As the ‘fan’s choice’ for the reserve driver most people would like to see in a Formula One car, Sam Bird finally has the equipment underneath him to make a solid case for that moniker. As a reserve driver for Mercedes, Bird has had a coveted education under Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton, Ross Brawn and one Michael Schumacher. He’ll have ample experience to draw upon then as he chases down Fabio Leimer’s slender 7 point lead heading into the GP2 championship decider at Abu Dhabi. Sam caught up with Richland F1′s Trent Price in Suzuka.
Richland F1: It’s Russian Time’s first year in GP2 and they’ve done spectacularly well out of the blocks. Is everyone in the team still learning and have you taken a leadership role in the team?
Sam Bird: It has very much been a learning curve for the team with it being a whole new engineering staff. It’s been a learning curve for them and for me. Trying to get on top of this car and the tyres has been tricky at times, but we’ve pulled through pretty well for our first year. We haven’t won it yet, but to be leading the team’s championship and have the most wins is pretty cool as well.
RF1: Has moving out of GP2 to Renault 3.5 and back again helped with your driving?
SB: Not particularly no. I believe I’ve been at this level of driving ability for a while. It’s just that this year I’ve had the necessary tools to show what I can do. I feel I haven’t necessarily had those tools for the last couple of years.
RF1: You’re now just seven points behind GP2 Championship leader Fabio Leimer. Is this a position you like? Chasing down the leader rather than defending a lead?
SB: It really doesn’t bother me whatsoever. For sure he’s (Leimer) in the best position possible being seven points clear in the title chase. But having said that, if I can have a fantastic weekend then it can come my way. What I want to do is go out there, give 100 percent of my ability and know that I’ve given it the best that I can give. If the team gives the best that they can give then there’s every chance that we can do it.
RF1: The team’s had a couple of hiccups with pit-stops at Monza and Singapore, but you’ve managed to turn those negatives into positives – especially fighting back in Singapore to take eighth and effectively setting up a win from a reverse grid pole.
SB: In Singapore my engineer was really happy because I kept my head and he believed the Saturday race was one of the best races I’d driven all year. That’s a fairly big statement to make when you win a Monaco feature race by twenty-five seconds, so to say an eighth in a feature race is really quite big. Yeah, there’s been some difficult weekends where we haven’t had the car underneath us. Hungary, Nurburgring, Malaysia and Bahrain were all very difficult and in Barcelona we didn’t score any points. I could name four or five rounds where we’ve struggled, but we’ve managed to fight through it, scrape the odd point here and there and score big points where we have had the car underneath us.
RF1: Taking those obstacles on the chin and keeping your championship alive is a quality even only a few of the top Formula One drivers possess. Do you think this makes you better placed than other reserve drivers to make the step into F1?
SB: I’d like to think that after what I’ve done in GP2 that I’d be a candidate for a seat. But as you know the current climate of Formula One dictates that unless you come with a substantial bank balance the likelihood is that you will not be getting a seat. Obviously I’m trying everything I can to get a racing role in Formula One next year, however it’s extremely tough financially – regardless of my results on track, which is a shame.
RF1: Luis Razia struggled to keep a presence after losing out on a Marussia drive in March last year. Is it more important to surround yourself and communicate with the right people or arrive with a big bank balance?
SB: I think both. Unfortunately I think backing is now more important than ever before. I’m not saying that it’s now outweighing talent, but a person who has $15 million compared to someone who doesn’t have that kind of money will get the seat.
RF1: In the GP2 races where you’ve been forced to fight back, you’ve made decisive overtaking moves whilst still managing the tyres. How tricky has that been?
SB: It’ difficult but you have to do it with these tyres. I can’t come out of a pit-stop in Singapore and push, push, push or my tyres would’ve been finished after six laps when I need to do twenty-one laps on those tyres. I have to take it nicely and slowly which is the last thing you want to do when you’re sitting down in P17 knowing that your main rival is in the top five – and if you don’t get into the top eight then your championship hopes could be over. But taking a steady pace (in Singapore) proved to be one of the quickest overall strategies.
RF1: Does the team give you a lap time to drive to?
SB: We have a theoretical lap time that they want me to drive to and the best judge for pace in that situation is probably myself. But the team’s very good at telling me what to do in terms of being slightly early on the brakes or slightly later on the power. Whenever they set a target I always tend to go a little too quick, but it works out in the end.
RF1: Your five wins this year have come on vastly different circuits. You triumphed in Bahrain where there’s lots of run-off area, but also and Spa, Singapore and Monaco where mistakes can be punished heavily. You seem to excel everywhere.
SB: This year I’ve been able to nail different kinds of tracks. Silverstone is obviously fast and flowing. Monaco is very stop-start and tight and twisty. Singapore was strong too so obviously street circuits have been a strength. Most tracks we’ve been in reasonable shape before we’ve come across some issues.
RF1: And Abu Dhabi for the final? That’s a combination of stop-start sections and flowing corners.
SB: Yeah, I’ve done a lot of laps around there before. I’ve had some great races with some good results. In fact I had my very first GP2 race there (in GP2 Asia) where I finished 2nd behind Davide Valsecchi. I’m not going to say it will be my last GP2 race but if I win the championship it will definitely have to be.
RF1: Has Mercedes’ training facilities helped you boost your own fitness regime?
SB: Just being here at the track I learn so much. Learning how Lewis and Nico work – and Michael, which was pretty special. Working in the simulator trains me for Formula One. In terms of GP2 it helps because I learn the tracks by doing the pre-event work for every Grand Prix, but we don’t have a GP2 model so it’s purely Formula 1.
RF1: But while GP2 doesn’t have the same kind of G-Loads as Formula One it does seem a lot more physical in a lot of ways.
SB: It is on the arms. You have to fight a lot more with the car, but with the neck nowhere near as much.The neck is key in Formula 1.
RF1: How difficult is it to overtake off-line in GP2, especially during the F1 rounds where you experience a lot of rubber build up on the circuit?
SB: Oh you can’t! Thankfully our races are before Formula One, but when you watch their races the (rubber) build up is just spectacular. In Monaco you just couldn’t go off-line. This much off-line (demonstrates by narrowing his hands) is a layer think of just marbles. If you get on them you immediately become a passenger. So trying to pass on the outside is a bit of a no-no in some areas.
RF1: You mentioned in your Bird’s Eye View column for ESPN that you’d like to see a five lap GP2 race around the Nordschleife. Do you think that would separate the men from the boys if that were to happen?
SB: Oh yeah, in fact I don’t think they’d be many of us left! I think there would be a couple of people who would fire into the wall quite early – two in particular and you could imagine who they are. That would be a fantastic race. It’ll never happen but it’d be a great event.
RF1: It would certainly test your mental capacity!
SB: Yeah, I think I’d have to get on the old Playstation or Xbox and just practice forever before I went.
RF1: In July you topped the F1 Fan poll as the reserve driver that fans would most like to see in Formula One. Does that please you?
SB: I think it’s lovely. It’s really nice that fans see me like that and have that opinion of me which is amazing. I have to thank them massively for that because without the fans there’d be no sport whatsoever; whether it be motorsport, football, cricket or whatever. It’s the fans that buy the magazines, go to the races and pay for us to do what we do.
RF1: Thanks for your time Sam and all the best in Abu Dhabi.
Richland F1 would like to thank Mercedes AMG Petronas.
Images courtesy of Octane Photographic