How to: Drive* Like an F1 Champ
As the youngest Formula One world champion in the 61-year history of the sport, Sebastian Vettel is probably the most successful 23-year-old you will never meet. He also appears to be well aware of this.
The young German has been taking journalists for rides around a racetrack all morning in an Infiniti IPL G Coupe as part of a press event, and it doesn’t take long to notice a marked difference in the way he drives, depending on the gender of his passenger.
“Take it easy,” says one of his minders. The woman about to get into a car with him is a “lifestyle journalist.” And, she’s a woman—probably around Vettel’s age. Vettel peels out of the pit lane, wheels spinning, engine roaring. He is not taking it easy. He didn’t drive like this when there were dudes riding shotgun. And, so, two black lines on the tarmac affirm what we all pretty much knew: hand a boy keys to a quick car and put a pretty young woman next to him and he’ll act like a right hooligan.
He names his cars after women, too: Kinky Kylie, Randy Mandy, Luscious Liz, Kate’s Dirty Sister. When asked if the names come from women he knows, he acts coy. “Some names have a certain inspiration,” he smiles.
When it’s my turn to strap on a helmet and climb in beside the fair-haired millionaire, any concern of not getting my lap’s worth are quickly allayed. As we careen around the track, I manage to hang onto my lunch long enough to ask him what it takes to drive like a champion.
*For heaven’s sake don’t try any of this on public roads.
Understand the car
“You cannot compare this Infiniti to our racecars,” he says as we head towards a corner carrying far too much speed, silver metal barriers flying past on either side. “You can buy the best sports car in the world but never get close to the feeling of a Formula One car,” he adds wistfully. “I mean, now we are going, for instance, 100 km/h through here but we would go [in an F1 car] in a corner like this at maybe 200, 250.”
“You have a certain feeling after you’ve driven the car for a while—how much the car can take—and based on that you make your judgment. A lot of it is feeling though: where you hit the brakes, how hard to hit it before you go into the ABS, before the tires give up because they couldn’t take more. So, after the first couple of laps, you get an impression of what the car can do, where the limit would be.”
We’re sideways now, tires squealing, the car is sliding, but Vettel seems not to notice, carrying on the conversation as casually as if he was ordering a latte. “I’m having fun,” he smiles. “I’m not really working too hard.”
He’s downshifting now, getting back on the power on the way into a bend.
“Stomp the clutch so the wheels start spinning and then the car goes sideways. We’ve got quite some power in this car, but not enough to make the wheels spin on their own so I use the clutch to break the grip. Once they’re spinning, then it’s actually much easier to go sideways. And you can also go sideways just by using the right amount of brakes at the entrance of a corner: the rear getting very light and then throttle so the car turns with the rear stepping out.” Vettel cruises back into the pits, tires smoking, brakes finished. Lesson over.