By Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent
On a wet and cold Watkins Glen International track, McLaren Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton and NASCAR driver Tony Stewart swapped cars. Hamilton tried Stewarts No. 14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala, while Stewart had a go in the McLaren MP4-23, an experience both drivers thoroughly enjoyed. “I spend a lot of time in race cars, but this will be the first time I've been at the wheel of a NASCAR stock car,” the 2008 Formula One Champion said ahead of the event.
Tony Stewart, two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion was also looking forward to the experience, ”When you’ve been around competitive racing for as long as I have, you really look forward to new experiences, and this car swap with Lewis is definitely one of those opportunities.”
Hamilton gave the McLaren MP4-24 a thorough shake-down and at the same time had the opportunity to get familiar with a circuit he never raced on. “Well, it was definitely good that I got to go out in the Formula One car just to kind of get an idea of where the track went. The track is absolutely fantastic. It feels like a real classic. It just feels historic when you're driving around,” the Briton said. “They don't make tracks like that nowadays. When they build new Formula One circuits, they don't build them like this.”
Both drivers was forced to lap the circuit on rain tyres, but nevertheless put in a few good lap times. Stewart then took his Chevrolet on the track for five laps, and although he has a record five Cup victories at he famous circuit, he had won them all on the 2.4 mile long version of the Glen and now had the opportunity to explore the famous one mile long Boot section of the circuit.
”I never in a million years thought I'd have the opportunity to drive a NASCAR,” Hamilton said. He also admitted he was a bit nervous, as he is not used to the standard shifting of the Chevrolet. “I don't know what to expect. I know in NASCAR, you blow engines. We very rarely do that nowadays,” he said with a smile.
It was then time for the actual car swap, and Hamilton certainly had fun driving Stewart’s Chevrolet. “I just felt like a kid today, it's good to be a kid again. It's like when I used to do go-karting I used to have so much fun,” Hamilton said after his six-lap outing on the still damp track.
About the weight difference he said, “I think it's three times the weight of a Formula One car, but actually the car doesn't feel that heavy.” And added, “The brakes were surprisingly good and Tony was telling me where they usually brake in the dry and I don't think I was braking too far away from it with the damp conditions. I was braking early thinking, 'this car is not going to stop' and in actual fact I could brake a lot later.”
He was also impressed with the handling of the car. “On the TV it looks like I was drifting all the time, I don't feel like I was drifting the car. It felt quite a stable rear end. I was picking the power and the grip was quite good through all the corners.” I was able to pick up the power. The grip was quite good through all the corners,” he reported when he arrived back in the pits.
Stewart’s drive in the McLaren began a bit shaky, as he was not used to revving the engine high enough to make a clean getaway. “The funny part is I couldn't even get it up high enough in the revs to get it to pull away in first gear. It goes into a default stall mode. I was trying to tell myself, ‘just get on the gas a little bit’. Once we got rolling, it was unbelievable.”
Did he enjoy the ride? “It was fun. That is truly an experience of a lifetime. I just can't thank the people at Mobil 1 enough for helping facilitate this, and everybody at Watkins Glen,” he said. Asked about the difference between the Chevrolet and the McLaren he answered: “I have a background with IndyCar racing so I'm somewhat familiar with down force, but not this level of down force! And I never drove them on a road course.”
He was the most impressed by the braking capabilities of a modern Grand Prix car. “I think probably the thing that stood out the most was how incredibly efficient and good the brakes are, how far you can go. I never got to full potential of what the car was capable of doing in a braking zone. It's just amazing how far you can charge the corner. It's easy to see why it's hard for these guys to overtake because it's not a long distance from the time you get off the throttle on the brakes to where you're changing directions.”
And he remarked, “It gives you a much greater appreciation for how hard it is for these guys to overtake each other, what that car's actually capable of. It's just incredible the technology behind it. It is incredible how well these cars handle, just had a ton of grip.” To recapture his day out in the McLaren the American said with a smile, “I guarantee you it's going to take a couple days for all of what just happened in a short amount of time to sink in.”
For Hamilton it was also a good opportunity to forget about his woes during the Canadian Grand Prix last weekend in Montreal, “Whilst driving a Formula One car is fun, the competitive side of it's so serious. I was feeling the tough weekend this morning. But as the excitement built up, when I got in the car, once I got out, I completely forgot about last weekend.”
Stewart agreed the swap was pure fun compared to his normal race weekends, “It seems like it doesn't matter what form of racing you're involved in, when you're at the top level of it, it's very competitive. It's that way on a Cup weekend. You can tell by watching the coverage on TV, the Formula One weekends are stressful, the IndyCar weekends are stressful. No matter what division of racing you're in, when you're at the top level of each division, it is very competitive, very serious.”
Asked whether Formula One could learn something from NASCAR Hamilton replied: “I'm sure around the world there's things that we all can learn from each other. I'm certain there's things in NASCAR that we have in Formula One that they could learn from us and vice versa.”
Watkins Glen president Michael Printup who is a passionate Formula One fan, could look back at a successful event, which attracted an estimated 8,000 to 19,000 race fans. “I can't get rid of my goose bumps and my chills," Printup said. "It was amazing, and it was amazing to have these fans out here. For me, personally, I haven't come down from Cloud Nine. And I think I'm going to stay there at least for the rest of the day."