Who was the first person to get behind the wheel of the 2010 McLaren-Mercedes that won Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix? Reigning world champion Jenson Button? Nope. The team’s golden-boy and 2008 champ Lewis Hamilton? Try again.
It was in fact the other racer in McLaren’s all-British superteam, Gary Paffett, who was given the honour of taking the MP4-25 on its maiden run. The 29 year-old, a long-time McLaren employee, has been promoted to third driver this season following Pedro de la Rosa’s defection to Sauber.
But Gary’s not just a third driver. He’s also a hugely respected touring car racer, having claimed the 2005 DTM title for Mercedes, as well as finishing as runner-up in both 2004 and 2009. Alongside his McLaren duties he’ll be back in DTM this season in search of a second title, competing against the likes of Ralf Schumacher, Force India’s Paul di Resta and- rumour has it- David Coulthard.
It’s actually a bit of a mystery as to why Paffett’s not found himself a full-time F1 drive yet. He’s been linked with plenty of seats in the past- including the one Lewis Hamilton eventually took at McLaren for 2007- but it’s never quite come off. Still, he remains determined to break in to Formula One, and before the Australian Grand Prix Badger quizzed him about this, his role at McLaren and his touring car hopes for 2010.
What does your role as third driver involve over a race weekend?
The primary role is as reserve driver to step in to replace either Jenson or Lewis if anything were to happen. This is a very rare event but you have to be fully prepared just in case you get called upon. This means being as prepared as the race drivers before the event and ready to do the job up until Saturday, the deadline for driving the car. It’s a lot of preparation for what is normally a non-event, but it’s really important to be on top of it.
The other main reason for being there is to learn what the issues that the drivers have with the car and then helping to improve the package we have for the next session or race weekend. Working with the engineers at the weekend and then working with the simulations back at MTC to prepare for the next race. Other tasks include attending press and marketing event to help everybody linked to the team understand what is happening.
How many races will you attend in the third driver capacity this season?
There aren’t any grand prix that clash with the DTM calendar so theoretically I could make all of them, but we’ll have to see with the work load, and be realistic about what’s possible. But I’d obviously love to attend all of the races as I feel like an I can add something to the team’s progress throughout the season.
So is your advice sought by the race drivers during a grand prix weekend, or do they prefer to go it their own way?
As I am not driving the car or working on one car in particular there are things that I might notice between the two cars or from what is happening on track that might be of interest to either of them. I also interact with both sets of engineers to see if there is anything I may be able to help with as I have a drivers point of view on things.
What are Jenson and Lewis like to work with?
Well as you know Jenson and Lewis are both World Champions, and are both extremely fast drivers. They are both really good guys and the team spirit at the moment is better than it has ever been, which should help the team drive forward.
Do you still see yourself landing an F1 race-drive in the future?
It’s still very much a goal of mine and something I feel I deserve. I am now one step closer after being promoted to third driver at McLaren and hopefully this can help me get a race seat in the future. I’ve had a great time working with the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes team since 2005 and the support and advice they’ve given me has really helped me to develop as an F1 driver.
Is the third driver role at a top team like McLaren preferable to a race drive with a tail-end team?
Obviously working with a top team like McLaren is a massive achievement in itself and it would be really hard to leave the team after such a long time. But if a race-drive offer from another team were to come up then I would seriously have to consider it. Racing is what I enjoy more than anything else.
As a third driver would you like to see a return to test drivers being able to take part in Friday practice without a race driver having to miss out?
I would, yeah. It is very hard for teams to give reserve/test drivers time in the car and I believe that this should change to give the reserve drivers some running during the season. The biggest single reason has to be that if any of the reserve drivers were needed to take over from one of the race driers there is a chance that they may not have driven an F1 car for up to 2 years. This in my opinion is dangerous and makes it impossible to really show your full potential if you are called upon.
I imagine you’ve done some straight-line testing in your time and it doesn’t sound too interesting- tell us what it’s like and what it involves.
It’s not the most demanding testing ever but it’s important and at least you get to drive the car. It basically involves testing current and new aero components on the car at lots of different situations at different speeds, different ride heights etc. to back up all of the data we’ve created using the wind tunnel. Some of the work is really good and doing the Vmax- the top speed- runs are the best part. Getting up to 350kph on an small runway is really something special.
Apart from your two teammates at McLaren, which three current F1 drivers do you rate the most?
This is always a difficult question and as we have two of the best at McLaren it’s even more difficult. I would say that the three other drivers at the top are Alonso, Vettel, and Massa.
You’ll be racing DTM again this season. How big a challenge would it be to jump in to an F1 car mid-season if one of the race drivers were unavailable?
It wouldn’t be easy but it never would be, no matter what you’ve been driving. I’d say that it would be easier for me than other reserve drivers because I am still driving and competing in a top series.
What are the key differences between DTM and F1 cars in terms of driving style and handling?
The biggest differences are the weight. A DTM car is nearly twice the weight of the F1 car and has about 250bhp less than the F1 car. Other than that there are no major differences. The DTM car produces a lot of downforce for a touring car and the wishbone suspension is similar to that found on single seater cars.
Finally, what would make 2010 a good year for Gary Paffett?
Obviously getting a chance to race the McLaren F1 car would be fantastic but that would need something bad to happen to one of the drivers so it’s not something I wish on either of them. I would like to be challenging for the title in DTM- hopefully win the championship- and help and be part of Vodafone McLaren Mercedes winning both constructors and drivers championships