Coming to America?  Interview with Ralph Firman Jr.

 by Mark Cipolloni
February 20, 2004

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Both Dutchman Jos Verstappen and Ex-Jordan British Formula One driver Ralph Firman Jr. are eyeing a possible ride in the 2004 Champ Car World Series or Indy Racing League.  Recently AutoRacing1.com caught up with Ralph Firman to talk about his experience in F1 and give us some insight on what he hopes will be a chance to prove that he can be competitive in America with the right team and equipment.

Ralph Firman Jr.

Mark Cipolloni:  Ralph, thank you for taking the time to be with us today.  Your father, Ralph Sr., has been involved in racing for quite some time. When did you know you wanted to be a race car driver? Would you have been one if not for him?
Ralph Firman Jr.: I grew up with racing all around me and by the time I was 10 years old my father, Ralph Sr., had bought me a kart and I started racing competitively soon after. It was inevitable, I suppose, though I soon realized that you had to put enormous effort into it and success doesn’t come easily. Due to the fact that my father founded and ran Van Diemen we were always meeting drivers and team owners, so I really got to know who was doing what and how important it was to be in the right car, right team and to work really hard at it.

Cipolloni: Having won quite a number of championships and key races on your way up you have a pretty impressive racing resume. Do you feel you are in your prime right now?
Firman: I know that I can win races and championships because every time I have had the opportunity I have delivered. After winning the Junior and Senior British Karting championships I progressed into cars by winning the Formula Vauxhall Junior championship and then the McLaren Autosport ‘Young Driver of the Year’ Award which landed me a Formula One test with McLaren. That was all a bit sudden! Then in Formula 3, I almost won the British Championship at my first attempt, but ended up 2nd, and then came back and won both it and the Macau F3 race the following year – but the key thing in all of this was combining my ability with the right team and right car. When I raced in Japan at first I had a very uncompetitive car underneath me, so once that changed I was able to win again. The frustrating thing about racing in Formula One last season was that the car was hopeless, so naturally the results looked awful. So I don’t feel I am anything other than in my prime and ready to win again – the only thing that has changed is that I am not prepared to race for the sake of it, winning is the thing that excites me most!

Cipolloni: As a F1 rookie your lap times in qualifying at Jordan last year were relatively close to your teammate Giancarlo Fisichella considering your teammate was much more experienced. In fact you outqualified him twice and he is very highly regarded.  How frustrating is it for you to not be able to follow up in F1 this year now that you know the tracks and the car?
Firman: It’s kind of you to say my performance was impressive, but I’m not sure people in F1 feel that. The problem is, no one seems to have bothered to look beyond the results on paper or the comments of a few who should know better, yet Jordan has admitted the car was its worst ever design, uncompetitive, unreliable and frankly at times unsafe – the suspension collapsed in Brazil and the rear wing fell off in Hungary and put me in hospital! It was one of those ‘character building’ years when you look back and wonder why we bothered because I was never going to show well in that situation. Naturally I am angry to have been in and out of Formula One so quickly, but in some ways it has given me even greater motivation to win again soon, and I really hope that happens in Champ Car because it is the most relevant series to Formula One. I really wanted to work with Jordan over two or three years and I like the team immensely – Eddie Jordan is a fascinating person and determined to get back on top. I completely understand his need to sign drivers with financial backing, so there was little I could do. I believe I would have been quicker this year due to knowing the circuits, understanding the tires, the qualifying system better – everything – but such is life!

Cipolloni: Was F1 a very high-pressure situation for you?
Firman: No, I have been a professional racing driver for a long time so although F1 was a special, new experience I didn’t feel enormous pressure. Everyone knew the car’s limitations and I wanted to concentrate on learning the category and avoiding making silly mistakes, but in hindsight perhaps I should have thrown caution to the wind a bit more often!

Cipolloni: If I recall correctly, you suffered a concussion last year that put you out at the end of the season. Are you 100% now?
Firman: Completely fine. My crash in Budapest practice on Saturday morning was a 46G lateral impact. I suffered a mild concussion but the main problem was an inner ear problem which caused a slight imbalance so I missed two races. I returned in Indy for the US GP and was fine, and my best qualifying came at the next race in Suzuka when I out-qualified Fisichella.

Cipolloni: Now that F1 looks impossible for next year, we have heard you say you are looking at a possible drive in the Champ Car World Series or the Indy Racing League. Do you have any oval track experience, and does the high risk of injury in the IRL worry you?
Firman: I did my rookie test a couple of years ago in Las Vegas and at Texas Motor Speedway, and I enjoyed it. I like oval racing as much as circuit racing, but the risk factor is something different on ovals, for sure. It does not worry me because whether you are doing 220mph in an F1 car in Monza or in an IRL car on a superspeedway the issues are the same. It’s important that the preparation by the team is there to support you. I very much want to race in America, and although my first choice would be ChampCar – mainly because I have traditionally been a road racer – IRL is fascinating and the Indy 500 is just an amazing event.

Cipolloni: Given your extensive road racing background, it would seem to me that Champ Cars are a better fit for you than the IRL. Would you agree?
Firman: As I said Champ Car is a more logical step for me and in light of recent events I’d love to race in the reconstituted series on some of the venues that I have watched before – I’d love to be racing in Long Beach.

Cipolloni: It is getting pretty late in the game to land a Champ Car ride. Have you been in contact with any teams yet? If so, can you say which teams you are talking to? If you can't say which ones, at least tell us how many have shown an interest?
Firman: I have either spoken to, or had calls from, 8 Champ Car teams in the past 10 days. It is late, but everyone is very keen to put together 2 car teams, sometimes 3 car teams, if at all possible and the only thing that is missing is sponsorship. I am working on it, so are the teams and I am really impressed with everyone’s attitude. Champ Car has a lot of support. What I really want to do is to carefully, step by step, work towards a drive. I am very keen to get over there and test as soon as I can. I have strong relationships with Lola and, of course, with Ford as I was an official Ford driver in Formula One. I think what Ford has done in relation to supporting Champ Car is impressive and I’d like to continue my relationship with the Blue Oval. I’d rather not name the teams that have contacted me, but it’s all the main ones and I know what we have to aim for.

Cipolloni: We assume you will want to get some pre-season testing in. Have you set a deadline for a decision as to where you will race in 2004?
Firman: No, I am not in any position to set deadlines – I have to see what is possible, what things change and which opportunities develop. It may even be that I have to wait until after the season has started and that I have a mixed year of racing in America and elsewhere, though I hope not. What is important is that I go in a definite direction and America is my choice to focus on.

Cipolloni: Are USA teams looking for a lot of money to race with them and do you have any backing?
Firman: I have had requests to bring sponsorship of between US$1 Million and $6 Million – but that’s normal these days. Teams do not exactly have sponsors falling all over them these days. It is difficult for a British driver to convince sponsors in Europe to back him in a series in America, and also difficult for me – an unknown driver in America – to find American backing. But it’s no reason to give up and I know that whoever gives me the opportunity or support won’t be disappointed. I have won every championship I have tackled except Formula One, where I had no chance whatsoever, so Champ Car or IRL is next. Teams need to decide if they want a driver who can bring them the results that will ultimately attract the team sponsorship they need. I can do that.

Cipolloni: Since your father works/runs G-Force and has a lot of USA connections, will he help you find a ride over here?
Firman: My father is of course using every connection, but he is very professional and we do not mix his business commitments and obligations with my career. I have a group of people helping me and we are determined to put together a good solution for me as soon as possible.

Cipolloni: Do you plan on coming to the big pre-season Champ Car media event on March 8 & 9 in Long Beach, California since that is usually a good place to network?
Firman: I would like to come along, but I don’t want to turn up unless there is some relevance to the Championship or the teams competing in it. The networking opportunity is there, but to be honest we can speak to teams at any time and I don’t want to make a lot of PR ‘noise’ about coming to America to race and then do nothing. If there are opportunities developing I will come to Long Beach.

Cipolloni: Have you ever been to a Champ Car or IRL race? If so, what were your impressions?
Firman: No but I have watched them a lot on television. Both are highly competitive but very different driving and technical challenges. I don’t think people should compare them so much – they are very different disciplines.

Cipolloni: Have you talked to any drivers who have driven a Champ Car? What did they say about them?
Firman: I have a lot of friends and former teammates or rivals who have raced in Champ Car and I’ve been told it’s very competitive, that the cars are quick, strong and rewarding to drive properly, and that some of the circuits are quite amazing. In Europe there is a very positive view of the American racing scene and I think any top level driver would want to race there.

Cipolloni: IRL and Champ Cars don't use paddle shifters. Will it take time to go back to a gearshift lever and to driving a heavier car?
Firman: That’s not a problem for me, as I have used gearshift levers for most of my career and as for the heavier car point, well I have raced sportscars as well as F Nippons in Japan. I don’t see that as being an issue for me.

Cipolloni: The Champ Car Series is going to be moving toward a 50/50 split of USA and non-USA races, an international series much like F1. Does this interest you or doesn't that really matter?
Firman: I think it is very interesting. It really opens the ‘World Series’ up and gives Champ Car a level of credibility that makes it a worldwide sport rather than an essentially domestic USA one. I also like traveling and racing on new tracks.

Cipolloni: If you landed a ride here, I assume you would live in the USA. Any idea where?
Firman: It’s tempting to just say ‘Florida’ or ‘California’! But honestly I would want to live wherever it best suits the team, probably on their doorstep. It’s crucial to remember what’s important, and what’s important in racing is spending as much time on working with the team, the car, the technology and the sponsors – so I’ll go wherever I need to go.

Cipolloni: Ralph, thanks for taking the time to be with us.  Good luck and hope to see you racing in Champ Cars or the IRL in 2004.
Firman:   You are quite welcome, Mark.  I hope something comes together and I get a chance to meet the great fans of Champ Car or the IRL.

The authors can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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