RJ: I believe it was a visit with your Dad to a karting event that sparked your interest in the sport. What was it about karting that got you hooked?
MC: Yep, we went to Hoddesdon’s go-kart track (Rye House Kart Raceway) because it was something my dad did when he was younger. I thought “Let’s give it a go; I’ll give it a try.” I wasn’t massively into sports ? I mainly liked to ride my BMX bike and watched TV! The instructor said take it easy on the first day, but to be honest, I was pretty shit-scared to race a go-kart for the first time! But then afterwards, I wanted to go back. I went back three weeks later and really got into it. Once you figure out how to drive and once you feel more comfortable with the kart then you start to become more competitive. Then when you get to be more competitive, which I was, I became a front-runner; it then pretty much takes over your life. Every weekend ? even during the week ? you get into a go-kart and want to keep racing.
RJ: You drove for Martin Donnelly for a while in Formula Ford. How useful was it to have a former Grand Prix driver as a team manager and what did you learn from him?
MC: I learnt a lot from Martin. I learnt a lot of the basic things about driving a racing car. It was such a difference from karts ? the first day I drove a Formula Ford car, I didn’t like it at all! To be honest, you go from a go-kart with super-sticky tyres, staying close to the ground with close racing and then this car? the steering was so heavy and I felt “Oh my God, what I have done!” It felt so alien to me initially. But Martin was there for me, it was so easy for me to have him there, like a mentor, someone to talk to, go through a whole range of things, including setup changes, racing lines and so on. Any circuit we went out to, Martin would go out and show me the driving lines. It was crucial to have someone like that with you, as otherwise you’re just out there learning for yourself and it takes longer to take things in, so yes, he was really helpful.
RJ: Yeah, because it’s not a sport that you can take the time to learn things really, or not at that level. It’s very much an “instant” result business isn’t it?
MC: Yeah definitely. It was good back then because you got a lot of testing and you had time to enjoy it. You had days that you could test on your own, and with Martin at Snetterton. I remember ? I think ? it was the first test I ever drove, it was the Ford Junior Series at that time, I think. Now I needed to learn the circuit, but Martin had signed on because I didn’t have the right licence or something like that. He said “You’ve got to go out there and pretend you’re me, wear my helmet and suit!” I went “alright” but as you know, Martin’s got a limp, so whenever I wasn’t in the car, I had to move my right leg around like him!
RJ: Did you have to remember which leg it was?
MC: Yeah, I think once I limped on the left leg! All good memories. I didn’t really get a load of results in Formula Ford but it was useful for me because when I drove in Formula Renault which had more aerodynamics and more grip, it just felt more of a natural move than it was from karting to Formula Ford.
RJ: During your time in Formula Renault and Formula 3, you raced against and beat Paul di Resta, Lewis Hamilton, Bruno Senna and Charlie Kimball, amongst others. Who, for you, was your toughest opponent and was there a driver who you felt would make it to the very top that never did?
MC: In those years, it was my first year in Formula Renault and Lewis’ second year. He really did start to dominate and even though I did beat him in a few races, he really just found his feet. We were all learning and making mistakes and he was off. I knew Lewis though anyway, through go-karts and Nico (Rosberg) too, racing in Europe. Bloody tough. There were a few back in karting who you thought that if they got the chance to be in a car they’re going to be sensational ? Davide For?, (Danilo) Rossi ? they were like Gods and you thought if they get a racing car, they’re definitely going to go all the way but just didn’t get the chance to. Paul di Resta was a bloody tough competitor, Oliver Jarvis too. But these guys are still around and it’s nice ? it doesn’t seem to matter which paddock you go to, you end up racing against these guys again which is a nice thing about racing. Senna was a tough team-mate. You always want to beat your team mate and so I really had to push to keep on top of him. At the start of the year, he really had good form and we really had to step things up and overtake him. But he was really good for me that he was really quick, you need someone like that to keep you on your toes all the time.
Danny Watts ? didn’t manage to race Danny much but when I did, he was bloody quick. He’s also still around. I think quite a lot of people thought Danny could’ve gone a lot further and of course there was the European boys that you’d come up against at Macau and Zandvoort. All of them guys ? (Sebastien) Buemi, (Romain) Grosjean, (Giedo) van der Garde ? they’re still up there at the top, they’re still around and that says something I think.
RJ: The decline of British F3 in recent years has been sad for everyone to see. Do you see the series ever getting back to the same level as it was when you raced in it, and what do you think needs to happen to reverse the decline?
MC: I hope so. I mean even Formula 3 ? or rather the F3 Euroseries ? only had 12 cars on the grid at one point and everyone was saying “Formula 3 is dead”. But it only took one year where you have someone like (Max) Verstappen win and go straight to Formula 1 and then everyone else is like “Ah, this is the way to go!”, and now the grids are up again. You know, it’s pretty tough when you’ve got all these new series coming out all the time, and you kind of lose track. It’s really hard as a driver to know which way to go. Driving to tell someone which way to go now, it’s very hard. You’d have to look at all the new series now like GP3, it’s very hard to know and understand which level is the best compared to another. I mean, Oliver Rowland, was really good in Formula Renault 3.5 (he won the title in 2015) and he’s moved to GP2 and been competitive straight away, he looks like one of the next Brits to make it to the top. Jolyon Palmer too? but you know it takes quite a few years now to make it in GP2. But if you see a kid come along in the first year and win it, you’ve got to think to yourself that they’re really something special. It used to be cool because you’d win a championship and step up to the next level automatically, but nowadays you’ve got guys who’ve got to wait two to three years before making it.
RJ: Just focusing on GP2 for a minute ? one of your highlights was winning at Monaco? Do you need to approach this race in a different way to the other events?
MC: A little bit. I mean, I always use to click a bit when it came to street tracks for whatever reason. Don’t know why because I always preferred it when I could move the car round a little bit more but it was super sticky tyres for GP2 in Monaco. I mean we were strong that year, the tyres were good. Monaco, yeah, you’re so close to the wall, driving there feels like you’re on a knife-edge and it’s incredible when you go round without hitting anything. In the first race (RJ Note: GP2 events were/are split into two races, where the result of the first race decides the grid for the second ? for example, if you win the first race, you then start further down the grid ? in an effort to encourage more exciting, closer racing), we were in the top 3, and on the last lap, I was wiped out by a backmarker (Javier Villa) and I ended up finishing eighth, which then got you pole for the next race, which we dominated. It was bad luck in one way, but it worked out well. It’s unique to any other track though, there’s so little room for error, and you’ve got to be so precise every single time.
RJ: How hard was it when you suffered your grievous injuries to motivate yourself back into a racing return? Did you ever think at some stage of stopping racing?
MC: Well, it actually proved to be a motivating tool. When I had all the (plaster) casts on, the first question I asked was “When can I go racing again?” A driver just wants to get back into racing and race. I did what I could to get back as quickly as I could, but also to come back stronger and faster, and the third race I came back, I won! It just felt like coming straight back into racing as if I hadn’t been away. However, when I got to Indianapolis (scene of his 2010 crash), I didn’t feel 100% comfortable. I never quite felt comfortable with the car, it never really felt right. The rest of the year went okay though and then in 2012, we got to half-way through the season and I got to Indy again. I felt okay, but not great, and then I raced at Texas. Same thing. Then I got to Iowa and the car felt so difficult to drive, it was just doing my head in and so I told Foyt that was it ? I didn’t want to do ovals any more. If you’re not 100% comfortable in the car, then you shouldn’t be in the car full stop. You’re better off out of the car and then everyone else on track will be safer. Tough decision, but it was the best decision I ever made. At the time, I felt like I’m giving a drive and everything else away but it had to be done. Ever since then, I actually won more races and I got other opportunities from that.
RJ: You’ve driven for Michael Andretti, AJ Foyt, Bobby Rahal, Dale Coyne in the IRL ? and a few others, all former racing drivers. ?Was that a deliberate thing you looked for? What was each one like to work with?
MC: Well, by the end, it was kind of the way it worked out! I mean the first two years I raced for Dreyer and Reinbold and then the third year; I had the bad accident, missed the whole year and then came back with Andretti. It was great working with Michael and Mario (Andretti) was also around and they were great markers to learn from. You learn a lot of knowledge from them. AJ Foyt.. what a great character, there’s so many stories about him. I didn’t really know all that much about him initially ? obviously he’s a legend of Indycar ? but when you looked into his results, he’s pretty much won everything, in any type of car as well. There’s a picture of him at Milwaukee in a dirt car, on pole, having beaten everyone else in normal ? pavement ? cars, I guess (RJ Note: Mike is referring to the 1965 Milwaukee 200, where Foyt’s car wasn’t ready so he got the dirt car he raced the previous day, cleaned it, put appropriate tyres on and with no practice, took pole position. It was one of Foyt’s finest moments and added to his legendary status) and so you appreciate what a legend he was.
After I made the decision to quit ovals after my crash, it made finding drives very difficult indeed. Who is going to give a chance to someone who won’t race the whole season? Well, in the end, that someone was Bobby Rahal initially and then Dale Coyne. Without them having a bit of faith, it would’ve been very hard to win races again. Great working with people who were such legends ? Bobby is a great guy.
RJ: Finally, the World Endurance Championship is really attracting quality drivers currently ? I mean you see drivers making an active career move there now from GP2 rather than being forced to. What’s the attraction for you?
MC: Well, initially, I was in the phase where I wasn’t sure if I was going to get any more Indycar drives and I really had to think about what was going to be a good option for going forward in the future. Sportscars.. well I’d never driven in them before, but once I started driving, they felt like great cars. Once you get into the racing, its non-stop action, it’s cool. When you’re there, you see what’s around you ? you’ve got the big manufacturers who you want to impress and fortunately, I was able to do that, but I think for any driver coming in, they will see it as a really good platform. I’ve been able to develop my skills a lot more, your race craft, it just keeps you on your toes all the time. When you pass the cars, it’s always non-stop action and it just felt so good for me to race like that, give it everything you’ve got, just flat-out as much as possible and then see how the races pan out. Even if it doesn’t work out, you get out of the car having given it everything and that’s a good feeling. Also, working with your team-mates and the team overall, it’s just so much more of a team environment.. it’s great, I really enjoy it.
We’re in the third year of it now and the time has just flown by because I’ve been enjoying it so much. The latest technology, good competitors and good manufacturers, it’s really cool. The Le Mans 24 Hours as well, was something I always wanted to do but never really knew all that much about it, but the first ever lap I drove round there ? it was amazing ? just being there at the start on the grid was amazing ? qualifying at night ? it’s just great fun and you get hooked. I’d like to stay in there for some while. It’s so variable too ? we went from being so dominant last year to about 5th or 6th every weekend and that just shows you the rate of development and competition and the level of drivers, it’s incredible. It’s great to race against the likes of people I used to watch on TV ? Alex Wurz, Anthony Davidson and you learn so much from those guys as well, so it’s really good for the young kids to pick it all up.
RJ: I take it you are planning to stay it at least another year?
MC: Yeah, definitely, well I’d like to. We’re just trying to put a package together and we should know in the next month or so how it all pans out, but hopefully, yes.Interview conducted on the 12th September 2015 at the Goodwood Revival Driver’s Club. Many thanks to Mike and to Mark Blundell, his manager, for agreeing and arranging? for the interview and thanks also to Jamie O’Leary at Goodwood for arranging.