Trip of a Lifetime
My dad is a master when it comes to unique ideas. Fortunately for a fellow fanatic like myself, the majority of these ideas are car related. While some ideas do not bear fruit, an alarmingly high proportion of them do (like the time we acquired Mila). And now that he’s retired, he’s got a lot more time to come up with and research new ideas. So, when he mentioned finding a school that would involve driving a Formula car at historic Laguna Seca, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes with a smile. I was also intrigued.
While I have about 20 years in wheel-to-wheel racing experience in closed wheel cars, I’ve never driven an open wheel car, I’ve never driven a car with a sequential gearbox, and I’ve never been to Laguna Seca. This would be a great opportunity to knock out some cool things from my motorsport bucket list!
I grew up delightedly watching Indy cars at Laguna Seca (now known as WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca) as they tore down the infamous corkscrew turn and wondered what it must be like to drive it. And now here I was. Granted the horsepower difference between an Indy car and a Formula Renault is meaningful, it would still be thrilling to get a taste.
Enter Allen Berg Racing Schools (https://www.allenbergracingschools.com/). The school we chose to attend in June 2021 was started by former F1 driver Allen Berg and is fully staffed with both former and current professional car and motorcycle racers. Our classroom instructor started the Indy 500 twice, and we got individual instruction from a couple Harley Davidson-sponsored motorcycle racers.
The Renault Formula 1600’s we’d be piloting only weigh 1,100 lbs., in part due to their 100% carbon fiber monocoque chassis. These cars can do 0-60mph in under 4 seconds and can carry 2.0 G’s in both cornering and under braking. All this coupled with sitting a mere few inches off the pavement should really magnifies the sensation of speed.
There were sixteen students, split up into two different run groups. Our group started with a classroom session where we got an overview of the track turn by turn. After this, we went out to pit lane to get an overview of the Renault.
Getting into the car was interesting itself for the uninitiated. You step over the side onto the seat, snake your legs over the front axle down the narrow cockpit to the pedals and lower yourself into the seat. It’s a tight fit.
The first couple lapping sessions were done with a lead-follow approach where the instructors drove the track in a pair of Mustangs. As we felt out the cars and began to piece the track together, they quickly increased the pace.
In a session focused on smoothing out heel and toe downshifts, I found that with the sequential gearbox I had to complete each shift when going down two gears from 5th to 3rd. In an H-pattern, you can just keep your foot on the clutch and through the two gears, but in the Formula car it’ll only go down a single gear if you don’t let off the clutch between shifts.
Eventually, we graduated to some open lapping which was great! All helmets were fitted with video so we could review our sessions with our instructors. The detailed feedback was extremely helpful as we worked to refine our skills and get around the track quicker.
Towards the end of the day, I was starting to feel a lot more comfortable with the car. Maybe a little too comfortable because during a later session on day one, I neglected to build some heat into the slicks and spun while accelerating out of turn three. I did this on the out lap. Kind of embarrassing.
Whoops! Cold tires combined with early acceleration is like oil and water.
Day 2 continued with more open lapping, and I could really feel my lap times improving. I was consistently getting a good shot out of turn 11 onto the main straight. And the faster down the straight I went the harder the wind began to pull up on my helmet―a sensation that isn’t typically felt in a closed wheel car.
The last debrief session lined used telemetry from our fastest laps and compared them to a hot lap from one of the instructors. I’ve heard announcers talk about how the professionals use telemetry all the time but had not seen it for myself. It was interesting to see when and how I broke into and accelerated out of the track’s 11 turns compared to a superior driver. Given that I had never driven one of these cars or been at this track up until the previous day, I thought my lap was downright respectable!
A bumpy ride, but a fun one!
Overall, this was a truly amazing experience that I won’t soon forget. Laguna Seca is a wild track―highly recommend checking it out if the opportunity presents itself. A lot of elevation change and several blind and banked turns made for something very different than the road courses I’ve driven over the years. I hadn’t realized just how steep the corkscrew is. From its blind entry to its exit is a 6-story change in elevation. I found the Formula cars to be a bit twitchy, and a rough ride. But damn fun! If you get on the throttle too early the back seemed to step out easily. I had been used to feathering in the throttle as soon as I was done braking for a turn, but the Formula cars needed to be pointed mostly straight before putting the power down. There was more coasting through sections of the turns than I expected.
In addition to having a great time, it’ll be interesting to see how some of this newfound knowledge will translate to my current wheel-to-wheel and autocross efforts. I’ll keep a watchful eye on my lap times and see what happens!