Highlander Lewis gets F1 drive08 | 11 | 2011

    MENTION FORMULA ONE to most people and the immediate thought is of a glamourous world of luxury, near decadence, and wall-to-wall sunshine at circuits around the world. Not quite what Golspie's Lewis Williamson experienced when he turned up at Silverstone this week to drive the 2008 world championship-winning McLaren F1 car.

    Four days before his 22nd birthday, the Highlander was at the Northamptonshire circuit to test the McLaren as part of his Autosport McLaren Young Driver of the Year Award (watch, and listen, to our video of Lewis blast down the new Silverstone start-finish straight in the F1 McLaren).

    "On that last lap, knowing I was coming in, I just took my time and savoured every split second of it. I'm sure it must have been the slowest, longest in-lap I've ever done" — Lewis Williamson

    Glamourous and sun-kissed the event certainly wasn't.

    A dank, mizzly wet air shrouded Silverstone and as I parked-up next to Vodaphone McLaren Mercedes transporter, I bumped into Lewis walking back from his car with his KIT. As we chatted, walking into the garage, he pointed — flashing the TW Steel watch he won as part of his Autosport prize — at a door to the left and said: "The team's through there preparing the car."

    See our exclusive photos of Lewis's F1 test

    With that, he disappeared into a slightly grotty single WC cubicle to get changed into his racesuit. Y'see, F1 isn't as glamourous as you might think.

    Williamson's rise through the motorsport ranks — he's backed by a small band of private investors under the Highland Arena banner — has been fairly meteoric. Only three years ago he was in karts, then graduated to the Formula Renault Championship, finishing runner-up last year.

    But such was his performance — he only missed out on the title in the final round — he was shortlisted for the Young Driver of the Year. And after impressing the judges at the test day, he picked up the award at the equivalent of British motorsport's Oscars at London's Grosvenor House Hotel last December.

    His test in the McLaren F1 car formed part of the prize, an award previously received by fellow Scots including David Coulthard, Dario Franchitti and, most recently, Paul di Resta.

    This wasn't just any McLaren F1 car

    So Williamson, who this year moved up to GP3 with MW Arden, the team owned by Red Bull boss Christian Horne and F1 driver Mark Webber, is in good company.

    Remember, this wasn't just any McLaren F1 car. This was the MP4-23A chassis which namesake Lewis Hamilton used to win the 2008 British Grand Prix, and to clinch the world title.

    "It's Lewis's favourite car," Wiliamson, a Tom Cruise lookalike, explained as we watched the swarm of men with laptops work to prepare the McLaren. "This is it's last run. After this it's going into McLaren's museum."

    No pressure then. With that knowledge, the Dundee-born driver — his family moved north before he was 10 — appears incredibly relaxed. "Yesterday driving down, my girlfriend said to me 'you don't seem very excited'," he explained. "I just smiled: 'Believe me, I will be when the engine starts tomorrow morning.'"

    At 11.47am, with Williamson snuggly coccooned in the cockpit of the silver, black and red Mercedes-powered racer, the engine was fired up. After a few final, calm words of instruction from the man in charge, Dave Robson — Jenson Button's race engineer — Williamson flicked the car into gear, exited the garage, turned right, and headed down Silverstone's new pitlane.

    So, the big question: how did Lewis do?

    The Scot had the full grand prix circuit to himself, and with the conditions worsening — it never actually rained, but somehow everything just got wetter and wetter — the piercing sound of the F1 engine hung in the air as he seared round the track.

    After three flying laps, he was in for a check. Out again, and the process repeated. After his third block of three flying laps, he was called in. Test over.

    While Williamson disappeared to get changed, I cornered Robson. How did Lewis do?

    "To be honest, he did very well," he said, "especially given the fairly treacherous conditions. He did everything, in fact quite a bit more, that we asked of him. Pretty impressive actually."

    No stalls, no spins, no excursions through the gravel: and consistency. After an opening lap of 2mins 08secs, each lap in his middle stint got faster, then in the third stint all three laps were 1:59. Williamson, understandably, was chuffed, in his normal, understated way.

    "That was awesome," he beamed. "Just going out the pitlane, it's just like everything you ever thought it would be. The sound, the feel of the throttle, the revs, everything just feels as though I thought it would be: perfect.

    "It's so ridiculously fast in a straight line"

    "On the first lap, the reality hit. It's so ridiculously fast in a straight line, way, way faster than anything else I've ever driver.

    "It's just phenomenal to get this opportunity. Everything in the last three years has been thrown at me really quick, and I haven't really had much time to sit and just realise what I've achieved.

    "On that last lap, knowing I was coming in, I just took my time and savoured every split second of it. I'm sure it must have been the slowest, longest in-lap I've ever done.

    "I realise this could be the last opportunity I ever get to drive a Formula One car. This has been pretty special, and I'll hold that with me for the rest of my days."

    Last opportunity to drive an F1 car? I don't think so.

    Watch our EXCLUSIVE video of Lewis and the McLaren

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    Jim McGill

    Photo: Autosport

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