After sitting out the 2019 season, I’d pretty much switched off and was looking forward to getting out there again for 2020.
Browsing Facebook I saw that VR Motorsport were going to give out drives to experienced drivers at Motorsportdays Live, and so threw my hat into the ring. A few weeks later I saw a post where the team drew out the winning names, and mine was amongst them!
First I need to speak about Motorsportdays Live. It’s a brilliant event held in The Wing at Silverstone, with loads of trade displays and offers for racers and people in the motorsport industry, or those thinking about doing trackdays or racing. It was a really good event, and you need to check it out and get down there next year for the third show of it’s kind!
The important bit for me, is that you can book a drive in a car around the International circuit, so you can actually try out a car before you commit to that race series, try a new car on track, take your own car on track, or just experience a drive in something amazing.
For me, that would be in a Praga R1S.
I watched them racing in the Dutch Supercar series for the first time a few years ago, and loved them immediately. What’s not to love about these ‘superlight’ racers? A full carbon fibre monocoque, huge levels of downforce, less than 600kg and a stonking F3000 engine sat just behind the driver!
I dropped my race kit off and said a few hello’s with the VR Motorsport team, had a little wonder around the displays and paddock, and then before I knew it my 15 minute slot was coming up to get out on track with the LMP/TCR/BTCC/GT4/GT3/Prototype group.
Team boss Vincent Randall and all of the team were very friendly and welcoming as I chatted to them and had a mooch around the beautiful cars. If I’d got on the racing ladder 15 years earlier, something like the Praga would have been exactly what I’d be aiming for rather than going down the F1 route, so I still couldn’t really believe I was there!
Soon I was asked to get my helmet and HANS on, and I climbed in through the tiny window, sliding down into the carbon fibre seat to be faced with a cockpit slightly more modern than your average Formula Vee.
The first thing that struck me was that EVERYTHING is carbon fibre. The ignition, engine start button and a few others were up above the windscreen, along with a tiny switch to work the indicators (I never used it, although we were running trackday rules for overtaking with consent). It was all within easy reach in the tiny cockpit, and although some might feel a bit cramped I thought it was very comfortable in there.
They clipped the steering wheel on, pointing out the paddle shifts at each side, a ‘neutral’ button for getting the car, err, into neutral, and a few balance adjusters that I had no interest in messing with. I knew there would only be a brake and accelerator pedal, but was surprised to be shown a clutch pedal that was hidden up and back from the these that would only be used to getting moving.
Vincent waved me and the sister car (the Praga R1T turbo with almost twice the horsepower), and I held the engine start button down and flicked the ignition switch, hearing the 2l Renault Sport engine roar into life behind me.
I held the Neutral button and the clutch and pulled the right paddle shift to engage first gear, and got a helpful push start from the team in the pitlane.
Unsurprisingly, the car revs to 7500rpm extremely quickly with the lightest brush of the throttle, so as I drove up the pitlane I found every tiny bump of the track surface was making life tough to hold the revs steady – not a problem as I hit the exit and everything smoothed out with more revs.
I short-shifted up a few gears before brushing the brakes nice and early into Village and almost stopping dead 50 metres before the turn-in point! Of course, you have no choice in these but to brake with your left foot like in a kart, so it’s always in the back of your head not to mash it like the clutch pedal with your big, goofy untrained left foot!
Turning the wheel the car moved more as if reading my mind than the steering input, absolutely rock stable and flat on the full wet tyres despite the damp track. Through The Link it felt unflappable with the direction changes, and I opened it up on the Hangar Straight and watched the digital readout climb with ease.
Braking a bit lighter and deeper into Stowe the Praga simply ate it up without any drama – probably my first time experiencing the power of downforce from the multitude of wings, planes, splitters huge diffuser. Some heavier braking and back down to 3rd gear for the complex showed the car was equally stable using its mechanical grip at slower speeds.
My biggest fear had been for Abbey. I know how fast I can (and how fast I can’t!) get through there in a Formula Vee, but in the damp, with wet tyres, a lot more speed and downforce I had no idea. I gentle dab of the brakes and again the Praga was on rails, asking to be pushed harder to get the full 3g’s of cornering capability from it.
Over the next few laps I steadily built up speed, amazed at the speed I cold carry into the turns and through it without the car so much as shaking it’s tail, and putting a bit more pressure on those huge brakes as I felt them out to see what their limits were.
I hoofed it through Abbey and finally the tail twitched and it all got sideways, but even then I simply caught it with a touch of opposite lock and the car was back on friendly terms with me, barely even raising my heart rate.
It’s tough to describe the handling, as it’s so good it does everything perfectly, and simply goes wherever you want. There is no drama. You can feel it’s just a brilliantly designed car that works perfectly in the twisty bits. I’d love longer in the car to push closer to those 3g forces…
Unfortunately, I never got to see the chequered flag for the end of the session…
As I came around Stowe one lap chasing some of the other exotic machinery, with a McLaren GT3 behind me, I had pushed the car a bit harder and carried a fair bit more speed through and down to the complex.
I was watching my mirrors as I hit the brakes, and this was the first time I managed to exceed the braking grip, locking up the front tyres.
I’m no stranger to driving cars without ABS, and after a fair bit of practice in the Vee I know to modulate the pedal to get the grip back. Using my right foot.
I think the problem with the Praga was that my left foot just doesn’t have the same kind of ‘feel’ for doing this, and once I’d lost it I couldn’t recover it. In hindsight I should have probably just turned in and tried to make the turn, and the car could well have been capable of it – or at least given me the chance to sort it all out after…
But the car sailed straight on, surfing the gravel at a speed that definitely did get my heart rate up as the solid red and white wall got closer and closer as I uselessly sawed at the wheel to try and get some movement to the right to miss it. Luckily I stopped short.
There is only one real chance at Silverstone to find a gravel trap – and that is on entry to the complex. If this first lock-up had happened anywhere else on the track I’d have been fine, run wide, and carried on my merry way knowing to be a bit more careful.
Sat there, not believing what I’d done, my racers brain kicked in and I went to restart the car – not that there would be much chance of getting out of the gravel without help. To make things worse, the car was absolutely dead. I had no power at all as I tried every combination of the ignition and starter button without getting so much of a flicker.
The session ended and I was unceremoniously dragged out by a tow truck, with my first question to the marshals – “How much damage is there? Have I ripped the front end off?” – luckily proving to be overly pessimistic as there was no damage from my little excursion.
I insisted on helping to clean the gravel out to help turn the car around for the next session, but sadly the car still didn’t have any power for some reason. I don’t think this was directly from anything I’d done – the thinking was that the problem may have been compounded by a marshal hitting an external reset button, triggering a complicated restart sequence.
Despite the somewhat unfortunate ending to my session, I loved everything about the Praga R1S, and if my budget (or sponsorship) ever allows I would definitely look to drive one. At the very least I’d love to get some more time in the car to experience how amazing they are again.
A massive thank you to Vincent Randall and VR Motorsport for giving me this opportunity to drive one of these awesome cars – it really is a dream come true, and I can’t apologise enough for my mistake.
The team treated me really well, and even after the Praga was towed back in they took it all in their stride and never tried to make me feel any worse about it. I’m looking forward to watching VR Motorsport stick it to the Brabham at Brands Hatch next weekend, where the rules are allowing the Praga to use full power for the first time. **EDIT** VR Motorsport have now decided to run in their Class 1 configuration due to concerns over finishing with the allowed fuel and feel that it’s more respectful to the championship for the final round. Make sure you cheer them on!
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