ONE of the most legendary wet races in Formula One (F1) was the 1976 Japan Grand Prix.
Niki Lauda was no snowflake, having started racing again just six weeks after suffering horrific third-degree burns to his face and head. But even then, he refused to risk driving in the torrential rain, with fog and running water, on the Fuji Speedway.
Lauda later had said “my life is worth more than a title”.
Today, F1 races in the torrential rain are a rarity. For example, in the 2009 F1 race in Sepang, heavy rain and subsequent accidents prompted race officials to bring out the red flag and end the race.
When the safety cars come out in wet races, there is usually an outcry from fans and sports pundits, who will decry how boring the sport has become.
But when you’re behind the wheel of a race car out on the track, the sanity of such rulings by the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile) are immediately apparent, as I found out.
No, of course, I wasn’t driving an F1 car, but a distant cousin of it, the F4, which is where many drivers start their career in formula racing.
F4 is the first stepping stone that a driver will take after karting. But it is still definitely serious racing.
Petron had invited members of the media for a session behind the wheel of an F4 car, in between the racers’ training slots.
The drivers are prepping for the season finale of the FIA Formula 4 Southeast Asian Championship (F4 SEA) in Sepang on April 13-15.
The best drivers in the field will be posting times in the low 2.14s, which would wipe out a quarter of the field in a GT3 series race. It is all the more impressive because the drivers are young, with the oldest about 19 years old. Some are 15.
In the metal, (or carbon fibre, mostly) the cars look almost like 3:4 models of the real deal. They are infinitely simpler and cheaper to run compared to their top formula brethren though.
The one I was driving was powered by the same Renault engine found in a Renault Megane.
The 2.0 litre powerplant runs on Blaze 100 Euro 4M fuel as well as Blaze Racing Fully Synthetic engine oil. It pushes out 160hp. But the car weighs in at less than 500kg, giving the formula car the ability to reach 100kph in under four seconds.
It is amusing to note that the little racer actually has a 400cc advantage over the current F1 cars.
In terms of power though, they are worlds apart. For the 2018 season, F1 engines are close to producing 1,000hp, according to one interview with the Mercedes head of engine development Andy Cowell recently. Not bad for a hybrid 1.6 litre.
With me in the pits was Luke Thompson who races for Ireland. The 19-year-old would be training that day, and gave me a few pointers about how to go fast in Sepang. Polite and friendly, Luke has spent a great deal of time in Malaysia, and is very familiar with the track.
Half an hour before the our session, ominous clouds built up and could be seen lingering over the Hibiscus towers. As I donned on the racing suit and was fitted into the cockpit of the F4 car, I couldn’t help but glance at the sky and wonder when the clouds would burst and unleash their fury on Sepang.
The mechanics swapped rain tyres. In a blur, I was wedged in tightly into the cockpit, strapped up and wheeled out of the pits.
I was reminded to use the first lap to warm up the car and the tyres. I guess I must have not followed the instructions to the T.
The first spin happened when it was relatively dry, as I approached corner 14.
I took a really bad line, steered too much and the next thing I know was headed the wrong direction.
The second spin happened soon after on the second corner. Mind you, it had not even started raining yet. Wet tires are definitely a different animal compared to the ultra sticky slicks.
Then it started raining. Gently at first, then a downpour.
When the first raindrops started hitting my helmet visor, only did it dawn on me that I was exposed to the elements and that the car was an open tub. Rainwater was starting to collect in the bottom of the car.
But I aspired to be no snowflake. Taking a cue from the spirit of the F1 greats, I braved myself and soldiered on a few laps.
I tore down the front straight at a measly 170kph, took corner one and two at a snail’s pace with the car’s engine barely idling and then gently, or so I thought, tiptoed through the third corner.
This wasn’t good enough apparently, because the next thing I knew, a mist of spray had raised up in front of my vision as the car spun about once again. How the heck did these F4 boys do it?
But what is an F4 outing with just three spins?
I decided to go for a quartet. This occurred without much effort, on the fifth corner. It was so wet that the car lost traction even with minimal input from the steering. It almost felt like it had aquaplaned.
By this time, the spins had taken their toll, leaving my knees a wee bit jittery. I piloted the car towards the pits with a newfound respect for these teenagers on their journey to F1.
Driving in the wet is really hard, but for the record, it was totally, unbelievably, exhilarating.