Keeping a roof over his head

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World Champions are accustomed to lucrative contract extensions, but fate decreed otherwise for WTCC king Rob Huff. He had to seek a new job…

By Rob Widdows

It is a good name, is it not? Rob Huff. Tight, snappy and neat. And memorable. More memorable now, because he is the World Touring Car Champion, the man to beat if you race with a roof over your head.

What is also good about the man known in the trade as Huffy is that he knows his history, loves historic racing and finds the time to take part despite his hectic WTCC schedule. Motor Sport appreciates racing drivers like this.

Not everything in the garden is as rosy as it seems, however, because at the time of writing Rob Huff does not have a drive for this season. Chevrolet, with whom he won the WTCC, has pulled out of the series, leaving its driver kicking his heels. Not a good situation for a newly crowned World Champion.

Huff worked hard and long for his title, the ultimate prize coming after years of graft and consistency as he rose to the top of the pile.

“Everybody worked so hard all year,” he says. “When I wasn’t training in the gym — I took my fitness very seriously all season — I was working with the team in the simulator and I want to thank them for the effort they put in. It was such a great year for British sport in 2012 and I was just so pleased to take the World Championship back to Britain for the first time since 2007. It took some time to sink in, especially with all the drama and tension of those final two races in Macau at the end of the year.”

The early years with Chevrolet, a newcomer to the WTCC back in 2005, promised a great deal once the lessons of testing and developing a new car had been learnt. But the ultimate goal proved elusive, Huff taking third in the overall standings in 2010, second in 2011 and the title in 2012. The glory, the day of all days, the reward for believing in Chevy, came at the end of a highly dramatic finale in Macau last November. A crash in the first of two races threatened to snatch his championship away just as he had one hand on the trophy. But some quick work by Ray Mallock’s RML Chevy team got him back out on the streets in time to chase that title. He could hardly have realised his ambition in more dramatic circumstances.

“Yeah, I still don’t know what happened,” he says. “It was pretty tense between the two races but the team did a brilliant job to get the car back out there. Macau has always been my favourite circuit and I’ve won five of the eight races I’ve done there. I’d been through what I call the toboggan corners so many times before, but never once in eight years have I had oversteer there. It’s pretty much flat, short shift to fourth, hold the throttle down and through you go, but this time the car oversteered, went sideways and that was it. I haven’t had time to study it in any detail with my engineer, but we will, because it was just so unexpected to get that huge, sudden oversteer moment. But I wasn’t the only one to come unstuck there so maybe there was oil, or perhaps I just made a mistake. I don’t know.

“Anyway, the car got away from me after I’d passed [team-mate] Yvan [Muller] into the hairpin. I didn’t really mean to pass him there but he braked incredibly early and I just reacted, went up the inside of him.

“In the second race, I was happy in seventh, which was enough to win the title, but the world began crumbling around me. Everyone started falling off and I was up to second.

“The last four laps I was driving erratically, too aggressively, and I shouted out loud to myself ‘For God’s sake man, sort it out, just drive the car, concentrate, don’t think about the championship’. Problem is, when people are crashing around you, you can get drawn into it and go off in sympathy. Macau is all about smoothness, concentrating 100 per cent, so during the last two laps I reeled in Alain [Menu], though I wasn’t really trying to.

“I don’t think Yvan was overly happy about me winning the championship… but hey, he’s won it three times. Another one wasn’t going to change his life, but my first has changed mine. He always told me how hectic his life was when he won his titles and I used to think this was just the typical ‘whining Frenchman’ that everyone else seems to think he is… I tell you, I now know where he was coming from. My feet have hardly touched the ground since Macau, it’s just been manic, full on every day. And I still don’t have a job for 2013. Lots of people are talking to me, but I don’t think anything will be fixed until at least the end of January. That’s just the way it is these days, tough times for the manufacturers and money is not easy to find.

“I don’t have a manager, my dad and I make all the decisions, but there is just not a lot out there at the moment. I’d like to stay in touring cars, I’ve been so well looked after over eight years at RML. They took a big gamble signing me as a young driver and to win the title with them was such a great way to finish. We’ll see what happens next… when it happens.”

*

Huff’s rise to the top was not what might be described as meteoric. It is more a story of dogged determination, consistency and an enviable natural talent in the driving seat. Significantly, he won every championship he entered along the path to a world title.

“There was never really a path, no grand plan,” he says. “We started with karting, it was something we did as a family, and my dad, who’s a huge racing fan, supported me. He didn’t have real ‘motor sport money’ to throw around, but we loved racing as a family outing as much as anything else and did it for fun. You might not think that Croft in winter, in pouring rain and freezing temperatures, is fun, but it was. We just wanted to be racing, to do the best possible job with what we had. In 1999 I won two scholarships at the Jim Russell school and that enabled me to race in Formula Vauxhall Junior. From there we went to Formula Renault, but ran out of money halfway through the season and that was that.

“But we never gave up. I knew I had the talent and my dad found us a huge amount of support from lots of small businesses in and around Cambridge. Something always came up and we won the Tim Sugden scholarship, which led to the Renault Clio Cup. Then we somehow raised the money to do the SEAT Cupra championship [in 20031, which I won, and since then I’ve led a more sheltered life, supported by a manufacturer, cocooned in Ray Mallock’s team. There are literally thousands of people I need to thank for getting to me where I am now.”

*

So, did he ever have dreams of Formula 1? Was that the target he was secretly aiming for in those early single-seater days?

“No way, not at all,” he says. “I had the use of a flat in Monaco as part of the prize for winning the SEAT championship in 2003, sharing with Jason Plato, and Jason very quickly put me off living in Monaco… OK, we had a lot of fun and it was a great experience. But, as I said to my boss at SEAT, ‘How the hell am I supposed to live in Monaco on a 30 grand salary?’ I agree with my friend Gordon Shedden, who won his first BTCC title last year and at the same time as me: he’s quite happy in his native Scotland and I’m quite in Cambridge. Touring cars are great to race, and there’s a skill in the best out of a front-wheel-drive car. people seem to think that a touring car could never go anywhere else anyway, he only knows how to race a car with drive. But that’s not true; a good driver can be fast in any type of car — adapt their style.”

As mentioned earlier, Huff loves his historic has a feel for what went before, and is essentially a fan like the rest of us. “For me, there are two parts to my motor sport,” he says. “There’s my job, which I love and wouldn’t change for the world, and then there’s what I call club racing. I absolutely love it. It’s fun, it’s where we started as a family and it’s all about the pure love of racing. I race a friend’s MGB, he looks after it, keeps it in his showroom, and I pay the costs. That works really well.

“Then of course there’s Goodwood, just the best event in the world. I won the St Mary’s Trophy in an Austin A40 last year and that was a dream come true, beating Anthony Reid in a MkI Jaguar, Jackie Oliver in a BMW and Kenny Brack in another A40 in front of 130,000 people. That was not far off winning a World Championship for me. I think my dad was more proud of his son winning at Goodwood than he was of him getting the WTCC title. That’s how much of a fan he is. And it was stepping out of the car at the finish, handed a cigar and a beautiful trophy, doing the parade lap with Spitfires and a flying overhead. What a wonderful That’s how racing used to be. People up to me and say, ‘Oh yeah, you’re Rob the bloke who won at Goodwood in that A40’. They say sod all about the world championship.”

He’s a happy man, is Huff. And so he should might be out of a job as I write, but I you won’t be watching this space for very What really comes across in conversation on an with the newly crowned King of WTCC is his passion for the sport. And that’s so refreshing.

“Yes, it’s simple,” he says. “I love driving and racing and have been blessed with a gift. There are things about driving racing cars that you cannot learn. You’ve either got it or you haven’t. Nobody can teach you. And for me it’s all about putting on the best show you can, whether it’s 130,000 at Goodwood, or 90,000 in Macau, the job is to entertain them, put smiles on their faces, and give them what they came for — a bloody good show. That’s what matters, as well as the winning, whatever success you have along the way.”

What, then, are his resolutions for the 2013 season? Champions are by nature ambitious, are they not?

“Well, I don’t have any, really,” he says. “I seem to have done so much over the past 15 years. And last year I got married, gave up smoking and won a World Championship. I’m not sure I can do much more, except win the lottery, so I’m not making any big This year will be what it will be; we’ve followed a path before. Whatever path is us now, we will follow it or we won’t. We’ll just see what comes.”

So there we are, that’s a snapshot of the life British World Champion. The word street is that Rob Huff won’t have too trouble keeping a roof over his head this And remember, when you chase him for he’s the bloke who won at in an Austin A40…

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