When this magazine’s regular editor and I met up in America for a road trip (you can read the details on page 67), it was fittingly in the wake of one of the big turning points of a season in which Tom Kristensen, Loïc Duval and I have clinched our first world titles.
That World Endurance Championship victory at Austin, back in September, marked an important weekend in our campaign – and already we are getting ready for the next one. We can’t wait.
When sports car’s first world championship since 1992 was announced for the start of last year, it was clearly long overdue. We’ve had some fantastic sports car championships and races for a long time now, but never a world title to go with them. In 30 years as a racing driver, I’ve only contested four world championships: one in karting, one in Formula 1 (I had a bit more chance of success in karting than I did with Toyota…) and then last year and this year in sports cars.
I’ve won American Le Mans Series titles when it was effectively a world championship, but this is different – no question. There is an extra aspect to it. From a competition point of view this is the hardest we’ve had, right now. And the future is extremely bright, too. When Peugeot pulled out on the very day entries closed for the first WEC last year, people were talking about the series’ demise before it had even begun. In reality it was only a speed bump. Now Porsche is coming back for 2014, while various manufacturers are rumoured to be planning programmes. It’s going to be good – and having won the title, I can’t wait to begin its defence.
I reacted in two different ways to the news that my old friend Dario Franchitti is retiring because of the injury he sustained in his Houston Indycar crash in September. First off, I’m relieved he got out okay, because that was a big shunt. To know that he’s out in one piece is a relief.
But the fact that it was this injury that caused him to hang up his helmet adds a tinge of sadness. That’s not how any racing driver wants to stop. But ultimately, when you look back at the wee boy from Bathgate who ran his first kart race at Larkhall in 1984, and then consider three Indy 500 victories and four IndyCar championships, never mind all the other races he’s won and the status he holds in the US and our industry, I think he can put his helmet on the shelf with complete and utter pride. He’s been an absolute superstar, a friend and somebody who has flown the flag proudly not only for Scotland, but for the whole of the UK. I’m very pleased he shared the same era as David Coulthard and myself, too.
In the past weeks and months, I’ve watched Sebastian Vettel score his fourth consecutive F1 world title from the dual perspective of the Radio 5 Live commentary box and as a fellow driver. From the latter view, the execution of the way Vettel and Red Bull have gone about the second half of the season is absolutely exemplary. It was pretty much perfect, exactly the way you should do it: clinical, clean and tidy. He did what he needed to do, but no more.
He obviously had a significant amount in hand, no question, but to win four on the bounce… He’s only had six seasons in total! That is a fantastic batting average and I don’t care what anyone says: that is not down to luck or the car. There is a huge ability factor in what he has achieved, to get the maximum out of himself and the team – and also to get into the right team in the first place. Now all eyes are on seven titles and what used to be seen as Michael Schumacher’s unassailable records. Heading into new regulations, you could probably back Renault to produce a good drivetrain and you would definitely back Adrian Newey and his group to produce a good car. His prospects for more titles are not looking bad…
The thing that has surprised me about the McLaren driver change for 2014 is that Sergio Pérez only had a one-year deal. As a young driver going into a top team, the first year was always going to be difficult – especially up against Jenson Button. Sergio has done a pretty good job, but obviously not outstanding. It wasn’t a comfortable relationship like the one he had at Sauber, where expectations are lower. If the car had been good, I think Sergio would probably still be at McLaren for 2014. But it was a bit of a dog and he probably wasn’t experienced enough to drag the best from it – or himself.
As for little Kevin Magnussen, I remember his dad Jan telling me how quick he was when he was just 16. At the same stage Jan was very quick and didn’t crash. Kevin was fast, had the feel and the skill... but did crash. Now he’s got that out of his system and, I have to say, he is very impressive. I think his mentality will fit well at McLaren but, as with Sergio, there is an expectation. He’ll have to get on with the programme.
He’s an interesting character, a dogged little fighter. I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do. The time is right for new blood – go for it.
It’s also nice to hear a driver decision that hasn’t been determined by money. When David, Dario and I were coming up, sponsors were definitely easier to come by. Budgets were much lower; you could manage on a shoestring, even in F3. That is difficult now.
There is a lot of criticism of pay drivers, but the current guys in F1 can all definitely drive. Pastor Maldonado gets slated for some of his moves and rightly so, but he’s won a Grand Prix from the front row of the grid, in Spain, soaking up pressure from Fernando Alonso for the last 20 laps. So we can’t just underline pay drivers as bad. The difficulty for someone like Paul di Resta is that there are drivers around who have won GPs and have a lot of sponsorship dollars in their pocket. They’re not necessarily future world champions, but they’re good drivers.
In terms of support, today there is only Red Bull and, in the UK, Racing Steps. In my day we had Marlboro, Camel and others taking people through. The staircase was clear, with fewer options: we had only F3000. Now, is Renault 3.5 better than GP2?
The situation in the UK is worrying. I was very concerned through 2013 about the potential demise of British F3. I like the idea of Formula 4, having something reasonably cost-capped as an entry-level formula. I like the idea of a national F3 championship, a strong junior category on British circuits. Because right now, if you’re 16 or 17, it would be quite easy to do all your junior racing and learning abroad. When we were growing up the British tracks were the tracks. That’s not the case now and that is something we’ve got to address, so young drivers and teams can still cut their teeth in the UK.
Enjoy the issue.