My life as a boy racing demon

Formula BMW cars may move like the wind and roar like rockets, says Robin Barton, but where on earth do you put your tea?

An air-conditioning unit is throbbing away at the back of the darkened room. The blinds have been drawn to minimise distraction, although this just makes me sleepy. Even the fly buzzing around seems lethargic as I try to make notes and concentrate on teacher.

"To change into neutral, pull the lever on the left, push the clutch down and push the gear lever on the right forward two notch-es..." Neutral lever left right down, I write. Just then a MotoGP motorbike blasts past outside at 160mph.

Yes, I've gone back to school. But it is no ordinary classroom: we are in Valencia at BMW's racing centre for the Formula BMW class of racing cars, and our teacher is Mike Strotmann, head instructor at the facility. The racing centre is based at Val-encia's MotoGP track and I should be paying attention, because later in the day I will be taking one of the centre's Formula BMW cars for a spin. Not literally, I hope.

Formula BMW is a race series for junior drivers and aspiring Formula One stars. "This is entry-level motorsport," says Strotmann, a tall, wiry German and a champion touring- car driver. "They join Formula BMW from the age of 15, after karting. There are four series around the world [in the UK, US, Germany and Asia], and 80 of the best drivers meet at the World Final in November in Valencia."

The winner of the final earns a test drive for the BMW-Sauber F1 team, and the most talented, such as 18-year-old German Sebas-tian Vettel, receive a £35,000 scholarship to compete.

Among this year's British scholarship winners is Henry Surtees, 15, the son of racing legend John Surtees, the only man to win world championships on two wheels and four.

"The important thing at this stage is not to have any fancy ideas," says John Surtees of his son. "All I want is for him to enjoy himself and come off the track with a sparkle in his eye."

The first class with Strotmann ends, and I admit to a certain amount of trepidation. The Formula BMW cars use a 140bhp motorbike engine, their low weight of 455kg and the F1-style aerodynamics mean they travel from 0-60mph in under four seconds, reach 140mph and top out at 9,000 revs.

"There's only one rule," Strotmann tells us. "Do what you're told." This rule has several sub-clauses: start the car only when the instructor says so; switch off the engine when not driving, because it is not cooled when stationary; drivers who crash will not continue; if you spin the car, go back to the pits for a check-up; go to the pits if a red flag is waved; slow down and do not overtake if a yellow flag is waved; keep two or three car-lengths between cars, because rear-ending can cause £5,000 of damage to the £40,000 cars. "If you hit a bumper in a kart it might cost £30 to fix," says Surtees Jnr. "It's a lot more expensive in a Formula BMW."

There is also a good reason why the centre is based where it is. "Most pros tend to spin to the outside of a corner," explains Strotmann. "But beginners make mistakes at the middle or end of a corner and spin off inside. Valencia has run-offs inside the track; it is nearly impossible to hit a wall here."

Nevertheless, I am still kitted out in a flameproof suit, gloves, tight driving boots, a helmet and a neck brace. But my first concern is how I will fit inside the cockpit. There isn't a seat as such, I have to turn my shoulders sideways to squeeze in, and my knees are crammed under the toy-like steering wheel.

I get an intense feeling of claustrophobia. I can't move and can barely see. Racing drivers have to be able to exit their cars in five seconds - I can't even find the harness's buckle in that time.

Our first exercise is mastering the gear change. It is a manual gearbox, but whereas a road car has 15cm of clutch travel, racing clutches have a mere 3cm.

"Clutch in, engage first gear and raise the rpm," instructs Strotmann. "Lift the clutch millimetre by millimetre. When you're at walking speed, release the clutch fully."

Before my first circuit I want to know what separates a good driver from a great driver. "It is very much in the mind," Strotmann thinks. "You have to believe that you can win. In Germany we say that a champion has to be able to bite.

"Sebastian Vettel is a driver who can bite. He is already very quick, but he has the passion to be the best. He does every drill again and again until he is the top of the class. The best drivers, such as Michael Schumacher and Vettel, have had to fight hard. They had no money, so they were hungrier." Motorsport is an expensive business: running a Formula BMW team can cost £100,000 a year.

Strotmann tips Vettel as a future F1 champion. As Schumacher fights to regain his title, Strotmann makes another point: the fastest driver is not the one who brakes least. "They had to redesign the Ferrari's brakes for Schumacher because he braked so much harder. The driver who goes through the most pads and disks is the quickest."

I am going out in the hope of staying in one piece. As soon as the car is moving, the claustrophobia disappears. "The faster you go the more grip you have," I remember Strotmann saying, as I jerk from fourth to fifth gear, the engine screaming at 7,500 revs behind my head. My first corner approaches at 100mph: hard on the brakes, shift down in a straight line, move to the outside of the track and find the racing line. A professional would use the heel-and-toe technique, where one foot works two pedals: toes on the brake, heel on the gas. Stalling is a more likely outcome for me.

In a few adrenalin-blurred minutes I gain a new-found respect for Schumacher, Vettel and Surtees. But as the pit lane comes around again and I have choice between practising my five-second exit and another lap, I realise I can't wait to get out of the car. "You think that's uncomfortable," grins a mechanic as he helps me out. "A Formula One car is much, much worse."

THE COMPACT GUIDE

HOW TO GET ON TRACK

Anyone can sign up for the Formula BMW two-day racing course in Valencia. It costs £1,200 plus VAT. For more details, email: mike.strotmann@ bmw-motorsport.com.

The Formula BMW World Final takes place in Valencia from 24-26 November. More details of BMW racing: formulabmwuk.com

News
US comedian Bill Mahr
people
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Sport
football
News
Rob Lowe
peopleRob Lowe hits out at Obama's snub of Benjamin Netanyahu
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Davies (let) says: 'Everybody thought we were having an affair. It was never true!'
people'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
News
Staff assemble outside the old City Road offices in London
mediaThe stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century at Britain's youngest paper
Life and Style
The Oliver twins, Philip and Andrew, at work creating the 'Dizzy' arcade-adventure games in 1988
techDocumentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Arts and Entertainment
Krall says: 'My hero player-singer is Elton John I used to listen to him as a child, every single record
music
News
Friends for life … some professionals think loneliness is more worrying than obesity
scienceSocial contact is good for our sense of wellbeing - but it's a myth that loneliness kills, say researchers
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
News
i100
Environment
Number so freshwater mussels in Cumbria have plummeted from up to three million in the 20th century to 500,000
environment
Life and Style
Models – and musicians – on the catwalk in Dior Homme for the men’s 2015/16 fashion show in Paris
fashionAt this season's Paris shows, various labels played with the city boys' favourite
News
i100
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Old Royal Naval College: ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Sales Assistant

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This airport parking organisation are looking...

    Recruitment Genius: PCV Bus Drivers

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Do you enjoy bus driving and are looking for ...

    Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - York

    £18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - Y...

    Day In a Page

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us