IN DEPTH – MIKE CONWAY

Motor Racing - FIA World Endurance Championship - WEC- Round 7 - Shanghai, ChinaTOYOTA Racing’s new test and reserve driver shares his thoughts on the challenge ahead, as well as his experiences in some of the world’s most iconic sporting events.

Tell us how you became a TOYOTA Racing test and reserve driver?

“There was one particular qualifying session at Le Mans which I think caught the eye. It was going dark, it was raining and I was only eight seconds off the quickest LMP1 time. I think from that point onwards people were looking very closely at what I was up to, not just on ultimate pace but my consistency too compared to others. We were talking before the end of the season, I met a few of their top guys and then went to the factory to take a look and to meet with Pascal (Vasselon) and it went from there really.”

Is it an ideal situation to have a full-time IndyCar ride and this new position with TOYOTA Racing? 

“It’s pretty unbelievable. At the start of the year, even into January, I was really unsure over what to do, where I would be and where I could see myself. Then Bobby Rahal called and said he had a deal coming together for Long Beach as a one-off, was I interested? I did that deal but knew it was only one race so then I sat down with Mark (Blundell, Mike’s manager) and obviously he raced sportscars and he thought it might be a good route to go down for me, something with potential for a long-term future whilst a future in IndyCar looked very uncertain. The move came from that conversation and I am really happy with the move. I was lucky through the year to pick up some more IndyCar races and have had, really, just a great year.  Great racing, lots of fun and one to look back on and think that there wasn’t much more that I could have done. The TOYOTA Racing deal really was a massive cherry on the cake so I really couldn’t be happier.”

You’ve had the opportunity as an interested bystander to see the LMP1s up close, and you’ve seen them too from the seat of your 2013 LMP2 – what’s your impression of the current breed of factory Prototype racers?

“It isn’t just the power that’s impressive, the way that the guys can take the high speed corners, carrying lots of speed through and the way they can brake so late is very impressive. When they come by you, you wish you were in one – every time!

“During this year I was paying attention as to where the activation points were for the hybrid cars and I could see a fair few times when I was alongside one and the hybrid is activated – normally they go by, quicker but not massively so, but when the hybrid systems kick in they go from being in the mirror to just shooting by so fast. Oh man, very impressive!

“That was my real-world introduction to the power that these systems produce  No matter how many times you hear the numbers it’s the reality of the way they perform that is truly impressive. Mind-boggling stuff really.

“Of course I’m looking forward to seeing how that feels from the drivers’ seat, trying to get the best from that power boost out of the corners should be a real challenge, and it’s one I’m really looking forward to.”

You’ve raced at the highest levels of the sport.  What’s your impression of the performance and capability of the TOYOTA Racing team as a whole when you measure it by the levels you are familiar with?

“I visited the TMG factory at the end of the season and it is hugely impressive. I expected the place to be very good indeed, bearing in mind its F1 heritage, but it exceeded my expectation. There’s no stone unturned there, no facility that it lacks. It’s technology focused on performance and endurance, exactly tailored to the task in hand, pretty much everything they need can be done in house. From design, through mock-up to build, test, development and race, all under one roof; it’s a very cool place. That’s not just about the car as a whole but each individual component too, they have the capability to build, test and simulate them and to have the confidence that when it goes on the car it is fully tested already. Amazing stuff.

“I got the same buzz there as I did when first I went to an F1 factory. As a driver, as a racer, you feel like a kid in a sweet shop! So much potential, so much that you can use to learn and develop yourself too. I asked a lot of questions that day and I’ve been doing a lot more of that since too!  The whole thing is really very exciting.”

What is the role of a test and reserve driver?

“I’ll be doing a lot of simulation work and will be involved in plenty of our test running, including a planned 36-hour test. That will keep me pretty busy but I also have to be available at every race in case I am needed. January, February and March look set to be very busy and I am really looking forward to it.”

You’re one of very few current drivers that have been involved directly in all three of the ‘Big Three’ motorsport events, albeit in GP2 at the Monaco GP, but then in the race at the Indy 500 and at Le Mans of course, can you describe what the atmosphere at those events?

“You watch Monaco on TV and you arrive there, as part of the show, really excited to see what it’s like in reality, with the celebs around, the huge yachts in the harbour and the track that looks so cool. Before all of that though I actually got my first taste of the place when I was in a go kart in 1999 or 2000. I remember really well that Anthony (Davidson) had his engine seize right in front of me going into the Swimming Pool complex, it was as if he’d pulled on a handbrake and I went up and over the back of him. We both ended up in the hay bales. The karts used a circuit that included the pit lane, Swimming Pool complex and the last corner; it was a very cool first taste of Monaco. But the GP2 and F1 week is just so different; it’s rammed with people, the boats all arrive, there are supercars running around all over the place and the atmosphere is really exciting.

“The funny thing is though that you don’t get time to think about it until after the event at races like that. You’re focused on the race, and sitting there on the grid with the armco so close either side that demands your total attention. On the grid you do get that moment to remember where you actually are and what has happened in that place before. When you get to the podium afterwards and it’s all gone quiet, then it really sinks in as to what you’ve just done, and where you’ve just done it.  Really cool.

“Then there is the Indy 500 and Le Mans, both really unique. At Indy there’s just a constant build up you arrive pumped up – this is Indy! but the pace of the event has its own rhythm and every day you arrive, drive through the tunnel to the infield and you can feel it building and you’re just willing the clock to tick quicker. You know what you can do but the time it all takes moves quite slowly.

“Every day the car is getting quicker, you’re going through another set of changes and even though it is a long lead up you have the constant pressure of knowing that this place bites. Even a slight mistake and you’ll put this thing in the wall and the clock will go backwards again. There’s constant tension and you are always pushing hard to improve, it’s a two week long knife edge until you actually qualify and then there’s a huge release, a real relief and you feel yourself relax for the first time since you arrived!

“Then there’s a week’s break until the race but even then it’s non-stop. There are parades, TV interviews, sponsor commitments, lunches, dinners – you really have no real time to yourself until the night before the race.

“On race day you’re up early to get into the circuit because of the crowds. You get a police escort in and then you get your first impression of how big this thing is. The escort takes you by miles and miles of traffic with people waiting to get into the circuit; an amazing sight.

“Even then though it really only sinks in when you get to the circuit. The drivers are gathered together to be presented to the crowd and when you move to get out there it’s then, in that moment, that you realise what that noise is that’s been building all morning. It’s just a sea of people as far as the eye can see; the noise, the roar, the colours, absolutely amazing! That’s the moment when you realise that whatever you expected THIS is the Indy 500!

“Honestly, until the green flag you’re still in awe of the event, on the three warm up laps I was looking around, it is an amazing spectacle, really very, very special. Once the green flag drops though it really is just like any other race, you concentrate on just one thing. I feel very privileged to have done it a few times.

“Le Mans in some ways is similar, you have the whole week of testing, qualifying and ceremonial and it builds. The crowd gets bigger and bigger, the camping grounds fill up and you see some very funny stuff from the fans as the week moves on. And then, when you’re standing on the grid, with the cars, drivers and their teams all lined up, the flags, the anthems, and being introduced to the crowd, again you suddenly have a sense of being somewhere special, but at the same time you want that race to get started.

“The crowd at Le Mans is so passionate, a lot of them there for the whole day, the whole night, and almost the whole of the next day too through all weathers.

“It’s also an event that creeps up on you, you go through your first couple of stints and its going well, then it starts to get dark and you experience another part of Le Mans thinking “I have to almost re-learn the circuit here!’ It is so different at night, all of your reference points are gone and it takes time to build your confidence back up as to what you know about the track whilst at the same time dealing with traffic, GT traffic, LMP1 traffic, and, of course, your own race and your own battles.

“Then as the morning breaks it’s another cool time, not quite eerie but there’s a strange light, a strange atmosphere and a special time to be in the car. Getting into the car in darkness and getting out in the daylight you feel like you have broken through a barrier, that you’ve survived the toughest part and then settle back into a normal daytime routine.”