Two is better than one
One of most important drivers in Formula 1 at the moment is a Hungarian. It’s a controversial statement, but there’s actually a grain of truth to it. Zsolt Baumgartner drove two grands prix for Jordan in 2003 and intended to drive for the team in 2004 too, with sponsorship from Hungarian oil giant Mol. But the agreement fell through, and Baumgartner ended up driving for Minardi during his one and only full season the following year, with a best result of eighth in the United States (his sole points finish, and Minardi’s first points finish in two years).
Yet it’s what Baumgartner did after his Formula 1 career finished that was even more significant – and we’re not talking about his stint in the short-lived Superleague Formula…
Instead, Baumgartner is now one of the select few drivers in charge of piloting the Formula 1 two-seater car, which has been present at several European races this year since Liberty Media took over the commercial rights to the sport.
The idea is to regularly give privileged guests a taste of what it’s like to drive a Formula 1 car, with a safe pair of hands at the wheel. At the most recent grand prix, in Silverstone, a number of media representatives were given a go. As one well-known journalist, visibly brimming with excitement, put it: “You see and write about these cars so often that you become almost complacent about what they can do. But when you experience it for yourself, you remember just how crazy this sport is. And how good the drivers are.”
Formula 1’s 11th team
Getting people excited about Formula 1 again – even hardened professionals – was one of Liberty’s key missions, and the Formula 1 two-seater is probably the most powerful tool they have at their disposal. No other experience comes close. The cars themselves are hardly state of the art – their design origins are based on the 1998 Tyrrell 026 – but they are safe, well-proven, and the drivers have been specially selected to give their passengers a memorable experience without taking any risks. Among the lucky recipients of the passenger rides are also VIPs and celebrities, so Baumgartner is as much of an ambassador for Formula 1, in his own way, as Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel.
The ‘F1 Experiences’ programme – as it’s officially known – is run by Australian businessman Paul Stoddart, who was in charge of Minardi at the time when Baumgartner was driving. He has a fleet of eight two-seater cars and also bought several pit garage items from the now-defunct Manor team last year, in order to recreate the experience of being in a modern F1 outfit for his guests as closely as possible. As a result, F1 Experiences is widely known as Formula 1’s 11th team.
Bigger and better
Next year, F1 Experiences aims to be present at every race, with renowned F1 designer Mike Gascoyne set to rework some of the aesthetic aspects of the car to make it look more contemporary. From 2019, it’s also down to run on the new-look wider Pirelli P Zero demonstration tyres. So in future, the 36-year-old Baumgartner – the first and (so far) only Hungarian in Formula 1 – will be even busier, and the experience for lucky guests even more authentic.
It’s all part of the spirit of change currently sweeping through Formula 1, showcased by the London Live event before the British Grand Prix, which brought all the cars together in a city centre outside of a racing track for the very first time. Predictably, the media impact was colossal. For Baumgartner, being part of a holistic experience that introduces Formula 1 to new fans, and especially experiencing peoples’ reactions as they get out of the car for the first time, is an enormous privilege.
The two-seater (which uses current Pirelli demonstration tyres) will be in action in Hungary every day of the grand prix weekend, starting on Thursday and ending on Sunday, on a track where Baumgartner made history with his F1 race debut 14 years ago. But that’s only just the start…