Living the dream

The winners of MiTech and Computer Weekly's Fantasy Formula One competition enjoyed a day out at Imola, Italy, as their prize....

The winners of MiTech and Computer Weekly's Fantasy Formula One competition enjoyed a day out at Imola, Italy, as their prize. Nick Langley reports

The prize for the winners of this year's Computer Weekly/MiTech Fantasy Formula One competition was a taste of speeds of 200mph and real spaghetti Bolognese.

What was supposed to be a day out at Donnington Park turned into a weekend in Italy for Dave Scregg and Mike Tapper, two of the winners of MiTech and Computer Weekly's Fantasy Formula One competition.

Tapper, an IT consultant with engineering consultancy Atkins, had not read the competition details properly, and thought it ended after the final race of the season, while Scregg, a software engineer with SSA Global Technologies, had been doing so badly he had almost given up, until Rubens Barrichello won the Hungarian Grand Prix doubled his points, taking him to second place.

The Donnington event was cancelled, so MiTech took them instead to a European Minardi day at the San Marino Grand Prix circuit at Imola. They arrived on Saturday morning and spent the day sightseeing in Bologna, where the famous spaghetti sauce originated. "I wanted to eat some real spaghetti Bolognese," says Tapper.

But on Sunday morning they were told not to eat too big a breakfast. In fact they were so nervous they did not feel like eating much at all.

When the taxi driver who collected them from the hotel found out they were going to Imola, "He decided to impress us with his driving abilities," Tapper recalls. "Although it was a foggy morning, we went up the motorway at about 100mph."

About a mile from the circuit, they became aware of a high-pitched growling, which grew steadily louder. "We realised this noise was the F1 cars."

At the track they were kitted out in fireproof suits, helmets and gloves and given a medical check. "At this point I'd have been quite relieved if I'd been refused," says Tapper.

Pulse rates and blood pressures were checked. "Mine was way up - I could feel my heart pumping," Scregg admits.

As Tapper walked through the paddock to the pit lane, he looked through a gap in the fencing and saw a car come round the last bend and enter the final straight. "It was just a dot in the distance, then the next minute it blasted past, almost faster than I could turn my head," he says.

Later they were on the top level with a bird's-eye view of the pit lane when a tow-truck appeared through the chicane, dragging a car. The nose cone was crumpled, and the driver and his passenger were nowhere to be seen. And that is when Tapper and Scregg's names were called.

Scregg was strapped in tightly, only able to move his hands and head. Then he was told about the panic button - a kind of "dead man's handle", which you hold down all the way round. If you release it, a light comes on the dashboard, and the driver slows down and takes you back to the pit.

"One minute we were trundling down the pit lane, then he accelerated, and it was as if I'd been dropped off a cliff. Your instinct when they first accelerate is to let go the panic button. You lose track of where you are on the circuit, since you're concentrating on keeping your head upright."

He was disappointed when it was over, but relieved as well. "Three laps was enough. Although once you started going round, it was not desperately scary - more like being in a roller-coaster than a car."

Tapper barely had time to register how exhilarated Scregg looked before it was his turn. The noise when the engine started was horrific. "You're basically sitting on this massive rocket engine when it fires up. We were pushed into the pit lane, then the engine engaged, and we went from 0mph to 60mph in about a second. That didn't feel so bad. But as we crossed the line to the track, the driver just floored the accelerator, and we went from 60mph to about 200mph in three or four seconds. I felt as if I'd left all my vital organs in the pit lane. At that point I thought I'd release the panic button - I didn't think my body could take it.

"Then we reached a corner and he braked heavily, back to 60mph. One minute your head was smashed back against the headrest, then it was flung down between your legs as he slammed on the brakes. On corners it was flung from side to side - your body couldn't move because it was so heavily strapped in."

By the end of the third lap, Tapper felt he couldn't physically go on. "I was extremely pleased I hadn't eaten anything. With each burst of acceleration, my stomach rose into my chest, and if I'd had anything in it, I think I would have made a terrible mess of my helmet."

Back in the pits, as they staggered out of the cars, they were ambushed by press photographers, and Tapper was trapped by a French TV crew. "I was being interviewed by the French equivalent of Murray Walker. I don't think I covered myself in glory. I swore several times, and told him how close I came to puking in my helmet."

Tapper says his interest in Fantasy Formula One had less to do with the sport than rivalry with certain colleagues, although he is now a fan. His hottest competitor is the man he sits next to. I've won bragging rights for the next 12 months," says Tapper.

Scregg, on the other hand, is a long-time follower of Formula One. "I've got much greater respect now for the fitness of the drivers, and how they just keep calm control of the cars, particularly when you think that the two-seaters are actually quite a bit slower than the single seaters."

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