Twelve months ago Sam Bird was just another GP2 rookie, one of a clutch of new drivers making their series debut at the Circuit de Catalunya. His team-mate, Jules Bianchi, was the rookie name on people’s lips; Bird was seen as little more than the supporting act at series powerhouse ART.
But 12 months on that’s changed. Bird entered 2011 off the back of a seriously imrpessive rookie campaign, one in which he – and not Bianchi – scored the team’s only win of the season. Now driving for 2007 champions iSport, Bird took two podiums at the opening round in Turkey and returned to the Circuit de Catalunya as joint championship leader. There he took third in the feature and fifth in the sprint to maintain his place at the top of the standings. We caught up with him between the two races.
“It was a nice way to start the season. I’m not really looking at the overall points just yet. It’s nice to be leading the championship but it only counts after Monza, so i just need to keep focussed, keep my feet on the floor and keep doing what we were doing in Turkey.”
Were you surprised by how competitive you were, or were you where you expected to be?
“I was hoping to be this competitive. I had a good year last year and I’ve just continued from there really. I was the top points scorer for the last couple of rounds of last year and thankfully we’ve been able to maintain that momentum through in to the new season.”
What attracted you to iSport?
“iSport are a top team – they’ve always been up there, always fighting for wins and championships – so it seemed the logical step for me to sign with them. They’re an English team as well and I’m getting on extremely well with everybody there. I’m working really well with my engineer, who’s a great guy, and [team boss] Paul Jackson is really good as well, really down to earth and knowledgeable, so it’s all clicking in to place.”
Has it made a difference switching from ART – a French team – to a group of fellow Brits in iSport?
“There is a different mentality, but both teams are great. I really enjoyed my time at ART. I learned an awful lot with them. But it feels like I’m in a good place right now – that’s all I can say, really.”
Switching back to the 2010 campaign, we’re obliged to irritate Sam slightly by reminding him of the many setbacks he suffered last season, when several technical gremlins prevented him from achieving his true potential. But, could those setbacks have been positive in some sense?
“I would obviously have liked to have had a cleaner run to maybe second or third in the championship last year, which I believe was possible. Having said that I think that the drives I did last year were quite important. They gave me a good name in the motorsport world and I wouldn’t change it at all, really. I think that everything happens for a reason – it’s made me a stronger driver and a stronger person going in to this season.”
And of there were high points. At Monza he became the first person to beat Pastor Maldonado to victory in a feature race for over four months. How was that?
“It was fantastic. I’d been to Monza once before in 2007 and got a second and a third in British F3 so I’ve got good memories of the circuit, but I didn’t expect to get 16 points out of the weekend. If you’d said to me before the weekend ‘you’re going to get eight points’ I would have said okay, that’s fantastic, but to get 16 was awesome!”
“I missed out on pole by two hundredths of a second, so we knew we’d be competitive over a single lap, but I didn’t know quite how competitive we’d be over a race stint. Thankfully I managed the tyres quite well and [team-mate] Jules Bianchi were quick all weekend. The team did an awesome job too: the pitstop went smoothly and we got both fastest laps as well, so I couldn’t have asked for much more, really.”
But that win changed perceptions of Bird in the paddock. Whereas last year he was something of an unknown quantity he entered 2011 as one of the top four title favourites. Is he feeling the pressure?
“The only extra pressure is probably put on by myself. I want to achieve at the highest level, i want to get to Formula One so if there’s any pressure coming from anywhere it’s from my side and nowhere else. I’m not feeling any pressure that other people are putting on me because I’ve got my own goals taht I want to achieve and I’ll do as much I can to succeed and to get where I need to be.”
And there’s little need to ask what he wants to achieve and where he hopes it will take him…
“The goal for 2011 is obviously mount a title charge. Whether that is realistic or not nobody knows yet. But we’ve started off in the right direction and, hopefully, by the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012 we’ll be in a position to really start thinking about being on the F1 grid. In order to do that you need to do well in GP2 so let’s focus on that first and then hopefully good things will come afterwards.”
Good things have already begun to happen – last winter Sam was given the chance to run for Mercedes at the post-season young driver test in Abu Dhabi. How did that go?
“It was an honour and a privelage to get the call from Mercedes Grand Prix to be asked to drive the Formula One car at that test. I’ve got to thank everybody in the team all the top guys there for giving me the opportunity. Let’s hope the relationship between myself and Mercedes continues.
“The aim of the test was not just to pound round and do times, it was to be able to focus on some work for this year’s car and actually pick up some useful data, and we were able to achieve that. I was happy from my side that I gave it the best that I could – I felt that I drove at my best and the team were happy with the data that we collected so I think that both parties were very satisfied.”
So things are shaping up well for Bird. He leaves the Circuit de Catalunya as championship leader, the only one of the title contenders to have finished all four races. Consistency is key, and Sam looks to have got that nailed down. We’ll chat to him again between Monaco and Valencia for an update on his pursuit of GP2 glory – and a place in Formula One