Things started out badly when Charley Boorman was late for the first day of Celebrity Challenge boot camp.
No less than four people walked up to me, shook my hand and told me how much they loved my work. I’m not deluded enough to fall for this, and after the fourth time (Catriona Rowntree) I figured they were mistaking me for Charley.
Okay, so maybe I look a bit like Charley (he has more facial hair, I’m taller) but the confusion continued when people asked me about travelling the world on a motorcycle, which Charley and I have both done. Independently, I should point out.
And we’ve both done television (granted, he’s done way more) so you can see how a quick 'whaddyabeenupto?’ could lead to a whole heap of confusion.
Fortunately, Charley was a good sport about it and once he’d walked up to me and asked, “How’s it going, Charley?” I knew he was cool. Phew, because I imagine most celebs don’t appreciate impersonators. Even accidental ones.
Meanwhile, as far as I’m aware, being a breakfast DJ doesn’t require much in the way of spatial awareness. And the role of celebrity chef doesn’t rely on knowing the racing line through a corner. Nor is being able to trail-brake a prerequisite for entering a Miss Universe pageant.
This is why the annual celebrity race at the Australian Grand Prix is a complete panel beater’s delight. Throw in the fact celebrities don’t become celebrities by being the shy retiring type and the yearly carnage-fest is understandable.
Less fathomable is Mazda’s decision to back up again this year and supply 20 brand new 3s for the celebs to tear up in front of a sometimes bewildered Albert Park crowd. But according to Mazda’s PR frontman, Steve Maciver, sacrificing a few 3s to the entertainment Gods makes financial sense. The TV exposure alone is worth squillions and then there’s the Facebooking and Tweeting celebs use as their main form of communication.
My job in all this? To pretend I’m a celebrity for three days while a team of instructors attempts to turn 20 celebs into race drivers. At the end of it, we should all have our CAMS competition licence (which they’ll need to drive in the Celebrity Challenge race at the Formula 1 Grand Prix – as a fly on the wall, I’ll have to watch the race from pit lane).
Our head driving instructor is none other than Mark Skaife and, having done this before, one wonders why he’d be so keen to front up and put his reputation on the line again. But he seems to genuinely enjoy the challenge of taking a bunch of newbies and turning them into race drivers.
Early on day one, there’s a bit of brow furrowing in Skaife-Land as it becomes apparent there’s some seriously dodgy driving going on. The initial braking exercise (from 60km/h in a straight line) reveals many of the class of 2014 are like the rest of us. As in, they fail to pull in the ABS and brake before they’ve crossed the white line that marks the braking zone.
“This is what worries me about drivers these days,” Skaifey tells me privately. He continues, “There’s no understanding of what a modern car can do because we’re never allowed to do it. Morley'Don’t speed and don’t drink drive is all we hear. And then you see somebody who doesn’t know to jump on the brakes hard in an emergency stop and you hope it never happens to them for real.”
Back in front of the group his message is less political, but equally profound: “What we teach you here in the next three days will change the way you drive. Forever.”
By day two, the celebs have moved on to putting a string of corners together and Skaifey is using terms like understeer and oversteer.
Questions from the floor start out innocently enough and include gems such as, “How fast can you go before the car will roll?”. But, don’t go thinking this crowd is a bunch of dummies.
They’re world champions, Olympic gold medallists, top-shelf entertainers and canny business folk (and me). Rather, it’s a case of people who are very good at what they do professionally being thrown into a technical pursuit fair and square at the deep end.
Celebrity chef Adam D’Sylva is my first victim after the day-two chat. It sounds like a dumb question, but Adam is wise to it: How does driving a car fast on a racetrack relate to running a busy restaurant?
“Well, you do have to deal with timing, but it’s on a different scale. The concentration can be intense, too, like it can be in a kitchen.”
TV presenter Sam Mac is a bit more philosophical, likening the pressure he feels on the track to a performance in front of a big audience.
“I’d rather go on air with half-a-million people watching than slamming on the brakes and trying to hit an apex. It’s all very foreign to me. Actually, the idea that they’re having me drive at Albert Park at the GP is pretty amusing. It’s also a potential insurance risk.”
By and large, however (and it’s always the way with a group of people that includes sportspeople) the competitive spirit is coming to the surface.
Even non-sports folk are discovering a side of themselves they were previously unfamiliar with. Former Miss Universe Australia, Scherri-Lee Biggs, in an unguarded moment assesses her own aggressive on-track behaviour: “I’m shocked. That’s not how I am in life”.
The real Charley Boorman is typical. Having been split into different groups (probably to avoid identity confusion) it’s lunchtime before Charley and I line up for a bash at the buffet.
How’s it going, I ask him. Nothing. Just a shrug of his shoulders. “Who can say,” he replies enigmatically.
Then: “Who’s fast in your group?” he asks surreptitiously.
The competitive spirit clearly runs deep and is never far from the epidermis.
Sweet, disarmingly honest, gold medal snowboarder Torah Bright backs it up later. After telling me she doesn’t feel too much pressure because motorsport is not her job, “But I kind of want to win this,” she adds in almost a whisper. She’s not kidding.
Next up, it’s a hot lap session (about two hours straight) with instructors jumping in and out between laps. Suddenly, the celebs are starting to feel what Skaifey’s mysterious understeer and oversteer really means. Rob ‘Millsy’ Mills parks it on the beach and gold medal-winning freestyle skier Lydia Lassila has a major tankslapper at turn four. But even with these mishaps, the would-be racers have a new appreciation for speed and control.
And fear. I ask Torah Bright about the differences between standing at the top of a snowboard run and launching out of pit lane in a Mazda 3.
“Oh, standing at the top of a run is much scarier,” she admits. “With jumps, you’ve got a distance to clear. And if you don’t, you’re blowing out knees.”
She says it casually. I’m nearly sick.
The sporty types are also ahead when it comes to fearlessness. Another broken nose for me or former AFL player Nathan Brown? Meh. But supermodel Rachael Finch? Not so much. Mind you, that didn’t stop Rach overtaking on the grass when two cars tangled.
The final day is crunch time at Sandown. Two practice races will pit us against each other. Blow it here and you won’t be handed a CAMS licence to compete at the GP. And by now, with their lives three-days deep in becoming a race driver, that’s not an option for this bunch of career overachievers.
All that stuff about supermodels being scared of a broken nose goes right out the window as all 20 of the buggers suddenly experience the red mist. I’m honestly surprised at how fast these guys – with less than three days experience – are driving. But more than that, just how well they’re driving (and they’re two very different things). Clearly Skaifey’s curriculum is well sorted.
By the end of it, there isn’t a single celeb who hasn’t earned their CAMS competition licence, but here’s the big surprise: There’s also not a single celeb here that I haven’t enjoyed spending three days with. And I mean that. I honestly expected a bunch of handfed brats with pouty bottom lips and Botox track marks. But they drove hard and raced tough.
Works for me. The catch is, my only shot at celebrity would be as a Charley Boorman impersonator. I think I’ll stick to this caper.
The Mazda 3s were as stock as you’ll ever see on a racetrack. Starting with an SP25 model, Mazda provided an equal number of sedans and hatches. The hatches were about 6kg heavier but had slightly better aero. They were all six-speed autos, too, because as Skaifey pointed out, that’s one less thing to teach the celebs.
Inside, there was a very comfy race seat, a custom-made roll bar and a window net. Beyond that, it was just as she comes from Mazda. Same goes for under the bonnet – Mazda even resisted the urge to bolt on a noisier 'zorst in the name of entertainment. Tyres? Bog stock.
The only mechanical change was a front brake upgrade to a four-pot caliper and an aftermarket rotor. Even so, it was brakes that proved the undoing of some celebs. But you can't criticise a road car for dodgy brakes when it's being driven on a race circuit by a group of people with no mechanical sympathy.