Different strokes

Casey Stoner has left the arena that made him famous, but a competitive spark burns brightly still. He’s facing a fresh challenge on four wheels – and former F1 engineer John Russell is his guiding light
Writer Jessica Dane

The pit garage is cramped and has barely enough room for the car, let alone any mechanics.

A nearby truck is cluttered with everything from posters to babygros and bedecked with fold-out chairs adjacent to a few laptops. Such are the facilities at the feeder series supporting Australia’s iconic V8 Supercar Championship at the relatively small Barbagallo Raceway, Perth. It’s a far cry from the polished worlds of MotoGP or Formula 1.

But there’s something about the V8 community that attracts high fliers from the world’s most prestigious racing categories – and it’s here that two-time MotoGP world champion Casey Stoner has joined forces with former Williams F1 engineer John Russell.

It seemed Stoner still had the motorcycling world in his palm when he announced his retirement last year. It was a decision that shocked not just the two-wheeled community, but a large percentage of Australia. They were losing a home-spun hero from the world stage when he was still at the prime of his career – and his departure was made all the more poignant by an emphatic victory in his home Grand Prix at Phillip Island last October, his sixth consecutive such success.

There was light on the horizon, though, for Australian fans. Their greatest talent since Mick Doohan was not quitting racing altogether.

A rumour dubbed “the worst-kept secret in V8 Supercars” was confirmed in February, when Triple Eight Race Engineering Australia announced that the 27-year-old would drive for them in the second-tier Dunlop Development Series (think NASCAR Nationwide).

It is here at Triple Eight that Stoner and Russell are in the early stages of forging a partnership as driver and race engineer, something they hope will maintain the team’s fine record in the discipline. The Brisbane-based outfit appears a perfect fit for the winner of 38 MotoGP races. It has four championship titles for teams, another four for drivers and five Bathurst 1000 wins under its belt.

Having first set foot in the team’s garage at Bathurst in 2011, Stoner became a regular fixture over the next 14 months, immersing himself and forming firm friendships. Consequently, when he joined as a driver, staff members were already familiar with a funny, forthcoming guy the wider world rarely sees.

Sitting with Triple Eight’s two V8 Supercar drivers, Craig Lowndes and reigning champion Jamie Whincup, Stoner is so laid back that anyone would think he’d been his fellow Aussies’ team-mate for years. The laughter between them is frequently triggered by one of his jokes: he’s certainly not the shy character the TV cameras captured.

A few aspects of his personality remain constant, though. For one, his absolute competitiveness never wavers. His will to succeed stretches far beyond motor sport, on two wheels or four. He rarely lets himself be outdone, whether he’s racing, rock climbing or cycling. Stoner is a natural athlete, not just in the way he performs but also in his entire approach to sport.

No one can deny his passion, either. It’s something the cameras have picked up for years, whether he liked it or not, but they’ve never captured his depths as a family man. Utterly devoted, he slips easily into the paternal role – it suits him – and 18-month-old Alessandra has become just as much a part of the Triple Eight team as her famous father.

He has often denied that his retirement from motorcycling was triggered by family matters, but it’s now difficult to imagine Stoner, wife Adriana and their daughter being based anywhere other than Australia.

“It’s home for us,” Stoner says. “It’s what we know and it’s putting us back in our comfort zone. The challenge for me was leaving Australia at 14 years old and then staying overseas for the last 13 or 14 years.”

Unlike many of the aspiring V8 Supercar drivers he’s racing, Stoner has the luxury of treating his four-wheeled career as a hobby. But don’t be fooled into thinking he’s taking it less seriously than anyone else. If he’s made a commitment, he puts everything into it and takes it to heart when things don’t go to plan. Lowly finishes in Perth cast a negative light in his mind, but it was only his second car event and his lap times were frequently on a par with those in the top 10.

Stoner’s natural talent and ability are already apparent, but he’s still going through the learning process of how to race in such an aggressive, panel-bashing category, as well as understanding the car and how to communicate what he’s feeling to his engineers, something that came so easily on a motorbike.

This is where Russell can help. Before his days of touring cars and a two-year excursion into endurance racing with BMW in the late 1990s, his career started with the Williams F1 team, where he quickly worked his way up to race engineer. By his own admission, he was the “greenest guy in the pitlane”.

“I was very, very lucky that I worked initially with Riccardo Patrese, a driver of great experience and patience,” he says.

It was more than 20 years ago that the Australian Touring Car Championship, as it was then called, first caught Russell’s eye. “This is a true story,” he says. “The first time I came to Australia was in 1991, for the Grand Prix in Adelaide. That’s when I saw the V8s and decided I was going to come back and do that when I got to the twilight of what I wanted to do in Europe.”

After stints with two other V8 Supercar teams and a brief return to Williams, Russell joined Triple Eight Australia in 2011 and was “press ganged” into heading up the team’s first Development Series entry. Success in the main series has carried over, too: it won the junior title in 2011 and finished second last year.

Now the roles are reversed and Stoner finds himself in Russell’s former position as the greenest man in a fresh discipline.

Perched outside the truck into which Stoner’s number 27 – of course – Holden Commodore is about to be loaded for the five-day drive back from Perth to Brisbane, talk turns to what Russell initially found challenging about these tricky tin-tops. The transition between a sleek, comparatively featherweight F1 car and a V8’s sheer heft came with its obstacles, even for a mind such as his.

“The V8 Supercar is slightly unusual,” he says. “From an engineering point of view, Europeans have come over here and thought, ‘Blimey, it’s a bit heavy’, but the weight’s there for a reason. It’s sort of halfway between a rally and a race car in terms of what you consider engineering design. Because of the tracks we go to – Bathurst generates some big loads, while drivers jump kerbs at street circuits such as Adelaide – the cars need to be safe and reliable while coping with the impacts, so the design philosophy differs from what I knew. The cars are fickle to drive, too. The same tyre fitment is used front and rear, so there are limitations in terms of its ability to brake and turn.”

Stoner chimes in: “All the things JR says are challenges for me, but perhaps more so. He hails from a four-wheeled background and you have to think outside the box with these cars.

“I’m quite fresh to four wheels, so it’s a matter of getting used to the braking, the understeer, inducing oversteer and all the different things to make it work. You basically can’t have a balanced car – you have one strength or another and must deal with the weaknesses. They’re peculiar cars in general.”

Stoner thinks the biggest hurdles were acclimatising to the fact he can no longer use his body weight to adjust his vehicle, or look over his shoulder to check on his rivals. He’d shaken off such urges shortly after his first event of the year in Adelaide, however.

“I’m trying to get the car in a zone that we can be relatively competitive,” he says. “That’s probably the most difficult thing at the moment. All the rest is just time. Things will come and I’m already more comfortable with some things than I thought I’d be.

“Bikes are a lot worse through the first few corners of the opening lap in terms of things being messy, but in cars people have a lot more confidence and don’t seem to care if they bash panels. There’s no warning light in anyone’s head telling them to take it easy and be careful, they just see a spot and go for it.”

The V8 Supercar series is notorious for bouts of paint-swapping, something to which Stoner must adjust. When asked whether he feels there’s a lack of respect on track he replies, “100 per cent. With bikes there’s more respect because we all know how physically hard it is. We give respect and it’s given back, but in cars there doesn’t seem to be much of that.”

Despite the in-car clashes and the occasional off-track march to another driver’s garage to set the record straight, all of it encouraged by the media, the V8 rookie already relishes the family atmosphere within his new paddock.

“To be honest I get along with most of the drivers here without a problem,” he says. “They’re normal, regular guys who love to race.

“That’s not the case in MotoGP. It took a lot of years for me to gain the trust of people like Dani [Pedrosa] and Jorge [Lorenzo] and make them realise that I wasn’t like European riders, that I wasn’t being friendly because I had another agenda.

“We raced hard, we raced fair and it was great, but a large part of the MotoGP paddock is very closed off. You don’t talk to the others, or visit their garages, unlike here. It’s quite prickly in MotoGP. Certain riders have created that in recent years, but in the past most of the field used to get along.”

Russell believes it’s not just the drivers who make V8 Supercars feel more welcoming than the pair’s former categories. “I think F1 feels much more clinical than it used to,” he says, adding that large teams with hundreds of personnel lack the intimacy felt here. “We have teams of 20, 30 or 40 people – and that’s fantastic because everyone does everything. There is still a bit of that sometimes in F1, though. When Nico Hülkenburg first joined Williams as a test driver he, through his own choice, wanted to work in different areas of the factory, so he knew what it was about.

“Team to team, some work really well and others are a bit horrible. The best teams are the most enjoyable ones to work in and not necessarily the ones with the most money, cleanest workshop and the rest of it. You want a dynamic, mixed group of people who, for whatever reason, work very well together. They might not all be great at one specific thing, but they just overlap with their skills in a cohesive way, which gets so much more out of that small group than other people can manage. I think there’s a lot of that in this championship.”

Although still in the early stages of their new alliance, Stoner and Russell have been around long enough to understand the importance of a strong bond between driver (or rider) and engineer. Time will strengthen their hand – and with that might come the realisation of Stoner’s full potential. It’s already clear, though, that some of the core essentials are in place.