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Driven: Formula 4 hits the track

Fantastic 4: GoAuto got behind the wheel of the new Formula 4 Mygale race car at the Winton race track in Victoria this week.

Exhilarating Formula 4 the perfect car to blood young guns


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26 Feb 2015

I’M NOT yet 40 years old, but I am positively ancient compared to most other people who will drive the Formula 4 car that I’m climbing into.

Formula 4 is the new talent nurturing class of world motorsport, effectively taking over that mantle from Formula Ford.

The drivers who will race in this series will most likely be in their teens and fresh out of go-karts.

The Confederation of Australian Motorsport (CAMS) has asked a handful of writers, none of whom are in their teens, to test the first Australian championship Formula 4 car at Victoria’s Winton Raceway.

The French-made Mygale race car is the only one in the country and it has done just a handful of laps before GoAuto was allowed out on the track.

The 13 young drivers who will compete in the series, which kicks off in July, will be driving the same car the next day for the first time, so it is even more important that the very special open-wheeler stays away from any solid objects such as tyre walls and concrete barriers.

My time comes and I clumsily slide into the cockpit. It is like lying back in a long canoe, but with three pedals at the end.

There isn’t very much room in there and it does feel a bit claustrophobic. The harness is done up super tight and the bodywork collar, which F1 drivers must take off before getting out of the car is touching my shoulders and pinning me down.

Add to that the HANS device, which restricts neck movement to hopefully keep my head on my shoulders in the event of a big crash, and I was pretty much locked in position.

The steering wheel was pushed into place on the column and I am ready to go.

I lean down and flick the switch for the ignition and nervously hit the Start button.

The 1.6-litre four-cylinder EcoBoost engine behind me fires up with a loud growl that comes from having a short pipe that exits the bodywork without any muffler to suppress the sound.

It is actually quite civilized, especially compared to a comparable Formula Renault open-wheels that vibrated so fiercely it shook this writer’s organs.

Then comes the moment of truth, leaving the pits without stalling.

The Formula 4 runs a Sadev six-speed transmission that is pneumatically controlled via shift buttons on the steering wheel.

It is a world away from the H-pattern manuals of the Formula Ford and CAMS says it is much closer to the gearboxes the young drivers will use in other classes as they progress through the ranks.

It shifts gears itself, but the foot clutch must be used to take off in first gear.

This is the same as some heavy truck automated manual transmissions, although that is where the similarities end.

Thankfully, I give it enough throttle to get away without stalling and ease out onto the track.

The meaty sound of the engine mixes with the whirring sound of straight cut gears as I accelerate.

This is a 120kW version of the turbocharged four-cylinder that powers the Fiesta ST. It might not come to mind as the most potent race engine, but much of this car, including the tub and nose and tail extensions, is made from carbon-fibre and weighs just 565kg.

It shoots forward hard and I go to grab the next gear. The steering wheel mounted paddle has a hair trigger and it seems like it has picked the next gear the moment I think about changing. The shifts are hard and fast, as they should be in a race car.

Turning into the first turn is interesting.

The steering wheel is a tiny rectangular shape, with a computer display in the middle to tell you lots of great information, if you have time to look.

It is mounted very low and whenever I turn, my knuckles bump into my legs.

The steering is wonderfully direct. There is no body roll and the car darts quickly. It is fantastically pure compared to compromised road cars, which must also deal with difficulties like potholes and speed humps.

However the steering is also extremely heavy and that makes me feel a bit nervous. I wonder whether I could quickly correct a slide if I push the car to the edge? I’m not sure and I don’t want to find out.

There is a slight problem on one of the corners, the throttle seems to be coming on unexpectedly, just as I am braking.

I soon figure out that I am accidentally hitting the accelerator when I apply the brake. Actual race drivers who tested the car did the same thing, so I don’ t feel so bad.

The level of grip, thanks to the massive track, the wings and the sticky Hankook rubber, is remarkable.

Then there is the braking power, best described as stunning. This is no surprise, especially as the Formula 4 machine weighs half as much as a small car. I constantly brake early for a corner and suffer the ignominy of having to get back on the accelerator before the turn.

The Formula 4 doesn’t have a brake booster, so you need to stomp on the pedal, but there isn’t much feel. I have no idea if it was about to lock up or not.

CAMS says it is looking at changing the pads to improve this, and is also aiming to reduce the heft of the steering because it worries young drivers would struggle to get through a whole race.

When the driver lifts off the accelerator, the EcoBoost engine belts out a series of crackles and pops as well as a pip sound from the turbocharger releasing pressure.

The sound under acceleration isn’t as impressive, which is no surprise given this is not a high-revving engine (the redline is set at 6300rpm). That said, it should sound pretty darn good when 20 of them tear past.

I start pushing a little bit harder, soaking up the purity of the drive experience that comes with a machine developed purely for racing.

With the wind rushing into my helmet and a view of the steering wheel, the nosecone and the front tyres, it is easy to pretend I have realised my dream of being a real race car driver.

Of course, I’m not and my drive is soon over, but the young people who this car is designed for could well be future racing superstars.

Many will learn a lot racing this car in a class that promises to be as even as possible and the winner will receive a significant amount of funding for the next step in his or her racing journey.

It will be fascinating to see the talent that will emerge over the next few years.

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