Here's the story of how the world's greatest racer rattled my cranium like the pea in a spray-paint can. I went faster than I'd ever cared to, probably faster than I'll ever go again, and I'll never be the same.
The morning after finishing second at the Monaco Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel, the three-time reigning Formula One champion, went to the Paul Ricard Circuit in the south of France to drive Infinitis. The luxury brand recently named Vettel their "Director Of Performance," an honorific if ever there was one. Vettel's contract with Infiniti calls for six half days and three three-hour days every calendar year. He flew, in a private jet, back to his home in Switzerland long before lunchtime, so this was likely one of the three-hour days. Regardless, the 25-year-old Vettel was there, going over flowcharts with Infiniti engineers.
After doing his business, Vettel came out to meet the assembled swells and hacks. He looked trim and laid-back, with a three-day growth, as a man at the top should. This was part of Infiniti's "Ultimate Performance Driving Day," which, judging by the shoes that the non-media participants were wearing, must cost a fortune. It was an F1 fantasy camp, populated by Sebastian Buemi, who’s Infiniti Red Bull Racing's number-three driver, retired F1 circuit burner David Coulthard, and, for a few shining moments, the great Vettel himself.
There was a brief press conference during which nothing interesting was said, and then we all went into the parking lot to pose for a group photograph. Vettel squinted into the sun. "Too many drinks last night," he said, and no one was going to fault him for that. There are only so many times even a champion like Vettel gets to turn a wheel in anger at Monaco.
Then we walked out to the track, which once hosted several Grand Prix and these days serves as F1's advanced testing ground, miles of wind-blown asphalt backed by Provencal mountains. It's a significant place to play around with cars.
A select few of us got into Vettel's passenger seat, which wasn't what you might think an F1 star would pick. He was driving his eponymous Sebastian Vettel Edition Infiniti FX50, which has 415 hp, 21-inch wheels, carbon-fiber accents, and a price over $150,000. Though the car does exist outside the track, it will never go on sale in the United States.
But whether I was sitting in a race car or in a souped-up vanity SUV, I was still in the passenger seat, with a helmet on, next to the man who's odds-on favorite to win his fourth F1 title, making him one of the all-time greats. There’s photographs and video proof. Nothing like it will ever happen to me again.
"How are we going to drive?" I asked.
"We are going to drive fast," he said.
I had other concerns, based on my past history with racetracks.
"Have you ever made anyone vomit?" I asked.
"No, no," the great Vettel said. "Scream, maybe."
We drove, not particularly fast. Vettel took a couple of corners sharply and seemed to extract great pleasure out of wagging his car’s rear end around the track. Later, when watching exterior footage, it all looked a little dangerous. But inside, the cockpit barely registered movement. The champion stared ahead, as placid as a monk.
And then it was over, gone in 90 seconds. The course didn’t comprise the whole circuit. It was just a taste of track, more like a lap around a mall parking lot, with a couple of tight turns and some rear-end shimmy. We’d spent more time getting our microphones hooked up to the GoPro camera than we did actually driving. I wasted 40 percent of my conversation time with Vettel asking him if doing yoga helped his race-car driving. Not exactly the most essential question of our times but I was curious. His answer, “no, but it is a good workout,” satisfied me.G37, an M37, and a non-Vettel FX50, which kept us busy for a while. Then we had lunch, followed by a “dynamic driving workshop,” wherein we whipped an M35 hybrid around a bunch of safety cones, on a track that had been artificially wetted by sprinklers. That part was really fun.
But all this was just filler to get us to the day’s money shot, the “F1 Three-seater Experience.” They had two actual Infiniti Red Bull Racing F1 cars ready for us, each carrying a right and left side box seat. They were supposed to have been driven by Clouthard and Buemi, though Buemi dropped out for some unspecified reason, replaced by a track instructor, whose car I got dropped in, somewhat disappointingly. But it hardly mattered. The car still provided plenty of thrills.
They put me in a full racing suit, gloves, helmet, and high-topped driving shoes, an all-encompassing outfit that made me look like a visiting spaceman. I also wore earplugs. To get into the sidecar, I had to stand up straight, brace my arms, and lower myself in like I was on a pommel horse. I slotted into the car. On the other side of the driver, a guy from Qatar slid into his seat simultaneously. I snapped down the visor, and sat there, breathing, which sounded loud in the helmet. My heart was beating quickly. I tried to modulate my breath to slow it down. Some guys, who were speaking French to each other, buckled me in. My butt was cold. It felt like there were maybe two inches of metal between it and the track.
We launched. The F1 car didn’t ever go at full power, but it was still more than enough. The G-force pressed me back, and to the side. It forced my eyes closed. The racing helmet, by far the best one I’d ever worn, felt like was going to blow off, and maybe take my head along for the journey. It kept cracking against the back of my seat.
When we took the straightaways, it was frightening enough, but also kind of fun and breezy. The corners, though, were truly terrifying. As the car hit the apexes, I was plastered against the sides. My breath was tight and shallow; my bones felt compressed. I made some sort of squealing noise, which the GoPro mercifully didn’t capture.
We pulled into the pits, maybe a minute later. I unbuckled and then staggered upright. Returning to Earth took a little effort. Everything looked strange and gauzy. At most, we’d gone 200 mph, probably a lot less than that, but it felt to me like I’d driven through the fabric of time. Reality had shifted, even so slightly. My bucket list was one item shorter.
Afterward, on the deck, they popped the Mumm’s. By that point, I was walking in a straight line again, though three glasses of champagne would soon cure that. My colleagues and I toasted one another.
“Cheers,” said one. “Here’s to Mondays.”
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