10 November 2005
South African Alan van der Merwe is, unofficially, the fastest Formula One driver ever.
The 25-year-old, driving for the BAR Honda F1 team last Friday, raced at over 400km/h in three seperate runs on the runway of the Mojave Airport in California. His highest recorded speed was 413.205 km/h.
The current F1 speed record was set by Juan Pablo Montoya, who reached 372.20km/h in his MacLaren while testing for the 2005 Italian Grand Prix.
Van der Merwe was testing the car for an official attempt on the record at the Bonneville Salt Flats early in 2006. The record attempt was originally set for early October, but heavy rainfalls washed out the flats and destroyed any chance the Honda team had.
“The car ran perfectly,” said team technical chief Gary Savage.
“The day proved how important all the recce work has been, and how important it was to approach this challenge in a proper, professional manner; to show it respect, rather than to turn up on the Salt Flats, go for it and hope for the best.”
Despite the windy conditions, with gusts of up to 60 knots, the car’s stabilising rubber remained locked in the neutral position.
“It was an encouraging day,” Savage said, “and we are confident we can achieve this speed, and more, at Bonneville. But we also know that its salt surface is a much more difficult proposition.”
The car is a F1 track-legal car that will be set up for the salt pan track. Bonneville’s flat, smooth plain has been the site of most of the world’s land speed records.
“We have been faced with problems that you would never encounter at an F1 race track, which often make our objective seem that much further away,” Van der Merwe said.
“From a driver’s perspective it is a challenge because it has never been done with an F1 car before. The car is not designed to drive on the salt flats and it makes for a very different an unpredictable ride.
“When I was told about the project I was immediately excited about the prospect of driving an F1 car in such a unique environment. The closer to the record we get, the more exciting it is.”
“Yes,” said team sporting director Gil de Ferran, “there is a degree of madness to the whole idea, especially when you come out here and the weirdness of the place really hits you. But to imagine an F1 car running here is so strange, so unique, that that’s where all the value is.”
Johannesburg-born Van der Merwe won the the British F3 championship in 2003, following in the footsteps of drivers such as Mika Hakkinen, Ayrton Senna and Rubens Barrichello.
He is currently a member of the BAR Honda Young Drivers programme, and has been selected as one of South Africa’s drivers in the A1 Grand Prix series that started in September.
“This challenge takes an F1 car back to the roots of what racing is all about,” Van der Merwe said. “It is about squeezing every last bit out of your car, the team and the environment to go as fast as possible.”