Thanks to Red Bull, I managed to catch up with the racing ace during a very busy Monaco GP race last weekend. And although there was quite a bit of noise in the background, the two-time Monaco champion had quite a bit to share about his experience behind the wheel, about driving fast and pushing the barriers, and about what drives him and his success on and off the track.
We also discussed the future of motorsport, why he’s involved in the W Series racing championship for female drivers, and whether Formula One should head back to Kyalami, or not
What brings you back to South Africa, and why in an F1 car?
I still have a wonderful relationship with Red Bull Racing and over the past 10 years I’ve had the opportunity to take the team’s show cars to some fantastic places around the world.
Jumping back into the Formula One car is amazing, as it allows me to be reminded of the complexities and technologies in the sport but, more importantly, this is a wonderful opportunity for me to play a small part in bringing Formula One back to the people and the children in particular Back to South Africa, a country that hasn’t hosted a Grand Prix since 1993.
You’ve raced against some of the world’s greatest on street tracks, high speed tracks, and ovals. Are there particular tracks that remind you or make you tingle whenever you get the chance to fire up a Formula One car, like you’re doing this weekend?
Spa in Belgium stands out for me as one of my favourites, as a high-speed roller-coaster. You know, these Grand Prix cars really only come alive after 160km per hour; it’s where you start to feel the down-force.
When I jump into a Formula One car these days, I’m reminded of those times when I had to learn to become intimate with the car, to learn how to kiss the barriers and push on.
Spa really challenges you to learn to push the limits. We’re really looking at inverted aircraft, when you see these F1 cars flying around here. I’m also reminded of pushing the car around tight and twisty street tracks, Monaco in particular, which is very technical, requiring the sharpest of concentration.
Which, then, would you say is the coolest track in the world you’ve raced on?
It has to be a city circuit. Anywhere where we’re close to the city centre is always exciting. I really enjoy my experiences in Canada, Australia, Singapore; as these cities come alive with the lifestyle of Formula One. There’s this buzz and excitement that’s so encapsulating that you can’t help but get caught up in the magic of F1 racing.
I think you get the real feeling of the sport in the city, compared to being on a track out in the middle of nowhere, where you don’t really get to connect with the fans. But, when it comes to coolness, the Monaco street circuit has to be one of the coolest.
Formula One seems to be more about technology these days, for instance who has the fastest pit-side servers or is it still about the car and the driver? What are your thoughts on the use of technology in F1 today?
Formula One has always represented the best of what’s available, technology wise. And sure, at the very beginning of racing, the cars could be considered very basic, but remember that they were very cutting-edge at the time.
These cars go through an evolution of aerodynamic development, tyre and engine development, everything has been developing and evolving over time so Formula One has reached a point in technology today where we’re walking around with little computers in our pockets. We didn’t have this sort of technology 30 years ago, which fundamentally changes the way we can make decisions at a race.
I don’t think the sport has become overwhelmed by technology, I think it has moved ahead and reflects where we stand as society in terms of progress.
So, I must ask, then, if you could drive one Formula 1 car, from any era, which car would you pick and why?
I would have loved to have driven the first championship-winning Red Bull F1 car, because that would have meant great things for me in my F1 career.
But, in all seriousness, I was fortunate enough to drive for Williams, and I drove for McLaren, and for Red Bull, so in my time I really got to experience some of the best cars in the business.
I don’t have any complaints or yearnings to drive anything in particular, and for the rest I’m just happy to watch the old videos and read the books.
You know, we’re all challenged at times, can you recall a time, perhaps when you were testing F1 cars back where you ever thought, “this F1 racing is not for me” Was there a particular driver who inspired you to keep pushing on. Who was this driver and what was the inspiration that you drew from them?
You know, I’ve been so lucky in life. I remember early on, I was 17, and had won 22 out of 30 races in the season. I got a call from Sir Jackie Stewart who said look, I’m starting a team and I want you. Now as a young driver, I knew Jackie, but to get a call from a three-times world cham- pion, asking you to drive is absolutely mind blowing.
I spent three years with his team, Paul Stewart Racing, which gave me the chance to really learn early on from a legend of the sport. Later, I drove for Nigel Mansell, I tested for Alain Prost, I tested for Ayrton Senna. These are three world champions, and from all of them I learnt something that made me better and better behind the wheel. Sure, I was never a world champion, but I did win Grand Prix races, and I have to thank my family and the racing community and so many legends that I’ve worked with for giving me the tools I needed to stay focused.
Moving on from F1, how do you spend your down time when you are not doing “car” stuff either with OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) or motorsports teams?
Well, I’m a pretty busy guy and although I don’t gym as much as I used to when I raced, I do enjoy a bit of cycling.
The thing is I run a few businesses, one that films for F1, and I’m closely involved with a number of racing series. I’m also working closely with Aston Martin at LeMans this year, so there really isn’t much down time. I enjoy being motivated, being busy, as this gives me a sense of responsibility that’s needed to achieve more and do more.
After the thrill of the world of Formula One, I find that I need my adrenalin pumping, and business helps, being on the board of a number of organisations helps. I gave my best when I raced, and I can now do my best on the other side of the sport, bring the sport to the people, assist other drivers where I can. So, yes, there’s downtime, but I prefer being on-the-go.
Because it is race weekend in Monaco, as an F1 fan who is your favourite racing driver of all time, and who is your current favourite in F1?
I was always a big fan of Alain Prost when I was a young driver. I enjoyed his calculated, smooth, non-aggressive style. Ayrton was also an exceptional driver in my time, and Nigel knew how to push an F1 car as a gutsy driver.
As a fan who became a driver, and then to become a test driver for one of your heroes, this really is something that’s difficult to describe. These days, I’m really impressed by Max (Verstappen) and Lewis (Hamilton). Max is able to prove he’s got what it takes to win, and Lewis, I respect how he’s able to remain motivated and focused after all these years.
If you could, would you jump into an F1 car to race competitively again?
If I could, I would. But your eyes change, your body changes, and the sport really is quite demanding.
I would love to get behind the wheel again and take it to the guys out there, but I am genuinely very happy with the racing that I’ve experienced and the opportunities to jump back into an F1 car, like I’m doing in Cape Town this weekend It’s enough to remind me of the challenging nature of pushing these cars.
If we get a F1 event in South Africa again, would you prefer it happened at Kyalami, the home of F1 or on a street circuit?
I love Kyalami, but street circuits are really very popular now. For me, street circuits really are exciting. You know, you get the buzz of the city, you get the intimacy that fans enjoy, and you are challenged as a driver and as a team. Historically, Kyalami is very special for Formula One, but whether it happens at the track or not, I really want to see Formula One racing return to Africa.
Can you tell us a little more about your involvement in the Women’s Racing series. Do you think this is the series that will allow more female drivers to prove their skills in a Formula One car?
It’s a matter of choice and opportunities. There needs to be encouragement and engagement from grass-roots level, and that really hasn’t happened when it comes to women in racing.
When we look at karting, for instance, we do see a number of young girls proving themselves in the ranks. But they have their doubts And all these things make it challenging for a young women to excel. This is why we’ve launched the W Series, which enables females to participate in racing.