Back in early april, I went to the south of France for a very special experience. One that would have me driving insane race cars, and I’m not talking about just *any* race car: Formula 3 and Formula One cars. AGS (Automobiles Gonfaronnaises Sportives) used to be a Formula One team back in the 80s / 90s that saw the likes of Philippe STREIFF driving for them. AGS Formule 1 is now out of the F1 game, but they managed to « recycle » and specialize in offering driving experiences in one-seaters (or two-seaters with an instructor, as a passenger). And that’s exactly what I came for!
As I arrived in the morning at the Circuit du Luc, about 30-min from Saint-Tropez and an hour or so from Marseille, I was already very excited. I knew what was waiting for me. We started out around a small breakfast / coffee, meeting the group of people that would join me in this adventure. We then quickly moved towards the dressing room, and I didn’t expect what I was about to see: the place looked like one of those posh private clubs, with a bunch of wooden cabinets. And each cabinet had our name on it, and inside, our racing suit, racing shoes and helmet. Everything was ready, the right size, you basically just had to get ready. First happy surprise: I finally found a racing suit that suited me (losing about 15 kg kind of helped lol). But I messed up on the shoes. Turns out I wear my shoes « large », and that’s not exactly the best when racing: better tight than too large. Good thing they made me try a bunch of different ones before I found the perfect fit, just like Cinderella.
Then it was time to head to the briefing room. There, we’d sign the waiver thingy, but more importantly, the instructors would tell us all about our day. They presented the history of the company, of the race track, who they were and what they did. Most people find those briefings boring, but I actually like to know that kind of stuff! Then we went to the really interesting part: the program of the day. We would be driving Formula 3 cars in the morning, and for those who booked them, the Formula One cars in the afternoon. That’s probably the best way to go if you’re a beginner like myself: start with the « less powerful » car first.
They gave us a detailed explanation on how the F3 cars worked: braking, acceleration, speeds. One thing you need to know is that this was my FIRST TIME out on the track: I had never driven something on a race-track before. Worse: I had never done karting in my life. But when he told us « forget all you know about Karting », I felt reassured. Learning about those machines was quite fascinating, they don’t really behave like normal cars. Which is quite normal, considering they’re not. I actually learned quite a lot about « driving » in general: braking points, apexes and whatnot, how to avoid some stuff. The usual security information was also given to us. I really liked this briefing, mainly because once on the track, everything would sort of « make sense ».
We later went on to do a reconnaissance tour on the track inside a van, we did about two or three laps of the track with the instructor, where he explained pretty much everything and giving us info: how to take the corners, where we should brake, stuff like that. It felt very reassuring to have that much information, they even had cones on the track to help us with trajectory and braking points. And then it was time to start.
We separated in two groups of six cars. That meant we were six on the track at any time. Not too crowded, which is very good. All cars had a LOTUS chassis and a 2.L 180 bhp OPEL engine, with a top speed of 210 km/h. I believe most cars had paddle-shifters (at least mine did), though they are available with the manual gearbox (which is something I wouldn’t even dare to try for the moment with those kind of cars). When my name was called to get ready, I instantly had butterflies in my stomach. My car was Formula 3 #10.
I got in. It was a tight fit. But then again, you’re supposed to be tight in a race car. Things felt even tighter as I was being strapped on, with the helmet on (having glasses is more annoying). I was feeling really hot at that point. The procedure of firing up the engine was slightly easy, I didn’t have any issue (contrary to the F1, but you’ll read all about it down below). We were all there, gloves on the steering wheel, waiting for the signal. And off we went. I was really stressed and almost couldn’t breathe, I felt really slow and was worried I would annoy the others behind me. Big mistake. I messed up my first lap completely: I was fear-struck, forgot to change gears and stayed in 2nd gear the WHOLE TIME. They made me come back in, the instructor came to talk to me, told me to relax. He didn’t scream at me, he didn’t judge me, he just told me what I should do to make it better: breathe, and change gears, obviously.
And off I went again. This time, the fear and apprehension were gone. It felt like I was driving a completely different car: once you’re somewhat confident, things feel easier. That might sound like the most trivial and stupid thing to say, but the car really felt different from your regular cars: faster, acceleration was quite impressive, and the braking was intense. As the laps passed, I was getting more and more comfortable with trajectories, where to break, where to accelerate. Heck, I could get used to this. I started to gain confidence and « push it gently ». The car felt very reassuring, it did everything I asked it to do and answered to my every command. Turns felt easier, so did the whole driving. Not once did I feel like I was losing control (not even when I did a front wheel-lock during braking after the big straight). It was a marvellous experience, the sensation of speed you get from those machines is simply mind-boggling. They only weight about 450 kg, with 180bhp. When our session was over, it was time to come back in the pitlane. And at this moment, even you’re far from it, you really feel like a *real* pilot: the mechanics are there, they help you out of the car and to stop the engine. Top-notch. Everyone then had a small recap with the instructor about how they did: they tell you their thoughts, what you should improve, what you shouldn’t do. The advice he gave to me: relax more and be more careful with the gear shifts (they would sometime be too quick).
I went to chill in the little bus, to discuss what I did wrong and receive more advice from my friend. They had a fridge with cold refreshments (which were much needed, due to the heat & racing suit). The next session was simply incredible: no more silly mistakes, just pure enjoyment. It really felt like I knew the car a bit more. I wouldn’t be as brave as to say I tamed the beast, but it was so much more enjoyable. There was no speed-checker inside the car (probably to discourage some reckless behaviour?), but I’m fairly certain I was going very very fast. But then again, when I looked at the other guys driving during their session (or at my own videos), things felt soooo sloooww haha. We probably were doing our best and having the time of our lives, but definitely not using the cars to their full potential. But then again, the goal was to have fun, and damn it, I sure as hell did!
We then did a visit of the workshop, where AGS Formule 1 keep their cars. It’s a huge space filled with one-seaters, F3 and F1. They had the AGS JH24 (650hp), Arrows A20 (V8 Cosworth, 650 bhp), Prost AP02 (same engine as the Arrows). Seeing all those cars in the same place is always a treat. The AGS F1 driving experience is also about discovering the cars, their history. And considering I like workshops so much, because they’re always super clean and tidy (almost feels like we’re in a bio-hazard place), it was a good way to end the morning. We then went to have a lovely lunch with everyone, with a magnificent view of the Var mountains in the back. And probably one of the most tender and delicious chicken I’ve ever had haha.
In the afternoon, the group got smaller: only those who had booked the F1 driving experience stayed on. We got back in the briefing room to have all the necessary information about the Formula One driving. They told us it had absolutely nothing in common with the F3. Not only the cars were much bigger, much longer, but the aerodynamism was pushed to the limit, giving you higher possibilities of performance. The F1 cars were supposed to handle really well. The instructor explained us everything about weight transfer when braking and accelerating: everything would later make sense as I was driving. Those kind of cars demand to drive in a way that might not feel natural for us: we wouldn’t necessarily brake or accelerate at certain moments, but that’s exactly what you should do. I did my best to listen religiously everything he said. From what I’ve understood, the cars didn’t have a lot of steering angle (like all race cars), which led to a lot of understeering and oversteering risks if you didn’t drive it like it was supposed to be driven. That kind of made me feel anxious a little bit: how in god’s name would I be able to « master » a Formula One car?! But I later found out the instructor was simply giving us ALL of the info, not to scare us, not to annoy us, but simply so we’d knew most of the things we could face.
A very cool thing: we would drive ALONE on the race track. That was pure luxury. That meant you didn’t have to focus about wether or not you were being too slow, annoying others. It’s just you and the car. Total freedom.
My name was called, and I was ready to get in the AGS SH03. The SH03 is a car built in 2003 by AGS Formule 1 with Formula One specs. That meant it wasn’t driven by a real driver (contrary to the Prost AP02, driven by Olivier Panis & Jarno Trulli). But that didn’t change much for me, considering it had the exact same specs: 6-speed with paddle-shifters, 650bhp Cosworth DFR. And what I actually really enjoyed: the car was red and felt like a Scuderia Ferrari car (same sponsors: Shell, Marlboro, Vodafone, Bridgestone… ). Basically, I felt like I was about to go drive a Ferrari F1 !
But I almost didn’t. Indeed, during the briefing, they explained us the whole procedure to start the car, and it involved playing with the clutch (only for starting off, you didn’t need it during driving – thank god). As you well know, starting an F1 car is not like pushing a start&stop button. First the mechanics need to jump-start it with a bottle of highly-compressed gas, and THEN you can try to start driving. Once the engine is on, there is a tricky procedure. I was installed inside the huge beast, but considering I’m a rather small guy, my left foot could reach the clutch but not entirely – I didn’t have the full power of my leg on it either. That made things a bit harder considering the clutch is incredibly strong and stiff, it really felt like there was a huge powerful spring trying to take my feet away. You had to engage the clutch, then push on the accelerator, which would make the engine scream. Good thing they told us that it was normal, or I would’ve been quite scared to be honest haha. You had to keep pushing to find a certain engine speed, and THEN you’d start to disengage the clutch slowly to find the slip point. It sounds really simple when reading it, but that was incredibly hard. Not only was I a bit stressed, but it felt like things weren’t working for me. I stalled the car about 4 or 5 times. As the failures started to accumulate, my confidence was getting lower and lower: how could I drive a car that I’m not even able to start?! In a very unusual and pessimistic moment, I even told the instructor: this is the last try, if I can’t make it, I’m not doing it. Good thing I did manage to start the car! I found the right engine speed, and managed to control the clutch! And BOOM, the car was off!!!
Once the car starts going, I didn’t have to worry about the clutch anymore, and that alone was a great feeling. As soon as I got out of the pitlane, I started accelerating a little bit. Ok, I wasn’t expecting that. Felt like I was driving a chariot of the gods. The sound was insane!! But what surprised me the most without a doubt was the handling: the car was incredibly precise: the slightest turn on the steering wheel would result in an immediate reaction. Though the car is larger, it didn’t feel like it. It actually felt like I was driving a bobsleigh. A very very fast bobsleigh. The first lap was merely me testing the car, seeing how it behave, how braking and accelerations went. I probably butchered up all my trajectories and turns, but I was discovering the car. And I have to be honest: it felt incredibly easy to drive. Much, much, much easier than the F3! Maybe it’s because I had driven in the morning, maybe it’s because the car is simply better, but the feeling behind the wheel was that of complete control. Such an easy car to drive. I said drive, not « race », mind you.
I’m fairly certain any person could drive one of those, but when it comes to actually « using it and making a good time », things get tricky. I was probably using less than 50% of the car’s potential. But still, it felt incredibly awesome!
The sensation of speed, of sheer power I had at the tip of my fingers made me feel extatic. I was smiling during the whole thing. I had never felt that kind of emotion when driving. As the laps passed, I started to push the car more and more, trying to brake later (degressively) and trying to follow the tips of progressively accelerating. The car was so good I never actually had the opportunity to go on 6th gear haha. I mean, I could’ve, but it would’ve been about a second before braking, so I didn’t feel like « risking it » and adding another downshit. Speaking of the devil, the downshifts. They’re godlike. Simply godlike. Hearing them from inside the car, as you are in it, changes the whole game. I did about 7 or 8 laps, and it felt like time froze, as I was really owning the place. When I got the flag to go back in, I was genuinely sad. But all good things come to an end. I had forgotten about how hard it was to start the car, and had been having the time of my life.
It was without a doubt THE best thing I’ve ever driven. Totally worth it. I was completely under the spell. It was really hard to realize what had just happened, what I had just experienced. I couldn’t find my words, I couldn’t do a bunch of things actually. I was simply a very happy man. The adrenaline eventually dropped. I kept watching the others having a go, and then the two-seaters (NOW the cars felt really fast haha – with real pilots behind the wheels, you bet they were going fast to give you thrills). But nothing could take me away of my joy, I was simply on a little cloud, somewhere out there.
The day ended, we took off our racing suits and went back to dull civilian clothes. They organized a little « ceremony », giving the participants our « certificates » – proving we drove the cars and owned it, all of that as we were sipping champagne. Sadly I couldn’t stay too long because I had a train to catch, on my way to other adventures. As soon as I got back in Paris, my 3 year-old nephew eventually ripped off my driving certificate during the 5 seconds of unsupervision. But that’ll never make the amazing souvenirs go away !!!
Thanks a lot AGS Formule 1, Hervé, Morgan, Julien and Thierry for the incredible driving experience!