St George’s Day Special – Badger has a bit of a natter with England’s next Grand Prix star.
With the grand prix circus on a three-week hiatus now is as good a time as any to take a look at a young driver aiming to make it in to the sport in the near future.
Being as we’ve already cast an eye over Scotland and Wales emerging talents it’s time to turn the spotlight on to England’s newest star- and with today being Saint George’s day we reckon we’ve picked the perfect time to do so. Step forward Roehampton-born racer Sam Bird. He’ll be making his debut in F1 feeder-series GP2 this year, and Badger got on the phone with him earlier this week to see how the preparation’s going.
Like most racing drivers nowadays Bird was a success in karting, stepped up to single-seaters in his teens and climbed the ladder, competing in Formula BMW, British Formula Three and the ultra-competitive Formula Three Euroseries along the way. Last November he contested the prestigious Macau Formula Three race for French team ART Grand Prix, had a stellar drive to 3rd, and now finds himself in the enviable position of driving a GP2 car for them in the F1 support championship.
But whilst he may be a rookie Bird is in a great position to have a strong 2010 and make the step up to Formula One in the not-too-distant future. Why? Because his new team, ART, are the unquestioned kings of GP2, having taken three drivers to the title in the five seasons the series has been running. They’re the team to drive for and Sam will be hoping to follow in the footsteps of former ART drivers Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and Nico Hulkenberg in making the leap from the French squad to motorsport’s highest category. The way he talks about them says he knows he’s landed in a mega team.
“We work extremely hard at what we do but we also have a lot of fun and I’m really enjoying it. They’re extremely professional. Their attention to detail is extraordinary and they leave nothing to chance. As a driver at ART you learn an awful lot about what you can do in the car to get 100% out of yourself.
“I’ve wanted to drive for them for a while and I’ve managed to earn myself this opportunity, so I’m really, really looking forward to the season and want it to start now”.
There’s not long to wait before it does start, with GP2 kicking-off in just two weeks time, supporting the Spanish Grand Prix at the Circuit de Catalunya. And, as you’d expect in a series that the F1 team bosses watch closely to pick out talent, it’s going to be extremely competitive, with a host of drivers in with a shot at glory.
“There are 24 drivers on the GP2 grid who are going to say the same thing: ‘I want to win the championship’. That’s what racing drivers want to do, and that’s exactly what I want to do. However, I’m not looking at that just yet. That’ll be decided in November by the results I get throughout year. At the moment I’m just aiming to have a good opening round. I want to get a good weekend at Barcelona under my belt.
“Obviously my teammate Jules Bianchi is going to be extremely quick- I rate him very highly after working with him. We’ve been about the same pace in testing so he’s going to be very good.
“You’ve got some experienced guys: Pastor Maldonado, Jerome d’Ambrosio, Giedo van der Garde and Sergio Perez; and you’ve also got some other quick rookies like Christian Vietoris and Charles Pic, so there are some really good drivers this year. I think it’s going to be an extremely strong and tough year.
“I want to be able to finish the season knowing that at every single round I gave it 100% and that I drove my best and I believe that if I drive at my best we’ll be right at the sharp end”.
But despite the high level of competition and his seat with the reigning champions he’s calm about the season ahead. Being a rookie means not winning the title this year wouldn’t be a disaster; as long as he performs well the future’s still bright, so he’s not feeling too much pressure from anyone but himself at this stage.
“Of course, I want to win; I want to win races, I want to win championships and that’s the pressure that I put on myself, but the pressure isn’t coming from any external sources. In any case, it’s a positive pressure. I’d rather call it motivation or hunger”.
So he’s set for a tough but potentially career defining season, one that he, like every GP2 driver, hopes will take him on to F1. But he’s no stranger to F1 machinery, having carried out aerodynamic testing and demo runs for the Williams team. And, as you’d expected, he’s pretty happy to be involved with the legendary British outfit.
“I’ve enjoyed every single minute of it. I really get on with all the guys there. It’s been a fantastic honour for me and I’d like to think that I’ve contributed in some way. But there is no firm commitment on either side for the future. We’ll see…”
But the current testing restrictions mean his and other young drivers’ opportunities are limited. Every driver on the brink of F1 wants to get in a car and show the team bosses what they can do, and Bird is no different.
I would love to see more test days. It’s extremely hard as a young driver to get recognised in the first place, and then the fact that there are hardly any test days really restricts running for rookies like myself. But I understand the reasoning is behind it.
Back to GP2, which events is Sam most looking forward to sharing with the F1 boys? Like most drivers he’s excited about his home circuit and a few of the old classics.
“I think that it’s going to feel extremely special driving at Silverstone what with it being my home race. I’m also looking forward to Monaco, but my favourites as far as tracks go are probably Spa and Monza. They’re tracks that I’ve done well on: in British Formula 3 I’ve won at Spa and I got a second and a third on my first visit to Monza, so I’m really looking forward to these two tracks”.
Bird is one of a trio of British rookies joining the GP2 grid this year, but the top-notch team he has around him means he’s the best placed to join Jenson and Lewis in Formula One’s Brit Pack. It’s by no means guaranteed, and he knows that, but he is perfectly positioned to make his dream a reality. Badger will be keeping a very keen eye on this rising star’s progress in 2010, and we’ll be checking back in with him later in the season to see how he’s progressing and how he’s enjoying life under the F1 team bosses microscope. Stay tuned.
New to GP2? Fear not- Badger’s got a full preview of the 2010 season coming soon, with a guide to the drivers Sam will be fighting for a place on the F1 grid, as well as another exclusive interview with one of the title favourites.