As someone who follows the world of cars, some Formula 1 and loves the occasional spot of go-karting (but having never done any real circuit driving), I was thoughtfully gifted the MSV Master F4 experience at Brands Hatch. Having finally booked a day to go do it, I had the nerve-wracking wait and hope for good weather: traction was only secondary because any precipitation at the wrong time would leave me sitting in water. According to various sources, the weather seemed like it would be in my favour, which is seldom the case on these British Isles. As I arrived on the day and cast my eyes across the dry, sun-soaked track, I was grateful for the perfect conditions. My experience was off to an ideal start.
I got there plenty early to get a feel for the circuit and just to watch cars do what they do. I find a racetrack to be much like the wild for cars: you don't always know what you'll find there but you can be sure they'll be in attack mode, and there's nothing like seeing a car stretching its legs as God - I mean, its design team - intended.
Our playground for the day was the 1.2-mile Indy configuration of Brands Hatch. Not my first choice track but all the more reason to prepare as best I could, and my tools were videos and practicing on the PS4. In an M4, no less. It should go without saying that no form of game play - not even with a VR headset (not that I have one) - can prepare you for the reality of it, but at least I was aware of the layout, the direction of the next corner, track widths etc. Basically, it's better than nothing.
The day kicked off with a briefing which covered an overview of the circuit, racing flags, and the rules and etiquette of being on track. One point that was incessantly reiterated was that at no point will we be 'racing' - that means no Ricciardo-style, last-of-the-late-brakers diving into the inside of a corner. Those who have been on these experience or track days will know this is the norm. These days are about, as the name suggests, experiencing the cars and track environment that you may otherwise never get to sample. So, not quite bigger-league go-karting then. Other rules include driving on the right and overtaking on the left - like driving in most of the rest of the world - except when taking a corner of course, where overtaking is a no-no.
Before long we were assigned our own BMW M4, which came with a racing instructor installed in the passenger seat. My Beemer happened to be the one at the front of the line along the pit lane so it quickly struck me that I, with no prior circuit experience, would start by leading the pack. After a little gulp, I exchanged pleasantries with my instructor and got myself behind the wheel.
At this point I hoped to fiddle with some settings on the car to ensure maximum fun, but no sooner than being buckled in and having a look round all corners was I being waved off. Delaying was not an option, and I'd got a sense of how fine their timings were in order to keep the entire operation a financially viable one. So, with some healthy caution, I flicked it into first, squeezed on the throttle and began the climb up the pit exit.
Up next was what I had been most apprehensive about: my first ever approach to turn 1. It's a blind right-hander as the apex lies beyond the crest of the hill and the descent is a steep drop at full throttle. Line of entry, braking point and turn-in are all done with faith that you've correctly visualised the trajectory. In the game, this is an easy corner to scupper as it's hard to judge how the weight of the car shifts and affects traction across the four wheels. The same is of course true in reality, but with no reset button it’s unwise to go all-out first time. So I eased it in, kissed the apex and, at the excited command of my instructor, floored it on exit. As much as the car descended, my adrenaline rose. As the track bottomed out and the car squeezed into the tarmac, the gravity hit was quite remarkable and probably the most thrilling part of the circuit. It was a rush I went chasing for ever harder with each lap.
My instructor understood quickly enough that I was out to master the track with as much precision and thrill as possible. As you’d expect, he pushed back my braking points and got me turning with more aggression: this was something I struggled with somewhat, perhaps because I had some sympathy for the car or because I was worried something would snap - a little voice in my head was just holding me back. That voice is what separates the racing drivers from the rest of us mere mortals. But with each passing lap I silenced that voice more as my confidence in the car and the racing line grew. My instructor had mentioned that the entire track can be taken in 4th gear and that I didn’t need to concern myself with the paddles, but naturally I wanted to really engage with the car. I wasn’t there for a lazy spin. I must’ve been doing something right because before long my rear-view was clear and I was coming up to ‘lap’ someone.
As it turned out, the corner I was most worried about in the build up to the day wasn’t the one that ended up giving me the most trouble: this was claimed by the Graham Hill Bend. At quick glance there doesn’t seem to be much to it - it’s a 90-degree left-hander - but this apex required the most focus to hit. The approach needs to be setup as early as the exit of the preceding corner, the right-hand hairpin called Druids. So from a left-side exit the car needs to go across to the kerbstones on the right while travelling downhill and navigating a shallow bend to the left, before Graham actually comes along. Lining the car up and accounting for the additional front-end weight under braking was a challenge, not to mention getting that dab on the brakes just right to scrub off only as much speed as is absolutely necessary. Mild frustration began to set in as its apex continued to elude me, to the point that even my instructor had grown to expect better from me. He went as far as to hit the engine kill switch on one attempt, which just went to show my impatience as I plonked my foot on the throttle too soon only to get no grunt. Lesson learnt though, and I finally had a couple of respectable passes through this bend.
Inevitably, just as I was getting into my stride, the marshalls starting calling us in. This marked an end to my time commanding an M4 and, more significantly, an end to professional accompaniment on track! The next time I was to be out I’d be driving solo, at the helm of a 185bhp, race-focused Formula 4 car: it’s a machine with a higher top speed than the M4, though granted the latter's is limited. The reality of it began to set in during the F4 brief when we were sat in one of the pit garages with one of these things to our left, close enough to size it up and see its race-readiness. As well as talking us through some of the visual and aerodynamic elements of the car, the instructor spoke about its driving dynamics and comfort, or rather the relative lack of it. He mentioned the heavier steering as compared with that of the M4, and how the wheel lock is only about a third of a turn in each direction. As you’d expect, the interior is minimal and quite unrefined, with the pedals deep in the footwell that’s slung out ahead of you. Between this overview and our slot on track, there was enough time to have a wander around the car to get a feel for its proportions. Some people climbed in and took the essential selfies, but there was the occasional intriguing question like “are there any settings you can change as you drive?” The answer was no, which is probably for the best really. Finally we were assigned our cars, and told to grab a helmet, fresh with sweat from the outgoing group. Mercifully, they also provided disposable head caps to wear underneath!
Now strapped in there was nothing left to do but fire up the engine, which is achieved by scanning the token [on the bracelet I was given upon arrival] and flicking a switch. It roared into life with menace and then settled into a satisfying grumble that you’d be forgiven for forgetting is only generated by a 1.6 litre Ford EcoBoost. Lined up in the mid-field this time, I followed the pack as they set off at only a few miles an hour along the pit straight - a speed which this car does not enjoy and makes plainly known as it teeters on stalling: another similarity with Formula1 cars (from what I hear) along with its paddle-shift gears. Our speeds climbing as we exited the pits, we were now on track and left to our own devices in this fairly monstrous car. My initial thought was how exposed I was to everything - again thanking the sky for being so clear - but my subsequent thoughts went to gaining awareness of my surroundings and a feel for the car's limits. The first lap was a cautious one as I gauged the strength of the brakes, the stickiness of the tyres, the level of steering input required and all other manner of things. I found quickly that the steering was heavy, in a pleasing way, and took work to keep where I wanted it. It accelerated fast enough, in part thanks to the traction provided by the chunky racing tyres, but also by virtue of the turbo that’s slapped on to the engine, helping the 4-pot punch above its weight. The gear changes were on the jerky side, but it added to the savage and visceral experience that's as close as most will get to a Formula 1 car.
A couple of laps in I really turned the wick up, but all the while remembering that it’s not a race: no one wants to be that guy who couldn’t keep their cool or causes the session to be red flagged. So, sensibly, I went full attack-mode. Braking later, turning harder and accelerating sooner, I upped the aggression on all fronts. I distinctly remember the giddy feeling when I first noticed a car ahead of me being shown blue flags on my account. The feeling was not so giddy when said driver took their jolly time to acknowledge or react to it - same difference to me sitting behind them - corner after corner, costing me time and dampening my thrill. But eventually I wriggled free from the wake of several cars and earnt myself some clean air. I was then able to look further ahead, which is one of the fundamentals of racing: picking out the next point as soon as possible, whether it’s the braking point, apex, or exit. With no one in my way, I thoroughly enjoyed myself over the next few laps.
The very nature of the car - being mid-engined; low-slung, stuck to the floor etc. - meant that it was a much sharper tool than the M4. It was easier to point and direct through a corner since the front wheels were clearly visible. Despite the M4 being over twice as powerful, its extra bulk can really be felt through the turns as it shifts under braking and direction change. For the sort of drive I was after, the F4 was much more satisfying. Pushing it to its limits is considerably more tiresome, but this enhances the thrill: straining forearms is all part of the package and still this is a fraction of what Formula 1 drivers have to endure.
As I got faster, I caught some back-markers and this hampered my final few laps of the day until finally we were called back in to the pits. Heart pounding and wrists pumped, the fun was over. During the de-brief we were handed our lap times which painted a picture of overall improvement, and it included a table of everybody’s fastest lap: disappointingly I only made it to third, but I’m telling myself this is because I was held up on the final laps. Still, a time of 58.91 seconds isn’t bad for a first-timer.
The only thing left was the hot-lap in an M4 with one of their own drivers at the wheel this time. The M4 they used for this was different to those we got though: it had a proper spoiler, more potent brakes, tougher suspension, semi-slick tyres and a much louder exhaust. It probably had different settings enabled too. In short, then, it was prepped for a lot more fun but reserved for a driver they really trusted. Understandably there was waiting involved. When my turn came, it was over almost as soon as I got comfortable, such was the speed of the driver! But he worked to make it as enjoyable as possible with getting the back-end out, making the tyres squeal, and giving the exhaust something to rumble about.
In hindsight, the day was a blur, as things like this usually are. The two 15-minute slots felt like fleeting seconds. But in the moment, it was a fantastic experience. Sure there could be less waiting around, but all the while you’re still among the track and surrounded by other groups doing their laps, so it adds to the immersion. I’d say, for anyone, it’s worth it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience; but for an enthusiast it borders on mandatory. I, myself, would like to do this again with the aim of shaving a couple of seconds off my lap.