Hot laps with motor sport heavyweights
Sydney Morning Herald
Friday April 1, 2011
Stephen Ottley is a white-knuckled passenger in a fast and furious race concept. I've watched a lot of motor racing but never from this perspective.I'm riding shotgun in a race-prepared Renault Megane RS250 with V8Supercar driver Rick Kelly.Alongside us, in an identical Red Bull-liveried Renault, is formula one legend David Coulthard.And I mean right alongside us. We're almost touching panels as we rocket down Albert Park's main straight.Turn one is approaching rapidly, not surprisingly given we're doing 200km/h, and Kelly waits until Coulthard's brake lights come on before he hammers the Megane's middle pedal and scythes past the 13-time grand prix winner.Neither driver is fazed by the rain that has lashed the Melbourne Grand Prix Circuit and left it as slippery as an ice rink.Coulthard stays pinned to Kelly's rear bumper as we slip and slide around the track. Behind the Scottish ace is Australia's next F1 star, Daniel Ricciardo, who's happy to sit back and watch the positions change at the front.The fourth and final Renault is driven by freestyle motocross megastar Robbie Maddison; the man who has made headlines around the globe for his world-record two-wheeled leaps.The event is the Red Bull Race Off, a support race for the Australian Grand Prix. The concept is simple: take four identical cars and four Red Bull-sponsored drivers and let them loose in a five-lap race.Despite the cut and thrust between Coulthard and Kelly, this is only a practice session. I'm one of four lucky people invited to ride alongside the quartet of drivers to see how they work.What makes our exchange with Coulthard so impressive is that it is only the first lap either of these drivers has taken in the Renaults. Only minutes earlier Kelly has jumped into the Megane for the first time."I'm more nervous about this than the V8Supercars," he says when he climbs aboard. "I've never raced a front-wheel-drive car before."Watching him going through a mental checklist as he prepares for the hot laps is a fascinating insight into what makes a racing car driver better than a normal driver.His first priority is to get comfortable; he gets the Renault mechanic to adjust the five-point racing harness, fiddles with the steering column reach and asks about the brakes and tyre pressures. And that's it.Ignoring the wet track, Kelly nails the throttle as he exits the pits and the front tyres predictably scramble for grip.At the first corner he slams on the brakes to test their limits and at the same time generate some heat in the brakes and tyres.At the third turn, the back of the car breaks loose but Kelly's instincts kick in immediately and he catches the slide with ease.By the time we're through turn five, Kelly has worked out the car's dynamics and is starting to push it along.He is so confident that when the back end steps out at 130km/h as we negotiate the fast sweeping turn off the back straight, he pulls it back onto the racing line without fuss.The momentary loss of momentum has been enough for Coulthard to get a run alongside and dive underneath going into the sharp left-hander at the end of the next straight.But Kelly immediately latches on to the Scot's rear bumper and slipstreams him down the straight before pulling alongside, which is where the story started - side-by-side at more than 200km/h in cars these two hadn't sat in until five minutes ago.The pair swaps spots a few more times on the next lap but then the fun is over, almost as soon as it began. It's time to ditch passengers and go for some proper fast times.It may be just another day at the office for Kelly, Coulthard, Ricciardo and Maddison but it gives me a whole new perspective on motor racing, white-knuckled in the passenger seat.