As part of our coverage of the Autosport International Show, which concludes today, there are many of the British contingent that compete the world over in hard-fought championships, as Saturday showcased the ‘Best of British.” Yesterday, RichlandF1’s Alex Goldschmidt had the chance to talk with GP2 runner-up and Mercedes AMG reserve driver, Sam Bird, who was very close to winning a title with a brand new team.
The 27-year-old, who celebrated his birthday on the first day of the annual event that kicks off the motorsport season, came into 2013 without a race seat and was not knowing where he would end up after racing with ISR for World Series by Renault 3.5 in 2012.
However, one phone call changed all that and his return to the GP2 series was assured thanks to new outfit RUSSIAN TIME, who partnered him with Tom Dillmann. The team then rose to the challenge ahead and picked up the Team Championship in their debut season.
It as a very impressive achievement by all concerned, and Sam was also present for the GP3 end of year test at Abu Dhabi to help the Russian outfit spearhead its foray into the category, which will be alongside their ongoing GP2 commitments ahead of being able to race at home soil in Sochi later on this year.
As he gets set to head back to the Daytona International Speedway for the annual Daytona 24 Hours race in a couple of weeks’ time, he spoke to us about what was a year that could have gone either way, but it made people still take notice that Sam is a hungry and competitive individual, who can fight at the front as he takes to sportscar racing for the first time in his career. Also we had to touch on working with Lewis and at Mercedes, as the new regulations will soon be on track as testing looms.
RichlandF1: Sam, great to see you and a very Happy New Year and a belated Happy Birthday for Thursday. How are your preparations for 2014 coming along?
Sam Bird: Thanks and a Happy New Year to you as well. Yes, I’ve been training harder than ever before to get fitter, in order to get ready for whatever I’m doing this year.
RF1: First of all, looking back at GP2 where you narrowly missed out on the title by just 20 points to Fabio Leimer. You won five races last year, which included Monaco and Silverstone, where it must have been a pretty good feeling to win at both weekends in particular?
SB: Absolutely, 5 wins in a GP2 season is nothing to be sniffed at. I don’t think anyone has done that before, which puts me in a select group of people. I would have liked to have won at Monza as well, where I came second and I felt I should have won that race.
So that would have made it the big four, as I won at Spa. It was a fantastic year, considering where I was this time last season without a drive. I was thrown into a GP2 at Malaysia without any test, having known three days beforehand that I was going to be doing it.
I also had a broken hand as well; making it was a tough start to the year. We took a car that was a midfield-runner and ended up racing at the front with a front-running car, winning the Team Championship as a result.
RF1: Clearly a great effort by everyone at RUSSIAN TIME, yourself working with Tom Dillmann. You’d been with iSport for in 2011, which pulled out of GP2 at the end of 2012. Obviously a euphoric feeling from your standpoint, when you clearly would think ‘Great, I’ve somewhere to race this season, and I’ve got to put it to good use.’ What was the outlook from the outset?
SB: It was always going to be tough, especially as everyone else had 10 days of testing, and we came in with none of that as a team. We had a car that was OK, but it wasn’t necessarily the most consistent of cars and packages to go with and not a title winner.
It needed to be if I were to continue having a single-seater career, so it was vital for me to get on top of it quickly and work well together with the engineers. It was what I was able to do and a credit to everyone at both iSport and RUSSIAN TIME for putting in such a huge effort to turn it round and for us to win in Bahrain so early in the year, it showed that the car wasn’t there yet but was still improving. But from there, we hit the ground running and proved to everyone what we could do.
RF1: The strategies at times were tricky, especially a couple of times with RUSSIAN TIME with pit stops, a few close-quarter battles with people having their fair share of damage, including James Calado, Sergio Canamasas and Johnny Cecotto Jr, amongst others. How did the team get used to being on point when it came to pit stops, especially as teams can change all four wheels or go with fronts or rears?
SB: A wheel change issue cost me the race at Monza, as well as making it difficult for me in Singapore. We had a couple of slow ones, but it is tough in GP2, especially when you can only have 6 people working during a pit stop in comparison to F1.
This means its one person per wheel, where they have to take the old one off, put the new one on and then pick up the wheel gun to help put the wheel on firmly and tightly. It is very, very tough for them, which is why you see inconsistencies due to the fact that the equipment that is used in GP2 is pretty “old-school” in comparing it with F1, making it incredibly difficult.
Having said that and when you look at the whole year, our pit stops weren’t too bad, but everyone had problems last season.
RF1: And a result of your great performance this season, you were presented with the Graham Hill Trophy by John Surtees at the recent BRDC awards for the “most meritorious performance by a British driver in single-seater racing” for 2013. It must have been a great honour to receive that trophy, as well as the accolade that comes with it.
SB: To win such a prestigious award is amazing, as I was also named Pirelli Tyre Management Driver of the year by F1 journalists, which means a lot as well, especially as I received five times the amount of votes in comparison with the rest of the grid.
I was also nominated for the British Single-Seater Driver of the Year at the Autosport Awards. So I’ve won a few awards this year, and it was fantastic to get the Graham Hill Trophy with so many incredible names that have won it before and now to have my name on it too.
SB: I believe that the powertrain is going to be good, as I only hear positive things about it as well as driving it on the simulator. The driveability is good and it look forward to seeing it out on track. Can’t really say anything else.
RF1: You worked with Michael over the past couple of years, who we all send our best wishes to at this difficult time for both him and his family, and then Lewis joined having left McLaren to join forces with Nico. What added dynamic has Lewis brought to the team when it comes to working with you and Nico on a car that shown it could win races and even challenge the qualifying efforts of a certain Sebastian Vettel?
SB: Working with Lewis has been fantastic and he slotted into the team really comfortably and easily. He had some difficult times in his life this year that he has had to deal with, but when it came down to working, he only gave 100 percent.
You saw the best of him at times, especially at Silverstone had he not had the tyre issue, as well as a super win in Hungary. I really hope that he can go on from what he did last year and challenge this season.
RF1: With all that you’re doing on the simulator at Brackley as you’ve been with the team for a couple of years or so, how is your role progressing with the work that you’ve been doing in the run-up to the new season, which is still ongoing?
SB: I’ve loved working with Mercedes ever since I joined, but unfortunately the criteria to get a race seat isn’t necessarily about being the fastest drivers at the moment, which makes it difficult for me. It is more about how much money you can bring to the table, but I love my role with Mercedes.
Again, it is also difficult as a reserve driver to get any track time, which will be even worse with the new powertrain. I hope to sit down with Toto soon and discuss what I can do within the company and if there is a necessity for a reserve driver, so we’ll go from there.
RF1: Now you’re currently racing in the Tudor United SportsCar Championship for Starworks Motorsport in the Prototype Challenge category at the upcoming Daytona 24 Hours working alongside WTCC Champion Rob Huff, and will also be in the LMPC section for Sebring and Petit Le Mans. Congratulations on setting the lap record, which was a 1:42.010 during the night stint at the ROAR before the 24. It must have been a good feeling to achieve that in your first time in that type of racecar?
SB: Well, I didn’t honestly know what was a good lap, as off I went when I got put into the car. I think that was my third “push” lap, which was quite early on. I got on top of it fairly quickly and it felt really good. It’s nice to work with Rob, especially as he is a World Champion, having worked with Michael and Lewis as well. He’s very committed and I look forward to working with him in a couple of weeks’ time, as well as getting out there and getting my hands on a new watch.
RF1: As we are at that point where for a lot of drivers, their movements are not yet known at present, which does include yourself. There is obviously a lot of frantic talk behind the scenes as to what you’ll racing this season apart from the sportscars work. What is happening for you this year?
SB: Yes, I’ve got the three races stateside and because I’ve done a competitive job at the test, it has opened up a couple of eyes out in America, which is great. I’d love to race out there in Indycar or in the Daytona Prototypes, which would be amazing.
I’m at a stage in my career where paying for a drive is not a really a viable option, as I need to make a living and be a professional at what I do. It is about finding the right seat for me, whether that is in America or in Europe, as well as remaining as a part of the Mercedes brand if possible. There are plenty of opportunities for me out there, but the choice comes down to what is best for my future.
RF1: Would you consider DTM as a viable alternative if that opportunity came about?
SB: I’ve dreamt of DTM for many years, so if that was an opportunity, I would grab it with both hands as well. There is so much going on right now, with a lot of talks going on. Some of them will fall by the wayside as they do and some will be requiring money. But I hope to be somewhere competitive, doing what I love to do and fighting at the front to win.
RF1: Good luck for 2014, Sam and thanks for talking to us.
SB: Thank you very much.
We’d think to thank Sam for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk to us here at RichlandF1.com and wish him all the very best, wherever he finds a home for 2014.
Images courtesy of Octane Photographic (c)