Bleekemolens Race Planet
Thursday the 22nd of June, 2017: Circuit Park Zandvoort The Netherlands. Zandvoort has been the backdrop of some classic F1 races, featuring such greats as Villeneuve, Prost, and Senna. It is
still a popular modern racing circuit with a flowing 4.307 km (2.676 mi) layout. It also happens to be home to Bleekemolens Race Planet, a successful company offering driving experiences and racing tuition to the general public, companies, and groups. At their kind invitation, I was able to take part in one of the many driving experiences they have on offer. Of course being an avid sim racer, I was very excited at the prospect of comparing some of the cars I was to drive today as well as the Zandvoort circuit with their digital counterparts in several sim racing titles. The opportunity to drive the likes of a McLaren 540c, Mercedes AMG GT and the recently added Formula RP1 open wheeler is something no petrol head or sim racer would want to pass up.
With a very watchful eye on the weather forecast leading up to the 22nd, visiting Bleekemolens Race Planet was something I had been looking forward to for many months. I would probably
compare it to waiting for Christmas to arrive when I was a kid, it seemed the day would never come. Finally, the day had arrived to pack my racing gear, charge up the GoPro, phones, and
equipment in anticipation of documenting what I was hoping would be almost any car geek’s dream day.
Once all the preparations were made, and with the best of moods, we pointed our Mini Cooper towards the Dutch coast, where Circuit Park Zandvoort beckoned. Extremely overcast conditions
and torrential rain greeted us within 15 minutes of leaving home. As we approached our destination roughly an hour or so later, luckily there was some blue poking through the cloud base, things were definitely looking up!
Bleekemolens Race Planet History
Bleekemolens Race Planet was established in1993. Back then, ex-Formula 1 driver Michael Bleekemolen, father to international pro drivers, Jeroen and Sebastiaan Bleekemolen, opened
what was to be the first indoor karting center in Europe. This was a natural progression to the special events he had set up several years earlier at Circuit Park Zandvoort.
Prior to opening his indoor karting center, Michael and his team began organizing and offering events where everyday people, as well as corporations and company groups, could take part in trying their hand at being a racing driver for a day, experiencing exotic machinery usually reserved for the wealthiest car owners and race drivers.
Fast-forward to 2017, Bleekemolens Race Planet has grown in leaps and bounds to encompass a multi-million euro fleet of exotic vehicles ranging from American muscle cars, European thoroughbreds such as Ferrari, Lamborghini, McLaren, Aston Martin and Porsches to their new single seater Formula RP1 cars. The Bleekemolen fleet now boasts more than 150 vehicles and offers a unique assortment of driving packages guaranteed to deliver the awesome experience of driving these cars at speed on the internationally famed Circuit Park Zandvoort.
The driving experience I was to take part in was the ‘’Super Experience’’ the experience offered a fantastic mix of supercars, single seater, drifting, drag racing muscle cars, off-roader activities, karting, as well as slalom and slip courses. A very full day of speed and adrenaline lay ahead of me.
With the popularity of Bleekemolen’s Race Planet experiences, the relatively large number of local and international guests attending were divided into several groups of around 18 people. In rotational order, we all moved from one activity to the next. The first activities of the day were set to a constant soundtrack of protesting tyres and the high revving V8 engines of the drifting Mustangs, a good way to build anticipation and get a feel for what was to come.
The day began with a fun karting competition, directly followed by some skill testing /building, time-trial slalom, and ice driving courses.
Skill Building / Friendly Competition
- Karting competition (self-drive off circuit) – Slalom Course (self-drive off circuit)
- Ice Driving Slalom Course (self-drive off circuit)
- Drifting Ford Mustangs (With a pro driver on circuit)
Our first taste of the Zandvoort Circuit proper came in the form of a pair of black Mustangs which were set up for drifting. The Pro drivers used the shortened version of the circuit which offers more corners and less opportunity to point the car straight ahead. Hopping into the Mustang with a gentle drizzle falling on the circuit’s surface, I was not expecting anything less than going sideways for most of the lap.
I wasn’t wrong, suddenly, the Tarzan corner was upon us and the car lurched into it traveling sideways. Watching the driver’s hands-on the wheel and his judicious use of the Scandi-flick, there was little more to do than enjoying the ride. For many people who may not have experienced it, being in a controlled drift could feel quite out of control. Having driven many hours in race simulators equipped with traction loss, the feeling was much less alien to me. I found myself admiring the driver’s technique from the passenger’s seat, enjoying the sensations the car conveyed during the lap. All too soon, the lap was over, and I reluctantly relinquished my seat to the next eagerly awaiting passenger.
- Porsche 911 (self drive on circuit)
Next up, was the first of the faster cars we were to drive today, the Porsche 911, 325 BHP and 0 -100 time of five seconds. The Porsche provides a great introduction to the full circuit allowing one to become acquainted with the slightly damp track surface. Following the lead pace Porsche in single file onto the circuit I felt immediately at home in the cockpit. The car is very tractable, providing plenty of feedback through the wheel and its stiffly sprung suspension.
Sitting in the Porsche, it does feel rather more like a daily driver, if you can call a Porsche that. The seating position is certainly more upright than the AMG and McLaren’s seats. My eyes were much higher than the wheel, I found myself looking down over the bonnet as opposed to sitting lower down in the other two Supercars I drove today.
The first of two full laps was more exploratory, the second lap we were able to push the car a little harder on a drying circuit, which inspired more confidence. The Porsche 911 was a fun car to drive, I can see why they are such a popular sports car for many driving enthusiasts around the world. I got an even better appreciation for the Porsche’s tried and true engineering, power and handling characteristics.
Considering the number of people and time constraints, my stint in the Porsche only left me wanting to do more laps of the Zandvoort circuit. With the track now completely dry, a couple more laps to push the car a little harder would have been quite welcome.
- Off Roaders on the Dunes at Zandvoort (self-drive circuit)
After lunch, it was time to take to the dunes in some small 4 x 4s. Located on the southern side of the circuit, the off-roading area sits just opposite the large paddock and played host to the group, each taking turns in navigating the sandy terrain and sampling some cool off road driving.
The little Suzukis were more than a match for the sandy terrain they had to navigate. I must be honest and mention, I did not take part in this particular activity as I was gathering more video material to accompany this article.
Speaking with some of the members in my group, they related to me just how much fun it was to get behind the wheel of the Suzuki and go sand dune climbing. Some of them had never set foot in a 4 x 4 before or driven over sand dunes. Having the opportunity to go 4 x 4ing added yet another facet to the already packed day of activities contained within Bleekemolen’s ‘’Super Experience’’.
BMW 1 Cup Series Track Prepped Cars
- BMW 1 Series (self-drive on circuit)
With the weather turning to a soft drizzle once again, we took to the circuit in the only closed cockpit car sporting a traditional gearbox. The BMW 1 Cup series cars have had their interiors removed, they are fitted with upgraded suspension, brakes, manual gearboxes and a full roll cage.
First off, I went on a ride-along in the lead car with one of Race Planet’s drivers, Daan. I quizzed him on several aspects of the circuit and what his favorite Bleekemolen cars were to drive. Daan mused, of all the cars in the fleet, the Mercedes AMG GT was probably the most complete overall car to drive on the Zandvoort circuit. He was also kind enough to give me a few pointers on gear selection and racing lines, which I will put to good use in my sim racing exploits going forward.
Outwardly the BMW is relatively pedestrian in appearance. It is deceptively fast when pushing it around Zandvoort. Daan’s biggest tip was to use third and fourth gear for almost the entire lap and carry the speed through the corners when aiming for the apexes. Using the curbs to transfer weight to the outside wheels in order to create extra grip when cornering was another useful tip.
Now it was my turn to employ that newly gained practical knowledge and take to the circuit in the BMW 1. Still lightly drizzling, we headed out of the pits, again in single file behind the lead BMW with Daan showing us the way. My place in the queue was a little unfortunate, as the driver immediately in front of me was not very confident and slowed in some quite unexpected places. The flow of the laps interrupted, I did not really get to test the car or myself this time around. Driving at this pace was akin to driving under normal road driving conditions.
- McLaren 540c (self-drive on circuit)
One of the highlights of the day was driving the 540 BHP, 0-100 in 3.5 seconds McLaren 540c Supercar. The McLaren 540c is one of the newest models to be added to Bleekemolen’s fleet.
My ride was the lime green model of the trio of McLarens, which stood awaiting me in pitlane. The whole experience of just taking my place in the car and being able to soak up the atmosphere of the McLaren’s cockpit was quite overwhelming. With somewhat rushed instructions being delivered in Dutch by one of Race Planet’s staff, l found myself ready to get my first taste of the McLaren’s track performance potential.
One thing of particular note was the McLaren’s driving position, which is closer to that of a race car. Of course, this is primarily a road car, but the race-bred cues are there and make for a tactile, positive driving experience. I was permitted to utilize the flippers for changing gears, which meant I could make a direct comparison to driving in various simulators.
Selecting first gear with the right flipper and gingerly taking to the circuit, we were able to drive at a much brisker pace than any of the previously driven cars. Being used to driving in VR (Virtual Reality), the sensation of speed is a familiar one. Shifting gears, the thud from the gear change was also a welcome sensation. I would say the biggest difference between the virtual and real car are the physical forces on your body. I have experienced some simulators that approximate acceleration, braking, and cornering forces, with being some more realistic than others.
With the addition of VR to a well put together motion setup, the driving sensation is very close to the real deal. When sim racing in VR, there is that fear factor of hitting an object or another car, which is present in the real world. At the end of the day, in the virtual world, there is a reset button. In real life there are only mountains of expenses, death or injury should something go wrong.
Our out-lap was relatively traffic free. We were able to exceed 210 kph on the main straight, before braking firmly at the 150-meter marker for the Tarzan corner. The second lap was a little slower, as we had to pass a train of Porsche 911s and on the in-lap, another train of Formula RP1 open wheelers. The overall impression I was left with upon the completion of my stint with the McLaren 540c was that I had only barely scratched the surface of its immense performance capabilities. l would have loved the opportunity to go a bit faster. Although driving at high speeds in a €220,000 Supercar that is not mine, it’s probably a good thing we did not get to test the McLaren’s upper limits today.
Mercedes AMG GT, F1 Safety Car Replica
- Mercedes AMG GT (self-drive on circuit)
Stepping out of the McLaren, it was literally straight into the Mercedes, AMG GT. Performance wise it has 462 BHP and a 0-100 time of 4,0 seconds. A quick description from the instructor on how to engage the transmission and we were back out on the circuit behind the Porsche 911 pace car. I was first in the queue this time, so my job was to keep up with the pace car and in turn, the other two following AMGs were to keep up with me.
The power delivery of the Mercedes is silky smooth. Its transmission was set to auto, so unlike the McLaren, the experience was less driver-oriented. The flippers could, however, override the auto box and on certain parts of the two point five laps we drove, l did just that. For our own good, I would assume, the Porsche 911 pace car braked earlier on certain parts of the circuit than we did in the McLarens. At the end of the main straight on the second lap, I could see in my rearview mirror the following AMG was having to take evasive action as we braked much earlier for the Tarzan corner than we did previously.
The overriding feeling in the Mercedes was one of comfort and poise. The car felt very balanced and immensely powerful. Comparing it to the McLaren though, and again only really having scratched the surface of its potential, the former car epitomised that supercar feeling of being more at one with the road. I was totally engaged as a driver whilst driving it. The Mercedes AMG GT, however, is a beautiful piece of automotive engineering and is as Daan mentioned earlier, a complete package when it comes to cars you can take onto a circuit.
- Formula RP1 open wheeler (self-driven circuit)
The whole day was building up to this moment, a chance to drive the Formula RP1, an open wheeler with 140 BHP and a 0-100 time of 4,0 seconds. The key here is that the car only weighs 485 kilos, so the power to weight ratio is more than impressive. It also has a five-speed sequential gearbox, which we were instructed to use as we would on a normal road car. We were duly told to use the clutch for up and down shifting and we would only really need to use 3rd and 4th gears on most sections of the circuit.
Prior to stepping into the cars, those of us in the group that speak English were given a thorough briefing by an English speaking Race Planet staff member. The briefing was comprehensive, consisting of the cars’ controls and safety points, as well as how to enter and exit the cockpit. Not everyone in the group would have had the experience of climbing into a formula style car, so it was of particular concern to the staff we did so correctly.
Once I had fastened my helmet, I was directed to the lead Formula RP1, which happened to be painted in RedBull colors. I stepped over the side pod and stood on the seat before lowering myself into the cockpit. It would have been a little easier to get into if the wheel had been removed from its quick-release mechanism. Being used to driving simulators with a similar form factor, I managed to lower myself into the RP1 without too much effort.
Once I was comfortably in the seat and almost horizontal to the ground, the harness was tightened and l received instructions on how to select and change gears, then to start and stop the 1.6 litre Renault engine. The final instruction was to depress the clutch and start the engine.
Finally, it was time to sample an open wheeler on Zandvoort’s newly resurfaced circuit. One, where a few weeks earlier, F1 driver, Max Verstappen set a new lap record for F1 cars on.
The pace car this time was, believe it or not, an older model Renault Clio. As the Clio pulled away, I gave the Formula RP1 a good amount of revs. With a slight stutter, we were traveling towards the pit lane exit.
Coming onto the circuit, we had to drive directly behind the Clio, a little later in the stint it was to become abundantly apparent as to why that was. Before reaching the Tarzan corner, I was passed on my right by a race prepped Clio ferrying VIPs around for a racing lap. The first sign to not deviate from behind the Clio. Heading up to turn 2 and 3, the uphill section of the circuit, we could pick up a little more speed. Using the sequential box required a decent amount of force for up and down shifting. Again my sim racing experience came in handy, already being used to driving some of the cars in Assetto Corsa, rFactor 2 and iRacing requiring a similar style of driving to the Formula RP1. Changing gears this way was a familiar exercise.
Getting towards the middle of the first lap, the circuit was relatively clear of traffic and just when I thought the lap would remain traffic free, suddenly, first l was passed by the AMGs on my left side. At the point where the shortened circuit meets the main circuit, two drifting Mustangs emerged from behind the armco on my right and l found myself in the middle of the circuit a little aghast at what I was seeing through my visor. I was literally surrounded by cars of varying types and speeds. My only reaction was, how cool is this? There wasn’t really any time to react to the situation, just stay focused on the back of the Clio and keep it together.
After that little bit of extra excitement, we continued on for a lap and a half without further incident and were able to increase our speed a little more on the second lap of the stint. The sensation of driving the RP1 was comparable to racing in some of the open cockpit simulators I have tried. When it comes to a reasonably realistic open wheeler experience, the Evotek Simulations motion cockpit is a good example. Of course, we are still missing the factors of the wind, acceleration, braking and cornering forces on your body. These forces can be reproduced to a certain degree but the real thing is always going to trump a simulator.
That said, not having access to a real racing car and circuit, simulators are beginning to blur the lines between the two worlds and offer a viable, if not slightly sterile alternative to track day cars and the hiring of circuits for training on. Not to mention the costs involved which are disparate with simulators. Sim racing equipment being generally a one-time investment compared to the constant upkeep, repairs, and expenses of running a real car on a yearly basis.
Drag Racing with Dodge Chargers
- Drag Racing Dodge Chargers (self-drive circuit)
After driving the Formula RP1, we left the pit lane to head over to the large paddock area at the southern end of the circuit. There, we took part in a drag racing competition between two identical Dodge Chargers, each with 500 BHP onboard. This was a fun challenge with a slightly competitive edge, as the times for the distance covered were measured to the fraction of a second.
Reaction time and the fact that we were only permitted to use our right foot when taking part in our heats were the deciding factors. Getting off the brake and on the throttle as quickly as possible will get you over the finish line first in this activity. After a slight electronic hiccup with the Black Charger, which required a quick reset by the instructor, it was back to drag racing. Growing up in Australia, I was very used to hearing the low growl of a V8 engine. Here in Europe, the sound is not something you hear in everyday I felt right at home listening to the lumbering V8s accelerating off the line.
Each driver got to take two runs with an average of both runs dictating the winner. My first run in the black colored Dodge was a narrow loss to the person I was driving against. With my second run in the yellow car, I emerged the victor and finished 3rd overall out of the 18 people that took part.
Slip course in a Renault Clio
- Anti-Slip Driving Course (self-drive off circuit)
The last official activity of the day was learning how to do a handbrake turn on a watered down portion of the large paddock area. The car being used for this exercise was a modern Renault Clio. Our friendly instructor, whom we met earlier on in the morning while participating in the slalom courses gave us a crash course, no pun intended, in the technique.
Each driver took their turn in the two Clios’ making several attempts at completing the maneuver successfully. The instructor made it sound ridiculously easy, though there is a level of hand-eye coordination required to get the car to transition from pointing straight ahead to facing in the opposite direction. With little more than pulling the handbrake on, turning the wheel a quarter-turn to the right all at once, the result is that the car safely does a 180 and ends up pointing in the direction you just came from. With the completion of this final exercise, the day at Bleekemolens Race Planet came to an official end.
Driving your own car on the Zandvoort circuit
- Driving with your own car (self-drive on circuit)
There was one final unofficial activity available to anyone who traveled to the circuit in their own car. Although totally at the car owner’s own risk, it was possible to do a few laps of the Zandvoort circuit and was definitely an opportunity I planned to take advantage of.
Jumping into the Mini Cooper l headed out for a few laps. It was a sort of free for all in the beginning, with a few cars in front of me, including a transit van which looked a little out of place. There was supposed to be no overtaking, but the transit van was too slow, with a car in front of me managing to pass it on the slower part of the circuit, that car then proceeded to almost understeer off the road.
Aside from that little bit of excitement, the rest of the laps were incident-free. We managed to have a bit of fun in the Mini without overdoing it, had to drive home again of course. The self-drive laps rounded out an eventful day, sampling some of the best road-going Supercars in the world. Not to mention the absolute uniqueness of being able to drive an open wheeler on the historic Dutch circuit.
Comparing Real to Virtual
After experiencing a once in a lifetime day with Bleekemolens Race Planet, I can now compare the Zandvoort circuit as well as certain vehicles with their digital counterparts. My years of sim racing place me in a good position to judge for myself how close the two are. Although we could not go flat out in these cars, for obvious reasons, there was enough opportunity to get a glimpse at the other side of the coin.
Something that I am extremely passionate about is virtual reality combined with sim racing. After today, I am more convinced than ever that real and virtual are converging at an increasingly faster pace. The sense of speed within Virtual Reality does not differ much from reality, of course, you are not moving as such. The perception of speed is palpable, the only things missing are the G-Forces on your body. PCs combined with the technology of VR and motion simulators will eventually catch up to one another, providing high resolution, tactile and lifelike racing experiences to the masses. All this without having to worry about binning a €200,000 Supercar.
A common theme when speaking to many race drivers is, there are ‘’for’’ and ‘’against’’ camps when it comes to sim racing. Those who do not care so much for sim racing are by and large the pre-90s generation of drivers, who more often than not, traditionally came up through the ranks of karting and the lower formulas. Drivers that are firmly in the ‘’for’’ camp are the relatively younger drivers that have had the benefit of growing up in a generation of fast-paced technology, console and PC gaming. These developments are beginning to shape how race drivers come to the real world of motorsports. According to the ‘’for’’ camp, sim racing is what got them interested in making the step from virtual to
This is a trend which is somewhat out of step with traditional thinking, sim racing is building its own tradition. With so many eSports events being organised around the world, even the top-tier of motorsport, F1, is recognising the importance of these developments with such initiatives for instance from McLaren, as the search for ‘’The World’s Fastest Gamer’’ the winner of which will be offered a full-time position as an official simulator driver for the team. The sim racing genre has transformed people’s thinking and attitudes to something that only a few years ago was looked upon by the public as pure entertainment. With eSports in general set to become a multi-billion-dollar industry, it is of little wonder that sim racing is being taken far more seriously as a legitimate feeder category to the ranks of real world motorsports.
A huge thank you to Bleekemolens Race Planet
I would really like to thank Michael Bleekemolen, Peter Koning and all the team at Bleekemolens Race Planet for a truly unforgettable day at the Zandvoort circuit. If you caught the bug reading my account, there are still a couple of months left in the season where you can try any number of driving packages and experiences. Any one of these experiences is guaranteed to provide you with a lifetime memory of sampling just what it is like to be a race driver for a day. In my case, it has motivated me to explore the connection between sim racing and real-world motorsports on an even deeper level.
Stay tuned for more to come, from AussieStig!
Official Webpage – raceplanet.nl