Gentlemen (and lady): Start your engines

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#ChallengeCompleted: F1 Race Simulator

When? Sunday 12th February

Nominated by: Jon

This Challenge was right up my race track. Appealing Big Time to both the petrolhead and the F1 fan within me, the opportunity to ‘drive’ a Formula One car round a Grand Prix circuit was super-exciting.

I was under no illusions I’d beat Jon, my Challenger; he does a lot of karting and, by all accounts, is pretty handy round a race track. It’s also been a long time since I’ve put pedal to the metal in gritted determination. Mike, a fellow F1 fan and also a karter, was joining us and I fully expected to be beaten by him too, although I at least hoped I might give both boys a run for their money.

We went first into a briefing room to learn how to get comfortable in the cockpit and adjust the pedals (there are only two; no clutch. I’d rapidly have to learn left-foot braking). We were shown how to attach and remove the steering wheel, what the various buttons on the wheel did (I was relieved it wasn’t covered in buttons and switches like Lewis Hamilton’s is – there were only four, three of which I probably wouldn’t even need), and how to change gear – flick the paddle on the right to change up and the paddle on the left to shift down.

Hungary for success?

The facility offers all the current Grand Prix circuits; we’d be driving Hungary’s Hungaroring, a twisting circuit with only one real straight. This, we were told, is a ‘middling’ circuit: not overly difficult for the first-timer to get to grips with, but still offering challenges for more experienced racers.

I know the Hungaroring. Well I say ‘know’; I could probably have picked it out of a circuit line-up. When the lap diagram came up on the screen in the briefing room, yes: I recognised it. I also knew each and every one of those corners  would come as a surprise as I drove round…

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I was actually quite nervous as we entered the Race Room. Ten F1-esque monocoques lined up across two rows; no wheels, noses or wings but realistic enough nonetheless. Each car had three wraparound display screens. Getting in was a lot easier than I imagine it is squeezing into a ‘real’ F1 car and I virtually disappeared as I submarined into the cockpit. I’m not tall and the virtually supine driving position left my head all but completely below the rim. Surprisingly, it didn’t bother me nearly as much as I thought it would. I guess I’d have felt differently in a ‘real’ car on a real circuit.

We now had a 15-minute qualifying session, then a short break to receive personal telemetry that would potentially help us see where we could improve our performance. Then we’d be back for a 30-minute race.

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My heart was thumping as the lights dimmed and qualifying was go, go, GO! Cars streamed past my garage as I flicked into first and gingerly pressed the throttle, hoping nothing else was coming as I joined the pitlane. Safe! Changing gears seemed straightforward enough; I even remembered (eventually) to deactivate the speed limiter as I joined the track. Tentatively I approached the hairpin. The brakes were super-sharp so not only had I braked far too early, I virtually stopped before getting off the brakes and navigating the corner, past several cars already scattered in the gravel traps pointing in various directions.

Before I had time to be smug I’d joined them. I’d spun. Someone hit me (or did I hit them? It was all a bit of a blur, really) and I barrel-rolled (thankfully the simulator was limited to vibration only), ending up nose-on into the barrier. Where’s reverse? How the heck do I get back on to the track? Where even is the track? I spent a good while repeatedly crashing into the barrier and spinning in an attempt to get going before the computer apparently took pity on me and put me back in my garage to start again…

This time there were no cars to hit/be hit by, so I successfully (eventually) got round the first corner. From now on I didn’t have a clue what bends were coming next. Sometimes there were boards counting down to the corner, which helped. Sometimes I was in a corner – or, more accurately, the gravel the other side of it – before I’d realised. I did find a lot of gravel traps.

Fifteen minutes flew by. I was learning nothing about the track but had become proficient at driving through gravel traps. I was also good at selecting neutral or reverse at inopportune moments. I kept missing gears by not pulling on the paddles strongly enough. Hey, I could at least brake hard with my left foot!

Seventh heaven?

I managed a feeble five laps, with a best time of 2:07.475. To be fair, three other drivers also only managed five laps, the rest doing six. And that said, if the fastest lap was a 1:40.690 he must have had some serious ‘offs’ if he was that much faster yet only managed one more lap in the 15 minutes!

I’d qualified seventh. Out of seven. On the plus side I was the fastest girl. I’m taking that.

The most useful thing I learned from my telemetry was that there are, in fact, eight gears. For some reason I thought there were only six so I’d stopped upshifting at that point. I also saw my braking was either fully on or fully off. Is that a bad thing? I didn’t appear to have completely floored the accelerator at any point – I could certainly resolve that. At least my telemetry implied I was roughly accelerating and braking in the right places. And while I’m sure not one of my five laps was free of some kind of excursion/spin/crash, I don’t think it’s obvious where I struggled. Other than, erm, everywhere…

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Blue line represents me; red line represents the fastest lap set

The break was swift. Quickly we were back in our cars, lined up on the grid. My tactics were obvious: hang back and let everyone crash on the first corner, then tiptoe through the debris and hang on…

Lights out! I hesitated… but quickly realised the car in front (Mike) was going really slowly so I floored it – passing him and a further car (two cars?) as we headed into the hairpin. Hey, I can DO this! Predictably, the exit of the hairpin was carnage; cars off all over the place. Equally predictably, I joined them in the gravel…

The race was long. At one point it got quite dark and ‘rained’. Should that make a difference? Should I go slower? Brake earlier? One thing I shouldn’t have done was put a wheel on the grass as I floored it down the straight; instant spin and crash. Doh!

Sometimes I came up on another car (usually recovering from an incident). Sometimes I even drove past it… but I was re-lapped pretty quickly.

I never did manage a clean lap. The most frustrating moments were when I was actually going quite well, then simply bashed from behind or barged off the side. Yes, I swore out loud on more than one occasion.

The hardest part was the lack of any impression of speed or deceleration beyond the visual display. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t looking to experience the incredible G-forces F1 drivers endure, but only the onscreen speedo and selected gear display gave any real indication of what was happening in terms of traction. I’m also thankful that virtual tyres are apparently a great deal more resilient than Hamilton and co’s Pirellis, because I appeared to spin my wheels a lot, mainly by being in the wrong gear and using too much throttle.

Steering was tough on my arms – especially when trying to manoeuvre back onto the circuit. I felt a small kick every time I changed gear and there was a definite bump when I hit the barrier and a jolt when I went over the kerbs, but nothing even approaching uncomfortable, let alone painful. I certainly wasn’t experiencing the physical thrill of F1 driving, although the adrenaline rush was definitely there.

I was almost relieved when the half-hour race finished as I was starting to get frustrated at my lack of progress. But I was disappointed it was exactly on the 30-minute mark that my display suddenly cleared; I didn’t even get to finish my lap and take the chequered flag.

Scores on the doors

So how did I get on? Sixth. Yes, I beat Mike. There was a good reason for that, but I’ll spare (more of) his blushes on that one. I’d managed 11 laps, finishing three behind the winner – my Challenger, Jon. On the positive side, I had improved my lap time by a whopping seven seconds. Not many F1 drivers find that much speed between qualifying and the race!

That said, I don’t think Lewis Hamilton – let alone the back of the grid – have much to worry about… Hey, I finished the day the fastest girl. I’m taking that.

 

 

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Waiter, there might be a fly in my soup…

img_1825#ChallengeCompleted: Dans Le Noir?

When? Tuesday 31st January

Nominated by: Lucy

Close friends know I’m a bit of a foodie and love discovering new restaurants. But Dans Le Noir?, in Clerkenwell, is a restaurant with a big difference: diners eat in absolute darkness, served by visually impaired staff. It’s described as ‘a sensory experience that awakes your senses and enables you to completely re-evaluate your perception of taste and smell’.

I’m a firm believer that you eat primarily with your eyes so I was sceptical how my enjoyment of a meal might be elevated rather than compromised by lack of vision. I also confess I was cautious I might unwittingly eat something I’d rather not! I was, of course, willing to accept Lucy’s Challenge.

Lucy and I were greeted in a dimly lit reception containing a bar, sofas and lockers into which we were directed to stow our belongings, including phones. We were given ‘menus’ ­– not a choice of what dishes we might care to enjoy, simply an outline of the courses and drinks available ­– and asked if we wanted the ‘chef’s choice’, ‘fish’, ‘meat’ or ‘vegetarian’ option, while a note was made of any food intolerances and dislikes we had.

It was with some trepidation we then met our (blind) waiter, Guy. I was directed to place my hand on his shoulder, with Lucy behind me placing her hand on my shoulder; thus train-like we were led into the pitch black dining area (and it really was pitch black) and to our table, where Guy ensured we were sat safely before explaining clearly what was in front of us.

It was immediately obvious Lucy and I, seated opposite each other, were sharing our table with another couple and, while we couldn’t see them, it was clear they were extremely close, which was disconcerting. It was impossible to tell what other diners sat where, but there was a fair bit of noise and chatter. I commented to Lucy that if she and I both drew where we thought we were sat in context of the rest of the restaurant and other diners, we’d no doubt have very different results.

Guy soon returned with our drinks (‘the glass has two straws in it; be careful’), a lidded jug of water (‘place your finger in your glass as you pour, so you can feel the level’) and some bread to share. Aware of other diners being so close on one side and not knowing who else might be sat nearby, I found it tough figuring out what space we actually had and hoped I wouldn’t push things off the table or knock anything over; although to be fair it seemed pretty well sorted in terms of mitigating spill hazards.

Eating the bread was simple enough and as no mention was made of butter, we guessed that was one problem we didn’t have to overcome. Lucy was confused as I described the herbiness of the roll I was tasting; she really couldn’t pick that flavour out. It was a while before we realised the plate offered a selection of rolls…

My starter arrived (cue a cautious juggling act as I blindly endeavoured to make room for my plate by moving unseen glasses/cutlery/jugs/bread). Now came the tricky bit: eating. I stabbed my fork randomly down in front of me, feeling for the edge of the plate with my other hand. More often my fork came back all but empty; sometimes I was lucky and speared a particularly large mouthful of food. There seemed little point trying to use a knife to cut something I couldn’t see. Besides, with no one watching, who cared about my table manners?

Most flavours I recognised. But naming the ingredients of my dish with confidence? Actually pretty damn tricky with no visual cues.

I quickly got fed up with blindly stabbing my fork and introduced my other hand to tentatively push things on to it instead. Hey, it’s not like anyone is watching! It was still pretty hit and miss, mind – not to mention in danger of getting rather messy.

My main course was equally challenging. The plate this time felt like a clover shape and in each of the ‘petals’ I encountered something different. In my mouth I could differentiate between meat, fish and vegetable elements (I’d like to think I could at least manage that!). Some I liked. Some I wasn’t so sure about. Most I just shovelled in regardless, as though it was some kind of challenge just to find and eat everything I’d been served.

I didn’t order pudding, but Lucy had favoured that course over a starter. Guy brought her dish and offered us a spoon each. If eating your own meal blind is hard, sharing is virtually impossible and here I can only apologise to Lucy. Because I really hadn’t intended to pick up was seemed to be at least half the portion in one go when I slid my spoon in. Apparently balanced very firmly, I had a good four mouthfuls of pudding from just one super-giant spoonful. Sorry. I didn’t feel I could put it back. Then again, who would have known? (Lucy, it’s OK: I didn’t put it back!)

So did I have any idea what I was eating? While I was confident about a handful of ingredients, on the whole not really. And for me that was the disappointment. I mean, I get the theory about blindness heightening your other senses. And it’s great that the chefs aim to combine flavours and textures for the optimum taste sensation. But when I can’t successfully mix those flavours and textures on my fork because I can’t see what I’m blooming well doing, it all gets muddled and ultimately lost. Once I’d found an area of my plate with food on, I ate that. Then I used my hands to locate to the next area of food.

I pretty much gave up with cutlery; fingers were far more efficient. And it was a surprise when, thinking I’d about finished my main course, I discovered a whole new ‘petal’ on my plate full of a whole new set of flavours and textures. And there was another problem for me: without knowing how much food was in front of me, I struggled to pace my meal.

I found I naturally closed my eyes a lot (seemed pointless having them open, I guess), which started to feel a little like I was living in a dream. But were my other senses heightened? Impossible to tell if my hearing was heightened because the restaurant was noisy – few soft furnishings, it sounded like, as voices bounced around. Perhaps when you can’t see other people, you’re simply not so conscious of keeping your voice down. I guess it’s not the place to reveal secrets; who knows who could be sitting right next to you, listening?!

I wouldn’t say my sense of smell was more acute, either. Actually, thinking back, I don’t recall really smelling my food at all. I’m not sure if that says more about me or the meal…

As for taste: to be honest, I just found the blackness frustrated my enjoyment of my food rather than enhancing it. I tried really hard to savour the flavours, but ultimately I get pleasure from seeing my meal on the plate. I like picking up a bit of this and a bit of that, in proportions of my choosing, and tasting them together to see how they blend. Being blinded took that opportunity away from me. While the chef might have carefully balanced flavours and textures through the meal, his skill was negated by the fact each mouthful consisted only of what I found by chance. And I was frustrated to recognise flavours yet not recall their names. I guess I know what I like and I like what I know.

In the bar afterwards we were given a photograph of what we’d been served, with a full description. Some of ‘the big reveal’ was expected. Much of it was a complete surprise. Those little globules I’d hoovered up that I’d thought might be bits of fish turned out to be button mushrooms (which ordinarily I’d have pushed to one side). The meaty fish wasn’t shark, as I’d guessed, although I wasn’t far wrong. The giant chip was a giant chip. That sauce turned out to have been truffled egg yolk. The chocolate ganache had been unmistakable; sadly the game it’d smothered had been impossible to taste through it, which was a shame as I’d have been interested to savour the deer. What the heck is a daikon? Although apparently I ate one, I still have no idea…

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