Driving race cars in Abu Dhabi and generally having a good time at Michelin Passion Days
You never forget your first time driving an open-wheel race car. There’s just something about lying in a composite monocoque with just your head barely popping out at one end, and legs disappearing into the dark narrow confines of the tube at the other. It either scares you, or pumps you up. Either way, it is going to be unforgettable.
My first time was at Sepang, during an event called Michelin Pilot Sport, quite a while ago. The buzz never went away and since then I’ve been lucky enough to drive a few other open-wheelers. They come with different names: Formula Renault 1.6, Formula BMW, etc., but in the larger scope of things, it never really mattered.
So imagine my delight when Michelin sent an invite to attend their ‘Passion Days’. You see, they’ve re-named the Michelin Pilot Sport event, yet for the most part retained the overall flavour. Michelin Passion Days is a more accurate way to describe what the company wants to underline, I was told. And that is to bring motorsport experience to those outside it.
Another big change is that the venue has moved from one modern F1 racing track to an even newer one. From Sepang, Malaysia to the Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi.
Dressing the part
The entourage of journalists this time around is roughly 20 strong. Unlike other drive programmes where we start with a briefing, Michelin Passion Days (MPD) start with a change of uniform. Each and every participant is given – loaned, to be precise – a racing suit, racing shoes and gloves.
Shoes too small? Change it.
Suit to big? Get one that fits.
The point is that we are about to drive serious race machines so driver comfort is important. This is followed by a quick health check. Aced it.
This is the least interesting activity for the day, which suits me fine. Where we learn about the range of tyres that Michelin has to offer, including the racing-only rubber.
In our case, however, the main focus was on a road tyre – the new Pilot Sport 4 S. Probably best to do a separate story about this new ultra-high performance tyre so watch out for that. For now, let’s just say that if you think the Michelin PS4 is good, then the PS4S is going to truly delight any driving enthusiast. Also, we can’t divulge when it will be launched in Malaysia, other than ‘it’s going to be soon’.
This is one of those ‘well, that escalated quickly’ moment. The Formula 4 race car right in front of me. It has a 1.6-litre naturally aspirated Renault engine that produces just 160bhp and 163Nm. Doesn’t sound like much although more than enough to haul the 470kg weight.
You know it gets real when there are up to four people around you and the car, making sure that everything is ok. The two most important is the head instructor who tells you how much gas to put in before releasing the clutch (it’s tricky to catch the bite point, but quickly becomes familiar). The other person has his legs apart over the nose cone, almost over the driver.
His hands reach inside the cockpit with the task of fitting the four-point harness together, not unlike what you see with F1 drivers. And just as similar, this looks quite ridiculous viewed from the outside; if you can imagine why (refer pic below).
If you ever get a chance to drive an F4 car, here’s a tip: shift up as soon as you can. The throttle response of these things is so darn sharp that it’s easy to get yourself into a bronco-effect; the car reaches peak rev, hit the limiter, which in effect yanks your body forward thus making your foot tap the gas. This starts the chain reaction. Just shift up, and save the embarrassment.
I also find out that the Yas Marina circuit pit tunnel is narrower than it looks on TV. But once outside, the fun starts.
The Mercedes CLA AMG pace car up front is hardly underpowered, and indeed it can pull away (marginally) on the straights but the F4’s mechanical and aero grip is just too much. In hindsight, I reckon Michelin knows that this is a highlight for most participants and as such allows for a great number of laps. I did around a dozen, probably.
The fun is trying something new in each new lap. Brake later here, throttle earlier there; shallower racing line for this corner and short shift at another. The first corner, for example, is eventually much faster in an F4 car than what the pace car can muster.
Much heavier than the Formula 4, but its 1,080kg is substantially less than the road car. In fact almost nothing reminds me of the Clio RS200 EDC. The rear part is packed with a maze of roll cage, the dashboard stripped out, a fire suppression system is on the floor and Renault’s rather senseless card-type key is nowhere to be seen.
For some reason, this feels even better than the F4. A large part of this is because there is no pace car; instead, an instructor sits on the passenger seat, giving cues over the intercom. I can say right now that after a few laps and the speed builds up, his voice is barely audible over the increasingly loud engine.
As a matter of fact, I know I could have gone faster but putting an instructor in the car automatically makes the driving a tenth more conservative. Still, the Clio Cup touring car is pure driving bliss. The chassis is so well balanced and the steering so direct that it’s so easy to get hooked.
It’s the sort of car you throw into corners, trusting the grip (and there is plenty over the front axle). Give me a good deal and I’d be happy to own one, just for track days.
After a day of ‘pretending’ to be race car drivers, the journalists are given a taxi ride inside a McLaren 650S GT3. This is a purebred 500bhp machine that goes from zero to 100kph in 2.9 seconds; perhaps closer to what Fernando drives during F1 weekends rather than what a buyer can purchase off a showroom floor. The man on my left also drives something like this for a living. The resulting experience? If you haven’t seen the video, have a look below.
It looks fast, doesn’t it? Let me tell you something, it feels faster than that. The braking point is remarkably late and the lateral Gs extracted from the Michelin slicks does my head in. I think the guy who helped fix the racing harness purposely set it loose simply to scare me every time the anchor dropped. It worked! And if this was the first agenda of the day, I would have attacked each corner a fair bit faster.
Michelin Passion Days – the final say
Sepang no longer holds the privilege of hosting the Michelin Passion Days; however, the new venue gives new challenges to participants, likely to the organisers as well. One can say that, at least, the weather stays the same, owing to how hot Sepang and Abu Dhabi can be. Not exactly, the summer season was in its early days when I was there and already 10am is more hot than necessary.
The objective of the event stays the same, and it delivers that in generous portion. It is one thing to tell people that involvement in motorsports make their road tyres perform better, but to allow regular folks get a feel of these racing slicks on racing cars, driven on a racing track; now, that’s another thing altogether.