British racing driver Gary Paffett is living the dream. The 34-year old has tasted success in multiple motorsport disciplines, and has clocked up thousands of miles as a Formula 1 test driver with McLaren.
From 2000 to 2014, Gary thoroughly tested each iteration of F1 car to emerge from the Woking-based constructor during the McLaren-Mercedes partnership. From the piercing 900bhp-plus V10 monsters and high-revving V8s, to last year's complex cars running the new 1.6-litre turbocharged V6 powertrains.
Therefore, Gary knows his onions on the topic of F1 and DTM cars, and is the person to ask when deciphering the different driving techniques required for each discipline.
I'm an unashamed fan of the eye-wateringly expensive V10 era. For me, it remains the pinnacle of what F1 should be about. The cars looked angry but stunning, they sounded mega and most of the lap records at the long-standing grand prix circuits still come from 2004 and 2005. The sheer speed on display was mind-boggling.
Granted, there wasn't much overtaking going on but, when it happened, you knew it was worked for. So what was it like from the cockpit? Gary explains:
“When I was testing at McLaren, the most advanced car I had was a fully automatic, centrifugal clutch, V10 F1 car, which was ridiculous. You sat in the garage, selected a gear, let go of the paddles and it drove out of the pit garage like it was a go-kart.
"On track it would change up a gear on its own. They didn’t have automatic downshifts because it would upset the balance of the car. You had a pre-selector, where you could downshift five gears on the straight and, when you applied the brake, it went down five gears for the corner. It was a lot like a computer game, but it was an incredible car.
"It was pretty embarrassing at the time, as one day I turned up at the test, put the helmet on, fired it up and there was no clutch paddle. So I got on the radio and yelled, 'There’s no clutch paddle!' and the team said, 'Oh yeah, sorry. It’s now a button'."
Gary is in hysterics at this point, as are the rest of us hacks gathered around a table in the canteen of Mercedes-AMG's Affalterbach headquarters. I'm still pinching myself that I'm having lunch next to a guy who's tested every significant car from the pinnacle of motor racing over the past 15 years.
I'm even more impressed at his humility and self-deprecating humour, as he comes across as just 'one of the lads' throughout the entire day. He continues...
"The V10s were pretty extreme cars. I remember my first F1 test in December 2000 at Jerez. I did about 14 laps, got out of the car and my neck was finished. It was hanging off. So they got the foam pads out, stuck them on the side of the cockpit and sent me out again.
"But that’s how it was back then. The g-force in those days was incredible. Owing to the amount of power the V10s had, they needed massive wings and massive amounts of downforce to go with the 950bhp engines. Then we changed to the V8 which, to start with, was a bit of a toned-down V10, and a bit slower.
"To start with, we would blow up two or three engines every test, which was the kind of thing you got used to. You’d learn the sound of the engine about to expire and you’d be on the straight close to the rev limiter and pull the clutch paddles in before it went pop, so you didn’t get fired off into the barrier.