To drive an open-wheel racing car for the first time is an amazing experience. To be among the last people ever to drive around Sydney’s historic Oran Park Raceway at pace in an open-wheeler is, for me, thrilling.
I arrive, at 8am, and it is hot. Weather forecasts were talking about a 40°C-plus day, and it must be close to that already. Dressed in a full fireproof race suit, helmet, racing boots and gloves is going to be a sweaty affair. But one I’m looking forward to regardless. I wouldn’t change where I am for anything.
I meet Peter and his team, and am quickly ushered to one of the outer buildings to get changed. My red suit is donned. Racing boots fitted (remembering to tuck the laces under the velcro straps), I waddle back to meet the other drivers. While I may not be the part, perhaps I look it!
Driver’s briefing goes for about an hour. Peter explains the rules and sets the expectations for us all. As much as the day is about having fun and about learning how to drive these cars, it’s principally about ensuring our safety, and his team does a brilliant job throughout the day in looking after us all.
We meet our respective cars, and are assigned in groups of four to one of the four Formula Fords at our disposal. Based on height (and I’m on the short side!), I’m assigned to a bright orange car with the shortest wheelbase and pedal configuration. The cockpit is snug, but I can comfortably reach the pedals without stretching. Visibility from the cockpit is no problem; I sit nice and low, but high enough to see the front wheels.
While you think you’d probably need a bit of clutch-slip to pull away from a standstill in a Formula Ford, this is not the case (luckily) when being push-started along a gently downhill-sloping pitlane. Nonetheless, my first proper run in a Formula Ford Van Diemen Zetec still sees me fumbling to engage first gear and coordinate dropping the visor as I trundle along. Stalling had been my utter and total dread, and so I give myself a big mental pat on the back for a clean getaway.
First movement over. Now for the meat of the piece. I exit the pit lane and lock hard left around the tyre barrier and orange traffic cones marking the path to take to join the main straight, for we are to complete ten loops of the main straight to master the art of up-shifting, braking, "heel-and-toe" downshifting, turning. Repeat.
The steering is surprisingly light at walking pace, about a turn from lock to lock. I squeeze, no, breathe, on the throttle and build pace to attempt a low-rev, ill-timed shift to second gear. Clunk. Jerk. Another clunk. Another jerk. Third. Fourth. Briefly. And then the braking mark at the marshal post. And brake hard for the hairpin that loops me back around to the other side of the main straight. Remember the advice: harder than you would brake in your road car, but don’t stamp! Caress, then squeeze. Unlike a road car, the gearing does not slow the car down, only the brakes do. But in order not to stall mid-corner, you still have to downshift and this is done with the "heel-and-toe" technique: with your toes and the ball of your foot on the brakes, you must roll your right foot and blip the throttle to match the engine revs required to cleanly change down through the gears. It’s a bit of coordination required, but mastered much quicker than I thought possible.
I lurch into first gear, run wide at the apex, straighten the car around and continue on my way, again gently squeezing on the throttle to build speed as I upchange to top gear once again.
Approaching the end of my ten-circuit run, I’m starting to feel more at home in this cramped cockpit with my bum just inches above the tarmac. But before I know it, the chequered flag is waved and I’m directed into pit lane for someone else to have a crack.
With no significant disasters from any of the other drivers, we move to the next stage, 10 laps of the Oran Park Raceway south circuit limited to 4000RPM.
Before venturing out on the south circuit, one of the crew shows us the ideal racing line (marked out by the orange traffic cone "gates") and provides us with tips and hints of how to tackle each corner safely. Briefing done, we’re sent on our way, one by one.
Hey, Mr Logie Baird, television was a fantastic invention. But TV still doesn’t do gradients. I’m amazed at how steep the final section of the circuit is, plunging downhill and then back uphill to the final corner. This is heightened further when you’re so close to the tarmac. We’re told in our training to aim for a gap between two trees on the horizon leading into the Dog Leg and we’d be about right. I heed to this advice on my first laps and daren’t venture away from it. Also, stay off the kerbs.
I turn onto the thought-gathering main straight, mindful of the concrete wall on the outside or the corner. Clutch and fourth gear. Throttle on hard. Concentration time. What do the dials say? Very pro, I’m hitting the rev limiter alongside the pitlane. Time to brake from full speed; line it up with the change in the colour of the pit wall. Brake, downshift and blip the throttle, turn in. Another lap.
End of the run and I’m on cloud nine. Not necessarily quick (I was passed by all of the other cars), but that’s not the point. The car is back in one piece and Peter Finlay is happy, handing me a cup of refreshingly cold water.
We break for a great lunch provided by Debbie and her daughter which is enjoyed by all, sitting around the table as we regale each other with our tales of battle.
After lunch, I head into the next run without the butterflies in my stomach. We’re running at a 4500RPM limit this time. With a baking hot track, the grip is plentiful and the handling of the car incredibly true. No lost motion, delightful weight, instant response. The car starts to tramline and fidget as the speed increases with the RPM being lifted. The palms of my gloves wrinkle up as the wheel tries to shimmy. Knuckles tighten and whiten. Bum clenches. Brake sensibly but firmly, the ‘heel-and-toe’ downchanges get smoother with each attempt.
Into the final run at 5000RPM and just short of 160km/h top speed on the main straight. With each of my previous runs, the Esses after the main straight had been troubling me, and I found myself lacking rhythm through this sequence. I resolve to conquer these corners on the final run.
Blast! Red flag as I approach the main straight. Traffic cone knocked down by another driver. Peter is on his way to retrieve and right it on the circuit. I sit in the car on the furnace-like main straight, itching to get going before the tyres cool down.
Green flag. I restart the car – embarrassingly I attempt to get rolling in reverse! – and approach the dreaded Esses once again. This time override the desire to turn in early, and throw the wheel a little harder and a little later on the turn-in. The Esses finally flow perfectly and I can carry more speed through them. It was one of the most profound ‘A-ha!’ moments I had experienced, like I had unlocked an ancient tomb.
I return to the pits at the end of the run, almost singing to myself. My final lap had been my best. I hadn’t put a wheel off-line all day. Peter and his crew were smiling. For a brief moment, I felt like a racing driver, but then remembered:
You. Are. Not. Schumacher. Don’t get any ideas!
I reluctantly undress from my racing suit and return to my normal civvies. What an incredible day!