controlling the limited-slip differential, to control the slip at the entry, middle and exit of a corner.

Summarising the day, Paul says “we got to see the bare bones of Formula 1 today; it’s been awesome”, while Gareth describes it as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to witness what really goes into preparing cars.

For me, the relentlessness of the way each team works is fascinating; dozens of people constantly working, and analysing every aspect of the car’s performance in attempts to save a tenth or two. It’ll certainly be something I remember when pole position is secured by just that margin this weekend.

Drifting with Caterham
I’ll spare you the excuses; I can’t drift. I set low expectations, and wholeheartedly failed to reach them.

I can’t even say the atmosphere was tense as, given the itinerary, the evening was remarkably relaxed. I think Caterham F1 should be commended for that. A few journos turned up, then Caterham arrived with Heikki and Vitaly in tow, a briefing was given and we were off in a couple of Sevens!

Even the instructions given by the Caterham CDX team were straightforward; arrive at the central doughnut cone slowly, dump the clutch at 6,000rpm, balance it with the throttle and stay away from the tyres. Easy as that…

So, I roll up to the cone, dial in what sounds like the right revs, jump my left foot off the clutch… and the car generates huge traction and spears me towards the cones. Not enough revs! I set myself again, focus on the tacho to ensure somewhere near 6,000 registers, and go again. And, seemingly almost before any drive has engaged, I’m facing the wrong way.

More attempts with less throttle are slightly more successful, although the process is clearly so delicate and the line between failure and triumph so fine that I achieve nothing significant with my lead feet and ham fists. Then there’s the understeer, the heavy steering, the presence of Natalie Pinkham from Sky F1…

The rest of the evening is spent having passenger rides with the F1 guys and grabbing interviews when they could be dragged from the cars. I went in with Heikki Kovaleinen, who quite calmly spent two minutes displaying absurd levels of car control; he seamlessly went from larger drifts into small doughnuts, pirouetted just centimetres from cones, and all while looking like he could be doing the interview at the same time. The juxtaposition between his calmness and the tyre-smoking fury outside the car is really bizarre.

When it does come to the Q&A, Heikki is extremely friendly and approachable. The most surprising detail is that his road car is a Nissan GT-R, a non-standard Black Edition. He seems unwilling to divulge many details on its “slightly modified” status but he seems happy to broadly agree with the 600hp figure I suggest. Given the current conditions at Silverstone, he may achieve a decent result racing that on Sunday instead…

Comments (15) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Gorbyrev 07 Jul 2012

    Hey Matt, given my experience you need to learn to spin a Se7en unintentionally before you can drift it. First rental - underwear munching 270 on the rain greased A1 Roundabout at Dunbar. Second rental gentle drifting no bother.

  • iva cosworth 07 Jul 2012

    In before proper title appearslaugh

  • SystemParanoia 07 Jul 2012

    yo 'G'

  • 0a 07 Jul 2012

    I thought we'd found MBU's missing H there for a moment with the title, no luck though.

    The search continues.

  • r1ch 07 Jul 2012

    I'm interested to know what all the buttons do on the wheel.

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