We take on the challenge of taming a F4 SEA single-seater with Petron Malaysia
When the folks at Petron Malaysia called not too long ago, we couldn’t believe their offer. “Would you like to drive a race car on track with us?” they asked. How could we resist.
Then came the realisation that the ‘race car’ wasn’t your usual tuned up road car with a roll cage and perhaps a rear wing. Instead, it was a full-blown, single-seater Formula race car. To be specific, Petron had got the crew from Meritus.GP to prepare a few Formula 4 SEA (F4 SEA) race cars for selected media at the Sepang International Circuit recently.
For anyone with little to no racing experience, this was daunting. Nevertheless, as part of our endless quest to give you a good read, we suited up, strapped ourselves in, and got ourselves going in a machine built to help discover the next Alonso, Vettel, or Hamilton.
Before we go further, though, here’s a quick back-story. While it may not seem so, Petron didn’t have a strong brand presence in the world of motorsports initially. All that changed when the firm signed up as title sponsor of the region’s fastest growing racing talent development series, Formula 4 SEA. With the session, Petron wanted us to see first-hand how this series develops such talent in the region.
Like most one-make series, racers in F4 SEA compete in identical machines with little room for adjustment. This not only keeps costs low but also provides a platform to showcase pure talent. The aim, of course, is to find the best of the lot who then will progress further up the sport’s classes towards the ultimate goal, that being Formula 1.
Suffice to say, the folks at Petron are very proud to be part of this search for Asia’s next racing champion. Petron’s support, besides funding, includes sponsorship of fuel and lubricants in the series, which also doubles up as a proving ground for its consumer products. As the saying goes, if it’s good enough for a race car on track, it’s definitely good enough for your car on the road too.
Back to the driving, and little else can describe the sensation of driving an aerodynamic vehicle built to speed. Fortunately, we had some guidance from local talents Afiq Ikhwan Yazid and Adam Khalid. They gave us a crash course on how to manage the hard-as-rock clutch and brake pedal and the sequential paddleshifts, as well as the dos and don’ts with flag and lights.
Soon, we found ourselves in a five-car train behind Adam who was setting the pace in his own F4 SEA racer. Getting out of the pits without stalling was a huge challenge all on its own. Thankfully, the clutch is only used to engage and disengage first, neutral and reverse. Once at the exit, with the pit lane speed limiter disengaged, the 160bhp 2.0-litre Renault four-cylinder screamer sitting just behind us was at the mercy of our right foot.
In a single-seater such as the F4 SEA racer, downforce and grip at high speed are essential for fast cornering. Finding the right speed for that to work, as well as mastering brake pedal balance to avoid wheel lockup, is tricky. On top of that, it’s essential to adapt quickly to keep an eye on the LED rev-counter while focussing on the track; to feel for grip through your bottom; and to constantly remind yourself to delicately manage right foot application during corner exits. All that done at race speed.
A lot is happening in mere seconds. Imagine trying to get to grips with a really fast supercar with a ride that’s three or four times harder and in much less comfort. You’ll experience the latter with the six-point racing harness inside the cramped cockpit. It holds you snugly without any give or play every time you’re subjected to cornering G-forces, not to mention the transmission’s seemingly violent tendency of throwing you forward with every downshift.
Get everything right, though, and life in the hot seat becomes a driving purist’s nirvana. The way this F4 SEA corners on rails, especially through SIC’s Turns 7 and 8, with the engine at full chat in fourth, is beyond the average mortal’s comprehension, to say the least. Adding to that is how quickly the tiny speedo readout escalates during corner exit bursts, and when flying down SIC’s two main straights.
That’s a lot to take in, even from the five short laps we had on track – it’s mentally draining. And to think that the youngsters, some as young as 15, who compete in this series actually do two to three times more laps in each race session than we did that day. This really is a test of the mind, body and whatever driving talents one possesses.
By the day’s end, we’re glad to tell you, we didn’t spin or crash out during our quick five-lap stint. If anything, we came away with a newfound respect for those who do this as a career – it really takes a lot more than you might think. Better yet, we’re glad the next generation of racing talent has the support of Petron at the most crucial point of their careers.