THE cockpit of a Formula car is usually a cramped affair. A Formula 4 car, driven by junior drivers, is going to be even tighter. This went through my mind as I was suited up and prepped for an outing on Sepang track on a Monday morning.
We were guests at Petron’s media track day. A mechanic had propped up one of the cars on a jackstand and was running it through its gears. The roar of the 2.0-litre inline four reverberated through the pit area.
It sounded nothing like F1, but with a FIA homologated chassis, composite frame and wings, the bright red car looked exactly like its faster, more famous sibling, just smaller.
Powered by a Renault 2000cc FIA F4 homologated engine running on Blaze 100 Euro 4M fuel as well as Blaze Racing Fully Synthetic engine oil, the car pushes out about 160hp. It weighs in at less than 500kg, giving it the ability to reach 100kph in under four seconds.
Given a long enough track, it will easily reach speeds in excess of 200kph. This is one big step above karting.
Standing in the pits, I could feel the adrenaline building up. At about 180cm, I was already near the max height recommended for these little race machines.
It would also be my first time on Sepang in something other than a tintop or a motorcycle. Would I fit in it? Fully decked out in race garb with helmet and gloves, I climbed into one of the cars and let out a sigh of relief. There was more than enough space. I was going to drive this baby!
At a different part of the paddock, one of our fellow motoring journos, a lady driver, wasn’t so lucky. Already suited up, she climbed into the car and found her foot a few inches from the foot pedals.
There was a lot of hectic wrangling as mechanics and even fellow journos tried to get her properly seated. After about of minute of trying though, she had to give up. This wasn’t a car launch test drive. A formula car just isn’t as ergonomic friendly.
Time is precious on an international track like Sepang. Every minute counts. Five minutes before lift-off, the organisers started strapping me into the seat. A full racing harness kept me suspended to the car in case things went south.
Then the engineers started the engine. As it burst and growled into life, I nearly giggled like a little kid.
The car was wheeled out onto the pit lane. Glorious sunlight glinted off the bright red paintwork. It was nearly noon, and a perfect day to be racing, or in this case to just drive around the track. Actually I have to be honest here. I’ve done this hundreds of times before, except there were no petrol fumes, no growling engine shaking the body panels . Yup I’ve trained on a PlayStation for years.
In the blink of an eye, the cars started accelerating one at a time. I gunned the throttle, kicked the clutch in, and clicked the gearbox into first with the paddle shifter. The car howled, lurched forward, sputtered, and came to a halt.
My mind cycled through the brief training that we had received. Pumping the clutch back in and pressing the neutral button, I started the car again. This time the car lurched forward and began to gain momentum.
In the pit lane, speed is limited to 100kph, but the sheer willingness of the engine to rev was already apparent. Unlike the road car engine, the F4 engine felt incredibly responsive. It was also hard to modulate the throttle, and I jerked the car right along the pit lane before reaching the first corner.
Upon reaching Turn 1, I realised I was having difficulty finding the brakes. My shoes were way too big for driving a race car, and I frantically dropped the gears down to shed speed. There was some frantic steering through Turn 2 before coming to Turn 3, which is a long, gentle right hander. I gunned the throttle, and for a moment imagined this would have been what it felt like when Nico Rosberg was chasing down Max Verstappen, except in slo mo.
Despite its humble FIA classification, the F4 car is extremely fast. It corners like it’s on rails. Its adherence to the road surface actually improves with speed, given that it has wings just like a Formula 1 car.
In fact on track, this race car for kiddies would actually easily beat even the fastest production cars in existence, given the right driver.
From Turn 3, I slowly picked up speed, trying to chase down the rest of the pack which had disappeared.
It was then that the car in front of me, piloted by Harian Metro’s Lizam Ridzuan, spun. It was on Turn 9, and Lizam probably had the car in too high a gear. In a moment, he was facing the wrong direction, the car cocooned in tyre smoke.
I slammed the brakes, grinned at him and put up the thumbs up sign. He gave a thumbs up as I drove by. Thus began my little adventure of being lost on Sepang track.
Perhaps a bit shaken after Lizam’s spin, or simply because of excitement, I missed the pit lane exit. This was fine, because everyone makes a mistake once in a while.
The F4 car was low, compared to the bikes I’ve ridden around the track. But then I missed it again, and to my utmost horror, they sent Adam Khalid out to lead me in. Yes, our national racer, who will be driving in the support races for the Malaysian Grand Prix. He came out in his yellow car, red strobe light flashing.
Formula 4 South East Asia Championship will commence with six rounds in Sepang, opening for F1’s final race in Malaysia, giving young drivers in the region their first chance to shine in front of a global audience.
Catch our young race heroes in action at Sepang.