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I developed a passion for racing as a young boy – particularly because my father was engaged in motorsport. He did a lot of club rallying and racing and was working in the automotive industry. He was also racing in karts, and when I was eight years old, he bought me my first kart. That’s how it all started!
For me it was fun, but not without a little fear. When I was just eight years old I had some testing on the track with other kids who had been doing this for two or three years, and with their experience they were flying past me.
In those days, the wheels of the karts weren’t covered so you did a lot of bouncing over each other’s kart wheels and spinning off the track. But I got better and better and I started to have a bit more ambition. So my Dad and I became a small “team”. He bought a used van and then a caravan – we did it “on a shoestring” with very limited budget.
I see it with a lot of people nowadays that parents have a lot of ambition, so from the start the kids are in a top team or driving with top material. We were different, it was a family business and after some success in club racing we took it to the (British) national championship.
In the first year 1991 I finished sixth in the championship. This was good for someone doing it on their own. At that point I got noticed by someone of the big teams. From that point on the team basically took me on board to be one of their top drivers. They paid me for pretty much all of my racing, which took the burden off of my Dad, because he was at the point (like probably most Dads) where he couldn’t afford to go on and on.
I don’t come from a rich family background, my father is just “a working man”. The first sponsoring really was a kickoff for my career and my first professional team was the door opener also to later car racing. My parents didn’t have loads and loads to spend on my racing. I was born in Bromley (Kent), we then moved to the south-west, to Devon. But that was too far away from most of the racetracks, so we moved again to Hertfordshire which where my first team was located.
I found some friends there, but at the weekends it was all about racing. That‘s what I wanted! If I look at it now, I sometimes get the feeling of having missed out on something, as I often had to change schools and today I don’t have a circle of friends from my childhood. But then I have been able to do such an incredible thing in my life, so it doesn’t bother me.
In karting, I then fought my way up through several classes to become vice national champion in 1994 and finally champion in 1995. In that year I also took second place in a race outside the UK in the European Championship, a big step for me as my name got known also outside the national championship. I also won the championship in ’96.
My first year in a racing car soon followed in 1998 with starting at the “Formula Vauxhall Junior”, a series like “Formula Ford” meaning single seaters, open wheels, no wings, and no downforce. The competition in that formula was incredibly close! I did two years in that, and won the class “B” and the Class “A”, but I really wanted to move on to Formula 3. After a year in the so called “F3 scholarship” in the UK I was picked up by a Formula 3 Team which was run by Jaguar at the time. They let me test their F3 cars! It went really well and I wanted to be part of that team.
But then I got my first “lesson of politics” in motorsport. Instead of choosing me for a seat in the team they took a guy whose father was a board member at Jaguar. I was left early in the season without a drive! A difficult situation… all the seats in the top teams in the UK had been taken. So we started to look abroad.
I knew Keke Rosberg (father of Nico Rosberg) and he was setting up a complete new F3 team. We did a deal and I came to my first race in Germany. I was really excited, because I had only done a few races outside the UK back then. It meant travelling to different countries and working with German people – I hardly understood a word in German…
A friend of my father came with me to the races and it meant a lot to me that some friends from England also showed up at the racetracks to give me a bit of “moral support”. But the great thing was, you have to experience that sort of thing because that “reality check” takes you further.
In Formula 3 I got to race on weekends on the same circuits like the DTM. It was great to see the cars and the star drivers or even meet some of them, because Team Rosberg was running a DTM car as well. I admired Bernd Schneider because he was the guy “doing the business” at the time and was Champion with Mercedes-Benz. And of course in Formula 1 there was Michael Schumacher at the top of his career…
I seemed to get closer to my idols, having watched the races on TV since I was a child. Someone I always looked up to was Ayrton Senna, just for the way he was, the complete driver he was. Not only was he incredibly fast but he also knew how to set up the car and to get the best out of it, how to work with the engineers and develop car and team both together. I know myself that there is no good being fast, if you can’t get on with your team – he had all that. The sheer passion of motorsport coming out! I was lucky to meet him once and remember being very shy…
I had two good years in the championship, with a few wins in the first year and the championship in the second year, in 2002. After that I was being noticed by Mercedes-Benz and was offered a test drive in the DTM – great!
Changing from a single seater to a Touring car was quite different, but the drive went really well. I was offered a seat in a DTM-Cockpit – and turned it down. A mistake, perhaps… But as a driver in those days I was chasing the dream of Formula 1. So I tried to take it a step further into Formula 3000, it was difficult for me to get a sponsorship.
Then there was a team that promised they had lots of sponsors and loads of money, the best engineers, so I joined up with them. The testing was very good, but before the first race, the top engineers left and the team was on its own. After one race at Imola, (the car was awful, I took14th place) I got a phone call from the team that there was no money left. –My second big lesson in motorsport and the worst point in my career. I was left alone after the beginning of the season with no team. And finding another team in May is impossible!
I got a phone call from Team Rosberg: “Would you like to race in the DTM? We have a seat for you!” It was just a lucky break for me. I asked them “When is the first race?” They said “Oh, this weekend at the Nürburgring.” Ok, alright, – surprise shock – but I flew over on Wednesday, first got into the car on Friday…. What a change of luck being without a team at the beginning of the week and being paid for a drive at the next weekend! A big change to what I had before.
Although I did not finish my first race in the DTM because of a crash, the speed was good and it was the beginning of a great season. I scored the most points among the “one year old” cars in the DTM (as you probably know, there are teams in the DTM with brand new cars and teams who are running the cars from the season before).
I was very lucky and quickly learned to adopt my driving style. DTM cars are a lot heavier than single-seaters and “move around” a lot more. In corners a formula car will stick to the line and do what you want it to do, where as you have to fight with a DTM car much more to get the quick times as it is sliding in the corners. And the DTM cars are lot different to Touring Cars: On a much higher level, the amount of downforce you have, the brakes, the power – it’s just incredible! It’s a lot closer to a single seater than Touring Cars. I have to admit: Being a British driver in a German Team driving for Mercedes, back home I sometimes get the jokes, but I can tell that Germany in the UK has a massive reputation for building good cars. Especially Mercedes!
Finishing sixth in my debut season, I was promoted to a full works drive with AMG-Mercedes in 2004 but narrowly missed out on the championship crown, despite taking five wins.
In 2005 it was my turn: winning the DTM title with a total of 5 wins during the season! It was a great feeling! But still I had to make up my mind upon Formula 1, so for 2006 I made a deal as a test driver for McLaren. I definitely learned a lot, but also missed the thrill of competing.
So 2007 saw me back in the DTM driving seat, but this time with Persson Motorsport. I remained with the team for 2008 and took 9th place in the championship. During 2009, I raced the AMG Mercedes C-Klasse for team Salzgitter AMG Mercedes and took second place in the championship. The battle for the 2010 title went right down to the wire and ended with me taking second place, just four points behind the Champion.
2011 and 2012 to me were the most challenging years in DTM so far. In 2011 four strong top five finishes were unfortunately coupled with a number of set up problems with the car throughout the season which saw me ending the season seventh in the championship. That was hard for me…
Last year I was competing again for the DTM title, whilst working with Vodafone McLaren Mercedes as their reserve and test driver. BMW came new to the championship and it was a real close battle between Bruno Spengler and me, up to the last race: 145 to 149 Points! Damn it! At least I was the best Mercedes-driver in 2012. But it was for the third time in four years that I had finished second in the championship. I‘m not going to accept that again for 2013…
Besides all that racing I am a happy married man with three sons, and often being asked: Would you let them race? Hmm. To be honest, I don’t know, the oldest is now nine years old and hasn‘t had a go in a kart yet. I would let them, but haven’t made up my mind… it’s not that I would be scared, there’s danger everywhere – my biggest concern is that today, even more than in my early days you have to have enormous sums of money when starting a career, or strong works support and sponsorship. And that’s difficult enough to find. It should be more about talent than money.
Some “young guns” who I’m pretty sure do have talent are driving for Mercedes-Benz in the DTM this year: Roberto Merhi (21, from Spain), Christian Vietoris (23, from Germany) Robert Wickens (23, from Canada), Daniel Juncadella (21, from Spain) and Pascal Wehrlein (18, from Germany). As I have been around now for quite a few years and know the situation of how it feels to start in this tough competition at the DTM, I will try my best to help them out and get them going….
2013 is really an important year for me. After being pipped to the post by Bruno Spengler and BMW in last year’s DTM championship, I want to get it right for me and Mercedes this year. I get a lot of support from my team, my family and friends and want to make sure that I improve on last year. Together with the team we worked hard over the winter to make everything a little bit better than last year. We’re gonna beat those Beemers, eh?
Check out the dates for the DTM-season 2013!