Thrills come thick and fast when Gutierrez takes me for a spin in a Ferrari California T

SENAWANG (Negeri Sembilan) - Formula One. Think cars, engines, fuel, tyres. Sure it is science that drives the sport but it is art that makes it a spectacle.

This truth was brought home to me at the Shell V-Power: The Science of Driving Excitement event on the sidelines of the recent Malaysian Grand Prix.

The event included a brief spin in a Ferrari California T, a beast of a machine that sprints from 0 to 100kmh in 3.6 seconds flat, on a bespoke bitumen track in this town in Negeri Sembilan, about 70km from Kuala Lumpur.

But before we stepped into the pair of gleaming, wine-coloured machines, we first had to put on a Hexoskin vest that contained a reader that would allow our breathing rate, heart rate and G-forces to be measured. In other words, data that could capture our levels of excitement during the drive.

Sounds easy but in fact this might have been the trickiest part of the event, given that it is akin to squeezing my body into a swimsuit two sizes too small. The instructions were that the reader had to be in contact with the skin. Well, no problem there for me, as parts of my body were practically spilling out of the vest.

I must confess that while I was excited about the "test drive", I was also a tad anxious. What if the car crashes? What if I get car-sick and do a "Merlion" while in the car? Those sickly thoughts were running through my head as I made my way to the Ferrari and "start line".

But as soon as I stepped in, my mind eased. There at the wheel was a familiar face: Esteban Gutierrez, Ferrari's reserve driver, whose task at the Scuderia, besides testing, is also to replace Sebastian Vettel or Kimi Raikkonen should either of the former world champions be unable to race. I had the privilege of meeting the friendly young Mexican in 2013 during the Singapore Grand Prix, when he was racing for the Sauber team.

After our initial greetings, he asked me if I wanted to go full throttle and I said yes. After all, I told myself that I might as well make the most of an opportunity to experience the thrill of going at speeds I will never be able to achieve in my beat-up, eight-year-old Toyota Picnic MPV.

Before we took off, it suddenly hit me that there was no simulator test for this little spin. Anxiety rising, I asked Gutierrez how many times he'd done the "circuit". Oh, about two times, came the reply. Gulp.

But before the panic set in, he engaged the gears and off the car roared on the dusty bitumen, with me inside, praying silently.

And this is when I truly came to appreciate the artistry involved in driving a car at speeds that can kill you.

Gutierrez moved like an organist, his body in concert with the car's needs, hands flicking the gears expertly, feet flying across the pedals as he alternated between accelerating and hard braking.

Like how an artist paints by instinct, so too was his drive. For how else can I explain how he knew where to go when the car went through a simulated torrential downpour and a curving, blacked-out tunnel which was deliberately fogged to the point that that was all we could see midway through? Or how he knew at what angle to enter a sharp, zig-zag course surrounded by barriers which I swore at some points he was going to hit?

His drive was pure perfection, down to the last millimetre. No mean feat when you are going at nearly 180kmh and you have someone else's fate in your hands.

It seemed like an eternity before the ride was over, but in actual fact, after I had watched someone else's turn in the car, I realised that my "joy ride" lasted barely 30 seconds.

Then it was time for my results, which were printed on the spot for me.

Heart rate 106 beats per minute, somewhat elevated (my baseline was 70) given that all I was doing was sitting in a car.

I do not remember breathing very much, in fact, it felt at some points that I was barely able to breathe. But the results showed that in fact I was breathing at twice the normal level - 31 RPM (respirations per minute). For most people, their RPM lies between 12 and 16. When one is sleeping, it can fall to as low as 6.

The G-forces I experienced measured at 0.44g, four times more than usual. That pretty much explains why I felt like a rag doll in the car's seat despite being safely strapped in by a seat belt, particularly during the freestyle performance section.

It was a thrilling 20 seconds, and though brief, the memory of this will stay with me for life. But I think I'll stick to this side of the safety barriers in future, and leave the true artists to "paint" the canvas that is the racing track.

yulin@sph.com.sg