Simon Arron meets a driver who converted a passion for gaming into a works Honda drive in the World Touring Car Championship
“Give me your wallets…” As first encounters with drivers go, this ranks among the more unusual. I was walking between paddock and town in Vila Real, Portugal, when the threat emerged. Turning to assess whether self-defence or surrender would be the wiser option, I was greeted by a grin and a Castrol Honda shirt. “Ah,” said World Touring Car Championship media delegate Richard Rodgers, just ahead. “Simon, meet Norbert Michelisz…”
An interesting case, Michelisz, and not just for his sense of mischief. Sony and Nissan have garnered coverage for proving that computer gamers can become handy racers, but Michelisz is a little-known prototype. He honed his craft in a village in south-western Hungary, without the aid of a global PR campaign.
“I’ve always liked cars,” he says, “and in about 2002 started to take an interest in racing simulators – the first I tried was Grand Prix Legends. Once I’d achieved what I thought were decent lap times, I checked to see what others were doing and found it was possible to go three or four seconds faster. I felt like throwing the game in the bin, but actually this encouraged me to practice. Eventually I enrolled in some on-line championships and did well.”
While racing virtually, he came up against Gábor Wéber – the dominant force at the time in Hungary’s domestic championship for real Renault Clios. Wéber mentioned Michelisz’s apparent prowess to his team owner Zoltán Zengö, who in 2005 invited the 21-year-old to a test at the Hungaroring. “I was given two four-lap runs in a Clio,” Michelisz says. “All the leading drivers were there, but nobody mentioned my times. In the afternoon Mr Zengö talked to me more and more, but it was only later that I discovered I’d been second-quickest, two tenths off Gábor.”
Zengö soon offered him a chance to join his team for 2006, to contest a new one-make series for Suzuki Swifts: he took the title – and his career was launched.
Michelisz moved up to Clios in 2007, with the same outcome, and then progressed to Seat Leons, initially in Hungary before tackling the newly introduced Eurocup. “That taught me a lot,” he says, “although initially I felt slightly in awe of the international drivers. In mid-season I took four straight poles, but I wasn’t yet consistent enough in the races. I won at Monza, though, and Seat offered me the chance to do a WTCC race in Okayama. I’d been racing for just two years.”
Michelisz scored five wins en route to winning the Eurocup title in 2009, then graduated full-time to the WTCC in 2010 with Zengö’s private team. The next six seasons would be fruitful, with a sprinkling of victories, many podium finishes and two successful conquests of the WTCC Trophy for independents, in 2012 and 2015. Honda subsequently signed him as a factory driver.
“Things are obviously easier with a works team,” he says, “because we have more mechanics and can do more testing – I love the development side of the job. In the WTCC there are many drivers at a similar level, so it is important to find perfect harmony with your car. Do I have any ambitions to race at Le Mans or elsewhere? Not at the moment. I enjoy the WTCC and would like to achieve my personal limits within this series. I want to win the world title, so there’s still work to do.”
Whatever happens next, he has come an awfully long way in little more than a decade.