Speed Secrets: What It Was Like to Race F1
By Ross Bentley
June 06, 2014
I get asked this a lot. I was certainly very privileged to have run a stint in Formula One. It was an emotionally tumultuous time for me. There were many aspects to my season in F1 that take much more space than what I have available here to write, so I will concentrate mostly on the actual driving of the racecar.
I never considered driving fun. To me, it was always satisfying to get the maximum out of a racecar and do better than all the other competitors. I won in just about every category in which I competed. That changed when I entered F1. I was with the smallest team with the least powerful engines, no testing, and antiquated chassis technology. Having said that, my racecar had about 950 HP in qualifying and about 850 HP during the race. Acceleration was unbelievable; the car had the ability to spin cold rear tires in 5th gear at 120 MPH. Braking performance was crazy, with HUGE wings on the front and back; just lifting off the throttle would equate to a full panic stop in a road car. The high-speed cornering forces were very difficult to judge. Remember - in those days, the tracks we used were not the cookie cutter Tilke-designed circuits of today. There were amazing elevation changes and fast turns. I miss tracks like the old Osterreichring....
We never did any testing. My first race was the USGP on the downtown streets of Detroit. Walls everywhere. Ken Tyrrell told me, just before my first practice, "The best thing that you could do this weekend is to keep it on the island."
Once I was cocooned in the racecar (it took two mechanics to do up the belts, they were that tight), I went into a state of pure concentration. The cars were so fast that you had to look way, way down the track in order to anticipate the next turn. You had to be on the ball all of the time and not let up in concentration at any point. You were driving dangerously fast, and any accident that you had could be the big one.
I found the most stressful time in a race was when the leaders were lapping me. In those days there was no radio communication (at least on my team), so I was reliant on the flag marshals. It was an incredibly competitive season and usually the leaders were always coming around together. Guys like Mansell, Piquet, Prost, Senna, Rosberg, and others. The last thing that you want is to affect the outcome of a race or the World Championship by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. However it's not simply a matter of pulling off-line to let them by. Off-line, the tracks were usually incredibly filthy with dust, debris, and tire clag, so you put yourself at risk whenever you moved there. Hard decisions to make when driving a 950 HP 1200 lb. racecar at its limit and making judgement calls from looking into two 1-1/2" x 3" mirrors.
Driving the racecar was physically taxing, particularly in warm climates. I would lose eight to ten pounds in a race and would typically finish the event with blisters on my hands and feet. Kind of like running a marathon and arm wrestling for 1-1/2 hours at a time! I remember at the Austrian GP in the Bosch Curve, I had to shift from 4th to 5th in the middle of the turn; it took all of my strength to keep the wheel turned while I shifted gears.
Of course, what most people want to know is the acceleration performance. I cannot give you any specifications, but most estimations were that a Formula One car in this era would reach 100 MPH from a standing start in about 3.0 seconds. The Alfa Romeo engines that my team used were anemic below 7500 RPM. Once you reach 8000 RPM, the power started coming on. At 8500 RPM onward, you had over 900 HP under your right foot, and the throttle was almost an on-off switch! I remember spinning the wheels on cold tires in top gear.
Driving for a low budget team was certainly stressful and frustrating. The search for sponsorship was an ongoing quest, as it is for most teams and drivers. I thought that once I had an F1 ride, this element would become somewhat easier. The corporate doors did open a little wider, but Canada has never been an easy place to raise corporate support at the best of times. Most sponsorship went towards ice hockey. Much of the support during my career came from outside of Canada and this was no different in F1. There was a period during my season where the sponsorship was simply not forthcoming, and on more than one occasion, I drove under strict instructions to bring the car home for the prize money, versus driving as competitively as possible. Hard to prove your abilities under these conditions. However, by the end of the season, I had secured Labatt Brewery sponsorship and for 1987 we were in negotiation with about six teams. But the Canadian Grand Prix was cancelled that year, resulting in Labatt losing interest.
I recall my first drivers' meeting on Sunday morning at the USGP in Detroit. It was held in a small office trailer. I was instructed by the team to get there early; I was the first one there. Up to this point, I really did not have any personal contact with the other competitors. Then, all of the other drivers filed in. My friend and F3 rival Johnny Dumfries (driving for Lotus) sat down next to me. It was an incredible feeling to be in the same small room with true legends of the sport: Rosberg, Piquet, Prost, Mansell, Laffitte, Arnoux, Jones, Tambay, Senna, Berger and so on. It was a humbling experience that I eventually became used to as the season progressed. I remember during the meeting, Laffitte rolled up a small piece of paper (a spitball) and aimed it at Dumfries, bouncing it right off the bridge of his nose. The whole room erupted in laughter, much to Johnny's chagrin. I thought it was an impressive shot!
Driving in Formula One was one of the highlights of my racing career, and, of course, one of my major life-changing experiences; it continues to define me now.
- Allen Berg