Too old school for the playground

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Modern race tracks are too easy, so says Darren Turner. Aston Martin’s GT ace prefers his racing with an edge, just like it used to be
By Damien Smith

Darren Turner isn’t like most modern racing drivers . He’s a throwback, in the best possible sense. In times past he’d have been another Roy Salvadori: popular among his peers, respected for his all-round ability and eager to drive whatever competitive ride came his way. Would Darren have been happy in the 1950s and ’60s? “I’d have loved it, jumping in and out of cars,” he says. “Everyone gets pigeon holed these days, but I like the idea that one weekend you’d be racing a sports car, the next Formula 1.”

At 38, Turner has been paid to do what he loves for more than 10 years now, and he’s little changed from the sunny single-seater junior who won lots of friends through his genuine decency and sense of fun. But you don’t survive in this sport for so long on popularity alone. He’ll chuckle at this, such is his self-deprecatory nature, but ‘normal bloke’ Darren Turner is an intelligent racer, who blends speed with matured racecraft and solid engineering nous. He also has some well-reasoned thoughts on the state of modern motor racing, which are perhaps out of stride with his own era.

His racing simulator business is further evidence that, for all the happy-go-lucky persona, Darren shouldn’t be underestimated. We meet on an industrial estate in Banbury, where Base Performance Simulators offers teams and their drivers an inconspicuous place to test. On the day of my visit, the simulator is in Formula 2 mode and I’m let loose for 20 minutes. It’s not exactly like the real thing, but its value for learning lines and perfecting technique is clear. The business is growing nicely. We then head off to his rural ‘project’: a barn conversion that is already lovely and promises to be amazing once complete.

He got married last year, to Katie, and a baby is on the way. Who’d have believed it? ‘Daft as a brush’ Darren Turner is settling down, and even enjoying the spoils of a career this modest racer never thought he’d have.

Unlike Salvadori, Turner never started a Grand Prix – in fact he never really got close – but that’s indicative of the era he has raced in, where opportunity is so often limited by the depth of your family’s pockets. But in a sense, you could say he started at the bottom of the top, as a ‘gofer’ at Jordan Grand Prix, where he soon discovered the life of an F1 engineer would not be for him.

Darren’s real big break came in 1996, after a promising year in Formula Renault, when he was a surprise winner of the McLaren Autosport BRDC young driver award, beating the likes of Dan Wheldon and his future best man Peter Dumbreck. “It was the turning point for everything else,” he says. The single-seater career would stall after a disastrous part-season in Formula 3 and a gamble on the new Formula Palmer Audi, but the award’s prize test with McLaren would be more significant to him.

“Jonny Kane did the morning, I did the afternoon, and after the test – normal thing – if someone does something nice for me, I write a letter to say thanks,” says Darren. “Further on in the year, they wanted someone for an airfield shakedown and they asked me if I could do it. I did it, and they said ‘this is how much we’ll pay you’. It just snowballed from there. I did a good job in the young driver test, I wasn’t a pain in the arse, there were no managers making it more complicated and it was a pleasure for me. It was just a case of doing the job I was asked to do.” He worked for McLaren as a trusted test driver for the next nine years.

“I was never promised anything in terms of F1,” he says. “It was a case of ‘you’re a driver, we can use you, if that works for you, that works for us’. Yes, brilliant, thanks very much. It was only towards the end, I was getting a bit older and I was looking for more and they couldn’t give me more, that I decided to move on. But I’d travelled the world with the two-seater F1 programme they ran in the early years and I met some amazing people.”

The McLaren link led directly to a Mercedes DTM drive, too. “It felt like the start of my career, and I had no idea where it was going to take me,” he says. Later there’d be three rumble-tumble years in the British Touring Car Championship and even a season in the UK’s short-lived ASCAR stock car series, but it’s in sports cars where Turner has really made his mark, particularly with Prodrive and Aston Martin, the defining relationship of his racing life.

“I had a deal to drive in FIA GTs in Veloqx’s Ferrari 360, my first GT drive,” he recalls. “They had a deal with Prodrive that me, Jamie Davies and Kelvin Burt would race at Sebring and Le Mans in the Ferrari 550 – so I was sort of forced on to [ex-Prodrive team boss] George Howard-Chappell for those two races. But again, I turned up, did a good job and it built from there. George lives a kilometre across the fields from me these days. It took four years before I wasn’t shit-scared of him, but he’s a really good friend now. He’s got some old cars and so have I that we tinker with. But at the beginning he wasn’t a fan because I was forced on him.

“What made the difference was David Brabham and Jan Magnussen were doing the ALMS with that car. Jan couldn’t do one of the races because it clashed with something else, so they needed a replacement for the Miami street race. [PR officer] Fiona Miller said to George to give me a shout, that I’d done a good job at Sebring and Le Mans. I didn’t tell him I hadn’t done a street race at that point. But we rocked up and won the race, with a bit of luck. From that point on the relationship started. The following year, 2004, I shared the car with Colin McRae and Rickard Rydell at Le Mans and we finished third in class.”

***

When Prodrive owner David Richards created Aston Martin Racing, the scene was set for a Le Mans return for a much-loved British manufacturer. The glorious DBR9 GT was born, and Darren nurtured it all the way. “We won the first race at Sebring out of the box, and we were competitive the first two years at Le Mans,” he says. “In ’05 I screwed up getting penalties for hitting cones – after all, they are a dying species… I was sat so low, I didn’t even know I’d hit them. And the following year I clouted a kerb and took the oil pipe off, so that cost us 50 minutes. I’d had two horrendous years at Le Mans and felt really bad for it. Winning in 2007, and then again in ’08, was a relief.

“That car was just amazing to drive. They detuned it over the years with new regs, but the two highlights of my career were winning the GT class at Le Mans in that car. Standing on that podium is a surreal experience. It takes months for it to sink in. If I had a lottery win, the DBR9 is what I’d buy. I won £2.50 last week on the EuroMillions, so you never know.”

In 2009, Aston Martin celebrated the 50th anniversary of its single overall Le Mans victory with Salvadori and Carroll Shelby in the DBR1. Always one for a challenge, it gave Richards big ideas and he gave the green light to a prototype programme, with a Lola chassis powered by the DBR9’s V12. Compared to the might of Audi and Peugeot, the team was a minnow. But two decent performances at Le Mans fuelled the ambition further. The result was an all-new open-cockpit LMP1, built in haste and run to a tight budget for 2011.

The failure of that car, with its unlikely choice of a 2-litre straight-six turbo nestling within an unorthodox chassis, was painful to watch. The team has since returned to its roots with the promising GT Vantage, but Turner reckons Prodrive should have no regrets over the tough experience of AMR-One.

“They went for a bold move to go up against the might of the big manufacturers – and it didn’t work. It’s just one of those things,” he says. “One blip from a very competitive team. Now we’ve had another podium at Le Mans with the Vantage this year and we’ve moved on.

“I’ve been a mainstay of the Aston programme throughout. Others have come and gone, but whatever they’ve done I’ve been there. This is the last year of my contract, so I don’t know about the future. Hopefully there is something for me. It’s been good and I don’t see any reason why it can’t continue, but there are always things you don’t have control of, so we’ll just wait and see.”

He says more than once “no one owes me a living”. Darren’s never been short of self-belief in his own abilities, but would he have climbed further up the single-seater ladder with the dash of selfishness so common in others? “If I’d been more arrogant, I wouldn’t have gone as far,” he counters. “If you’ve got lots of money, you can be as arrogant as you like because you can buy your way to where you want to go. But if you’ve got nothing, you need people to want to help you. This is the way I am and thankfully people have generally wanted to help.

“You see the arrogance in others and you just think ‘you’re being a dick.’ Why would you want to be like that? You don’t know who these people are and you don’t know if they are going to be the ones who give you a break in the future. Those with a chip on the shoulder, they are going to get as far as their bank balances will take them. And that’s it.”

***

In recent years, Turner has fallen in love with old cars thanks to regular appearances at the Goodwood Revival. He and a friend are restoring a Ford Zodiac – “it’s like a big old nurse” – and while starring roles in the St Mary’s Trophy driving “pockets of fun” Minis have kept him amused, it’s the TT Recreation experiences in an AC Cobra and Aston Martin DB4 that have really given him a taste of how it used to be.

It brings us back to his interest in the ’50s and ’60s, and how he feels his sport has been diluted today. “I know there were a lot more fatalities, and certainly I don’t want to die because there’s a lot more living to do,” he says. “But the sport has become a lot more sanitised. There’s a balance, and I think the balance has gone too far. It’s not the safety in the cars, the helmets and things like the HANS device – that’s all brilliant. It’s the circuits I’m talking about. They’ve become too much like a playground rather than a race track.

“I’m not a big fan of Astroturf outside kerbs, and the huge Tarmac run-offs, because there’s no penalty anymore. If you make a mistake you lose a couple of tenths. Now you drive to 110 per cent and work your way back to 100, rather than driving to 95 and asking yourself how much more you want to push. American circuits still have a rawness that gives you that adrenaline. But you go to some circuits now and just think ‘this is boring’. It’s too perfect. Everyone moans when there’s a bump. But I think it’s brilliant when there’s a bump.”

Questioning safety in this way is contentious and he feels he might be in the minority on this, although I wonder. “The few people I have spoken to, sometimes they surprise me by saying ‘oh no, it’s got to be safer’,” he says. “It seems some people do want it to be risk-free, so that anyone can do it to a good level.

“When I drove at Goodwood in the Cobra, I was scared the whole way round. Was I scared to the point I didn’t enjoy it? Yeah, I was! It really shook me up, actually. But the next time I got in the car I enjoyed it a bit more, and the next time after that I was grinning. I got over my fear, which is half the fun – isn’t it? It’s supposed to be a challenge, and unfortunately some of the challenge is going away.”

He also reckons the extra run-off causes its own problems. “This Astroturf stuff, I’ve seen more accidents because of that than what it’s trying to prevent. If you’ve got Tarmac, kerb and then grass, and normally the first bit of grass is chewed up and messy, your mind says ‘if I get on that grass, it’s not going to be nice. I’m going to lose time, at least’. If it’s Astroturf, it’s smooth and in general has got reasonable grip if it’s dry. So you think, ‘well, I can get away with using a bit of that and I’ll keep my foot in on the exit’. But if it’s been damp, it’ll take longer to dry than the track and the kerb. Someone will still commit to going out on to it, and then they get bitten because it’s got a lot less grip. I’ve seen plenty of shunts because of that, and it tends to be the less experienced guys who get caught out by it. I always wonder how many drivers get consulted when circuits are built.”

Tough American tracks such as Sebring and Road Atlanta fire Turner’s flame. In Europe he lists Dijon among his favourites – “I don’t know why, I’ve only tested there” – while Le Mans and Spa retain their challenges despite increased run-off, particularly at the latter.

“I’ve never driven round the old circuit at Spa,” Turner says. “When you think about now and what they raced on then, and the challenges that would have given them… It’s a shame we don’t have proper road races now. It’s pure gladiatorial, isn’t it? The buzz and sense of relief of conquering something like that, well, it’s something I’ll never experience.

“Today, it’s plug in and play, and away you go. Saying that, people are still getting hurt and there’s still danger. I still love racing today and I’m not trying to say it’s without risk, but I’d like to bring the challenge back.”

Stirling and the late Salvo would agree. But is Darren Turner really out of touch with his own time? Or is there a widespread belief among his peers that the boundaries have indeed been pushed back too far? We’d love to hear from others to find out. Perhaps we’d find Turner isn’t the only throwback out there after all.

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