London, May 2014
Former Mercedes reserve driver and 2013 GP2 Series runner-up Sam Bird recently landed himself a drive with Virgin Racing in the upcoming inaugural season of the Formula E Championship, partnering former F1 driver Jaime Alguersuari.
The Briton is part of an exclusive group of drivers who rely on talent alone rather than sponsorship money in order to secure a series race seat. 2013 was Bird’s most successful year in his career, winning the most races in GP2, playing a huge role in Russian Time’s constructor’s championship and just narrowly missing out on the drivers’ title himself.
Yet after boasting an impressive résumé and incredible form, Bird was unsuccessful in obtaining a Formula 1 seat. It’s an injustice to the sport as well as a sad sight to see talented drivers like him miss out on opportunities due to lack of sponsorship.
Not even Fabio Leimer – the man who beat Bird to the GP2 Series title – could land himself a race seat, with his alleged $14 dowry million apparently rejected by Sauber.
More recently Sam made the switch from open-wheelers to sports car racing, competing in the FIA World Endurance Championship for AF Corse Ferrari at Silverstone and finishing the 6-hour race third in the GTE-Am class. He’s also currently racing for Starworks Motorsport in the Prototype Challenge class of the United SportsCar Championship.
Just days before his Formula E announcement, Sam spoke with Josh Kruse to talk about the highs and lows of his racing career to-date, his relationship with Michael Schumacher and got his very candid opinions on Formula 1’s current need for up-and-coming drivers to bring plenty of backing. It’s certainly an interesting read…
What sparked your interest in a career in motorsport?
I was already obsessed with motorsport when I was a toddler. I used to watch F1 with my parents and I decided very early on that I was going to be a racing driver.
Growing up, did you have any racing heroes who were your inspiration? What was it about their achievements or character that you admired in particular?
Yes, Michael Schumacher. He was my idol growing up. I admired his skill, his winning attitude and his constant hunger for more success. Later, I had the privilege of working closely with him at MERCEDES AMG F1. He was incredibly kind and supportive towards me and we became friends.
I think about him and his family every day and I really hope he recovers. He is a hero for so many, including myself, but to me he is first and foremost a genuinely nice person.
You’ve been successful in every category in which you’ve competed. What have been some of your proudest career moments on your journey so far?
Wow, there are so many that have a special place in my heart! My F3 win in Bucharest, which was my first F3 win as a rookie; winning at Spa the same year; my Macau podium – Macau is special – my first GP2 win at Monza, again as a rookie; my wins at Monaco in World Series by Renault and in GP2 – Monaco is Monaco – and also winning at Silverstone in World Series and again last year in GP2, winning again at Spa last year in GP2. I could go on!
Your first taste of F1 came with a test outing for Williams in 2007. What was that maiden experience like, from a technical experience, but also personally?
I got the call on the back of a successful rookie season in British F3. It was a real honor to be offered that chance by Williams. Technically, I had been well prepared at the factory in Grove. It was a great experience and one that led to more test outings with Williams before I joined Mercedes.
Prior to your run with Russian Time, your GP2 career had seen you have stints with ART Grand Prix and iSport. How did a new team like Russian Time compare to these more established outfits you had worked with in the past?
It’s difficult to overstate how well we did. Last year was probably more of a challenge but therefore also more of an achievement.
When you consider that Russian Time were a new team (new to GP2 and new full stop!) and that we were competing against teams that have a huge wealth of experience, knowledge and hard data, it’s difficult to overstate how well we did to become competitive so quickly!
Last year you won three of the biggest races on the GP2 Series calendar: Monaco, Silverstone and Spa. What did those wins mean to you personally, and on those results alone, could you call last year the most successful year in racing career to-date?
All five of my wins last year meant a lot, but of course the three you mention are extra special because of the tradition and heritage of those tracks.
Yes, last season was probably my most successful because I won more races than anyone else but also because I achieved my main objective, which was to win Russian Time the Teams’ Championship.
Obviously the clutch-driven stall on the grid in Abu Dhabi was the moment to forget in what was otherwise an almost faultless year. Do you think there was anything else you could have done to take the Championship?
No, not really. Once again, the main objective was the Teams’ Title and we stated that publicly from the beginning of the season. I was employed by Russian Time to do a job and I did what was expected of me.
Had I been racing purely for myself, like the other drivers, who bought their drives in the usual way, then I might have done a few things differently in a couple of races, with my own individual interest in mind. But I have no regrets. Had it not been for Russian Time, I would not have been in GP2 at all last season.
Was there a particular reason that you didn’t continue in GP2, especially after the success you had as well as winning the BRDC Graham Hill Trophy and the Pirelli Tyre Management Driver of the year award?
GP2 is a fantastic championship and has been a great platform for me but I don’t feel I have much left to prove there. My focus now is purely on professional opportunities and although I was lucky enough to be handed one in GP2 by Russian Time last year, that was really a one-off.
You raced in the opening round of the FIA WEC recently at Silverstone with AF Corse (pictured below). How did you find the transition to what – outwardly at least – appears to be a very different style of racing, given its greater distances and having to share a car with other drivers?
It’s a marked change from what I’ve been used to in the past but I’m really enjoying it. Working with such a professional outfit as AF Corse Ferrari and learning from drivers like Gimmi [Gianmaria] Bruni and Toni Vilander is the best place to be.
The top-three finishers from last year’s GP2 Series Championship standings all raced in the opening round of the WEC. What does that say about young drivers’ Formula 1 prospects?
It says that, even if they are successful on their way up to F1, they will most probably need to bring considerable funding with them if they are to be offered a seat in F1.
Would you like to return to GP2 next year or look for another category like the IndyCar Series or DTM if this was to perhaps prove a stepping-stone to get onto the F1 grid?
I am only interested in professional opportunities at this stage. If a professional offer came my way in F1 of course I would be interested! I am more than ready.
In the meantime, there are some great racing opportunities in in the World Endurance Championship and the United Sports Car Championship in the USA (where I have been racing), and now the new FIA Formula E Championship, where I will race alongside Jaime Alguersuari for Virgin.
How did you find your time as Mercedes’ F1 test driver?
Bird spent two years as Mercedes’ test driver. His work in the simulator – plus the occasional track outing – has undoubtedly played a part in the team’s 2014 success.
I enjoyed my time with Mercedes F1 but I am no longer working with them. They have two of the best racing drivers in the business and they are understandably not able to offer me any racing prospects.
At the same time, with the current regulations on testing, the test and reserve driver role is more and more limited and what little testing is allowed is done by Nico and Lewis.
So we very amicably parted ways at the end of 2013 so that I could go and pursue top level racing opportunities. I have fond memories from my time at Mercedes though and I am excited to see them doing so well this season. I would like to think that I have contributed to that in a small way.
Mercedes is enjoying an outstanding start to the 2014 season. How has the move to the new regulations helped the team’s performance, and do you foresee this dominance continuing for the remainder of the year?
It’s clear that Mercedes have made the most of the advantage of having the chassis and engine teams working hand in hand throughout the development process, as opposed to those teams that have taken delivery of an engine and have then had to package it within their chassis. Mercedes have clearly got it right and while the others may narrow the gap slightly, I expect Mercedes to continue to dominate this season.
Images via GP2 Series Media, XPB Images. Article originally published here