Our many New Zealand readers will be well aware that it’s been an eternity since F1 had a racer from ‘the shaky isles’.
Indeed, it was over thirty years ago that Mike Thackwell made his one and only Grand Prix start, but you’d have to rewind even further to the halycon days of the 1960s and 1970s to recall the success enjoyed by Bruce McLaren, Denny Hulme and Howden Ganley.
Well that drought could soon be over in the form of the sensational Richie Stanaway, who has rocketed through the junior ranks to land himself a long-term contract with the Gravity sports management operation, run by Lotus F1 team principal Eric Boullier.
A winner in his homeland and a record-breaking German F3 title-winner, Stanaway made a stand-in appearance in the GP3 championship at Spa-Francorchamps and promptly won on debut!
He moved into the Formula Renault 3.5 championship for the 2012 season, only to suffer season-ending fractures to his vertebrae in a frightening crash at the same Belgian circuit where he’d been so successful just a few months before.
His injuries mean that he won’t get back in the cockpit until next year, and Richie was kind enough to grant us this exclusive interview…
|Full Name:||Richie Stanaway|
|Born:||24 November 1991, Tauranga (NZL)|
|2007-8||NZ F.First Championship, Sabre Motorsport, 24 races, 4 wins, 18 podiums, 3rd overall|
|2008||NZ Formula Ford Manfield Winter Series, TSR Racing, 9 races, 5 wins, 7 podiums, 3rd overall|
|2008-9||MTA NZ Formula Ford Championship, TSR Racing, 21 races, 11 wins, 15 podiums, 1st overall|
|2009||Australian Formula Ford Championship, Team BRM, 16 races, 1 win, 6 podiums, 6th overall|
|ADAC Formel Masters, Ma-Con Motorsport, 6 races, 2 podiums, 8th overall|
|NZ Toyota Racing Series – ITM400 Hamilton Trophy, 2 races, 2 wins, 1st overall|
|2010||ADAC Formel Masters, Ma-Con Motorsport, 18 races, 12 wins, 17 podiums, 1st overall|
|Michelin Formula Renault Winter Cup, Atech GP, 6 races, 1 win, 3 podiums, 5th overall|
|2011||German Formula 3, Van Amersfoort Racing, 18 races, 13 wins, 16 podiums, 1st overall|
|GP3 Series, Lotus ART, 4 races, 1 win, 20th overall|
|2012||Formula Renault 3.5 Series, Lotus, 5 races, 19th overall|
What sparked your initial interest in motorsport?
Since I was born I have been surrounded by motorsport, my father raced ovals and I also had a few older cousins who raced motocross. Naturally I too grew very fond of the sport from as early as I can remember.
The switch to four wheel racing came when I decided that circuit racing was what I wanted to do.
The motocross was great growing up, but I could see that it was probably never going to eventuate to anything more than a hobby, once I decided I wanted to make a professional career in circuit racing I haven’t looked back since.
Did you have any particular motorsport idols when you were growing up? What was significant about their achievements and/or character that you admired?
I always looked up to my dad, and when I started karting Lewis Hamilton had just entered F1. I remember reading up on a lot of articles and videos about his karting career as well as his dominating build up to Formula 1, which I found quite inspiring. I admired his efforts a lot during his 2007 rookie season, his flair, his driving style, and his ability to perform most of the time under pressure as a rookie. I probably took most of my inspiration from him to reach F1 myself.
You briefly raced in karts before moving into Formula First (where you finished third overall and the highest-placed rookie), and then jumped into the New Zealand Formula Ford Championship, which you won as a rookie. It’s just the second time in the championship’s history that rookie has won the crown; did the achievement mean much to you at the time?
Yeah, at the time winning that championship meant everything to me. When I look back now, it might not seem like such a big deal to have won that championship, but right there and then it meant everything. It’s exactly the kind of thing I needed to win in order to have any chance of pursuing formula car racing in Europe.
You moved ‘across the ditch’ to compete in the Australian Formula Ford Championship in 2009 (pictured), but left halfway through when an opportunity made itself available to race in the ADAC Formula Masters Championship. How much of a transition was it to go racing outside of your homeland, particularly with the move to Europe?
My first year transitioning outside of my home country presented many different challenges, while at the same time it was an opportunity I was incredibly grateful for. I think that the difficulties of being away from your comfort zone, away from friends and family and missing out on school were heavily outweighed by how much of a great opportunity it was to travel the world a bit, to race abroad and just have the chance to chase my dream of reaching F1.
It’s always an enormously tough ask for a driver from ‘the colonies’ to break into overseas open-wheel competition, and your pathway to Europe was aided, in part, by Tauranga-based businessman Maurice O’Reilly, who had previously helped launch the career of Scott Dixon. How important has the support been back home, particularly given that you and Mitch Evans are the country’s best prospects for an F1 seat in over thirty years?
I wouldn’t be where I am today if it hadn’t have been for the support I received from a key group of people back home. Without that group of people led by Maurice, I would never have had the chance to race in Europe. There have been many people along the way since I was about 15 who have contributed heavily to my progression in motorsport to which I’m very thankful for. It’s not every day that someone from New Zealand gets the chance to do what I do, so you need a lot of support to get where you need to be.
An impressive part-season in the ADAC Formula Masters led to a full-time campaign in 2010, and you romped to the title, never finishing lower than second place throughout the season. In turn, that led to other racing opportunities, with the most significant being the 2011 German Formula 3 championship, which you comfortably won. As a winner of one of the premier junior categories in Europe – and a title that has been won by several drivers to have made it into F1 – your services were now in hot demand. Can you tell us more about this period?
The two and a half years I spent racing in Germany ended up being way more successful than I ever could have imagined. After taking part in the last three rounds of the 2009 ADAC Formula Masters season I seemingly did a good enough job to pick up a supported drive for the 2010 championship. I knew that sustaining my seat was always going to be performance based, as well as the fact that I knew that if I won the championship I would have the chance to do F3 the following year.
However, he was right in pointing out that I hadn’t yet done enough to justify picking up a management contract with them, however they would watch my performances closely during that 2010 season.
I put my head down, gave it everything I had and was more than happy to have won twelve races from eighteen starts, finishing no lower than second place in any of the races. In turn, that was enough to land a contract with Gravity, as well as a seat in F3 the following year. The 2011 F3 season was basically a repeat of the year before, where we picked up thirteen wins out of eighteen starts, which in turn lead to my seat in Formula Renault 3.5 for the 2012 season.
A highlight of 2011 was your stand-in appointment to the Lotus ART GP3 Team for the final rounds, and you won on your debut weekend at – of all places to win – Spa Francorchamps. Can you tell our readers about this weekend, and how this success ranks among your motorsport achievements?
The GP3 win on debut was definitely one of my career highlights. The drive actually came about when I was doing some mid season F3 testing with ART in one of their old Euroseries cars. The purpose of the test was purely just to gain some more F3 mileage part way through my season, but unexpectedly I managed to impress so much that the engineer I worked with put a good word forward for me and the team was keen to put me into GP3 for the rest of the season.
The idea was that it would give the team a stronger chance of winning the teams championship, to add to that, my management were keen on the idea because they were unsure of how tough the level of competition really was in the German F3 series, so they wanted to asses how I compared with others in GP3, as at the time it was one of the most competitive junior formula.
The whole experience of GP3 was quite surreal, i followed the series very closely on TV and had a lot of respect for everyone who drove there, then suddenly one weekend i was there experiencing it first hand!
I had raced at Spa not long before in F3 and had hoped that the cars would be fairly similar, give or take a few minor differences, but it was not the case.
I drove the car literally for the first time straight out the pit exit during the one and only practice session, and had about five laps in the dry before it rained and we parked it to save our wet tyres.
Going into qualifying, I was still rather clueless about the car and it was significantly different to F3 than I had expected. I just had to pull out all of the stops to adapt as quickly as possible. Qualifying was wet and we floated around the top five during the session on a drying track, I was extremely disappointed to have traffic on my last two flying laps which left me with no chance to improve on the drying circuit and I was bumped massively back to 18th.
I went into Race 1 with one mission only, which was to finish at least 8th for the Race 2 reverse grid. Fortunately after making up the ten positions I needed during a wet race one, I finished in eight place and secured pole for Sunday.
The Sunday morning race bought on quite a bizarre feeling. I was about to start a dry GP3 race from pole after literally having driven merely a hand full of laps in the car under those conditions, can’t say I’ve ever really started a race from pole before while being so clueless as to what I was about to do, let alone during what was about to be one of the most important races of my career.
After leading the race briefly, initially I thought I wouldn’t have the pace to hold out and win, but fortunately I managed to get into a decent rhythm during the race and pull out a comfortable margin. Once I knew I had done enough to win, I eliminated all risk and just made sure I brought the car home. The ART car was undoubtedly one of the best set up cars on the grid, if not the best, so must say it was a huge effort from the team.
I was still a little disappointed that we had the mess up in qualifying and I didn’t have the strong Saturday I would have liked. The reverse grid races always have a slightly odd feel about them, but nevertheless it was still one of the best wins of my career and one I will never forget.
I always go into a race weekend aiming to win, no matter how out of depth I can sometimes be, but it’s something that has served me well so far. I’ve never been a huge fan of making ‘realistic’ aims and often people can criticise me for being slightly unrealistic at times. I went into that weekend aiming to win off the bat and it felt great to have turned the goal into a reality. I was extremely grateful to have had the chance to drive with such a legendary team, where a lot of my heroes have had previous success. It was also great to drive alongside Valterri Bottas and James Calado.
In November 2011, you had the opportunity to test BMW’s new M3 challenger it had developed for its return to the DTM Championship. How did this opportunity come about, and was a switch to the DTM Championship seriously on the cards for you at the time?
The DTM test came about after my success during the 2010 and 2011 seasons. DTM is something that has always interested me, as it’s sort of like the Formula 1 of touring cars. I had always wanted to try one out, especially as the new M3 looked great. A switch to DTM was definitely on the cards.
At one point it was almost like a 50/50 and we had to decide which path to go down. DTM would be a fabulous career opportunity, but I definitely wasn’t going to let go of the Formula 1 dream so early. With BMW it was hard to see room for F1 in the long term, unlike what Paul di Resta had with Mercedes. Nevertheless, the test was a fantastic experience and the level of professionalism of the BMW Schnitzer team, as well as the whole BMW operation was just superb.
You also tested a Formula Renault 3.5 Series challenger for Gravity-Charouz Racing, finishing quickest overall in the three-day test session and fastest overall on two of those days. That led to what was meant to be a full-time campaign in the series, but your year has been cut short with your accident at Spa-Francorchamps. Can you tell us more about that accident and your recovery so far? It looked like a frightening smash…
During the second race at Spa back in early June, conditions were so bad that visibility was close to zero and apparently a car in front of me had some kind of mechanical failure meaning they had slowed down on the straight heading up to Les Combes. I was just driving into a wall of spray and couldn’t see anything and suddenly hit the back of the car and was propelled airborne. When the car flat landed on its floor the impact caused a compression fracture in my T-5 vertebra. I had a lot of displacement of the vertebra also, which fortunately was not quite enough to require corrective surgery or cause spinal cord damage.
The injury was fairly unstable to begin with, so i spent the first six weeks following the accident hospitalized and in a sports specific rehabilitation clinic while the injury stabilised, I’ve been in a corset the whole time since the accident to keep my spine in a fixed position. I’m currently back in Oxford where I live recovering well, and I’m set to have the corset removed.
Unfortunately it’s unlikely that I will race again in 2012, and will be forced to focus my efforts on coming back for the 2013 season. However not a day goes by that I’m not thankful that the injury wasn’t worse, and certainly take a different outlook on life after having quite a major scare. At the end of the day I think it’s one of those things that I will just come back from as a stronger person in general, and I’m extremely determined to put as much effort as I can to getting myself back to the best condition possible for the start of the 2013 season.
What is the prognosis for your return to the cockpit, and what support has Eric Boullier and his Gravity management team been able to offer you during this time?
At the moment it’s looking like Round 1 of the 2013 championship will be the next time that I race. As far as a return to the cockpit goes for testing I’m not entirely sure yet. Eric and everyone from Gravity and Lotus F1 have been incredibly supportive of me, couldn’t dreamt to have had better support really, so I’m very grateful for that. We will be working very hard together to prepare as much as possible for the 2013 season.
Assuming a full and swift recovery, your tie-in with Boullier and the Lotus brand obviously places you well in terms of a long-term goal to join the team’s Formula 1 program in the future. What is Gravity mapping out for you in terms of your future career prospects, and what goals are you setting yourself to put you in the best possible position to work towards an F1 seat?
Sadly I was due for some F1 mileage this year, but my injury and missing out on nearly the whole FR3.5 season has obviously put an end to that. My goal was to take part in the ‘Young Drivers’ test this year, but I will now reset the timeframe of that goal a further 12 months down the road.
I have been told that I’m part of Lotus’ long-term plans, so for now all I need to do is put my head down, hold up my end and prove to them I’ve got what it takes, and hope that an F1 race seat materializes sometime in the near future.
Your accident no doubt given you too much spare time, but no doubt you’ve had the opportunity to appreciate the quality and action of the 2012 Formula 1 season. How have you enjoyed this year’s racing, and how do you feel the rest of the season will pan out? I have no doubt you hold out hopes that Lotus can claim its long-awaited first win of 2012 soon?
This season of F1 has arguably been one of the best ever, with the way it’s been going it would be hard to place a bet on how the rest of the season will pan out. After seeing how much hard work the 500-odd people put in at Lotus, I’d hope that they can can bag a win, or even fight for the championship with a second half comeback from Kimi Räikkönen as they seem fairly confident of being able to do.
The McLaren looks very well developed lately and has stood out in the last couple of races as being the quickest car, but then again the final phase of the season could very well see the field mixed right back up again.
We extend our enormous thanks to Richie for his time and support in making this interview possible. All images and videos are sourced via Richie Stanaway’s official website, Facebook page and YouTube feed.