Were there some way to capture my facial expressions under the balaclava and helmet, I’m sure I’d give the best of actors a run for their money. Because over that sole lap around the Sepang International Circuit, I experienced everything from anticipation and joy to fear and eye-widening panic. Sitting shotgun in a two-seat Formula Le Mans car with a racer going for it has that effect. Welcome to the Michelin Pilot Sport Experience. It’s an annual event where the French tyre maker flexes its rubber muscles and gives Michelin partners and a few lucky contest winners an opportunity to really experience some of the race machines that come shod with its tyres. I say ‘some’ because Michelin is involved in everything from Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship, to the World Rally Championship, Formula E and Moto GP. And that’s just to name a few.
For participants, it’s a day to partly live their racing fantasy. Slip into racing overalls, tighten the laces on your Sparco race shoes and get handed a helmet with your name on it – it all happens just as it would for the lucky guys who make their living racing hard on any given Sunday. My first driving experience for the day was in a 130hp hatchback. Lest you are underwhelmed, know that the car had a full-spec roll cage and rally tyres. It was a proper Citroën DS3 junior rally car and I was to pilot it on a rally course that had just lost the little traction it had thanks to heavy overnight rains. Awesome! After a slow sighting lap where I was shown the lines, my instructor sitting besides tells me to attack. “No braking” is the next instruction. I’m not sure I heard that right so I abide by the late great Colin McRae’s ‘If in doubt, flat out’ motto. Late apex, the instructor yanks the handbrake (we weren’t allowed to) and the car pivots into the hairpin. What a feeling! I could feel the tyres scrabbling for grip and was pushed to be more aggressive with the controls to get the most out of them. A few laps in, I got the hang of the lines and using the throttle to steer. Full lock, opposite lock, half lock…it was incredibly intense in the cabin. Pity the video footage from the outside didn’t look half as dramatic as I expected it to be. Rally drivers really are a different breed.
It was great fun playing Sébastien Loeb in the Citroën.
We moved to relatively more familiar environs for the second experience. We were to drive a 220hp Renault Clio touring car on a section of the main circuit. Once again, a yoga asana or two was required to get past the scaffolding in the car and onto the seat. It should have been straightforward thereon. Accelerate hard, shift up when the last of the rev lights on the steering is about to glow, and downshift and brake before turning in to the corners. Except I wasn’t accustomed to the grip from the racing slicks so was braking way too early and correspondingly wasn’t using the width of the track. And that’s one of the things I loved about the event. The instructors weren’t matrons there to keep a check on speed, but rather were coaches who highlighted where we went wrong and what we needed to do to go quicker. As I got faster and faster, my appreciation for the circuit, the tyres and this highly strung version of the Clio just grew.
My time in the touring car also served as the perfect warm-up for the next session. It was in an F4 car – my first time in an open-wheel racer. It was just as they describe it. You are virtually sitting on the floor and the cockpit is tight, but, man, the view is spectacular. My executive briefing included a bit on getting going (the engine only ‘catches’ at about 6,000rpm) and the brakes (the pedal is like pressing against a wall). But nothing could prepare me for how raw and physical the experience turned out to be. You literally need to stand on the brakes to get them to work, the throttle is like an on/off switch and each gearshift executed via paddle shifters results in a very harsh mechanical jolt. Then there was the handling. A few degrees of lock and the car changed course with the immediacy of a shark on the prowl. It was incredible. Unfortunately, I had to scale back on pace often over the laps to avoid overtaking my Porsche Cayenne Turbo pace car (a bummer, I know) and risk my session being cut short. I can tell the driver ahead was driving the wheels off the Cayenne – the tyre flex on the Porsche tells all – but that’s the difference between a fast road car and even a basic race car. For the record, this F4 racer makes just 160hp! Still, it’s not an easy car to drive and takes a toll on the uninitiated quickly enough. My neck was the first to give up and a few laps in I couldn’t keep it straight on Sepang’s long, flowing corners. Note to self – must get into shape.
The Formula Le Mans car was all about brutal acceleration and g-forces.
The final outing on track was as passenger in the custom two-seat Formula Le Mans racer. 430hp, 900kg, fully mad. Getting in the confined passenger cell was like fighting my way into a tight sleeping bag and I’m sure the six-point harness temporarily cut off blood supply to my limbs too. But it was all worth it because of the most exciting/frightening rollercoaster experience of my life that was the hot lap. I don’t remember much about the tyres, but I do remember attempting to stomp on imaginary brakes every time the driver late braked into a corner. I also remember the ballistic acceleration out of the corners and the sheer noise of the V8 behind. And of course, I won’t forget fighting the g-forces and struggling to keep my body from overflowing into the driver’s cell. The sole lap was equivalent to a gruelling hour at the gym. At least it’s a workout I can get onboard with.
That in a nutshell was the Michelin Pilot Sport Experience. Eight hours, four different experiences and multiple checks on my driving bucketlist. What a day. What