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15 Nov 2008 | Text and photos by Andy Hum
The Michelin Pilot Experience
We've all heard so much about how powerful cars aren't so easy to drive. How hard, then, would it be to handle a single-seater racer, like a slightly down-sized Formula One car?
Ever so often, when my friends and I are trying to enjoy the broadcast of a Formula One race at a bar or cafe, there's no help feeling irked upon hearing some of the comments people make about the slower drivers.
"So lousy, this guy", or "Aiyoh, he could have braked later!" or even "Aiyah, I can drive better than that, lah!"
Uhh™ no you can't. Just because your car has twenty exhaust pipes, three hundred gauges, a GT-wing that a family could have a picnic on and the latest set of semi-slicks to top it off doesn't mean you can drive like Mr Fernando Alonso or even Giancarlo Fisichella.
No matter how slow you think the usual backmarkers in Formula One are, the fact remains that they are still some of the best drivers in the world and those cars are not as easy to pilot around a track as easily as many think. And it's not just because of the humongous volume of power they possess. If you're too slow around a bend, there's insufficient downforce and then you slide. If you're not going fast enough, you can't get enough heat into the brakes and tyres, and then you slide. Just as you think you've completed the bend and have a straight path ahead and decide to floor it, you end up in a spin.
It's not so easy driving a car like that. And even at the lower end of the single-seater racer spectrum, the same laws of physics apply, although they are a little more forgiving.
I got the chance to experience a Formula race car on our region's notoriously scorching track - the Sepang International Circuit - at what's arguably the hottest driving event - the Michelin Pilot Experience. It isn't a very forgiving place. With air temperatures in that area regularly surpassing 30 degrees Celsius (track temperatures are much higher!), you can imagine that one would have little reason to smile after donning a racing suit.
But I had. And so did the other journalists who had arrived from around the region to take part in this experience of a life time. This wasn't an event which anybody could just pay a handsome fee and sign up to attend. It was only by invitation, so we had plenty of reason to be this excited. Only this year, Michelin opened up the Michelin Pilot Experience to a few very fortunate members of the public, who had purchased a set of Michelin tyres and won a lucky draw.
We were ushered from the hospitality suite down to the rear entrance of the pit. Once gathered outside, the doors were opened and The DX Band's "Break It Down" boomed all around. Not exactly what I wanted to do with the car™
As we all arrived into the pit's reception area, there was another booming noise. But this was quite different. It sounded like a machine gun from where we stood, and then a very audible grunt. A small, bluish shape appeared out of a far corner. Then we realised where the sound was coming from - an Aston Martin V8 Vantage N24.
Behind the backdrop of Michelin-liveried, race-prepped BMW M3s and Porsche 996 GT3s, Ian Geekie, a racing driver and the series director of the Aston Martin Asia cup, climbed out of the car and told us briefly what to expect - lots of speed, lots of G-forces and lots of fun.
In the pits, it was far from what one would normally expect it to be. Nothing oily or grimy, a clean, matted floor, two race cars with the Michelin Bibendum (better known as the Michelin Man) in his famous running pose decorating their sides, a D-Box racing simulator, a beverage counter, a jacked-up Formula Renault car used for practising gear changes and poster boards all around, showcasing moments from Michelin's motorsports scene.
If anyone knows how to get our adrenaline pumping even before the real stuff is shown, it's these guys from Michelin.