The ride of your life: rollercoaster is faster than motor racing car

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"We don't hold our arms in the air just for the thrill of not holding on," said Andy Hine, chairman of the Roller Coaster Club of Great Britain. "Putting your hands up stretches the trunk of your body and gives your internal organs more room to bounce about. It exaggerates feelings of weightlessness."

Mr Hine, 38, a veteran of 25,000 theme park rides, then pulled down the head restraint of his seat on the new Stealth rollercoaster which opened to the public yesterday at Thorpe Park in Surrey - and braced himself for the ride along with 19 other passengers.

Stealth is not just any rollercoaster. Billed by the theme park as "the most extreme speed experience in Europe" the ride accelerates to 80mph in 2.3 seconds - faster than a Formula One car leaving the starting grid - and whisks its passengers around a 205ft-high U-bend in the sky. Riders experience a negative G-force of 4.7, whipping around the curve at the summit before plummeting vertically at 80mph back towards the earth. It is all over within 15 seconds, although the adrenalin rushes for considerably longer.

"No one will have seen anything like this in the UK," said Mr Hine when he got off - and immediately started queuing to go back on.

Another member of the club, Marcus Gaines, 29, from Southampton, recommended sitting at the back: "You get a real kick as you're sent around the top, because the front end is already falling to earth." He said Stealth was better than the most extreme coaster he had previously ridden, Top Thrill Dragster at Cedar Point, Ohio, (420ft high, 0-120mph in four seconds), because it was "a short but constant thrill".

The manufacturers, who spent £12m in 18 months developing and building the ride, even called for help from the heavens. Canon Michael Hereward-Rothwell, the vicar of Thorpe, donned his robes and sprinkled holy water to bless the attraction, "to calm the souls of the very first test riders" - who were members of the press.

"It is the first rollercoaster I've blessed," he admitted. "I've done the usual boats, factories, houses ... as well as a racing car, a turtle sanctuary and a zoo in the Caribbean.

"I can see people flying over the top of it from my house in the parish. Thankfully I'm not close enough to hear them screaming."

The clergyman described Stealth as "healthy and good fear ... a piece of innocent excitement, and ultimately part of God's creation". Asked whether or not he planned to buckle in and hold on, he replied: "Maybe in another incarnation."

There are only three rides in the world with a faster launch than Stealth, all in America. The benchmark is currently Kingda Ka, which broke records for being tallest and fastest when it opened last year at the Six Flags Great Adventure Park in New Jersey. Riders shoot from 0-128mph in 3.5 seconds, cresting 456ft above the floor of the theme park before dropping vertically through a three-quarter spiral. Thorpe Park's half-size version is the fastest and tallest "launch coaster" in Europe, and is certainly an upgrade on the Flying Fish children's ride which previously occupied Stealth's space in the park.

Even an interruption to the opening day, when The Independent's reporter accidentally shut down the launcher by leaning on a large red "Stop" button, did little to dampen the enthusiasm of first-time riders. "Totally awesome," said Ben Harrison-Johnstone, 11, as he wobbled out of his seat. "We were at the front and the speed was immense. My legs have gone."