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What happens when a member of the public gets to drive a Formula 1 car
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Posted By: James Allen  |  21 Oct 2011   |  11:45 am GMT  |  51 comments

This week I went along to Silverstone to see something I haven’t seen before; a member of the public driving a Formula 1 car.

This extraordinary happening was the final stage of the Drive of a Lifetime programme, which is organised by one of McLaren’s sponsors, Johnnie Walker.

Thousands of entries from all over the world were narrowed down to 17 finalists, who came to England for a three day experience, which took in some time at McLaren’s HQ in Woking, a day driving fast cars at Jonathan Palmers’s track in Bedford and then a day in single seaters at Silverstone.

I joined in on the single seaters and had a great time, lapping the national circuit on a sunny morning!

McLaren’s senior engineers Phil Prue and Scott Bain were there, along with Mika Hakkinen, who is an ambassador for Johnnie Walker these days, to decide who was most deserving of a chance to achieve the hold grail of all F1 fans – a drive in a real F1 car.


The car in question was Lewis Hamilton’s 2008 McLaren, the chassis being the one in which he won Silverstone that year. Hamilton showed up in the afternoon to shake down the car and show the winner how the controls work. Despite the news breaking that he has split with his girlfriend Nicole Scherzinger, he seemed reasonably upbeat.

The winner was Djordje Simic from Serbia, who did remarkably well when he got behind the wheel of the McLaren on the Silverstone national circuit, using most of the revs and hitting a decent line out of Woodcote. Most importantly, he didn’t spin or crash! I was really surprised at how well he coped, as these cars don’t work unless you get the tyres and the brakes up to temperature.

I’ve done a video on the drive, which I’ll post shortly.

McLaren are now retiring that 2008 car and Hamilton said he was going to ask McLaren boss Ron Dennis if he could have it!

For next season the team is going to use a 2010 McLaren F1 car for demonstrations and for this one-off event with the public. If this Drive of a Lifetime event happens again next Autumn, I’ll try to see if we can get a place in the final 17 for a JA on F1 reader. Now that would be cool.

Keep your eyes peeled for that…

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51 Comments
  1. Andy says:

    Sadly a dream that will never come true for the rest of us. Having looked at the prices of Renault’s driving school (£5000+ for one day) it’s obvious that it’s not for mere mortals…

    Nevertheless, considering myself to be a rather good driver I would love to try myself out at the wheel of an F1 car!

    1. Richard says:

      Having once had a go in one of those JP single seaters at the Bedford track mentioned in this article I would not take a F1 car out for a spin even if someone paid me £5000… I would arrive at the first corner backwards in twelfth gear or something.

      They are beyond us mere mortals :D

      1. Samos says:

        12th gear. lol :D

  2. MISTER says:

    Amazing!

    If I would ever get a chance like that, I would be ecstatic.

    I’ll tell you what, I’ll better start training just in case. Karting..here I come!

    1. wayne says:

      Absolutely, I’ll join you at the gym just in case we get to battle it out on track ;) If anyone can get Johnny Average in on this sort of event it is JA.

      As for the Hamilton girlfriend thing, all I can say is – I knew it! I said in a post here a few articles back I wonder if it is GF trouble as that is usually what get’s young men so down in the dumps. Do yourself a favour Lewis take a couple of years off fromt he GF thing and focus on your driving. You’re still young yet!

  3. Dave says:

    What a superb opportunity! I wish I’d known about that competition in order to enter it – I’ll try to remember to keep my eyes open for it next year!

    Will be interesting to see the video.

  4. MISTER says:

    James,
    I forgot to ask what was the background of those 17 finalists. What were the choices based on?
    I mean, is there any chance of someone like me who never raced in any kind of competitions to get a shot at this? At least be one of those 17 finalists.

    Thanks

    1. James Allen says:

      Yes, absolutely. They weren’t picked on talent, as far as I can see. I passed quite a few of them in the single seaters! You need a licence, but that’s it I think.

      1. jonnyd says:

        why weren’t they picked on talent? what was the selection process then?

      2. Cliff says:

        This was a marketing exercise, not an event designed to find the next WDC! The candidates would have had to meet a certain criteria just get into the cars. Williams/Philips and now McLaren/Johnnie Walker have run this type of event, I just hope that other teams and sponsors will follow suit. Afterall, F1 keeps telling us that they want to involve the fans.

  5. Andy says:

    Williams and their then-sponsor Philips did a similar thing for a couple of years not so long ago. I was at Silverstone when the last winner, Rob Tarlton from Illinois, did his laps – again, he put on a pretty decent showing. As you’d imagine, he was thrilled sideways afterwards – there’s video on the BritsOnPole YouTube channel. I like these competitions – I wish it happened more often.

    1. James Allen says:

      I agree. It’s staggering to see an ordinary bloke driving off down the pit lane in a race winning McLaren!

      1. wayne says:

        Here here, more stories about F1′s altruisitc side please (even if it is a marketing event it’s still a great thing to do for a guy or a gal who will remember it for the rest of his life).

  6. Andrew S says:

    Brilliant stuff

    When I read the title of this piece “What happens when a member of the public gets to drive a Formula 1 car”
    My immediate thought was complete carnage! but by the sounds of it the winner did extremely well. – and Im not in the slightest bit jealous..

    Congratulations!

  7. James, can you open this competition to residents in Ireland? I know I’d fly down to drive an F1 car ;)

  8. Kevin Thomas says:

    Wow, one lucky fella right there, but good luck to him, he did well to keep it under control based on watching Hammond on Top Gear and my experience with the F1 computer game!

    I entered the competition myself, it’s a fantastic opportunity and actually a surprise given the usually over zealous health and safety concerns we usually have. Long may it continue though.

  9. Jim O says:

    I got to drive Damon Hill’s 1997 Arrows F18 last year for six laps at Monticello Motor Club. Impressions? Tight fit for a 6’2″ 235 pound man sitting with the legs raised. I was at the limits for size. Steering wheel MUCH simpler than today’s..only a few buttons. You have to rev it to 4,000 rpm and let the clutch out slowly while increasing the rpm because when it engages the engine will stall below 4,000. Takes the corners very well with downforce (of course). You don’t feel like you are in the car, you feel part of the car.
    Car is meant to be driven fast, it will get more downforce the faster you drive it. I didn’t spin out but several others did.
    One of the other people, A J Baime, has a few paragraphs about it in the January “Playboy”. He compares it to sex with Marilyn Monroe. I’ll modify it by saying “in a phone booth”. But not a day doesn’t go by without me looking at the photographs and saying “I got to drive an F1 car, I am so lucky”. And if I could do it again, I would.
    The paddle shifters on the column take a bit of force to work, more so than conventional supercars that have them. Tires were warm by the time it was my turn but the brakes did improve the more laps I did. The more you drive, the more you get used to it, along with learning to hit the proper points for braking/accelerating. By the end I certainly was wishing I could do 60 laps or so but I wonder how black and blue my body would get from hitting the chassis.

    1. Gene says:

      Nice! Love hearing about your experience. Very very jealous!

      Interesting to hear your comments about the 1997 paddle shifters. I like comparing how the various drivers of today shift through their own gears with the paddles. For example, Hamilton likes to keep his fingers off the paddles then ‘slap’ the shifter for each higher gear. Then I noticed Button’s onboard shots, where you almost never see his fingers leave the paddles. I had always imagined paddle shifters being incredibly ‘clicky’ and easy to use, but I guess that wasn’t always the case!

    2. Dave Aston says:

      Awesome, and a significant car too, within a lap of being the first Arrows/first Bridgestone/first Yamaha GP winner. On a different note, I just heard the news from Malaysia-we lost two brilliant, charismatic and very popular racers this week, how sad. I’m in shock!

  10. goferet says:

    Hamilton said he was going to ask McLaren boss Ron Dennis if he could have it!
    ————————————————

    Ron Dennis sure is a penny pincher. While the Red Bull geezer is handing out his winning cars to the Wunderkid like yesterday’s trash, here’s a Hammy having to go on all fours begging Ron if he can have the wheels (a whole 3 years later)

    Of course we all know Ron is going to say ”bugger off” for this is the same Ron that doesn’t let the drivers keep the original grand prix win trophies but refers to keep his memories up in Woking.

    Anyway congrats to the Serbia bloke for doing a great job on winning the tough competition & lapping around Silverstone (in one piece on his first outing) , now there’s somebody that deserves a drive (hope he’s still young enough).

    Okay it’s days like this that I love Mclaren & it’s sponsors for they give back to the fans but when I think about their rubbish on-track strategies, all these good deeds get wiped out from my good books!

    And oh JA on F1, I absolutely have no desire to drive an F1 car (seeing as I can’t even drive a bloody road car) so you can cancel me out from that future competition but if you’re going to ferry around some poor souls to watch a race live then am your boy!

    God bless!

    P.s.

    It seems then that am not the only one that’s absolutely delighted that Hammy kicked his Pussycat Doll to the kerb.

    Love them & leave them is my motto too

    1. Andy C says:

      Unlike Redbull, McLaren have a big concourse in MTC full of racing heritage (just joking – I dont mind redbull being new boys and being successful).

      You may or may not be aware, McLaren have lockups (non display) of cars so they arent short of spares :-)

      Search youtube for the day Jenson and Lewis sought out the MP4/4.

    2. kowalsky says:

      On the fact about the pussy cat pain, i agree. He was slowing him down. I hope she doesn’t keep coming back, be a gentlewoman and stay out of the way.
      Hamilton has an appointment with history, and she is nothing more than a hurdle.

    3. FastGuy says:

      Odd that so many assume Lewis dumped her. I’m guessing Lewis is so mopey because it’s the other way around.

  11. WOW what an experience.
    I entered but not lucky enough to win.
    Such a cool prize and great effort from the team & sponser along with Lewis.

    Anyone who wants to know what it feels like to site in an F1 car I would highly recommend a factory tour at Williams F1 team.

    I got to sit in Jenson Buttons 2006 Williams F1 car and even though it was inside a building just the experience of feeling what it’s like to sit in the car was amazing.

    http://www.cmorephotos.co.uk/?page_id=2589

    1. Andy C says:

      I grew up watching williams winning. How did you get the tickets, and what were the prices?

      1. Tours are £60+VAT per person and can be found here
        http://www.williamsf1conferences.com/activities-and-events/tours
        Highly recomended if your an F1 fan and especially if Williams fan like myself

      2. Andy C says:

        Thanks for that.

        I recently spoke to Redbull about a tour and they were quoting somewhere in the region of 260 for a half day tour. I did mention I wasnt looking to meet the drivers…

        I’ll certainly go down an see the Williams tour.

      3. Also Team Lotus do factory tours at about £80 per person, based in Northampton

    2. Philip James says:

      Sorry to be picky and surprised no-one has picked this up so far…but if i remember rightly Jenson Button drove for Honda in 2006 (because he won in Hungary that year to claim his first win)…or do you mean his 2000 Williams BMW?? – 2000 was his first season in F1 partnership Ralf Schumacher!

      1. Yep your spot on, sorry for the mistake.
        But it was JB’s car for sure.

        @rpseymour

  12. Paul H says:

    So jealous!!! I’m big enough to admit to being a very average driver but who wouldn’t want to experience that feeling of blasting down the pit straight in an F1 car. You know, the moment before you realise you’re not sure where the breaking point, whilst hoping the brakes and tyres are warm enough as it dawns on you that there is potential the biological by-product is about to hit the mechanical cooling aid. Would be a something to tell the grand kids for sure :)

  13. robert says:

    i have to ask, how far off Hamilton’s time was the winner? I am sure it will be ages but it would be intriguing to know.

    1. iKid says:

      We don’t know because Hamilton crashed into someone before he could finish the lap.

      1. [MISTER] says:

        Now that’s a bit harsh, but pretty funny also.

  14. jmv says:

    I wonder what Mika on this occasion may have told Lewis about life, F1 and women.. :-DD

    One can only guess.

  15. Andy C says:

    Driving and F1 car is certainly on my bucket list, or indeed on my list of things I’d like to do before I reach 40.

    I dont care if it costs me £5k for a day. As someone said above, it is an experience as a fanatical F1 fan I would cherish for a lifetime, and you cant put a price on that.

    Sounds like a great day for the guy who got to drive the car, and for all of the others too. Amazing opportunity.

  16. Adelaide says:

    The first Serb in an F1 car! There was a Serbian racing driver called Miloš Pavlović, but he never got to F1, only to GP2. Dunno where he is now…

  17. 6 Wheeled Tyrrell says:

    I am Jack enflamed sense of envy

  18. Dave Aston says:

    Great idea, what a dream. I seem to remember Stephane Samson driving a Prost for F1 Racing, and some allowances were running him on wets (in the dry) and reducing the redline to about 13 000 rpm, I think. Peter Windsor drove a Toyota at Paul Ricard too, and said he was doing about 180 mp/h at the end of the main straight! As for Lewis… I guess he’ll just have to console himself with the non-stop stream of outrageously hot women from all over the world throwing themselves at him for the next thirty years or so… I hope he copes.

    1. Andy C says:

      Brilliant Post Dave. Yep, I’m sure Lewis will get through it.

      To me, he is mirroring what happened to Jenson at about the same age. People think these guys are robots, but they’re actually just very lucky normal guys.

      As open to getting their concentration swayed as the rest of us. He’ll come back after the break as strong as ever.

  19. Ted the Mechanic says:

    “Thousands of entries from… all over the world …were narrowed down to 17 finalists, who came to England for a three day experience”

    This is the bit I like most about this story.
    Unfortunately I don’t visit liquor stores very often so missed this promotion…
    Might have to re-think that life choice now that the JB’s, JD’s and JW’s are putting on these sort of promotions and the possibility of a “shot” at it from the other side of the world here in New Zealand (JB & JD big sponsors in Aussie V8 Supercars).

    I did get to sit in Denny Hulme’s old Yardley M23 in Te Puke once, which was a big treat, but no drive yet…

  20. Ted the Mechanic says:

    You have to wonder if Lewis’s pensive mood after Korean qualifying had anything to do with girlfriend woes. Nicole seemed quite taken by Leroy Bell, the “cool” 59 year-old contestant on X-Factor, putting him through for her final four when his last vocal performance was a bit dodgy compared to Tiger Budbill who didn’t have the cool factor but had a fantastic voice.

    I hope Lewis gets his head back in the right place for racing and manages to keep it there.

    1. Kit says:

      Who am I to comment on this topic anyway but I think someone like Jodi might probably have a calming effect..

  21. MehluliNdebele says:

    wow…well done McLaren an Johnnie Walker, firstly for giving this opportunity for ordinary fans to have such a awesome opportunity. Normally teams prefer to give opportunities like this to celebs like Tom Cruise an forget about us, the man in the street. Even though im so jealous it wasnt me behind the wheel, im glad it was an ordinary bloke whose dream came true

  22. Diogo says:

    I’m anxious to see the video!

  23. saleh alfakieh says:

    I want to drive the Mclaren Mercedes MP4-20
    WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOW
    i think i can do that in my dreams

  24. Jack says:

    I’m shocked Lewis doesn’t already own that car! The first thing in any F1 contract I signed would be ‘If I win the championship I get to keep the car in my house!’

  25. SimBri says:

    In 2001 I went on the Michelin Driving Experience after winning a magazine competition, the climax of which was meant to be a single lap in an F1 car (can’t remember which chassis). Unfortunately it was raining and they wouldn’t let us, which was gutting but we were driven round by one of their pilots in a 2 seater Le Mans car. Great as this was I’ve always wished I could have driven that car.

  26. SteveR says:

    don’t know about other Hamilton fans, but i’m OVER THE MOON to finally get to know where the lad’s head was all this time……now we have it back….lets GOOOO LEWIS!! Be hard to flush that ‘talent’ from your system, but you gotta try *blush* :)

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