In the early '80s, Allen Berg raced in the Formula 3 series, where he went toe to toe with the likes of Ayrton Senna and Martin Brundle. After successful stints in both Formula cars and TransAm series racing, he turned his focus to driver training, serving as chief instructor for the Calgary Sports Car Club's competition licensing school, as well as training drivers through the Skip Barber Racing School and other programs before setting out on his own.
Berg's latest venture brings his brand of driver training to the United States with a decidedly more authentic experience than most programs here offer. Whereas the majority of racing schools use essentially stock, production-based performance vehicles for their on-track training, Berg's school offers would-be racers the chance to sink down into the cockpit of a purpose-built open-wheel car to put their training (and courage) to the test.
That's a rare opportunity in a country that leans more toward NASCAR than F1, so when given the chance to shoehorn myself into a single seater and blast around Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca with guidance from a Formula racing luminary, I made haste.
In this glorious era of horsepower excess, 150 hp might sound like a non-starter for a high-performance vehicle. But in the realm of race cars, minimizing weight is a much higher priority than it is in a modern production vehicle, and that emphasis on low mass can change the story in a fairly dramatic fashion.
Take, for instance, the Tatuus Renault Formula 1600 cars used at the Allen Berg Formula Racing School. While the Renault 1.6L DOHC four-cylinder's aforementioned output won't raise many eyebrows on its own, because it only has about 1,000 pounds of weight to lug around, this little open-wheel car has a better power-to-weight ratio than a BMW M4 GTS.
But of even greater importance—as we discovered during our first lapping session—is that when low mass is coupled with a carbon-fiber monocoque chassis, a five-speed sequential gearbox, race slicks, and nothing to inhibit the sounds and sensations of both the car and the outside world, the effect is considerably more visceral than anything you could hope to experience in a production car. With cornering and braking force capability in excess of 2.0G at your command, it takes the term "responsiveness" to an entirely different level.
Our day began with a track walk of Laguna Seca. Here, we had a chance to not only familiarize ourselves with the track layout and racing line, but to also get some insight from Berg in terms of how to approach some of the trickier sections.
MRLS is a 2.2-mile, 11-turn road course that features significant elevation changes as well as a variety of challenging corners, including the iconic downhill, double-apex plunge at Turn 8 known as the Corkscrew. Getting acclimated to the course's nuances before discovering them at speed seemed like a wise idea—both for the sake of fast lap times and to avoid getting into otherwise avoidable trouble in a car with a very low tolerance for off-road excursions.
Once back in the classroom and suited up in the provided safety gear, our instruction focused on general technique. Since the school offers training to drivers with experience levels ranging from SCCA and NASA racers to those who're venturing out on a race track for the first time, we started off with the fundamentals. This included a rundown of on-track etiquette, understanding what various flags mean and where to look for them, and a basic overview of the car and how to properly control it.
Aside from the obvious design differences, perhaps the most unconventional element of a Formula 1600 car versus a typical road car is its sequential gearbox. While these transmissions utilize a clutch pedal like a conventional manual gearbox, there is no shift "pattern." Instead, upshifts are performed by pulling the shifter toward you and downshifts by pushing it away from you. Although this makes for less guesswork behind the wheel, the potential for very quick downshifts that could potentially destabilize the car at high speed means that the technique of heel-toe rev matching plays an important role here when trying to get the most out of the car.
After our initial classroom session, we headed out to pit lane to be fitted into our cars. With students of various shapes and sizes coming through the program on a regular basis, some tailored customization (by way of seat padding) is required to ensure each driver can be fit securely into his or her respective car. It's a delicate balance between fastening the driver into place as tightly as possible while still allowing enough freedom to find a relative sense of comfort and, above all, use the controls unimpeded.
Once properly locked in place, we pulled out on track for our first lapping session of the day. As with any day at the track, the key is to ramp up the pace progressively over time to avoid suddenly discovering the limits of the car or your skill behind the wheel, so we started off with a lead-follow session behind an instructor.
Although the pace was relatively low during this initial session, the experience of piloting an open-cockpit vehicle for the first time is awe inspiring—feeling the wind push your helmet into the headrest as the pace increases delivers a true sense of speed you can't get behind a windshield, and sitting just a few inches off the ground while doing so only adds to that effect.
After half an hour on course, we returned to the classroom for a debriefing session, where we began to focus on the more nuanced elements of driving the course and improving our individual technique. By midday, we were sent out on track unimpeded, with instructors lining key points of the track to observe our driving.
As the school continued, in-car footage and telemetry data were added into the mix, which allowed the instructors to better illustrate where each driver could adjust his or her technique during our classroom sessions. By the end of the day, going flat out through Turn 1—a proposition that seemed harrowing in the morning—was second nature, and the personalized feedback provided during the classroom sessions not only improved our lap times, but forced us out of bad habits that were all too easy to maintain otherwise.
While we opted to participate in the introductory one-day program, the Allen Berg Formula Racing School offers both two-day and three-day programs, which continue into advanced driving theory and wheel-to-wheel, racing-specific skills like passing strategies.
For those who're looking to improve driving technique, transition from a production-based race class to an open-wheel series, or simply experience the distinct thrill of piloting an open-wheel race car, the Allen Berg Formula Racing School undoubtedly delivers on all fronts.