Aspiring racing drivers in South East Asia have been contesting in the Formula 4 South East Asia Championship (F4 SEA) since last year. The fledgling race series has been touted as the first step towards a career in single-seat racing, with the eventual goal of entering the high-profile world of Formula 1.

“Entry level” it may be, but like most Formula vehicles, the cars that compete in the championship are very light and therefore very, very fast. They feature whipcrack throttle response, brutal shifts from the sequential gearbox and unassisted steering and brakes, so they’re not for the weak or the faint of heart. The drivers who race them may be teenagers who have yet to even earn a driving licence, but they are also supremely fit.

So you can imagine the trepidation of yours truly when Petron Malaysia, which sponsored the final race of the inaugural season in Sepang earlier in the year, invited us to drive a Formula 4 car there during an exclusive media track day to test its Blaze 100 fuel and Blaze Racing fully-synthetic engine oil last week. Not only would this be my first time driving a race car (and an open-wheeler at that), but also my first time having a go at the full 5.543 km track. Scary doesn’t even begin to describe it.

The International Automotive Federation (FIA) introduced Formula 4 in 2013 as a new category for young drivers that have graduated from karting, and it’s a less expensive stepping stone towards the more established Formula 3 and the F1 feeder series Formula 2. It’s already seen 2014 Italian series winner, Canadian Lance Stroll, land an F1 drive with Williams this year.

The South East Asian championship consists of five races around the region, kicking off at Sepang from September 29 to October 1. It then heads to Clark, Philippines from October 20 to 22, Sentul, Indonesia from November 24 to 26 and Buriram, Thailand from January 12 to 14, before coming back to Sepang for the final race of the season from February 9 to 11.

As with most single-seat junior championships, Formula 4 calls for single-spec race cars to level the playing field and reduce costs. In the case of F4 SEA, organiser Triple A settled on a 2.0 litre naturally-aspirated four-cylinder engine built by Renault Sport Racing, based on the production F4R engine and producing the maximum 160 hp allowed by regulations.

That might not sound like much, but those horses don’t have much to lug around save a six-speed Sadev sequential transmission, an FIA-homologated carbon monocoque, four tyres and the bare minimum of aerodynamic addenda. The car itself is built by French manufacturer Mygale, one of the four companies approved by the FIA to supply F4 chassis worldwide.

Formula 4 mandates the use of the same kind of fuels and lubricants that you’ll find at your local petrol retailer, such as Petron Blaze 100, Malaysia’s first and only RON 100 premium petrol. Produced at the Petron Port Dickson refinery, the high-performance fuel is formulated with TriAction Advantage, a triple action formula which Petron claims delivers improved power, engine protection and mileage, enabling improved engine response, power and acceleration.

The fuel is complemented with Blaze Racing engine oil, claimed to provide optimum engine protection. It is formulated with Thermal Stress Stabilising System (TS3), an exclusive technology is said to keep lubricant stability at extreme temperatures and engine stress; the engine oil is designed to meet the requirements of most modern vehicles, including high-performance vehicles.

“We are proud to have Petron as our official Fuel and Engine Oil partner to the FIA Formula 4 SEA Championship in the past season,” said Triple A chairman Peter Thompson. “Having tested Petron’s fuel and engine oil during the past season, we confirm that the products are reliable and the best match to help the performance of our racing cars. Reliable fuel and engine oils are key for the performance of both road and race cars and it is wonderful that Petron Blaze 100 is not just race-proven by also available to public.”

The day began with a short briefing on the car and the racing line by Adam Khalid, a promising 19-year-old Malaysian who finished second in his debut season of the AsiaCup Series (which F4 SEA replaced) in 2015. He’s also the grandson of the late Tan Sri Yahaya Ahmad, former DRB-Hicom chairman.

After that, it was time to suit up before jumping into the snug cockpit. Even getting off the line was a challenge in this car – although there were paddle shifters present, a clutch was still needed to get the car moving from a standstill, and the pedal was so heavy that it was difficult to find the bite point. Added to that, I was so hesitant with the spiky throttle that I stalled almost immediately.

Eventually I managed to get out of the pit lane and into the first corner, but at low speeds, even brushing the throttle caused the car to spin. Fairly embarrassed that it happened so early on, I took to the next few corners at a more glacial pace, trying to get a feel for grip levels and the amount of power coming from the inline-four chuntering away behind me.

The straight coming out of Turn 8 gave me the first chance to crack the throttle open, and by golly was it fast, pulling mercilessly towards the redline, before a click on the right paddle brought a shove in the back and started the process all over again. It’s loud too – the engine may have been from a Renault Laguna, but shorn of any sound deadening it buzzed like a swarm of bees headed straight for my ears.

This gave me the incentive to push a little harder, and get a better feel at the rest of the car. As you’d expect, it was lithe and incredibly agile, helped by the weighty, pin-sharp steering. Grip was aplenty along the longer, faster corners, too, so much so that I was struggling to counteract the G-forces pulling me in the opposite direction. I started to realise just how fit the guys have to be to put the hours into driving these cars.

Still, I was slowly getting my confidence back, right up until I spun out again in the second corner – this time beaching the car on the outside kerb, requiring a tow truck to pull me out. My ego suitably bruised, I tried to drive smoother and more consistently afterwards, but at Turn 4 I carried too much speed and went off the track. That was enough to bring out the red flag and end the session.

The experience was certainly a humbling one for me. Modern cars require little effort to drive at speed, so it’s very easy to get confident behind the wheel. The strength and skill required to drive one of these things – even if you’re not going anywhere like as fast as the actual drivers – is immense, and I have a newfound respect for those who pilot racing cars day in, day out. Anyone who thinks that racing is easy, or is not a real sport, only needs to have a go in one of these things to see the truth.

I also have a better appreciation for entry-level series like Formula 4. For drivers who have just stepped out of a go-kart, this gives them a first-hand look at what driving an single-seater is like, in a safer, more cost-effective package. If this keeps up, young talents across the region have a bright future ahead of them.