The BTCC driver just completed his first official season test prior to the UK’s lockdown period and topped the scoreboard in the Gazoo Racing Toyota Corolla only to put a temporary lid on his excitement. Keeping social distancing in mind we had a call with the double independent champion to find out more about his title aspirations and to discover how a race driver works from home when his office is a race car at a track?
How would you describe the BTCC to someone who’s unfamiliar with the championship?
It’s one of the toughest championships in the world. It’s a UK based touring car championship (hence called the British Touring Car Championship). Each race is a whirlwind of a weekend. There are 30 races each season on ten different tracks, in one country which is spectacular on its own, with competitors driving rear and front wheel drive cars in both independent and manufacturers’ categories. On top of that the competition is some of the fiercest on the planet. Every race is incredibly close, and it all comes down to engineering to nail the set-up, as well as a healthy portion of luck. Each race is a 25-minute sprint so the slightest mistake could end every hope of winning the race. Speaking of winning, last season, 16 different drivers won a race, that’s how close the competition is. Luckily, I managed to win four of them.
Touring car racing has the reputation of being a bit of a contact sport. What’s your take on that?
It’s the way it’s perceived because of some of the spectacular crashes on camera, but it’s really not a contact sport. A famous bon mot says “rubbing is racing” which couldn’t be more true when it comes to touring car racing. There is, however, a big difference between rubbing and contact. The idea of touring car racing is that you just lean on another car without causing any significant damage to it. On some of the UK’s narrow tracks it’s the only way to execute an overtake.
You are a double independent champion, now you are a Toyota factory supported driver did that change much within the team?
When I joined the BTCC and Speedworks, the relationship with Toyota had just started and it’s been building up ever since. Last year was the first your we became a factory-supported team with the new Toyota Corolla. For Toyota that first year was a bit of a discovery year on how the impact would be for the brand and the results came back very positive so they decided to move things up a notch and take us under the Gazoo Racing UK banner and becoming an official factory team. This is a big deal in terms of information. Next season the championship will embrace new regulations that include a hybrid powertrain and Toyota’s experience from running a hybrid car at Le Mans will prove invaluable.
Being a part of the Gazoo Racing family means you’re now colleagues with Fernando Alonso, right?
[Laughs] Yes, absolutely, how cool is that? Although I haven’t gotten around to getting is number or WhatsApp’ing him to have a few drinks in the future, not that we’re allowed to do so now.
Exactly speaking of that. In these bizarre times how do you cope with this situation as a driver?
It’s really weird and very frustrating. We just completed a series of tests of our car and we were ready to get out there. I feel that I’m at the best I’ve ever been, and the car feels the best it’s ever been, and we were all really excited to get going. So now to not know when to start is a bit weird. I’ve been talking to a friend of mine who is a sports psychologist and he made it very clear. It’s not about how you get through these three months, it’s how your come out of it that matters. It very important you don’t see it as a vacation, a mistake I made on the first day [laughs], but as an extra three months of preparation. So, I spend my days going for a run, walking the dog and spend as much time on the simulator as I can.
What does the partnership Motul mean to your team?
When we look for a partner, we look for one that brings something more to the game than just a sponsorship budget. Like how they add value to the team. In Motul’s case, that was a direct impact on performance. That’s the driving force behind this partnership; not only are we working with incredibly passionate people but the product really improves our performance. Something sponsorship budget alone can’t achieve.