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Strapped in the Seat of Senna

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In 150,000 years of evolution, man's brain has never had to cope with speed faster than a man could run. How fast do we travel on a train, example? 120mph, 130? Faster? There's very little way of telling. The technology of a modern tilting train isolates us from the sensation of speed, to make us feel comfortable, secure, above all, safe.

I'd hate you to think that looking out the window of a fast-moving train pondering my relationship with my Caveman brain is how I normally spend my time. But today wasn't a normal day - far from it, today was the day I would emulate my hero and drive a former Formula One racing car.

To mark the release of the moving documentary Senna, I was about to get a tiny taste of what the world's fastest drivers experience, to try to get some idea of what it's like to take control of what at the start of the day was an ominous beast.

They started us off gently. I was driven round the Three Sisters Circuit in Wigan by an instructor, shown the counter-intuitive "Racing Line" - turning later into the corner than feels right, feeding the power in earlier than feels safe. Then into the driving seat of one car after another, each more powerful than the last, each a thrill in its own right - until the final challenge, a proper, bona-fide F1 car.

The day went quickly as we were ushered and in some cases strapped into a series of super cars and single-seat racers. During the penultimate drive - a mere Formula 3 - a rasp of engine noise filled the circuit.

All eyes swung in unison from track to garage, where the F1 had just burst into life. She was surrounded by a multitude of respectful staff, warming her up and wiping her down. The excitement in our small group of soon-to-be F1 drivers was palpable.

Almost indecently quickly, it was my turn to be levered then strapped into the great machine - Luca Badoer's 1996 Forti FG03. A quick push start from a quad bike - if they'd left it to us to drive away from a standing start, we'd probably still be there - and I was off.

My first impression during the recommended slow first lap was of a low, wide car, and very light steering. At that point, it was still no more than a fast car, not much different to what we'd driven already.

But this lap belonged to the instructors; all subsequent ones were to be mine.

Out of the slow left-hander by the pits I went for fourth gear, pressing a clutch pedal so resistant I initially wondered if I'd missed it altogether and was pressing the firewall! Then followed a slow tight left hander followed by two right-handers that merge into one and then the back straight, the fastest part of the track.

My instructors' oft-repeated instructions were prominent in my mind: "don't apply the power until you're straight and feed it in gently!" I entered the back straight at a speed I normally save for supermarket car parks and slowly put my foot down. Impressive but still nothing amazing. But there's the thing - I knew this car was amazing, the only non-amazing thing was me.

Onto the back straight for the third time and it was time to give the old girl a prod

As the revs increased my head was forced back, the acceleration was brutal. Suddenly, the Ferrari we had driven earlier in the day seemed like my mum's Fiesta in comparison. While driving the earlier cars, my attention had been on the three boards placed to guide us through each turn - Brake, Turn, Apex, Brake, Turn, Apex. Now, hanging on to this explosion on wheels for an instant, all I could see were the tyre walls, grass and Armco barrier. The track suddenly looked very, very small.

As the laps continued my confidence grew - accelerating earlier, braking later. But with speed came the effort, and old injuries I hadn't thought about for years were now making their presence known in no uncertain terms. The wrist I broke five years ago was singing with pain as every bump in the road was transmitted back violently through the steering wheel.

Almost before it had begun it was over, chequered flag waved, my brief time as a Formula 1 driver behind me. Had I a better understanding of Ayrton Senna after driving a car from his era? No, if anything it was the opposite.

Senna may have shared this arena but, to him, the car was an extension of his body and mind, an instrument by which his professional ambition and spiritual quest could both be realised. I had merely been given a tiger in a cage to play with and could do no more than poke it with a stick from my side of the bars.

Senna is released on DVD today, Monday 10th October.

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DVD: Senna, For retail & rental (Universal)

Movie review: 'Senna' does racer's life story justice