You can get rather complacent behind a keyboard offering equal measurements of criticism and praise to the men and women who go racing for our entertainment over many weekends of the year.
So when the opportunity comes knocking to experience the power, G-force and assault on the senses that is open-wheel race car driving, you’d be mad to refuse it.
Anglo Australian Motorsport is the frontrunning team in the Australian Formula Ford landscape, and this year its drivers romped to a 1-2-3-4 in the New South Wales state series, winning every single race in the season.
Its sister outfit, Anglo Racing Academy, is also the place to go if aspiring racing drivers and everyday fans can get behind the wheel to experience the thrill and skill of handling these racing machines.
On top of offering you the chance to drive these cars singlehandedly, the Sydney-based team has also created a world-first two-seater version of a Formula Ford race car so you can be driven on a series of hot laps by a professional racing driver.
Ten years in the making, the concept mirrors that of the Minardi F1x2-seater that has been a mainstay at the Australian Grand Prix. At a fraction of the cost, however, it is truly accessible to everyone.
“The design gives the everyday person the opportunity to feel what it’s like being in a real open-wheel race car,” Anglo Racing Academy director, Tim Beale, said.
“Building something that has never been done before from an engineering point of view was a challenge. Everything is bespoke.”
In order to accommodate the size and weight of a passenger, the two-seater sports a longer wheelbase and bigger engine than its race-going cousin, yet both achieve exactly the same performance and speed. It is a magnificent piece of engineering.
The venue for our track day is Sydney Motorsport Park, the purposebuilt motor racing venue located 40 kilometres west of Sydney’s CBD. Our track activities will take place on the Southern Circuit, a six-turn anti-clockwise configuration running a little more than a kilometre long. Sounds simple, but the layout has a few elevation changes and blind corners to keep things very interesting.
It’s a Saturday morning, and over the course of the day the Anglo Racing Academy team will serve upwards of 100 guests participating in passenger rides, solo driving, or both.
The first impression is how slickly the entire organization is run. With the obligatory waiver forms signed, I’m soon dressed in a fireproof racing suit and racing boots (remembering to tuck the laces under the velcro straps) before I head out to the front or the garage to wait for my turn in the two-seater.
My driver today is Kane Coleman, winner of the 2014 New South Wales state championship with Anglo Australian Motorsport. His first Formula Ford experience came as a customer with this very same outfit in 2012, and just two years later he’s a championship-winner. Clearly he has talent.
I’m soon strapped in behind Kane – it was odd being in a cockpit with no steering wheel, just a tachometer and a panic button in case it all gets too much. There’s no way I’m touching that.
The 2-litre Ford engine fires into life and we quickly rush down the pit lane, making a hard left as we feed onto the track after Turn 1.
Kane was determined to show me everything that this car has to offer, and he delivered in spades. He’s a far better driver than I could ever hope to be and gave it the full beans for every second of our five-lap dash. Every corner was approached with the latest possible braking, the fastest apex speed and a little bit of opposite lock on exit.
The forces were so much more than anything I had experienced in a car. You have the G-forces in braking and cornering, as well as the sensation of every bump and kerb through the stiffly-sprung chassis. It’s a total adrenaline rush and a completely unique experience.
Anglo Australian Racing Academy’s other offering is its more traditional single-seater Formula Ford driving experiences, where you get to pilot one of the four Van Diemen cars it races across the Australian state and national championships.
There are obviously greater risks in this segment, so there are understandably a number of safety briefings we have to go through. 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 the entire team does a brilliant job throughout the day in looking after us all.
We are assigned in groups to pilot one of the four Formula Fords at our disposal. Based on height (I’m on the shorter side), I’m given a car with the shorter wheelbase and pedal configuration.
My helmet is donned again – I may not have the skills to be the part, but I’ll certainly look like I might!
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.
You need plenty of revs and clutch control to pull one of these cars away from a standstill. Stalling had been my utter and total dread, and so I give myself a big mental pat on the back for a clean getaway. I trundle down the pits, dropping my visor before turning hard left to exit the pits.
First movement over. Now for the meat of the piece. I exit the pit lane and look to my left in case another car is coming through Turn 1; the track is clear. I have five laps to re-master up-shifting, braking, turning and throttle control.
The steering 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.
Fortunately the engine torque is so good you can let the car stay in fourth gear for the entire lap – there’s no need to juggle the added challenge of ‘heel-and-toe’ downshifts.
I rise the crest of the Southern Circuit’s longest straight and plunge downhill for the braking marker at Turn 2, a cambered left-hander that tightens on its exit.
Remember the advice: brake harder than you would in your road car, but don’t stamp on the pedal! Caress, then squeeze. Unlike a road car, the gearing does not slow the car down, only the brakes do.
I shove my right foot onto the brake pedal at the braking marker, gently feathering the throttle through the apex before unwinding the steering and putting on the power. The track rises sharply again and you crest the brow before making a small dab on the brakes and steering into Turn 3, a seemingly never-ending left-hander.
It’s a little off-camber and you can carry what feels like a lot of speed through the corner, allowing the car to drift to the right-hand side of the track to prepare for Turn 4. You brake on a gentle downhill, but harder than at any other corner because you need to keep your exit tight for the final sequence of corners – a right-left chicane – to have the ideal driving line.
I flash past the pit lane and through Turn 1. Throttle on hard. Concentration time. What do the dials say? Very pro, I’m hitting the rev limiter on my first ‘flying lap’. Time to brake from full speed; line it up with the marker, scrub off speed and then turn in. Throttle on again. Another lap.
The grip is plentiful and the handling of the car incredibly true. No twitching or corrections, delightful weight, instant response. The car tram-lines and fidgets a little on the straights. The palms of my hands clench and sweat. Knuckles tighten and whiten. Bum clenches.
I start my fourth lap and I hear a familiar sound: Kane has fired up his car and is exiting the pit lane to take another lucky passenger on a thrill-ride. He’d almost frightened a few other wannabe drivers off the road on his earlier runs and I knew he’d catch me by the time I was on my final lap.
I lifted and let him by as we braked for Turn 2 and watched in awe as he got onto the throttle an eternity earlier than me. By the time I rounded through Turn 3, Kane was already at the apex of Turn 4. If ever I needed a reminder that I will never give Lewis Hamilton a run for his money, then that was it.
My run over, I headed back to the pit lane and reluctantly undress from my race suit, back into my normal civvies. What an amazing day.
My experience was kindly provided by Anglo Racing Academy – to learn more about their track day packages, please visit their website.
Images and vision via Anglo Racing Academy