Phakisa test day.
by Pierre Martins
Midweek trip to Welkom…
On the 3rd of December 2008 I got invited to attend a private testing session at Phakisa Raceway. I was told there would be a couple of Formula Renaults, a Shelby Can-Am, a BMW group N car and last, but not least, Michael Schumacher’s old Benetton F1 car. I was also told to bring my helmet and race suit along, no promises, but you never know.
So there’s the dilemma. - A 600km round trip in the middle of the week for an off chance of getting some seat time in something exciting. Besides that, I was already semi-switched off from track driving for what was left of 2008…
Hey of course I went! Do you honestly think I would give up a chance behind the wheel of an F1 car, even if it was just a remote possibility? Best case scenario was I’d come back with the most awesome driving experience under the belt, worst scenario was I’d come back with that age old adage in the back of my mind that a bad day at the track beats a good day at work, anytime…
The day was arranged by Sunshine Testing, a new venture created in March 2008 by Alan Eve, Greg Canny and Neville Jordon with the acquisition of two Formula Renault race cars that were purchased from Antonio Ferrari, owner of the world renowned Team Euro International. (Euro International won the European 2004 Formula Renault V6 championship)
The Idea behind Sunshine Testing -
Sunshine Testing's aim is to attract aspiring Formula One drivers and afford them the opportunity to test in South Africa and prepare themselves for the transition into a world class single seater race car. Quite a nifty concept methinks. It makes sense for Europeans to test here, given the favourable EUR/ZAR exchange rate, ideal South African weather and testing in proper race cars like the Formula Renaults in a professional environment with driver-to-pit radios, electronic display steering wheels, data loggers, pit stop simulations and whatnot.
I had a good look and I can tell you that up close the Formula Renaults are really proper world class single seaters in every detail. – 3.5litre Renault V6 making about 272kw and 378nm torque, coupled to a carbon fibre monocoque chassis with carbon fibre bodywork. Suspension uses torsion bars with adjustable shocks and coil-overs.
They’ve got proper carbon brakes, semi-auto boxes with paddle shifts on the steering wheel, the whole shootin’ match. The package weighs in at +/- 590kg (sans driver) and I’m told they’re good for speeds up to about 290km/h and lap times in the high 1’28” to low 1’29”s around Phakisa in the hands of a good driver.
The car that had immediately grabbed my attention was the B194 Benetton, the car that Schumi scored his first F1 driver’s championship with in 1994. Nowadays the car is owned by one of the big honchos of SAB and was bought from a US collection without an engine. The Cosworth V8 was sourced separately from the UK and is correct and authentic to this car, though it was not one of the engines used in the car during the ’94 season. Total package amounted to just over R3mil.
The owner is an A-class rookie track driver by his own admission and had not yet driven the car. It's only seen track time twice in the last two years. Once in 2007 in the hands of Gary Formato during a few demo laps at Kyalami during the Pro-Tour, lapping very slow in the 1'36"s if I remember right.
The Phakisa test day would be the second outing for the B194 in recent years and was arranged primarily so Alan vd Merwe could get some seat time behind the wheel of the Benetton, but my mouth was watering…
DAW Racing looks after the Sunshine Testing cars, as well as the Benetton and I was delighted to see Peter Jacquet when we walked in. I had met him a few months before when I tested the Shelby Can-Am, so my hopes of getting a drive suddenly went up a few notches and I joked that I’d offer up parts of my anatomy for a drive in the Benetton. But this wasn’t Peter’s show. He was just there to prep the cars and told me that even though he had no problems with me driving the Benetton, we would have to ask Alan Eve and/or the owner of the F1 car if we wanted a test in the F1 or Formula Renaults.
So that was that. I wasn’t about to walk up to a stranger who doesn’t know me from a bar of soap and say “Hi, I’m Joe Soap and I’d like a spin in your gazillion Rand single seater”.., so I decided on the next best thing – Look, listen and learn…
Driving an F1 car?
I guess every Tom, Dick and Harry petrolhead have dreams of driving an F1 car one day, but if you had to think about it seriously, would you be able to actually drive the thing?
That little pip-squeak Hammond from Top Gear made a big hoo-ha about how violent an F1 car is and whatnot. Hell, he couldn’t even pull off in the thing, or was that just showing off for the camera? See that’s what I don’t get about people’s blind belief in the opinions and statements made by the presenters of Top Gear. Don’t get me wrong, I really love the show, but to me it’s just car-comedy. It’s just a TV show and JC is not the messiah of the motoring world. I don’t take anything that comes out of Jeremy Clarkson’s mouth as gospel.
Hell, I don’t even take The Stig’s lap times seriously. You can actually see him drive for the camera. When a car under-steers he’d induce more under-steer instead of driving around the problem as any good driver should do when hunting lap times…
But that’s an argument for another day. Peter Jacquet had the Benetton ready, Alan vd Merwe fired the thing up and I was all eyes and ears. Two things always hit you about F1 cars in action. They’re incredibly loud and incredibly fast. Words cannot describe the experience, but I was looking beyond the noise and sheer straight line speed of the thing.
Van der Merwe wasn’t hanging about. This car had traction control and he hoofed it coming out of corners, car looked quite impressive. Down the pit straight I could see that the steering ratio was quite sharp. The slightest movement of his hand on the wheel and the car would dart to the side. Braking and turn-in looked pretty similar to what I’m used to in a 250 Superkart, but he was trailing the throttle into turn One. I would have wanted to be back on the throttle earlier.
Sadly the car was geared too short and he kept bouncing off the limiter down the back straight, so he only did five or six laps and came in.
Van der Merwe’s comments…
I made sure I was within hearing distance for Alan vd Merwe's feedback after the session. First thing he mentioned was that it didn’t feel like an old car. With traction control and paddle shift on the sequential box it was surprisingly easy to drive, but he complained about being flung about inside the car due to incorrect seat and driving position.
That’s understandable. It’s horrible driving a fast car with an incorrect driving position. Another thing he complained about was the pedal arrangement. It was set up for right-foot braking and the brake pedal was tiny. I don’t believe that Michael Schumacher didn’t left foot brake in this car, so the pedal arrangement must have been changed afterwards for someone who couldn’t left-foot brake. And that was that. It was time for us to hit the road back to Gauteng. Alan vd Merwe’s lap times were kinda slow for the first session, but that was to be expected with short gearing and all. He did manage to get the car into the low twenties the day after.
Do I think I can drive a car like the Benetton B194 properly? At the risk of sounding like Hamster - This is not a get-in-and-drive jobby. It's ridiculously fast. You first need to prepare yourself mentally and physically, but being brutally honest with myself, - Yes, I think I can punch it for ten to fifteen laps at a reasonably quick pace, but for now it remains just a dream. Nevertheless, the car’s owner has indicated that he would like to have the car featured in a magazine sometime in the future, so who knows…?