Petrified to pumped: Jono takes Simon Chapman for a spin
The thought of going around a racetrack at full tilt has always terrified me, despite having spent most of my teenagedom enjoying the thrills of working in and around race cars.
But the rationally irrational fear of getting strapped into one has seen many an opportunity to do so slide by.
But three emails, two phone calls, and one "um, yeah, I guess so" later, I've been booked in for a lap around Highlands Motorsport Park with GT3 ace Jono Lester.
What have I done?
Photo / Simon Chapman
It's Saturday afternoon of Cromwell's Highlands 101. Just metres in front of me sits one of the fastest race cars in New Zealand -- the Trass Family Motorsport Ferrari 458 GT3; the same Ferrari I watched spear off the road at Murray's Corner earlier in the year at the Bathurst 12 Hour, funnily enough.
Relatively new, the Highlands circuit features a mix of short, sharp straights, flowing sweepers, and corners inspired by legendary tracks around the world. The track even features a bridge, meaning a lap of the circuit runs clockwise and anticlockwise.
"You scared?" jokes Graeme Smyth, the team's co-driver and a decent steerer in his own right.
"Not yet," I laugh, hoping he'd buy it.
Photo / Matthew Hansen
I've loved GT racing for as long as I can remember, though I only started attending race meetings in 2007. Somewhat poetic then that my high-speed chauffeur Lester was one of the first drivers I saw race — though he was competing in the Porsche GT3 Cup at the time.
As the day's hours pass and the lap looms, I become more and more petrified.
"How about now?" jibes Smyth.
The group doing laps is ushered into the back of the pit to fold ourselves into some racing overalls. There's no turning back now.
As Lester rolls into the pits, having dealt to the last victim, the team's engineer, Robin Gray, guides me over to the car and instructs me, by screaming over the sound of blaring engine, on how to get in and out. It's a relatively easy process in the end, making sure not to clobber any of the electronics in the footwell. I tighten my belts as far as my lungs allow before Lester flicks the car into first gear and trundles to the end of the lane.
Photo / Matthew Hansen
A quick blip of the throttle and we're away. First, bang; second, bang; third, bang; fourth gear, as the 5-litre, V8 punches me back into the seat as the first set of turns approach at an alarmingly quick rate. Lester dabs the brake before flicking the car right, left, left again to navigate the bus stop, then right holding the car through to turn five's never-ending right-hand sweeper. Even at speeds of more than 120km/h, the turn feels like an eternity.
Along the second straight before the first big braking zone. My whole body is tense as Lester hits the brakes, trying as best as possible to stop my head from popping off and rolling into the footwell. And my cheeks are sore.
We dart under the bridge, through a cambered left-hand "carousel" before quickly jinking right over the crest. Another brief straight, although there's still no time to relax. The car leans left, quickly clipping the first then second apex. On the brakes hard, the car breaks loose, hitting a bump before the final apex.
On the throttle hard. Another long straight before the carbon-ceramic brakes begin to scream once more. Over the bridge, as the car briefly hits the limiter as the car launches into the air.
Photo / Simon Chapman
Fourth, third, down to second gear trying as best to hold my head upright. The car powers out of the hairpin, traction control alleviating any wheelspin as we run just inches away from the outside wall and pass the finish line. Again!
A quick glance across to read the dash. There are so many numbers that the gear indicator is the only digit this mind can decipher. We get up to fifth gear and the fastest point of the circuit before cycling through the chicane once more.
I want to tighten my belts but can't bring myself to pull my hands away from gripping my legs. Through the sweeper again my head bumps the roll cage as I slosh around in my seat.
This lap I pay extra attention to Lester's driving, the quick blips of the throttle and precise steering, simultaneously trying to be aware of the next corner. The roller-coaster ride continues but in no time we're back in the pit lane.
"How was that?" Lester hollers over the loud idle of the engine centimetres behind our backs.
I laugh, finally able to relax as we come to a halt. A quick shake of the hand and I'm out of the car with a grin as wide as the rear wing.