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THE RECENT U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, reminds me of my own Formula 1 drive. (It’s difficult to work this into ordinary conversation—but it can be done.) The car was the Benetton B186. The year, as its nomenclature suggests, was 1986, Benetton’s first year as an F1 team. And this all came about because of a dinner chat with a friend, Pirelli PR guy at the time Jack Gerken.
“Why don’t we test a Formula 1 car?” I asked Jack. Wine has a way of loosening the tongue.
“Why not?” he said. And this got things rolling with Benetton and its tire supplier Pirelli.
Just after the end of the 1986 season, Innes Ireland and I visited the team’s headquarters in Witney, just west of Oxford in what has come to be called England’s Motorsport Valley. We went there to be fitted to the car, Innes just fine with Teo Fabi’s custom seat, my bigger-than-the-average-bear physique accommodated by omitting any seat and padding the cockpit here and there with foam.
Next, operations moved to Silverstone Circuit where we did the actual testing. Teo drove the car for instrumented track-testing phases on one of the circuit’s connecting roads (a World War II runway). Innes ran several laps of the complete circuit, as did I before the day was out.
I suspected our electronic test equipment of the era wouldn’t cooperate with F1 ignition noise, so as backup we brought timing strips supported by a quarter-mile of cable.
Little did I realize that F1 tire grip and the car’s downforce would suck the strips off the tarmac. Fortunately we had backup-backup timing lights too.
The Benetton’s performance was astounding for the era: 0-175 mph in less than 10 seconds, R&T records set in everything from acceleration to braking to slalom. Curiously, because it was a turbocharged engine, it didn’t break an earlier Mazda rotary’s sound-meter record.
It took Innes only several familiarity laps to set a personal best for the circuit, this, at a place where he raced with Team Lotus in 1959-1961.
My drive was two-part. Initially I went up and down our test runway, just to get a feel for the car’s outrageous capabilities in acceleration and braking. I’m glad the runway was wide, because during one acceleration I hit a damp bit and pirouetted to a stop pointing other than the correct direction.
Then we did car-to-car photography around the whole circuit—the photo car driven by Innes, the Benetton by me. One result of this was a promotional video that ended up in Benetton clothing stores around the world.
Maybe you caught me at the local mall? I’m the one in the white helmet with blue and green striping. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2012