“OK, we are changing things a little,” says Jean-Paul Libert, owner and founder of the Pirelli GP Experience. Fog has settled over the track and the rain is pouring down at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas and the Formula X cars are not taking to the precipitation. Instead, Libert is rushing us off in the Mercedes AMG sports cars, shouting “more laps everyone, more laps.” The GP Experience is a unique program that gives ordinary peoples a once in a lifetime chance to drive an F1 car. Typically, the day would start off with carting sessions, then move to sports car laps on the track. Later, participants graduate to a Formula X car and next they receive a three-seater hot lap (guest included) with one of Libert’s former F1 drivers. After all that, participants finally get to pilot their own F1 hot laps.
Our program was modified because of the weather, but in no way was it less dynamic. Lap after lap of in-car instruction in a fleet of AMGs, we began to flow all of COTA’s 20 turns. Next newly trained drivers are treated to a three-seater F1 ride with former F1 driver Eric van de Poele. Practically laying down in the car, you don’t just feel the turns, you absorb them. It is an incredible ride alone, but back in the pits Libert is making sure the full experience will be had, personally checking each F1 car to make sure they are ready. “I do this to make a dream happen, to access the impossible,” says Libert who has had a long career not only in racing, but also in developing and running unique driving experiences. HIs resume includes guiding luxury car tours in far-flung locations around the world to on-track days at some of the most famed raceways in motorsports. His passion is evident by the way he speaks to each client; Libert’s firm yet patient coaxing is not threatening, but inspiring.
“If people focus, they can do it,” says Libert on driving the ferocious cars. “Just easy on the throttle.” That is easy for the Libert to say—he has raced Le Mans over a dozen times, where he podiumed five times and won his group in 1985. Although the conditions are less than ideal, he ensured that everyone who came is going to leave with a lasting memory. The group varies from bucket-listers, general thrill-seekers, car enthusiasts and racing pros. “Whether you’re a racer or a non-racer, everybody wonders what it would be like to drive a Formula 1 car,” says client and professional driver Jim Weiland. “That’s why we are all here: to feel and experience a Formula 1 car at speed.” Weiland, who regularly races in the Ferrari Challenge series, is treating his team to the GP Experience.
Unlike the current GPs where the pits are incredibly guarded, clients can snap photos and hang out while mechanics fiddle with the pack of F1 beasts. “It reminds me of the days of the old Ferrari pit stops in F1; back in those days there would be all arms waving,” laughs veteran F1 mechanic Tony Van Dongen. “You know that movie ‘Rush?’ That is exactly what it was like.” Van Dongen should know, he was there. “That film was dead nuts on. The ’70s were the best. It was a family back then, with the drivers, the team owners, the mechanics—everybody. It was just a big family just traveling from race to race.” Libert allows this special opportunity to, “create that chemistry; we want to give clients the confidence.”
From the newly engaged couple to the father-and-son groups, the garage is filled with family and, as the sun continues to set, the group bonds over the cars. There is a distinct difference in those who have gone out in the car and their exhilaration makes the rest of us giddy as children as we eagerly await our turn. Libert approaches us on the pit wall. It is our time. “You’re next! Remember don’t accelerate too fast out of the corners.” Getting in the car is a bit of a feat and after mechanics strap us in from all angles and check out the safety equipment, we are quickly briefed on how to get the car moving. It is an ever-so-delicate dance to release the clutch, but once in motion there’s no going back—it’s a life-changing experience. Joining a small group of people who have piloted an F1 car, the impossible has become accessible.
Start planning your own F1 adventure at Pirelli GP Experience here.
Final image by Katherine Erwin; all other images courtesy of courtesy of Pirelli GP Experience