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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 July 2007, 08:03 GMT 09:03 UK
Around Silverstone with an F1 star
By Sarah Holt

Heikki Kovalainen takes BBC reporter Sarah Holt around Silverstone in a Renault road car
Kovalainen reassures our reporter that she is in safe hands
It lasted just under five minutes but afterwards my head was pounding and my neck was jarred from being flung from side to side.

I had accepted Heikki Kovalainen's invitation to feel the force and thrill of driving around Silverstone, home of Sunday's British Grand Prix.

Scuttling back to the team motorhome after two nerve-jangling laps, what I mainly felt was awe and relief. I'd had no idea what I had volunteered for.

When F1 drivers hurtle around during the race they experience forces of more than 5G - a pressure Red Bull's David Coulthard describes as "being hit on the back of the head with a sledgehammer" - and reach speeds of up to 200mph.

606: DEBATE

But Kovalainen was taking me for a spin in his own road car, a tame-by-comparison Renault F1 Team R26 Megane, so surely it was going to be just like a sedate Sunday afternoon drive?

Even better, my superstar chauffeur knew the wide twists and turns of the old airfield circuit well.

Heikki Kovalainen
It feels a lot more dangerous to drive a road car round Silverstone than an F1 car

Heikki Kovalainen
"I'm pretty familiar with Silverstone," the 25-year-old Finn said. "I won my first Formula Renault and Formula Three races here. Hopefully my first Formula One race, too.

"The lay-out is my favourite thing about Silverstone. It is still an old-fashioned circuit but there are some really high-speed corners."

As we approached the start line, I was calm, reassured I was in safe hands, until he added: "This circuit is still a little bit dangerous.

"It feels a lot more dangerous to drive a road car round here than an F1 car, because the road cars roll more, they slide. It feels like there is more of a chance to have an accident in this car."

Great.

I pulled my seat belt tighter and rued the fact I was not wearing a helmet as Kovalainen accelerated away down the straight and into the looping Copse corner, taken at more than 170mph in an F1 car.

First, he took me on a "slower" lap to explain how he attacks the Silverstone circuit.

My inclination as a solid Volkswagen driver would have been to maintain as straight a line as possible and stick to the tarmac. Not so Kovalainen.

The car groaned and juddered as the Renault man rode the kerbs, let the car slide over the apexes, and plummeted over the grass.

Heikki Kovalainen in the Renault F1 car
Driving an F1 car is a world away from the any road car
"I am trying to find the best racing line," explained Kovalainen. "If you use the kerbs you make the corner as open as possible.

"Overtaking is very difficult at Silverstone because the first seven corners are so fast that you just cannot follow the cars very closely. The only place to pass is at the end of Hangar Straight or into the chicane at turn eight (Vale)."

Distracted by the noise of the undercarriage getting a battering, I asked if he was worried about damaging his car by careering over the grass and curbs.

"No," he laughed. "It's exciting."

I muttered a meek "awesome". But no sooner had we had arrived back at the start-finish line than Kovalainen was roaring the engine into life for the "fast" lap.

"Obviously it's a little bit quicker in the F1 car than in this car," he said, as we hurtled back through Copse and Becketts.

"But we're going quite fast now," I muttered, alarmed by the snaking, grey tarmac rising in front of me as I shifted left to right and back again at each bend.

"No," dismissed Kovalainen. "We're only going as fast as this car goes."

Oh, we only hit about 110-120mph - I was still at half my race speed and not even really pushing at all

Heikki Kovalainen
"But it seems quite fast," I countered, as we headed towards some workmen, who were on the track fixing a sign to the Hangar Straight bridge.

"Obviously these guys are not usually here," Kovalainen pointed out. Obviously.

We braked and went past them, then raced down the straight, where the F1 cars reach close to 190mph. All the time Kovalainen sat relaxed but focused, talking nonchalantly as he crunched through the gears.

"Sharp turn to the right, keep calm with the steering, over to the middle, over this kerb, brake hard here, fourth gear then switch to full power," he explained.

For an F1 driver, speed, motion and thought are perfectly synchronised. As for me, I was just anxious about the speed.

I let out a huge sigh as Kovalainen pushed the car through Woodcote and brought it to a halt.

Heikki Kovalainen takes BBC reporter Sarah Holt around Silverstone in a road car
Kovalainen explains the finer points of taking Copse corner
"I was feeling a bit nervous on that lap," I confessed.

"Why?" a non-plussed Kovalainen asked. "That was still a slow lap and I was talking to you all the time."

"It was still fast, though," I insisted.

"Oh, but I was not even really pushing at all."

On Sunday, Kovalainen will race round Silverstone again, but this time flat-out, and with 21 other drivers all pushing 100% and fighting for the same piece of track.

Storming around in one car - and not even an F1 car - the whole experience was intense enough for me. But what about Kovalainen?

"No, I don't have any fear when I'm driving," he shrugged.

"I had a big accident at the start of this year [in testing at Bahrain] and when I was going into the wall I thought: 'This is going to be a big bang'.

"I damaged the car badly but didn't hurt myself. In those moments, I guess you are a little bit afraid but when I'm driving and I'm in control, I'm not scared of anything.

"Are you going to get out then?" Kovalainen asked, reading my startled expression.

Yes, I think I will.


A half-hour interview with Heikki Kovalainen by Renault is available as a podcast. Search "Renault" in the podcast section of iTunes,



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