Red Bull Racing Team proved with this amazing project that there is no mountain high enough for human adventure, dreams and boys with their toys. New pages of history were written when Neel Jani drove the F1 race car on the highest motorable road on the world – Khardung La on Himalayas at the altitude of 5650 meters.
After an hour and a half of flying across the Himalayas from New Delhi we arrived to the town of Leh at the far north of India. The arrival at the altitude of 4000 meters gave us all a shivering. The challenge that awaited us requested an adaptation to the climate conditions in order to acomplish our goal – to drive an Red Bull F1 car on the highest motorable road in the world, Khardung La at 5650 meters.
Besides Red Bull Racing Team, Case Production with their team were in charge of video production, I was the official Red Bull Photographer and the Red Bull India Team took care of every request that we had in order to complete and fulfill our mission as best as we could.
On the first day we checked the locations and interesting spots for filming and photographing the parts of the project. At the first glance we knew that there is not going to be any sudden moves. The altitude took its toll and fatigue had overcome our bodies very quick.
The second day, while we waited the F1 car to arrive by truck from New Delhi (which took about three days and 1000 km of driving the Indian roads – you have to see it in order to believe it), we had the time to visit the military base South Pullu located at the altitude of 4800 m on the road to Khardung La, which was supposed to be our temporary destination to the top. The temperature was arround 0 but the sun improved the feeling of being less cold.
On the third day the truck carrying the F1 car finally arrived, and the Red Bull Racing Team began their work. We all waited arround the car anxious to hear its powerfull engine roar. Some tuning and preparations of the car were absolutely necessary. The first ignition gave a sign of the high altitude we were at and also a conclusion that this was not going to be an easy drive. The engine just didn’t worked as it should have. Working through the software of the engine and solving one problem at the time it was until the evening when we heard the sound of an engine that we all wanted to hear. The nine-strong team tweaked the car for over two hours before she purred to life at the 10,500 feet oxygen deprivent altitude of Leh.
Red Bull sent the guys who help develop the edge that allows the bull to run rumpant year after year in F1.
Once she reached the ambient running temperature of 70 degrees Celsius through generator spawned heat, they kept her warm like a baby, muffling her with with blankets. Then, they kept stroking her en route to keep her gurgling content. But even more than their acumen, in the end it was a mix of logistics and sheer cussedness of the human spirit that saw the record-making attempt to fruition.
The photo shooting and filming started in front of the monastery Tikse with buddhist monks being the natural part of the ambient. Each stage of the driving took us a little closer to the finish, and the amazing landscapes we left behind made the pictures and videos of this event magnificent and eternal, and also rose the adrenalin after each preview.
The following day was the day we planed to drive the F1 car on the highest motorable road Khardung La on its altitude of 5600 meters. From the moment a driver Neel Jani arrives at the top the plan was to stay there one hour the most. All previous stages were completed. About 1 km after the military base South Pullu the snow awaited us. It was necessary to switch tires and prepare the car for the drive in very abnormal conditions. Everything was a little bit slower as the cold was much stronger on the altitude of 5000m. When we arrived on the top there was a big surprise waiting for us. The crowd of military trucks and civil vehicles was unbelievable. The time was not on our side any more. After less than three hours we managed to clear the traffic jam (which I believe is possible only in India in that way that occured at the moment) so Jani could finish his historical drive with the F1 car. That drive is something that will forever stay in our memories and on the pages of history that we all wrote that day.
The consequences of time spent on such cold weather manifested on some of the Team members. Strong headaches, dizziness and nausea were the symptoms of too much exposure to the coldness on high altitude, and we had to evacuate immediately. Ambulance was also a part of the team but nobody really needed the oxygen treatment. We all felt better as the altitude decreased. Some team members fell down when we arrived at the hotel, but nobody suffered any serious injury from cold weather. Comparing to the goal that we managed to achieve the coldness was something we forget with ease, and photographs and videos from this amazing event will always remember the people around the world of the mighty Khardung La and the F1 Race car.
HOW IT CAME TO PASS
Modified RB1 (the teams showcar) was set up differently from a normal racing one on the track.
To take on the humps and bumps of the high mountain road the ride height was increased and the suspension was strengthened.
A NEW ENGINE
Management software was loaded to manage the full mixture – the ratio of the full to air – in order to compensate for less oxygene.
The radiators were fitted with fans in the rear and dry ice cage in the front so that the engine could be kept cool with a constant supply of cold air at low speeds as the car climbed up the bends.
According to Tony Burrows, the car was run on 97 Octane petrol as compared to 104-05 Octane. The fuel average of an Formula One car is around 3kpl, but at high-altitude it must have been lesser.
The sound of an F1 car is the one thing that sticks with you forever once you felt a race live. It’s a symphony that traverses the span of guttural exclamation to keen wail. When the same sound resounds off the massifes of the Karakoram, swirls throught the gorges and echoes back astride the bone – chilling wind, it no longer sounds like a plain machine; rather it appears that some atavistic force has made the mountains hum alive.
It was a concert between elements ancient and technology latest when Red Bull Racing lugged a Formula 1 car to the arid Ladakh desert. The outlandish plan was to pit the beast of the tracks against the big daddy of all roads in the world. At 18,380 feet, Khardung La is the highest place on this planet that anything on four wheels can get to. But a Formula 1 car? You got to be nuts!
WHERE THERE IS WILL
“It’s been one year in planning has taken over 3000 man hours and cost above $200,000 to execute,“ informs Anthony Ward, the man at Red Bull who sanctions all such hair-brained schemes which has given the brand it’s maverick marketing image.
No matter how much you plan, the mountains have a way of making a monkey out of man – they pare down the bubble of modernity and put you back where your ancestors once were. Red Bull Racing may be the best outfit to propel fast cars round and around circuits across the world but against the mighty Himalaya they too had to bow and look to scrape along when the weather deigned.
RBR drove the car around scenic bits of Leh to facilitate a film being shot on the project. The maximum speed that Swiss driver Neel Jani, best known in India for winning the A1 GP season 2007-08, reached was 210 kph. “It was just too bumpy. Apart from one run, the rest were all uphill and the corners were tight and twisty. It was important to have fun while staying safe,“ said Jani.
They all surmounted the technical challenges just fine, but it was the bite of the heights that cowed them. The team spent close to three hours on top of the pass. That night Jani woke up and lay shivering for three hours in the wee hours.
“I was just so dehydrated. I had to drink a lot before I could go back to sleep. At that time I was not sure if I could drive on.“ Only two of the support team went back close to the pass the next day.
At Khardung La, it was 11 below zero. Swirling snow and biting wind along with a rutted road made conditions all the more demanding. Jani got heated at the sight of tourists littering and proceeded to snow just what refuse bins are for. Chaotic traffic made unloading and running the car a lesson in balancing mechanical challenges and people management. In the end, it was about 20 metres of run that notched up a world mark. Altitude induced headaches and worsening weather hurried the team down.
“The ride height was increased and we modified the suspension to take on the bumpy roads,“ explains Tony Burrows, support team manager and a man with 24 years of experience in F1. One would presume that only sub-zero temperatures would be a problem. However, it was also about keeping the car cool on account of the extremely slow speeds that it ran at. Jani touched barely 125 kph uphill to Khardung La and averaged about 50. “Fans were fitted to the radiators and we put a tray of dry ice behind it.“ Along with that, the team could not let the car cool to lower than 70 degrees. “That was the toughest part. Even though temperatures go down to minus three at tracks like Barcelona during testing, there is no swirling wind and snow to contend with.“ If the car slips below, it can’t be fired up lest the shrunk components smashed up the innards of the engine.
Using 97 octane fuel, a new software was written for the engine to manage the fuel mixture – the air to fuel ratio on account of less oxygen. It was a deft bit of tuning that allowed the car to fire at 18,380 feet. It is possible to view this endeavour as a publicity gimmick. It can also be hailed as an example of mechanical brilliance.
Some of my pictures were exclusively published by the Hindustan Times, a daily newspaper with the highest circulation in the world.