Was Formula One your childhood dream?
As a child, I was involved in all sorts of sports. Football, skiing … whatever was on offer in the Vorarlberg, I did it. As far as motor sport was concerned, I was about eight years old when things really clicked. In 1991 I met my great role model Ayrton Senna. My father and I had slipped into the paddock through a hole in the fence. We were hardly inside before I ran straight into Senna. I was wearing a Harley Davidson T-shirt and a Salzburgring baseball cap. Ayrton spontaneously came over and asked my father to take a photo of the two of us. He was very patient and seemed to know that was what we wanted, even though we would never have dared to ask. That was a moment that pointed me in a whole new direction. From then on I was a committed motor sport fan and soon took up karting. I’ve still got the photo of Ayrton Senna and me up on the wall at home, taking pride of place.
How did you get from there into Formula One?
We were completely clueless to begin with – not like your typical motor sport family. In any case, originally we saw it more as a pastime than anything else. The whole family came along to kart races in the caravan, and we ended up travelling all over central Europe. My mother cooked, my sister played with other girls and my father in those days acted as mechanic and team owner in one. Everywhere there were the professionals, with their motorhomes and hugely expensive equipment. And then there was us – the tinkerers. To me it was all pretty much of a game, though when I kept on picking up trophies, it became clear not everybody saw it that way. From that time on one thing was clear: now I had found something I actually seemed to be good at – and that was also loads of fun. Robert Kubica and his family were in the same boat as us, incidentally – tinkerers that other folk tended to make fun of.
Can anyone be a Formula One driver nowadays, provided they get the right training?
There are two things every driver needs: talent and the right support at the right time. If there’s no talent there, then all the support in the world will be pointless. On the other hand, there have been many drivers in the past who had the talent but got the wrong support, or no support at all – and so they never made it anywhere near Formula One. I spent a number of years in the Red Bull driver development program, where the pressure was enormous. In the end I was the first driver this program launched into Formula One. I will always be grateful to Red Bull for that. Even though we later went our separate ways, I still have an excellent relationship with the key people at Red Bull. Now I have a new home though, with the BMW Sauber F1 team. I feel fully integrated here and it’s good to be able to contribute my experience.
What’s your relationship with your team colleagues?
As I said, I’ve known Robert since our karting days. We competed against each other many times, and that carried on later into Formula Renault and Formula 3. He was always very fast. We have a lot of respect for each other – though in my spare time I’m no poker ace like him, but tend to go in for proper sport, like skiing in the Arlberg. Nick of course has been in the game a lot longer. He was already testing for Formula One when Robert and I were still karting. But we work together very professionally and he has huge experience.
Has Formula One changed your life?
I always try to keep both feet on the ground. People from the Vorarlberg have a reputation for being very down-to-earth and industrious, so “fame" was never a problem for me. When I started out in Formula One, it was a bit of a shock to begin with to have total strangers recognize you and come up to you in the street. Plus it came just a few weeks after giving up my job as a sheet metal worker, so it was all pretty sudden. The main change was in my lifestyle: one moment I was going to work by moped, then the next, and ever since, I was spending hundreds of hours travelling to work – here, there and everywhere – by air. The important thing is to stay the same person. I hope I’ve been able to do that.
Do you ever feel afraid?
Not in the cockpit, not really. Otherwise I couldn’t do this job. I just sometimes have an uneasy feeling if there’s something I find I’m not in control of. As a child, I was really afraid of roller coasters. You still won’t get me on one even today. Being a helpless passenger on something like that – no thanks!
What was the maddest thing you’ve ever done?
Actually it was something on exactly those lines. In Budapest, Hannes Arch talked me into going up with him as a passenger in his two-seater stunt plane. That was pretty extreme. As a racing driver you’re used to g-forces, but looping the loop head down a few meters above the Danube was a whole different ballgame. The main thing was I held on to my breakfast. That’s something Formula One drivers don’t always manage to do.