How is testing going this month ahead of the WEC Championships?
It’s going really good. The conditions here are great. To get a good track at this time of year is difficult but this [Yas Marina Circuit] is a good track for us in terms of stable conditions and nearby hotels for mechanics after a long day so the guys can rest.
You hear the car running a lot, it’s got good mileage and that’s important for us. Every lap you do you learn a bit more and it just keeps adding up. So, so far so good! I’ve done a lot of driving.
Did you work on the setup here in Abu Dhabi?
Yeah, a little bit. We played with a few things. It’s really a week for Michelin because they have a large allocation of tyres to test and to produce for the start of the season. You cannot ring Michelin up two weeks before Silverstone and say there are some tyres we want, because there are 50 or 60 sets of tires so for them it is difficult.
Is the car more driveable in comparison to last year?
We made great progress with the car last year. The one-two at Le Mans was a great result and a bit of a surprise but a beautiful one for the programme and the whole team. Then after that we really made the proper steps in terms of beating Audi on the short tracks – that was a big validation for us. Now, we no longer have the big gains that we would have found last year. We are still learning but we really have to get into the details. Last year we found five seconds a lap but now it is difficult to find this amount of time because the car is really quite good!
In terms of lap time are you slower than last year?
Yes, because we have the new regulation with a bit less power, fuel flow and less fuel. Last time we were here [in Abu Dhabi] we had a high downforce so tomorrow we will try a similar setup, but the first four days haven’t been a fair comparison because we’ve been working on Le Mans guidelines. Also from our engineers’ side we think that numbers are pretty accurate from the FIA. Porsche say that what the FIA are proposing looks pretty close to the results we are getting, in terms of the lap time loss for Le Mans.
Is it more difficult from the technical side or is it a different job compared to Formula One?
When you look at 20 years from when I started in 1997, a lot has changed. It still needs a driver to push the car to the limit but for sure it is more technical and probably a little bit less involved for the driver now. I know some young drivers coming through now that don’t know how to heel and toe because they don’t need to, but that’s just how these things work.
Is it tough for the team to find a compromise on the car?
I think that was one of the reasons we made a very good step on car 17 at the end of last year. After Le Mans, we managed to get the three of us as close together as we have ever been, and I think it showed in the races that we were very strong. You have to make it that the car doesn’t know who is driving. That’s how to manage, to get all of us on the same page and we did that at the end of last year.
It will be another tough season for you in terms of the championship, with the new Audi and new Toyota.
We will have a look at the Prologue [at Circuit Paul Ricard in France for the official pre-season test] and see what happens there, but even then you don’t get the bigger picture. Silverstone is so different to Le Mans. We have the sprint races and of course now we have Mexico joining as well, but generally Le Mans is on its own in terms of car performance, car reliability and operationally for the team. It’s not just the 24 hour race, you have to get everything ready for the car. So both, Audi and Toyota, have to be strong. We are very respectful of them. Toyota were the champions the year before in 2014 and they did it easily.
Looking back over the length of your career, do you see some points of unfinished business?
When you look back you can always say you could have done things better, no question about it, but at the time you did your best. As a professional you do a lot of learning on the way and the treadmill doesn’t stop. At the time you think instinctively and you do what you think is right. It’s the same for anyone.
Is there anything specific you would have done differently?
I would have liked to have done more go-karting in Europe but my parents couldn’t afford that, and I started late. I think I would have performed better over my career, if I had two seasons of European karting, but it wasn’t an option for me. My dad did everything perfectly, he couldn’t have done anything more for me but it was very difficult for us to make any impact so he really timed it as best he could. I had to come directly into car racing in Europe at the age of 18 or 19 and that’s just the way it was. There are definitely a few things that could have changed but that’s probably the most powerful one.
What is it like for drivers coming from F1 to get into Endurance Racing?
It’s not easy to get in. Seats are limited and the system is such that they are taking guys on talent, rather than paid drivers. You are really looking at that next wave of drivers. But the opportunities are pretty limited. I would like to believe that F1 has bottomed out and you’ll see a lot more talent coming back on and I think that is good for the sport, and for that reason you will see less drivers trying to leave F1.