“Keep to the left” they kept saying, “make sure you stay out of the heat blast and maybe you should consider wearing some ear plugs.” Thanks for the advice but I left my ear plugs at home and with a bloody great fighter jet shaking the ground next to me the last thing I am planning to do is swerve into its path. I’m thankful for my fireproof suit, just in case, grateful the car is not a cabriolet and beginning to wonder just why I agreed to do this.
Having driven onto the runway, we were in position and waiting for the challenger. Over the radio, the tower gave the all clear and from behind this giant, awesome F18 fighter jet rumbled slowly onto the runway and shadowed me as it took position to my right, it’s engine whine reverberated through my body. I’d expected the noise to be more, was worried about my lack of earplugs, but it wasn’t so bad. Then he hit his throttle and fully powered up his engines. God help me, David had just met Goliath.
The noise was incredible. Gorgeous, intoxicating but so, so loud. I think the fillings in my teeth need looking at again. I look up and over at Captain Javier Ramos, the pilot, he gives the thumbs up, no, I think he’s giving me the finger! I press the throttle down, tease him a bit. I need to show him that 37,000lbs of thrust isn’t worrying me. He’s confident he’ll thrash me and judging by the technical data I’ve read on the F18, he may be right. But, can he do a handbrake turn… No. Can he park outside the pub on a Saturday evening… I don’t think so. Has he got a seven speaker sound system with CD interchanger… Of course not. Does he have room for the children’s school run, their sports kit, satchels and the finger painting they did of daddy using cotton wool for his beard even though he hasn’t got a beard..? Nope. He hasn’t even got proper windscreen wipers fitted, just some basic hot air blowing system.
It had taken two months of planning, we needed permission from the very top for a stunt like this and whilst we had a bag full of cash for bribery and photos of various key people in compromising situations with ladies of ill repute it proved unnecessary as everyone was happy to accept our challenge. We also needed a car. Luckily a luxury car dealer helped us out and just happened to have a few Ferrari’s kicking about that we could use. “Pick whatever one you like” he said, waving his hand over a selection of some beautiful works or mechanical art. I didn’t pick the fastest, I picked what I thought the best, the car I would most like to own, the Modena 360 F1 a stunning car, easy to drive, quick, responsive, a bargain at somewhere around 180,000 euros and of course, red! We had tried to get a celebrity to drive the car but celebrities don’t like taking risks or at least their management don’t. The top Real Madrid players may well get photographed getting out of their pricey toys, but when it comes to really driving them hard, they shy away. so it was down to me, it was my silly idea, so with no one of any fame to speak of coming forward, I stood on the crease. Having driven and owned a number of high performance cars, spent my childhood racing anything with an engine and being the one with the most health insurance, a straight line drive should be a piece of cake…
The briefing was conducted with military precision, satellite imagery on a large screen in the cinema style briefing room indicated all activity planned for the event and clear instructions were given as to who was to be where and when they were to be there. The fire crew and ambulance staff were to be on the taxi-way at the finish line, the bus with our timing, radar and camera crew aboard would drop people off at three marked points along the 1.2 kilometre part of the runway designated for the race, giving us the best opportunity for photographs and data recording. Radio frequencies were issued and communication with the control tower was established. Our schedules had been confirmed and everything was now ready. Time for a strong coffee and the nearest bathroom.
Back in the car, the radio crackled into life and one by one the all clear is given by each of the groups and emergency teams standing by. The pilot gets himself the call sign ‘Poker 1’, I wanted a cool one as well, like ‘Ice Man’ or ‘Devil in Red’ but everyone just told me to ‘shut up and drive’ so I ended up with the unimaginative call sign ‘Ferrari’.
Ahead the runway just vanished into heat haze. I gripped the steering wheel and kept telling myself, “floor the throttle and change gear just before the needle hits the 8,500 red line, easy. No need for anything else. Concentrate on nothing but the view ahead.” “Group 1… ready. Group 2… ready. Group 3…ready. Firefighters, ambulance… ready. Ferrari…ready. Poker 1…ready.” My eyes closed, I breathed, (I think I farted as well, I was nervous for sure, but my this had nothing to do with nerves, probably the Indian food and beer the night before) I was at one with the car, I was ready.
The flag went down, my foot followed a fraction after and we were off! The engine tone of the Ferrari was lost to the sheer noise of the F18. Climbing to an unbelievable, ear-splitting crescendo as he came level with me, I glanced at my speed, 97, seconds later he nosed in front, the roar seemingly louder and louder as he got further and further ahead, the flames from his twin turbo-thrust jet engines and the heat haze behind was an absolutely incredible sight, the ground shook, the car shook, my whole body shook. He just kept on going and going at an increasingly alarming speed. I was lost, my foot firmly on the floor the car was at its limit, there was nothing more I could do. I swear he gave me the finger again and I can imagine his smile matched that of all the military personnel watching. By 600 metres Poker 1 was airborne and later crossed the line at a staggering 960kmph to my 293. 1,200 metres in just over 16 seconds! I eased off, the car had performed superbly it was no longer necessary to let it suffer further. Dejected by failure, elated by the event, I stopped. I had lost the race but I had achieved something very special and very personal. But Poker 1 was not finished with me just yet. He arced gracefully round and took a low fly past overhead. A supersonic fly past, some 10 metres above me that furiously rocked the car and left the loudest bloody sound blast I have ever heard ringing in my ears. It was one of those moments you rarely witness but never forget, like a comet or an eclipse. Stunning! In the blurred haze left by his afterburners he banked away and was once again out of sight.
The next day we were big news. We even made it into the nationals in Spain and England and went worldwide on the internet. Overnight Javier had become a hero and I had become Spain’s biggest loser! In the spirit of the competition we opened two bottles of champagne, one expensive, quality stuff, the other cheap, bitter and nasty. Guess which one I got to drink…
I know that this type of race is not so new, in 1931, Italian motor racing legend Tazio Nuvolari, at the wheel of his Alfa Romeo 2300, was beaten by a biplane at Rome’s airport and in 1981 Canada’s Gilles Villeneuve and his Ferrari 126 CK turbo raced a F-104 jet fighter in northern Italy. Schumacher did it in his F1 car and Ducati ran their GP bike against the Eurofighter. And they all lost. Well I did it too, un-famous, unimportant little me lost as well. But I did it in a car you or I could buy, maybe not me now I think about it, but a real, normal road going car nevertheless.
Losing this fight was fantastic and it was a fight I’d happily lose again.