Motorsport, as we all know it is expensive, very expensive and that even starts with the most basic form of motorsport, go-karting. It’s either you are backed with hundreds of thousands of ringgit or you have raw natural talent. Even a Formula 1 rookie would have to bring money into the team, such as Hispania’s Bruno Senna and Karun Chandhok. However there are various organizations out there that are trying to find workable talents and subsidize, if not fully cover one’s motorsport endeavors.

Take Petronas as an example. The national oil and gas giant has been putting loads of money into motorsport, such as MotoGP with the Fiat Yamaha Team and Formula 1 with Mercedes. Not only that, the company has been promoting motorsport at lower levels. One such campaign is the Petronas Formula Xperience. The company pretty much sponsors a group of budding young talents to part in the Petronas Formula Xperience. These young drivers, aged between 10 till 16 get to race professionally in single seater race cars. The idea is that they first go through a selection process, based on natural talent, not how much money you are bringing in and who your daddy is.

The kids have their to prove their worth on the track and natural talent is not the only thing the guys at Petronas look for. These potential racers will have to carry good PR skills. As a professional race car driver, one would have to deal with sponsors and fans, and teams require this. Gone were the days when all one needs to do is just race, although some Formula 1 drivers today still lack PR skills, such as Kimi Raikkonen, judging from his demeanor during interviews.

In Petronas’ Formula BMW Xperience, the kids will be professionally trained in both theory and practical. They will have take care of their diet and fitness levels too, which are important in motorsport. They will go into extensive testing and practice to sharpen their skills, so they can take on bigger things in the high-octane world of motor racing. Did I mention that all expenses are paid for by Petronas? One Formula BMW single seater already costs hundreds of thousands, not including cost of tires, crew, marketing, track rental, other equipment and more.

It’s not easy what these drivers have to go through, as some of them still have to attend school. To make us appreciate and experience what these kids go through, Petronas has invited a select few, including yours truly to the Sepang circuit recently to drive the Formula BMW, with the kids giving us some useful pointers!

Continue reading to check out our experience.

We motoring journalists get invited to a number of drive events, on and off the track. But this was something special. It’s not everyday you get invited to drive a racing machine, a single seater racing machine! The machine in question is a Formula BMW FB02. Power comes from a 1.2 litre normally-aspirated 4-potter, taken off the K1200RS motorbike. Yes, that means it revs high (with 9,200 RPM as its maximum revs) and quickly too.

The engine which is paired to a 6-speed sequential transmission is able to produce 140hp. That may sound nothing to you but in actual fact, the engine, when fitted in the light weight Formula BMW is able to propel the single seater to 100km/h in less than four seconds, up to a top speed of 230km/h.

Before we got our hands on the steering wheel, there was a quick mandatory briefing which brought everyone up to speed especially in regards to safety. We had several driving sessions line-up for us and each were accompanied by a briefing. But before the sessions started, we had to undergo seat fitting so we would be comfortable in the cockpit.

After all the relevant procedures, it’s off with the first test of the car! First up is the art of shifting gears. I must admit that as I got into the cockpit with my full gear, I did feel a little costrophobic. I didn’t feel this when I tried out a Formula Renault a while back. However, the nerves went away as soon as I starting driving it. Getting back on track, gear shifting may seem as something simple and insignificant but it becomes extremely important in motorsport.

As mentioned, the car uses a 6-speed sequential gearbox with a manual clutch. This means that gears have to be changed manually, the same case for the clutch too. It’s similar to your normal road car with a manual transmission. We had to manually operate the clutch during all gear changes and the pedal arrangement is similar too. The only difference is that the gear stick was positioned just beside you right thigh and it requires more effort to change the gears. Some of us even had blisters on our right hands at the end of the day.

There is another major difference that I neglected to mention – “heel and toe”. Heel and toe is basically a skill that enables super smooth downshifts. In your conventional car, whenever you downshift, there would be shift shock, which upsets the balance of the car. With heal and toe, there should not be any shift shock, as gears drop smoothly. With a car that is a little more balanced, the driver can set even quicker lap times. In this case, using heel and toe also to helps make sure that you don’t lock the rear wheels during downshifts.

Performing heel and toe requires lots of practice and to be honest I was a little rusty. You would have to blip on the throttle whenever you are about release the clutch and get into the lower gear. Blipping basically brings up the revs and when you actually change, it’s smooth and there is no shift shock. The thing is you would have to kick the clutch, drop the gear, release the clutch AND blip all at the same time. My initial attempts were anything but smooth, but the end of the practice which was just around the pit wall, I was able to perform heel and toe reasonably well.

After a quick lunch, we continued the event with the course car session. Here we were allowed to drive the FB02 on the north track but behind a safety car. This is where we were able to get used to the driving lines of the north track but everything were done at moderate speeds. We only did a couple of laps during this session but that was enough to make me feel on top of the world. The speed sensation was simply awesome. Just a little throttle pushes you further into your seat.

The key here was to have gradual acceleration which becomes more important since there is no driver aid to save you. The steering was also superbly sharp and it offered good feedback. You can always tell what the car is doing, whether is about to understeer or oversteer. Handling is very neutral as long as there is no abrupt acceleration.

I also noticed that the downforce improved as the speed increased. This means that the handling was sharper at higher speeds. It makes sense because all the downforce provided by the aerodynamics parts such as the front and rear wings worked at high speeds, when there is more wind resistance. I also tried out the brakes and it was vital not to lock them. So the key with braking is “squeezing” but you can’t be too gentle with it either. At that point I tried and felt every aspect of the car, all I needed was more speed. That wish was about to be fulfilled as we were allowed to take part in a free practice session, without the safety car!

Of all the track events I have been to, this was the first that allowed participants to drive on track without the safety car. Furthermore we were allowed to race each other, but overtaking is limited to the straights only, fine by me! This allowed us to drive closer to the limits of the car and although it lasted for about 6 laps, every second of it was worth it. We were let go to the track from the pit lane a with decent gap between one car to another. As soon as I was released from the pits it was full on driving for me! That first lap was for me to warm-up and as soon as exited the final corner, it was pedal to the metal.

I wasn’t sure how fast I was going on the main straight (too exited to look at the digital speedometer) and I can assure you, it was FAST! A tip by a young lad led me to brake hard at about 70 meters before the first corner. A late apex on the first turn gave me a slightly better entry in the second corner before accelerating away until I brake hard for the next right hander. By then I already overtook one driver. Then it was the breathtaking S-bend before tapping on the brakes and aligning the car for the final corner which led me back to the main straight.

However one my outing lap, the back-end of the car stepped out on the final corner, but a quick counter-steer proved to be a good remedy. I went on to complete the remaining laps and I took the opportunity to push my self and the car even further, especially under braking. I enjoyed several interesting overtaking moves including taking on two other drivers at one go! There is just no word to describe the feeling. High-adrenaline is an understatement. This is one event that will linger in my mind for quite some time.

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