Top Stories from the Features pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, March 10, 2000

For a Change of Pace, Life in the Fast Lane

Put Yourself in the Cockpit Of a Real Race Car

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
MONTLHERY, France - The sleek single-seat, open-wheel race car descends the straightaway, its engine revving as the driver slams on the breaks, toes the gas pedal and changes gears before turning a sharp corner and speeding up a steep hill. Suddenly, the car's back end lurches and the spectators fear the driver will lose control. But all that's needed is a deft correction with the steering wheel and the car keeps its line.

No, this was not a practice lap by a Formula One driver preparing for Sunday's season-opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne. And in truth, only one spectator watched and no one feared losing control more than the driver did. For I was the driver, and the spectator was one of several Formule Mygale center monitors at key points on the Montlhery racetrack, 25 kilometers (16 miles) south of Paris.

For anyone in Paris with a few free hours and a penchant for race cars, the Mygale center is the perfect place for both neophytes and more experienced drivers to take a spin in a real race car.

Founded eight years ago as a school to train race-car drivers, it now specializes in providing the thrills to the public and to business motivation groups. Last year Mygale drew 7,000 Walter Mittys like me, 2,000 more people than the year before.

''People have more and more leisure time,'' said Estelle Decoster, who manages the center, ''and nowadays everybody has tried go-karting at least once and liked it. We're the next rung on the ladder. We offer the possibility to drive a real race car for a price that isn't that much more expensive than karting.''

But an afternoon at Mygale involves a more serious approach than go-karting, including coaching by the monitors.

''We try to make sure people do not go beyond their limits,'' said Pascal Vendeville, who was my monitor and who has raced professionally in just about every form of single-seater below Formula One. ''This is meant for people to have fun, not to hurt themselves.''

Although the only requirement at this race track is a driver's license, the Formula Ford cars are like nothing most people have ever driven. The 110-horsepower, 1600cc Ford Kent engines push a car weighing only 400 kilograms (880 pounds) on semi-slick tires. The no-frills, four-speed racing transmission and the clutch and brakes are very stiff and require strength, learning and practice to manipulate effectively. These are cars that can move at a top speed of about 210 kilometers an hour (130 mph), but for safety, you never really go faster than 120 or so on the back straight.

In an open cockpit, single-seat race car on a twisty, narrow, hilly track, with guard rails and trees only meters away, that was all the speed I needed. During the 20-minute class preceding my first contact with the car, Vendeville explained the basics of these unmodified race cars that were actually used in the Formula Ford series eight years ago.

He reiterated what every race-car driver knows and practices and what every driver on the road should practice but doesn't: ''Both hands on the steering wheel at all times, at 9:15 or 10:10. I never want to see you removing the left hand from the wheel, and the right hand only leaves it in order to change gears.''

This was advance notice of my feeling the car slip away for a moment as I climbed that hill flat-out in third gear. With their low adherence because of a lack of aerodynamic wings and the narrow semi-slick tires, the Formula Fords float about the track. But I was luckier than the 21-year-old driver who that morning had spun off at nearly the same spot and broke the nose of the car in half. He was not hurt, but he learned the hard way that these cars are not toys.

They are built by Estelle Decoster's husband, Bertrand, an engineer, who directs the family's race-car constructing company, the Mygale Group, France's leading chassis manufacturer for the European Formula Ford, Formula Renault and the U.S.-based Formula 2000 series.

The company also has its own racing team with several well-known graduates, the most recent of whom is Jenson Button, who will drive for the Williams Formula One team on Sunday. At 20, Button is Britain's youngest Grand Prix driver ever. He drove for Mygale in 1998, winning the Formula Ford world title.

But as far as thrills go, the Formula Ford is recommended as the best place to start for a neophyte.

''For someone who has never done any automobile racing, if you get into a Formula Three or higher, it's very difficult,'' said David Terrien, a Frenchman who drove for the Mygale team in 1996, obtaining 11 victories in 15 races. ''It's not very complicated to drive a Formula Ford, so everyone can have some fun in this kind of car.''

It is precisely the lack of aerodynamic grip, he said, that gives the advance warning of a spinout and that makes it easier to control. But, in Vendeville's words during one of the two 20-minute briefing periods between laps, you still have to be ''humble in face of the machine.''


For those with a craving for the fast lane, contact Mygale Zac ''Les Ancises,'' 03300 Creuzier le Neuf, France. Tel : (33-4) 70-58-13-22; fax: (33-4) 70-58-43-78; e-mail:

prices From 430 francs (about $63) for a simple ''baptism'' -- a short lesson and a few laps behind the wheel -- to 2,900 francs for a full day with a meal, several classes and laps both behind a monitor and on one's own. From Dec. 1 to Feb. 28, reduced prices are in effect, ranging from 330 francs to 2,550 francs.

Reservations are a must. Price lists, schedules and other information are available on the Web:

getting there The best way to reach the center from Paris is by car. But it is only a short taxi ride from Orly airport.

other schools An excellent resource for finding centers or schools around the world is Racing Schools Information Online:

You might also try contacting the people behind that Web site at: I.M.E. Corp., 5502 E. Karen Drive, Scottsdale, Arizona. 85254; Tel: 602-953-7483; fax: 602-953-7486; e-mail:

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