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A close encounter with F1: A fan’s eye view of Abu Dhabi driving experience
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A close encounter with F1: A fan’s eye view of Abu Dhabi driving experience
Posted By: James Allen  |  01 Oct 2010   |  11:40 am GMT  |  41 comments

Long time F1 fan Neil Donnell won a JA on F1 competition to come with me to Abu Dhabi as a Fan Ambassador to a unique 2 day event designed to give an insight into what it takes to be a Grand Prix driver.

Here is his post about the experience and some of his photos. Please let us have your comments.

“So as my experience with James at the Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi draws to a close it’s hard to distil into words the sheer level and variety of enjoyment this adventure has given me.

Neil smiling because he's about to be driven by Jean Alesi


It has been the ultimate dream come true and I have been riding a wave of adrenaline that is sure to come crashing down soon. Over the last 48 hours I have driven Go Karts, Renault Clio’s, Aston Martin’s, Radical Supersports and the Formula Yas 3000 cars. On top of that I managed to have a run in the back of the F1 2 Seater with Jean Alesi at the wheel and 2 runs down the Yas Marina Dragstrip with ‘Hot’ Rod Fuller up front and Jake Humphreys from the BBC by my side.

Neil with JA and BBC's Jake Humphrey


Along with the other fans taking part in the event, I have had the chance to rub shoulders with the people that generate the content that I watch on TV and read in the press and their sheer passion for the sport that we follow was just great to see and be part of.

It was a pleasure to just sit in the bus on the way to various activities and spend time with such great people. Listening to the stories of the inner workings of what we see from the outside and gaining an understanding of the professionalism and effort these guys put in to get us the breaking stories and insightful coverage that we want or demand.


You really have to pinch yourself when 30 minutes after he has driven you around the circuit in an F1 car, you can share a car back to the hotel with Jean Alesi and just talk to him about his career, home life and day trips to Chamonix.

The drivers were all like this, totally approachable, relaxed and great fun to be around. As soon as the helmets were on though they were down to business.

Getting instruction from Herbert in SuperSport Radicals

I just don’t think they can help themselves and you get the feeling that they didn’t leave much on the table on some of the hot lap runs.

Wednesday afternoons Renault Clio race – with us as passengers – was a great example of the drivers’ characters in action. Johnny Herbert and Jean Alesi are obviously old friends and this came through in their racing. Throwing these cars around and generally causing chaos on the track, and all of this after a direct warning from the course director that any messing around would result in a black flag!

Jean’s advice on the racing line went straight out the window as he cut the grass and corners and then proceeded to drive through all the bollards to ‘open up the line’. I couldn’t help but smile on the slowing down lap he looked at me with a big grin and said, “Johnny is great to have these races with as ‘he’ knows all the dirty tricks!”

Neil on the steering simulator. The weight is 5kg, hold it in place for six minutes


If there is one take away from my experience then it would probably have to be the sheer ability of these drivers. From their performance in the mental and physical tests to the car control is simply phenomenal. These drivers wear the car like an extension of their bodies. I struggle to co-ordinate my own limbs as well as they handled these race cars.

We had a high speed chase after Alesi in F3000 cars. Awesome!


I think a lot of us harbour the thoughts that given the opportunity we could compete in motor sports at the top level but from my 2 days here I think I can safely say it’s not in the fabric of my existence.

As a games developer I have a lot of experience playing games and in various reaction time tests I normally perform well, but going up against these professionals was a real eye opener.

Yes, we even got a ride in the Yas 3 seater dragster. 0-250mph in 4 seconds!


It is surely no coincidence that a world champion drag racer like Rod Fuller can consistently beat everyone that was put in front of him on the reaction time machine.

I could talk for hours about the driving experience and the ‘pinch me’ moments but bizarrely it has not only been the sheer performance and ability of the drivers and vehicles that has left me stunned. As we know, F1 can sometimes have a slightly cold external face but the warmth and hospitality of our hosts, drivers and the members of the media has been simply amazing.

Neil gives his views to the TV documentary crew


I will always be indebted to the staff at the Yas Marina complex. What they have managed to build and achieve is simply fantastic. Surely no other venue in the world could lay on an event like this.

The circuit, facilities and hospitality are out of this world and you can tell that this was built and operated by people with a real passion for racing. Photos and videos really don’t do justice to the scale and splendour of the venue.

It is like Disneyland for race fans.

Here’s a rather shaky video of my Aston Martin GT ride with Johnny Herbert!

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41 Comments
  1. Andy Fov says:

    James, you’re making dreams come true here. This site ought to be renamed Jim’ll F1-x It.

    Stifling immeasurable envy for a moment, great report Neil, you’re a fine ambassador!

    It’s interesting you mention reaction times of racers being superior. I don’t doubt that they are – I was never beeen convinced by Clarkson’s Top Gear test on Schumacher that showed him to be fairly normal in that regard.

    1. James Allen says:

      LOL!! I loved that show. You should be a copywriter!

    2. Neil Donnell says:

      Yes, I had heard that drivers reaction times weren’t anything special either but I think in general they are marginally faster.

      On average I would normally get 220-230 milliseconds and they would get 210-220 but would be consistent with it. Hot Rod was pulling out 180ms on occasions.

      I’m not ashamed to say that Jean Alesi beat me quite comprehensively too, although I did I try and blame Darren Heath’s flash going off as an excuse!

  2. YMC says:

    Neil, thank you for your kind words about Yas Marina Circuit and our team. It was a real pleasure to have you as our guest. Take care.

    1. Neil Donnell says:

      My pleasure and thank you for such a life fulfilling opportunity. You should all be very proud of what you achieved at Yas Marina. It is an amazing place and I will definitely return.

    2. Frenchie says:

      Hi YMC,

      I heard indeed that the facilities were second to none. The V8 supercar people, and Neil Crompton especially were just amazed at the quality and spaciousness of the complex.

      I had a couple of questions/remarks:
      1) having watched the F1 qualifying, F1 race and two V8 supercars on TV, I could not help but be confused about all the different lanes of the different circuit configurations. Has this been raised before? IS something being done to help the TV viewer enjoy the experience a bit better?
      2) With F1 providing so little overtaking opportunities (generally) wouldn’t it make sense to get rid of Turns 5 and 6 and go straight from Turn 4 to Turn 7 with a heavy braking zone at Turn 7? (just a mere suggestion, I am not a professional).
      3) I considered attending the race but was disappointed to see there were no general admission area. I love filming the cars on Friday and Saturday during support races, practices and qualifying; and like to watch the race from a grandstand on Sunday. It would be great if such a ticket opportunity would arise.

      Anyway, thank you for being so committed to the motorsport by organising such events.

  3. Gemma says:

    Wow Neil it sounded like an Amazing experience. I’m sure all the fans of this site are going to be highly Jealous! It would be great if events like these were a yearly event?!

  4. Ben G says:

    Well done Neil – glad you enjoyed it.

    ps – with your helmet on you look like Jacques Villeneuve!

    1. Stevie P says:

      Good spot Ben; he does!!! :-) Hold on, maybe it was Jacques… when James wasn’t looking, he bundled Neil into a car (which drove off) and then took all the tests etc to prove he’s still got it – well Jacques does wish to get back into F1 doesn’t he! ;-)

      Sounds like an utterly stunning experience which you thoroughly enjoyed :-)

      1. Ben G says:

        My God – it’s all a conspiracy to get Jacques some track time! Before he buys HRT and finally gets back onto the grid next year…

        And didn’t “Neil” slap his kart on pole?

        James – how could you? What next? I know, a “competition” for a fan to visit the Pirelli factory – and a mystery winner who looks eerily like one M. Schumacher…

    2. Neil Donnell says:

      Thank you. I’m sure Jacques will pleased to hear that. I wonder if I can sneak in the paddock as a look alike?

  5. Andy C says:

    Excellent to hear your thoughts Neil.

    As a life experience, chasing Jean Alesi round the track in an F3000 car must be pretty much up there mustn’t it?

    What do you think of the F1 2010 game by the way? Graphics are pretty much on par with a lot of PS3 games in my opinion.

    1. Neil Donnell says:

      Yes, truly mind blowing. I really felt the part driving around in them. Sitting low to the ground, paddle shift, those big slick tyres and the sun setting over the grandstands as the asphalt glistened. The handling of the Yas 3000 was really good, a lot of grip and such immediate response. I was sad when I saw the chequered flag.

      F1 2010 looks good and seems to handle well. It is going to be my game of choice for the near future at least.

      1. Andy C says:

        If you fancy a race online give me a shout.

        I am currently half a season through with lotus, and have taken jarno off twice in races (but for some reason the team are very happy with me – I can’t see that happening in real life :-)

    2. Ben G says:

      Warning to everyone – don’t try and download it for a PC from Microsoft. They’ll take your money, it won’t work, then you’ll spend a week on the phone pressing buttons trying to get help, and cursing Bill Gates every five seconds.

      I’ve resisted the urge to get a games console, but looks like I’ll have to take the plunge to try F1 2010.

  6. Jim says:

    A very well written piece, you may be wasted sat at a compiler!

    I’d just like to make the point, that I’m not jealous, nope, not jealous, not jealous in any way at all, git ;-)

  7. Neal Rayner says:

    I am utterly, insanely jealous :)

    I love your write up Neil, I got a real feel for how it must be to spend a weekend with these legends!

    I’d love to hear more about how difficult the Yas 3000 cars were to drive from your perspective and how much of their potential you think you managed to use, and just how mind-blowing the passenger laps in the F1 car were !

    I might just put Yas on my list of GPs I need to visit having ticked off Spa, Monza, Monaco and Silverstone.

    1. Neil Donnell says:

      It might sound strange but I actually found the Yas 3000 cars easier to drive than the Aston, Renaults and Radicals. The semi-automatic paddle shift free’d up my thinking to focus more on my lines and the car really did handle like a dream.

      It could also be down to the fact that the Yas 3000 was the last car I drove and the instructions from the drivers had started to bear fruit.

      I don’t think I was in anyway close to extracting the maximum from the car. I would imagine I got to 60% or something. I only really felt that I was getting close to the limit of the cars grip in the slower corners. Through the fast stuff my bravery or sensibility (?) was definitely not matching the downforce the car was generating.

      The F1 2 seater was unreal. The braking would literally take your breath away and on the straight it just kept on accelerating.

      Leaning my head to the right whilst looking at the back of Jean Alesi’s wonderful crash helmet as we went flat out through turns 14 and 15 before braking so hard in front of the hotel balcony is an experience I will never forget.

      You should definitely go to Yas Marina, it’s stunning.

  8. Brandon says:

    Amazing stuff but will we get to see the proper film that the crew was there for? Sounds like Neil had the experience of a lifetime! Also James I appreciate the videos on your site but they are usually way too short. This one being the exception. Many thanks and I’d like to see your opinions on the F1 season as we are so near the end

    1. James Allen says:

      Yes, we are producing some videos at the moment. We’ll get them out soon

  9. Glen D says:

    Hi Neil

    What an amazing experience!!!

    Just being in the company of Alesi and Herbert would be enough let alone being on track with them!!

    Well done!

  10. Rob Thorpe says:

    Although I’m exceedingly jealous, it’s so refreshing hear about a competition of this nature being won by a true motorsport fan – someone who fully appreciates the prize and could so eloquently convey the experience to similar minded people. Well done Neil, great piece.

    1. Jim says:

      Couldn’t agree more. I was in a postion once (quite a few years ago) to be ordering a lot of kit from sun for an insurance giant. So much kit that the sun rep invited me to Monaco with them. Unfortunately for me, my manager got to hear about it, spoke to sun and went there instead. he never even watched a race on TV. Suffice to say I left…

  11. Ihsan says:

    I am absolutely green with envy and very happy that you, as one of “us” has got to taste being on the track with the company that you had Neil. Congrats.

  12. Debbie M says:

    It all looked fantastic. So jealous but glad everyone had such a good time. Chance of a life time! I actually felt nervous before Neil took off with Johnny in the Aston, kind of like I was about to go on a rollercoaster. Brilliant stuff!

    PS When can I have a go?

  13. jonrob says:

    Excellent, I hope we will get good notice of the tv/video broadcast, will you be in it or will it all be Jake the peg?

    The lap with JH Reminds me of my only first hand experience of slick tyres, driven by James Weaver in a BTCC BMW635csi (yes it was a long time ago)
    Having strapped yourself in firmly, it is amazing that after the first corner at any speed one can suddenly find an extra two or three inches of slack to tighten in the harness. And finding your legs and arms being flung side to side until you establish where you can brace them safely out of harms way. (and the driver’s way). I found the cornering speed almost unbelievable. It was twenty years ago now but I still remember every detail and I can still feel the buzz. I think it will stay with you too, (If you do not go on and race yourself.) Also a reminder of how coarse and noisy racing cars sound inside, engine, gear and diff noise sounds like it is already broken.

    However did you manage to drive an F3000 and keep up with Jean Alesi? How did you manage to go fast enough to keep the tyres warm? Did it still have the gearstick up in front of your right shoulder? Remember Hammond of Top Gear having repeatedly to come in to have the tyres re-warmed.
    Congrats you must be a driver of great talent!
    James got the right competition winner.
    Of course green with envy but far too old (and poor) now to do anything but wish. Congratulations mate, I hope you will write much more about the qualities needed and sensations felt at each stage of your YAS experience.

    1. Neil Donnell says:

      I’ll give as much insight as possible jonrob. The shift was semi-automatic which made life a lot easier for me.

      I think Hammond drove the R25 F1 which is probably a lot less forgiving and has a much narrower operating window than the Formula Yas 3000.

      Either that or he was too small to reach the brakes! ;)

  14. Incredible, money can’t buy an experience like that, to see so much

    Thanks so much for showing and being a great ambassador

  15. Luke A says:

    Neil,

    Fantastic stuff, great article too. I’m very jealous of you but you seemed to deserve it and fulfill your role brilliantly.

    By the way, you said you’re a games developers – do you work for a large games company or a smaller business?

    I’m actually based in the computing industry myself.

    1. Neil Donnell says:

      I worked on the Hitman games at Eidos for many yearsbut more recently I have been working for a start-up games developer (Reto-Moto).

  16. JimmiC says:

    It sounds fantastic; you couldn’t get two better characters than Jean and Johnny as well.

    I imagine your lovely lady is still peeling you off of the ceiling!

    1. Neil Donnell says:

      Yes, I didn’t realise they were such good friends but then it dawned on me that they were in and around F3 and EJ together.

  17. Galapago555 says:

    Neil, once your name was announced I was one of the many that wrote that you “probably” deserved to be the Fan Ambassador.

    Now I know – and I bet that so do most of us – that you ACTUALLY deserved it. Congrats!

    PS: what do Peach and Yoshi think ’bout their dad living such an incredible experience? :-)

    1. Neil Donnell says:

      Thank you. Yoshi and Peach are too young to know as they are only 14 months old but I hope to be able to show them the pictures and videos some day. It was nice to come home and see them as it’s the first time I have been away from them for longer than one night.

  18. Frenchie says:

    Hi Neil,

    Thanks for the post. It was great to read your amazing experience and to watch your lap with Johnny Herbert.

    I was wondering if you got the opportunity to meet fans from other countries and if you had the chance to the locals. I was in Singapore last weekend and quite amazed to see that Singaporeans know their basics when it comes to F1. I’d love to hear on this.

    James, any chance we can watch some of the footage (BBC or otherwise) on One HD in Australia?

    1. James Allen says:

      Yes, I did a report on the event for OneHD/Network 10. I’ll check but I imagine it will run in Japanese GP programming

  19. Mario says:

    It must have been great fun. I bet you haven’t stopped grinning yet. Best of luck on your future adventures Neil!

  20. Rich C says:

    Love the video! Awesome!

    Listening to that thing wind up through the gears made my hair stand on end – I can’t imagine what it was like to be there!

  21. Steve Rogers says:

    How amazing to be able to spend track time with Jean Alesi – one of my heroes – and the great Johnny Herbert!

  22. Thomas in Australia says:

    These articles have been brilliant. Great report by Neil.

    It really puts to bed all the silly comments about Hamilton, Vettel etc being “manufactured”.

    Money, opportunity, and a big chunk of talent will *almost* get you there (Yamamoto, Bruno S etc). It that last 5% that makes all the difference, and it appears that we are either born with it or we are not.

    One thing i have learned is that if Robert Kubica is ever given a car capable of winning a championship, i’ll be laying down a few Aussie dollars. The guy was born to race.

  23. Kenny Martin says:

    Excellent piece, and as others have said Neil, very well written!

    One question though, which I’m sure many people are dying to know (and which you’re probably not allowed to answer!)… did you and James talk about Jonathan Legard at all at any point? :)

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