While visiting the site I saw that there was a new contest every couple of weeks. The next contest was starting the following Monday and the first person with the correct answers to the 5 Formula One questions would win a one day "Michelin Driving Experience".
I set my alarm clock to make sure that I could play the contest as early as possible. My contest entry was received by their site on Monday, 9th April at 05:33:33.
Although I had almost forgotten about the contest, I received a message from Michelin F1 on 25th April saying that I was the winner of the 4th round of the game. I was one of the 14 lucky winners to participate in the Michelin Driving Experience.
This driving event was usually reserved for dealers of Michelin tyres and other VIP's. It is a one-day event, during which, after being shown basic race driving techniques, the winner of the competition will have the opportunity to drive several different cars around a circuit, among which:
October 9th, 2001 - The excitement is about to start. Last week my tickets for the trip to Valencia, Spain were delivered by UPS. I would leave home on October 9th and get back on the 11th.
Having packed my stuff for Spain last night, I'm leaving home at 8:00 AM to drive to the train station at Liège. It's only a 45 minutes drive but given the early morning traffic of commuters, I arrive at the station at 9:15 AM.
The high speed Thalys train takes me from Liège to Paris Gare du Nord where I change to the local REC (B) metro and Orlyval to arrive at the Paris Orly airport at 12:30 PM.
Due to the terrorist attacks in the USA last month, the security measures in Paris have been increased a lot. Wherever I look, there is a gendarme (the French national police) together with 2 soldiers carrying machine guns. Although this leaves me with an awkward feeling, I still feel very safe.
The event manager had told us to meet at the Iberia ticket counter at 3:45 PM. This gives me a some more time to kill. I choose to get lunch at the Irish Pub at the airport before getting comfortable reading a book ("Permission Marketing" by Seth Godin) near the Iberia counter.
After reading several chapters of the book, I look up and notice a lady wearing a Michelin F1 shirt. Indeed, it is Marie-Laure, the person responsible for the contest winners. Some of the other lucky winners had arrived as well as the camera man and our photographer.
At 4 PM our group is complete and we proceed slowly to the check-in counter. The camera never loses track of us -- those videos will be used by Michelin Motorsport Marketing for promotional campaigns.
We arrive at the Consul del Mar Hotel in Valencia at around 10 PM after a brief stop-over in Madrid. Everybody in the group is getting more and more excited. We have dinner at the hotel and go to our rooms to get some hours of sleep to be fit and fresh for our big day.
6:30 o'clock in the morning. I just got up and still have some time to take a shower before having breakfast. We're leaving the hotel at 7:30 to drive to the race track.
After we sign in, we are divided into several groups distinguished by different-colored bracelets. We'll stay in these groups for the rest of the day while we drive in various race cars or participate in special Formula One workshops and briefings. I'm part of the international "yellow" group together with John Steel (England), Roelof Rumpt (Holland) and Frank Lehnert (Germany). The other groups only include French winners.
Now it's time to slip in our safety clothes and racing overalls. We get a t-shirt, shoes, gloves, a head protection and try on our race helmets.
When everybody wears the same outfit we go back to the briefing infrastructure to be officially welcomed by the whole Michelin team. All team members are introduced and some general guidelines are given concerning our safety and the day's schedule.
The initial briefing is over pretty quickly and we enter the pit lane where we see all the cars lined up. It's a very impressive sight. I still can't believe that I'm actually standing right here on the track.
As the first group takes the wheel of the Renault Clio Trophy and Formula 3 cars, our "yellow" group has its first workshop. We have to simulate a pit stop and change the front and rear wheels on one side of a F3. Our first attempt to change the wheels lasts 35 seconds, but we are able to improve it to 22 seconds after several tries. It's still a long way from the top event record of 14 seconds.
There is no time to hang around: we go back to the briefing tent to get our photos taken sitting on the rear wheel of a Formula One car and standing next to this racing engine. At the end of the day, we'll get this photo during the official event ceremony.
Charming Olivia, our hostess, comes running to take us back to the pit lane. It's time to fit on our helmets and to get ready for our first laps on the track.
We have to make our first choice: 2 guys of our group will drive the Clio's (285 hp) and the other 2 ones will drive the Formula 3 cars (205 hp - 425 kg). I choose the Clio V6 Trophy. We have to follow behind a professional driver who shows us the track and how to enter the corners.
The first lap is easy and not very fast as we need to study the track and its corners. The force of the Clio's engine is brutal. I have to get used to the rear-wheel drive and the sequential gearbox. (This means you pull the gearshift towards you to shift up and push it away from you to change to a lower gear.)
As I've seen the track during the first lap, I want to experiment a little bit more. So I leave a longer distance to the car in front of me to have more room to accelerate on the straights. It goes pretty good until there are 2 corners quickly behind one another. Going into the second corner, I'm a bit too fast... I try to slow down by hitting the brakes even more and shifting down. Oh boy, was I wrong! The down-shifting had a negative effect in the middle of the corner: I got too much torque which made the car spin and I ended up in the gravel pit.
I can't do anything but wait here until someone picks me up. Using the force of 6 hands we push the Clio out of the gravel and another driver takes it back to the pit lane. The front spoiler needs to repaired and the car to be cleaned of all the dirt, grass and gravel. Could this have happened with Bridgestone tyres? Yes, I think it would have... :-)
Olivia takes us back to the briefing room where we are having a quiz about Formula One and Michelin. The goal of the quiz is to get 4 right answers which could get us into the semi-final during the afternoon sessions. The grand prize for the quiz is a Michelin race helmet. It would be cool to get the helmet but given the nature of the question, it's too hard for me. I only get 2 correct answers. John is the first one to have 4 good answers.
After the first driving session, we now have to change cars. The other drivers know the track a bit better than me as I spend too much time next to it. We get another short debriefing before I climb into the Formula 3 single-seater. The mechanics straps me down and put the steering wheel back into place.
Now I'm on the track once again. The Formula 3 car feels good. It's easy to drive and the gear-shifting is easier and more precise than in the Clio. We follow the instructor around the track at a slightly higher speed than during the previous laps. It's great fun... especially cruising down the start-finish straight at full speed in fifth gear.
Before lunch we still have time for another workshop. In one of the pit boxes we can examine the Formula One car. It's a Arrows A18 Formula One of 1997 with a Cosworth V8 engine producing 650 hp at 10,500 rpm. It only weighs in at 500 kg (without the pilot). The approximate top speed is 345 km/h (215 mph, at Hockenheim). It's quite a car! I can hardly wait to sit in it.
As the mechanic only speaks French, I act as a translator for the other people in my group (I speak German, English, French and Dutch as well as a little bit of Spanish). I translate everything into English and more specific details also into German and Dutch. The English guy has lots of questions and due to this, we all learn a lot about the car. The parts are very expensive (a clutch costs $12000) and most of them are fabricated using carbon fiber and titanium. It's very impressive.
Ok, now it's lunch time. As our group doesn't speak French, we are invited to sit at the table in the right corner so we can talk in our own languages. This means that we speak mostly English as it's the common language for all of us. It's a very light meal and we can hardly wait for the Driving Xperience to continue.
The free driving session which is about to start should be a lot of fun. We can drive at our own speed and rhythm. There is no instructor in front of us. In order to have the most possible fun, the 5 Formula 3 cars leave the pit lane in a 45 seconds interval. However just as our group is about to start racing, the first rain drops appear on our visors. This means that we have to wait until the mechanics change the wheels to rain tyres. It's really too bad as the other groups were able to race on a dry circuit.
During my first lap, I'm still holding back a little bit as I need to see how the car performs on the wet track. It goes pretty well although I notice that the rear tends to break out. I need to correct it several times but it's great to feel the immediate response of the engine. However I spin in the last corner just before the start-finish straight. Quickly shifting down to first gear allows me to turn the car around and finish my first lap.
As I know the track now and how the car reacts on the slightly humid tarmac it becomes a lot of fun. I increase my speed as I go around the track again and again. These Formula 3 cars are really my thing. Much better than the Clio. I just love it!
Our time driving the F3 is over way to fast and we have to gather again for the Formula One briefing. During the whole morning and the free session just before, we got used to driving the single-seater and how to handle a sequential gearbox.
We are getting more and more excited as the big highlight of the day is getting closer with every second. The Michelin mechanics are getting the Chrysler Viper GTS ready. What a sound as the V10 revs up! Steeve, the Viper driver, takes it around the track a couple of times to make sure everything is ok. It's a very impressive sight. Really awesome. I can't wait to get on the passenger seat of that monster. I'm pretty sure this will be the fastest lap of the whole day.
Meanwhile the other mechanics are lining up 2 Formula One cars on the start-finish line. We'll only drive one lap in the Arrows and are not allowed to take it to full speed on the long straight for safety reasons.
The first people are getting ready for the Formula One session as the others line up to for the Viper's passenger seat. Everybody is jumping up and down with excitement. The Viper takes the first winner around the track, then the F1 makes its first lap followed by the BMW M3.
It's really difficult to get the Arrows going. In order not to stall the engine, we need to watch the chief mechanic conducting with his hands: waving and circling his right hand for the clutch and his left hand for the accelerator. With a start help like this it's possible to get this race car going without too many problems. But the power is enormous. Not many people will take it beyond the 3rd gear. Having 650 hp right behind you is frightening and still very exciting. I guess the lap times in the Formula 3 are faster than in the Arrows as nobody wants to break it... :-)
Now it's my turn to jump on the passenger seat of the Viper. Jumping on it is not really possible as I have to climb in through the safety bars. The mechanics strap me on very tightly. Steeve asks if everything is ok and flattens the accelerator. At the end of the pit lane, we're already faster than 160 km/h. Wow!
There is no time to be afraid or to get car sick as we speed around the corners. Steeve has to correct the car several times so we don't get off the right track. He's taking us to the physical limit of the car and our bodies. I see how hard he works on the steering wheel and the gearshift as he takes every corner as fast as possible. With every corner my respect for all race car drivers increases even more. They really do work very hard.
As I get out of the Viper I'm speechless. It was the most exhilarating experience ever. When everybody has taken their chance in the Formula One and Viper, we gather again to catch our breath and finish the day with the finals of the pit stop competition and the Formula One quiz.
Team "yellow" makes it to the grand final of the wheel changing contest. We manage to change the front and rear wheels of the F3 car in just 16 seconds. This is much faster than during the early morning practise session. However as our competitors have exactly the same time it's a draw and we have to do it again. While our time remains exactly the same, the other ones are a bit faster and only need 15.8 seconds. Too bad, they win...
Back at the briefing tent and in our normal clothes it's time for the semi-final and grand final of the motorsport quiz. The questions are much easier than in the first rounds. Some of the questions are "Who won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2000?" (Answer: Audi) or "What was the original color of Ferrari?" (Answer: Yellow). As the 2 finalists are both very knowledgeable, the Michelin team decided to award one helmet to each of them.
As we are offered a glass of champagne we are surprised with several presents from Michelin. We all get a framed photo of us standing next to the Arrows F1. Besides that the gift bag also contains a Michelin Driving Experience watch, a Michelin flag, several postcards, stickers, baseball cap, ear plugs, booklets... Michelin is really taking care of us!
We still hang around a little bit and watch other teams arrive at the track. This weekend, there will be some Formula 3 and GT races. However the track closes at 5 PM so there is no on-track action any more. After a hot shower at the hotel everybody feels fresh again. The whole group has dinner at a restaurant to try some specialties such as paella and Spanish wine. We all discuss the day's events and experiences but you can notice that everybody is tired and exhausted.
On Thursday morning at 7 AM we leave for the airport to fly back home. At Paris Orly everybody says good-bye to the other team members as we take different trains and planes to our final destinations. We all promised to each other to participate again in the contest next year so we can experience the thrill once more (if we really do win again).
This trip to Spain was very exciting, we learned a lot about driving various race cars and experienced the thrill of speed and adrenalin!
A big thank you to everybody at Michelin Motorsport Marketing for making this unforgettable, awesome and thrilling event possible.
PS: I'll post more photos as they become available. Hopefully Michelin will send us the group photos and some video footage. I'd love to put some video clips on the SpeedyCam site. Click here for Michelin's Day Report.