From penniless F3000 racer to Williams driver in the spate of four seasons: our new touring car columnist Alain Menu reflects on his change of fortune
To race for Williams is a dream for most drivers. Certainly, four years ago I would not have believed you if you’d said I would be in the position that I’m in now. In the middle of a season of European F3000 in 1991 I ran out of money. I thought that was it. The end. Back to Geneva to do God knows what. But, following a driver evaluation test for BMW Motorsport, I got a drive with the Prodrive M Team in the 1992 British Touring Car Championship. I was happy to be getting paid to race, but I never thought I would make a career out of saloon cars. Then, in the middle of that year, I fell off a quadbike at Knockhill and broke my leg, so I was lucky to be signed by Renault for the following BTCC season.
And now I’m driving for Williams. It’s incredible. It would’ve been nice if it was Formula One I keep thinking ‘If only I was seven years younger’ but now I think I’m driving for this famous team in a championship that’s perhaps harder to win than F1. Williams has been racing – and winning – in Formula One for so many years that it’s almost become second nature. In contrast, touring car racing is a completely new challenge for them. But not for a second have they become complacent about the new rivals and difficulties it faces. This attitude has served them well in Formula One, and I’m sure the same will be true in the BTCC.
For sure, to be with Williams can only be good for a driver, and I am excited about my prospects for this and the next season, but this close-season has been a frustrating one for me. Williams Touring Car Engineering Limited has only been operating since last November, and our designers and mechanics have been working around the clock to get the new cars ready in time for the first round.
They made it . . . just.
I had my first run in the new Laguna at Silverstone the day before I had to qualify it at Donington Park. Prior to this I had to share the sole remaining ’94 car with my new team-mate, Will Hoy. And at each test session there would be a different set of mechanics present as they had to learn about the car just as much as the drivers. In fact, until the Donington Park race, Will and I had played a small role in the creation of the team. Our work really starts now . . .
Naturally, I visited the new factory in Didcot a lot during the winter, and I was always amazed by how much work the mechanics put in during the last few months. In fact, even as I write this, they are busy finishing our third car!
I think it’s fair to say that the team was surprised by how many changes it had to make to last year’s car. We did very well last season – I finished second to Gabriele Tarquini in the drivers’ championship and Renault was second behind the Alfa Romeos in the manufacturers’ championship – so we knew the car was on the pace. But Williams has had to do a lot of work in order to make the car, not necessarily a lot faster, but easier to work on and to alter the set-up.
Because of this non-stop work, the boys were knackered before we even started at Donington Park, and so it was important that Will and I brought both cars home safely and in the points. We did this, and at the same time surprised ourselves a little bit when I finished second in the first race. This gave us all a big boost, and proved that all the work was not for nothing. To be third in the championship after the first meeting was as good as I dared hope. The team had done a fantastic job to make the cars reliable – a Williams trait – and now we have to test to build up our database on the car and discover what has to be done to make it win.
Testing is so vital. Volvo and Vauxhall shared the wins at Donington, and this was no surprise to me as they have done more winter miles than anyone else. In contrast, the first time I truly drove my new Laguna in anger was during Saturday’s qualifying sessions; even then I left a little bit of a safety margin. I won’t allow myself this in future as qualifying this season is more crucial than ever. Why? Firstly, the new rules force you to go for it both times as each session sets the grid for the corresponding race; secondly, because the new wings have made it much harder to overtake in the races.
It sounds silly, but I would say that if you get your qualifying lap absolutely right it’s about 70-80% of the job done. The difficulty is that our qualifying tyres are at their best for just one fast lap, during which the car feels very strange because of the different set-up required to get the best out of the softer Michelins. So I was delighted to be third and second fastest at Donington, especially because I missed a gear in the afternoon, a mistake which is normally the difference between the first and third or fourth rows. If you don’t start from the first or second rows I think it is going to be really hard to win races this season, and because the cars are so closely matched this year, one mistake on your quick lap can ruin any chance of victory.
The recent races at Donington Park were not very exciting. but if you think back to last year’s World Cup race at the same track, that wasn’t exactly a thriller, even without the wings. For sure, it’s harder to overtake now because the braking distances are shorter than before, and you have to take a big risk in the braking area to get by other cars. It’s even riskier because the organisers are now so against there being any contact. My team-mate is currently waiting to see if he will lose his sixth place in the first race because he made a mistake and pushed Julian Bailey’s Toyota into the gravel. The problem is that I think a lot of the spectators come to see this sort of action. And I don’t think the drivers do it on purpose – it’s just that the racing’s so close – so the organisers must be careful how they deal with these incidents. I believe there will always be some contact in touring car racing. it’s a grey area, so I don’t think the rules about it can be black and white.
But what I really don’t like about the wings is that they’ve made the cars easier to drive. In the second half of last season we ran with an improved aerodynamic package on our Laguna, but these were just off the road car; the wings we have now have been developed in Williams’ wind tunnel and are much more effective. You used to have to concentrate very hard through the Craner Curves at Donington, but now they are easily flat.
In spite of this, I think it is wrong to say that this year’s BTCC will be boring. It maybe a little different, but it won’t be boring.
I hope not, anyway, because I would like to do this form of racing for the next 10 years! When I see how old my team-mate is. I know that I can make a living out of my passion for motor racing for a long time to come! I have a two-year contract with Renault, but I hope to be driving for them for a lot longer than this. I would like to build up a relationship similar to that BMW has with its drivers. This is my long-term goal.
My short-term goal is to haul in those Volvos and Vauxhalls. I know this is going to be difficult as they both looked very strong at Donington. Rickard Rydell was especially impressive in the second race. His Volvo was a full second quicker than anybody else – a lifetime in touring cars – on the second lap, and by lap three he was away and gone. He’s a very good driver and will take a lot of catching but, although Williams’ involvement in touring cars is a long-term project, with its renowned commitment to winning, I’m confident that I will be able to beat Rickard – and Vauxhall’s John Cleland – sooner rather than later. A M