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

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