We hit the track in the latest junior formula racing car designed to unearth our next F1 champion.
WHAT IS IT?
A hard-core, full-fledged racing car that the next generation of Daniel Ricciardos will drive on Aussie tracks in 2015. Think of it as a Formula Ford on steroids, complete with wings and slicks but with a more affordable pricetag and the ability to lap Aussie circuits faster than a V8 Supercar.
WHY WE'RE TESTING IT
This isn’t just any new racing car: Formula 4 signals a massive shift for junior motor sport in Australia. New for 2015, the F4 championship only designed to be a cheaper, safer and faster first step after karts for young racers on the road to F1.
THE WHEELS VERDICT
It looks, and goes, like a mini F1 car.
PLUS: No-compromise performance; handling; brakes; feels like a mini F1 car
MINUS: We had only half an hour in it!
THE WHEELS REVIEW
HERE’S a question I never thought I’d ask after stepping into a car: “Where’s the fire extinguisher?”
I’m sitting in the cockpit of Australia’s latest open-wheeler racing car – a hard-core Formula 4 – and all I can think, as the engineer clips the removable F1-style steering wheel into place and gives my six-point harness a final tug, is what happens if I crash.
It’s a fatalistic scenario to consider, but one I have to admit is a real possibility.
Here’s a quick history of my racing experience: there is none. I’ve never sat in, let alone driven a fully fledged racing car, yet right now I’m about to be let loose in a machine that can lap Australian racetracks faster than a V8 Supercar.
Even worse, this is the only Formula 4 in the country; 20 more earmarked for Australia are currently being built in France.
It’s enough to make my foot shake on the clutch, but before I flick the ignition switch and grab first, we need some context.
This F4 is the start of a new chapter for Australian motor sport, a brand new, cutting-edge category designed to be safe, fast and cheap; the aim is for F4 to be a clear stepping stone for the next generation of Daniel Ricciardos after karts. Think of it as Formula Ford on steroids, fitted with wings and slicks so youngsters can learn about aero.
The Confederation of Australian Motor Sport (CAMS) is running and promoting the category itself and plans to gift this year’s champion a $250,000 purse to pursue drives in Europe.
By any measure, this is a serious car; a lightweight, no-compromise racer that offers a taste of F1 thanks to a six-speed flappy-paddle gearbox, pushrod suspension and a carbonfibre chassis. There’s also a bitch of a clutch pedal.
Power comes from the same 1.6-litre turbocharged four found in the brilliant Ford Fiesta ST, but detuned to produce 120kW.
So while the F4 is quick in a straight line – remember this is a car that weighs just 565kg – it’s certainly not what you’d call neck-snapping fast.
But if it lacks straight-line fireworks, the F4 is other-worldly through the corners.
Never having driven a car on slicks before, I’m staggered at the amount of mechanical grip, let alone the immediacy of all the controls.
In any road car, no matter how hard-core, there’s always a delay between turning the steering wheel and the car responding as the body settles and the suspension reacts. But in the F4 you simply think about turning and the front tyres bite, hard, before the whole car rotates deliciously behind your hips and leans on the sticky 13-inch rear rubber.
Nearly all the controls (steering/brakes) are brutally heavy given there’s no power assistance, but the two exceptions are a feather-light throttle and an ultra-sensitive paddle-shift. Even the slightest touch of the super-thin paddle is enough to change gears and the shifts themselves are brutal; as hard and mechanical as swapping cogs in a Lexus LFA hypercar, only faster.
Pre-season testing will iron out the throttle niggles and fine-tune the super-heavy steering, but one thing is obvious – a Formula 4 isn’t intimidating to drive. Visibility is brilliant, despite the fact you sit on the car’s floor, the handling is balanced and predictable, and the brakes are so phenomenal I often find myself having to drive up to the corner.
It’s a testament to the car that even a plonker like me, with no racing experience, can tap into its performance and within a few laps have the confidence to drive quickly.
It’s probably like the V8 Supercar Wheels editor Glenn Butler drove last year; easy to drive at eight- or even nine-tenths, but beyond that requires the skill of an experienced racer.
Happily, 16 young F1 hopefuls with lightning reflexes and no sense of fear have already signed up to pedal an F4 this year. I can only imagine how it would feel to race on the ragged edge as 15 other young hot heads duck and dive-bomb around you. Fun is the word that springs to mind.
Model: 2015 Formula 4
Engine: 1596cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbocharger
Max power: 120kW @ 5700rpm (estimated)
Max torque: 200Nm @ 1600-5000rpm (estimated)
Transmission: 6-speed sequential manual
0-100km/h: 4.0sec (estimated)
Price: $170,000 (estimated)
On sale: Now