To ever have the opportunity to drive an open-wheel racing car is an amazing experience. To have the chance to do so at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, one of the greatest road course circuits in the world, is an added bonus. To be coached by a former Formula 1 driver, Allen Berg, is simply out of this world.
Berg, from Canada’s snowcapped Alberta province, cut his teeth in the American and European scene, and was a regular podium finisher in Ayrton Senna and Martin Brundle’s famous battle for the 1983 British Formula 3 Championship title. He graduated to Formula 1 in mid-1986, but his ride was with the tiny Osella team. Never having the equipment to showcase his talents and without commercial backing from his homeland to get him further up the grid, he sadly and all-too-quickly disappeared from view.
Today, Allen Berg runs the most acclaimed racing school in North America. Starting out in Canada, his operation later moved to California, firstly at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana before finding its new home on the state’s Pacific coastline.
I was thrilled to be invited to Allen Berg Racing School’s two-day Formula Car program. It’s September and sunny, and as I pull up behind the pit lane in my rented Mustang, the sun is barely peering around the hills that surround 3.6-kilometre (2.2-mile) circuit made famous for ‘The Pass’ Alex Zanardi pulled off on Bryan Herta at The Corkscrew to win the 1996 CART Grand Prix.
I’m there for the track walk which Allen personally conducts each morning with my fellow classmates. Unlike my fellow drivers who have been part of the ABRS program before, I’ve never turned a lap here other than in a video game.
The hour-long walk as the sun rises is vital. Allen has driven umpteen laps of Laguna Seca and knows every kerb, crest and fall. Learning the highlights, and indeed potential risks, of every corner, camber change and bump will prove critical as I would later discover.
With walls on close proximity and over 50 metres (180 feet) of elevation change around the lap, most of Laguna Seca’s 11 corners are blind on approach, at the apex and the exit. Here’s Allen Berg narrating a lap of Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca:
From Turn 5, the track begins its famous climb, cresting and dipping briefly into Turn 6 before taking an even steeper ascent to its peak: The Corkscrew.
The complex – a bumpy right kink with heavy braking into a plunging left-right sequence – is even more beautiful, steep and terrifying than TV can possibly do justice.
In barely 120 metres (450 feet) of track length, you drop 5½ storeys in elevation before plunging further through the seemingly never-ending Turn 9 left-hander.
The banking through the corners really allows you to push and carry much more speed than you think you can.
Or so Allen assures us…
The grueling walk done, we head to the classroom to suit up: a full fireproof suit, balaclava, helmet, gloves and racing boots will make the next two days a sweaty affair. I don’t yet feel the part, but I will look it. I wouldn’t change where I am for anything.
We meet the extended ABRS team who will be supporting us – all are professional racing drivers with varying backgrounds in open-wheelers, sports cars and RallyCross.
The rules and expectations are set for us all. As much as the next two days are about having fun and learning how to drive these cars to their maximum, our safety is paramount. Allen’s team does a brilliant job in looking after us all.
The preliminary briefings cover car handling, heel-toe shifting through the sequential gearbox and very useful lessons on weight transfer and how this affects the cars’ handling.
Above all, we’re here to drive and before we know it we are on pit lane and assigned our respective cars.
Allen aims to keep his classes small to maximize the chance of everyone having their own car for the day – there are even a couple of spare cars on standby just in case.
Built by Tatuus, these race-run Formula Renault 1600 cars are powered by a 4-cylinder motor punching out 140bhp and capable of a 0-60mph acceleration in under four seconds. Their top speed is 210km/h (130mph). With adjustable front and rear wings, they can produce a bruising 2G of cornering grip.
I’m allocated a silver-and-red beast. With some extra seat and back padding, the cockpit is snug and I can comfortably reach the pedals in the tight footwell. I sit nice and low, just enough to see the front wheels.
The six of us in the class are split into two groups so we can run our first sessions, following a Mustang pace car to learn the lines and the procedures to overtake. Stalling on getaway had been my utter dread, so I give myself a mental pat on the back for a clean getaway.
The laps behind the Mustang are run at a controlled pace – the emphasis at this stage is simply getting comfortable and learning the layout.
Even at reduced speed, approaching The Corkscrew for the first time is still a moment to savor. Bumpy and blind, I brake early in the middle of the track and turn left for a kerb I cannot see.
Whoosh! I plunge downhill and look for a tree beyond the safety fence which is the point to aim for.
You feel, more than see, the right-hander that makes the exit of the corner as you plunge down the metaphorical rollercoaster.
The camber works in your favor, but the sense of compression through your stomach and spine is immense.
I let out a ‘Wow!’, an exclamation I will repeat on multiple runs.
The track continues its descent through the banked Turn 9 left-hander before you brake hard and straight for Turn 10. A short blast and double downshift to Turn 11 – a tight left-hander and slowest corner on the track – and you’re back on the start/finish straight.
At the end of my first run, I pull into the pits. You won’t wipe the grin off my face from under my crash helmet.
When we’re not running in the car, we are ferried by members of Allen’s team to different parts of the circuit to see how the rest of the drivers are tackling different corners. It’s a great opportunity to learn a few tricks.
The team are cleverly positioned at different points of the track and will radio in their feedback on your braking, cornering and lines, which you will receive at the end of each run. The coaching is incredibly helpful at getting you up to speed and building your confidence with these unfamiliar machines.
After our ‘follow the leader’ run, the next two outings will see us run a lap at speed before touring slowly down the start/finish straight to get lap-by-lap feedback from Allen’s professional team. I quickly learn I’m taking the Turn 2 hairpin too early and I’m also approaching Turn 9 at too tight an angle. Visor down, I am to do better on my next flying lap.
The red flags are out when one of the other drivers has a quick spin at the exit of Turn 4. The balance between ambition and adhesion is a fine line to tread for all of us.
We break for lunch before we’re allowed to run as a full group of six. More cars on track means we are likely to need to overtake – or be overtaken – but it has the added bonus of more track time.
The afternoon sees us steadily building speed and confidence. The GoPro cameras are fitted to each car, allowing us the chance to see our lines onboard and get further feedback on how to find more speed.
I build up enough confidence to be braking later and getting hard on the power earlier – the hot track temperatures and sticky slick tyres give you plenty of grip to push as your comfort levels and knowledge grow. I even found myself chasing Allen for a lap – he was giving a newly assembled Stars-n-Stripes liveried car a shakedown run.
Confidence – or rather too much of it – can bite, as I was to discover.
I was feeling great towards the end of my penultimate run. The car had tons of grip and I was finding more speed and consistency with each lap.
I crested the rise at 90mph to brake for The Corkscrew, and downshifted as I had done on each of the previous 30-plus laps. Within a split-second, the car snapped 180° to the right and I skated backwards into the gravel trap.
The dust and my heart rate settled as the red flags waved to tell the other classmates to slow down and return to the pits. Importantly, I’d kept the car out of the wall and was able to be towed out of the kitty litter. I had downshifted at just the right spot where the back wheels could lock, pitching me into a flat, high-speed spin.
My silver-and-red car’s rear end was powder-coated with sand and gravel; her running was done for the day until she could get cleaned up.
This is where Allen and his team step up a notch. Having a spin is as embarrassing as all hell, but to them it’s a realistic hazard of the game. You’re pushing hard, and you’re supported all the way through to get ‘back in the cockpit’.
I was handed the controls to the Stars-n-Stripes car. While identical in specs as the rest of the field, each car has its own characteristics and this ran true here. With colder tyres and a colder engine, the grip levels were much lower, but I completed my final run without incident as I worked to rebuild my confidence.
Our first day was done and – my spin aside – I’d loved every second and learned so much.
I slept like the dead overnight and arose for Day 2’s action, armed with plenty of knowledge and sore muscles from the preceding day’s intense workout.
We were back in action with cameras fitted once again, this time to see if we were applying the abundant feedback we’d had the day before. Aside from a cold tyre spin at Turn 11 for another classmate, we were all getting the hang of things.
On a later run our cars were fitted with AiM onboard data acquisition computers. This recorded all the major telemetry points you’d need to help identify where you could make up time on the track. Rarely used in other racing schools, it’s technology like this that puts ABRS a cut above its competitors. Here’s how it works:
Getting to see the data itself is eye-opening. I quickly learned I was too cautious coming off the brakes and getting on-throttle, and my claims of being hard flat through Turn 1 were rubbished – I was taking a big ‘confidence lift’ on the crest of the hill!
With this extra insight, I was able to slash four seconds off my fastest lap and had more to come with each run.
I felt like I’d nailed the last lap, I even four-wheel drifted through Turn 2! A quick blast of acceleration and upshift to fourth gear, I apply the faintest dab of the brakes and steer into Turn 3, an awkward right-hander that feels like it tightens on exit.
A short straight is next and I pluck fifth gear under the bridge before Turn 4, a quick right-hander that encourages me to drift wide on exit before I hammer down a long, slightly kinked straight to Turn 5 where you can nearly hit the car’s top speed.
Braking hard under the bridge and cleanly downshifting to fourth, I hook onto a late apex and apply full power for before I even clip the kerb to start the climb up the hill.
The track briefly flattens before Turn 6. I tap the brake to settle the car and then kink left at full power; it’s such a satisfying corner to get right.
I let the car run out to the right on its final climb up the hill to The Corkscrew. Remembering the advice: harder than you would in your road car. Brake, downshift and blip the throttle, turn in. Holding my breath as I drop off the metaphorical cliff.
On a baking hot track, the grip is plentiful and the handling of the car incredibly true. No lost motion, delightful weight transfer, instant response. The car starts to tramlines and fidgets as the speed increases. Knuckles tighten and whiten. Bum clenches. Brake sensibly but firmly. Onto another lap.
I approach The Corkscrew once more and this time a I brake a touch too late. The tyres squeal in protest as I stamp on the brake pedal. I’ve missed the apex and now I’m running wide onto the kerbs at the exit. It’s dusty and dirty off line, heart in the mouth stuff. I do not want to replicate ‘The Pass’.
An invisible hand smacks the back of my helmet as a reminder: You. Are. Not. Alex. Zanardi.
I’ve hit my limit for the day, but know that with further practice and feedback I can go quicker still. Enough is enough, for now.
I return to pit lane, unzip my race suit, grab a cold drink. I’m exhausted, so much wiser and deliriously happy. I reluctantly undress from my racing suit and return to my normal civvies. What an incredible two days!
Allen Berg Racing Schools is the only racing school to offer training from an experienced Formula 1 driver, using carbon fiber chassis, racing slicks, and debriefing through video and onboard telemetry. The program guarantees you more track time than any other racing program.
ABRS’ Formula Car programs operate over one, two or three days and are suitable for beginners and experienced track drivers alike.
To learn more about Allen Berg racing Schools or to book your next Formula Car program, visit the ABRS website at www.allenbergracingschools.com!