Barely blinking and mouths agape, we watched silently as the cars rolled out
into the cool morning air.
And when the first one screamed to life, the sound waves thumped our chests as a not-so-subtle reminder of what was still ahead. Dry-mouthed, we all swallowed in unison.
Being a Sunday morning, it seemed appropriate to say a prayer. Something like: “Dear God, what have I gotten myself into now? Please don’t let the driver be feeling a little suicidal because his girlfriend just dumped him, or a loose cannon who wants to see just what that car can do. Please don’t let me redecorate the inside of my helmet. And bring me back to the pits with all my parts intact. Amen.”
In the background were the snow-covered foothills of the Pyrennes. In the foreground was a renowned grand prix race course. Or, as I thought of it, the last 2.938 miles of my meager life.
“I dunno, man,” I half muttered to Kenny Sargent, head honcho of Speed Freaks, an Encino, Calif.-based syndicated motorsports radio show. ®I don’t know if I like this plan.® Kenny, trying to hide his own trepidation, got up in my grill and said, ®Look, %#@*&%@, you gotta get in that car, man. If you don’t, you’ll regret it. And I’ll call you a baby for the rest of the trip!”
Just what I needed. Some guy challenging my manhood, and it wasn’t even lunch. I wandered off to the other side of the garage to grab what might have been my last smoke and quickly dictated my will into a tape recorder.
By the time I got back, I was on deck. Kenny shot me a glance, reminding me with a scolding finger that I couldn’t back out. Resigned to my lot, I picked up a driving helmet, slowly pulled it over my dome, strapped it in place, pulled on my driving gloves and walked over to meet my maker.
Chauffeuring my ride to immortality was Jean-Paul Bellac, a former FIA GT champ who was piloting the 1997 Arrows F1 car, specially modified to accommodate two people. Those of us with backsides too big or legs too long (me on both counts) had to experience the 900-hp thrill at Bellac’s hand.
Less robust attendees of the Michelin Driving Experience could either drive solo in single-seat Arrows F1 cars or leave the driving to Bellac. In other words, you could be embarrassed by yourself or with the help of a trained professional.
Bellac hit on his mark on pit lane, and two assistants pulled Bellac’s last victim from the Arrows’ tub. Delirious with relief, Bellac’s passenger let out a scream that crumbled my shriveled resolve. Too late. No way to hide for two more days.
Once seated on the floor of the Arrows, two sets of hands worked quickly to strap me in. Two sharp yanks and a long firm pull on each harness segment assured I was well part of the car. With my long legs cocked and spread, they laid the pilot’s seat cradle in my lap and secured it in place. Then Bellac, who (thankfully) couldn’t have weighed 140 in a sweat-soaked driving suit, settled back in place.
After what seemed like an eternity, the three-liter engine fired up, and after a few revs, we were flying out the pit exit.
Barcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya resembles the profile of a deflated tire, with a peaked hump where the innerliner side of the crown would be. That layout affords six straightaways, including an extra-long one across the tread face and about five corners that could be taken at a considerable pace.
So, what’s it like being strapped to a 1,300-pound rocket ship?
For one thing, you don’t measure 0-to-60 in seconds. Nanoseconds, maybe. Parsecs is more like it.
I expected to be jostled about like a rag doll, but Bellac’s deft touch made every corner smooth as silk. Acceleration and braking, however, left a few marks. I didn’t know, for instance, that you could do that to a perfectly good set of pads. Or blow through five gears in the time it takes to read this sentence.
Bellac’s headrest and helmet blocked any forward view, which, in retrospect, was a good thing. I really didn’t want to know. I had to crane my neck to peer around the obstacles but, at the same time, keep my chin in my chest lest the air rushing by grab the helmet and rip my entire head off.
I haven’t a clue what our top speed was. Michelin smartly took the long front straight out of play, which kept my briefs clean. Still, Bellac didn’t wussy around the circuit. Just over a minute after our flight departed, Air Bellac landed neatly on pit lane.
Yes, I would have regretted passing on the ride. It was worth every sweat bead and cuss word.
The best part, though, was seeing Kenny after his lap.