The Challenger – Robert Doornbos

At the start of the 2007 Champ Car season, Robert Doornbos’s arrival to the series left some fans asking “Who is this guy?” Others who follow Formula One had seen him in the Red Bull car- admittedly not a top caliber program. Thanks to a strong rookie performance, the name Robert Doornbos is no longer unknown but is associated with success in the from of multiple podiums and wins.

Mecca of Speed: What is your first impression of Road America?

Robert Doornbos: Amazing.  We tested here during the first part of the season and the first impression was very good. The circuit reminds me of Spa Francorchamps back in Europe, which I like a lot.

I think Mont-Tremblant and Road America can also be put in the same category, they are both high speed circuits and you need to put everything together to be competitive, not only in car set-up, but the driver has to be full of confidence for the high speed turns. I am enjoying it.

Mecca of Speed: How does the Panoz chassis compare to the cars you have been racing in Europe?

Robert Doornbos: I raced in many categories in Europe: Formula 3, Formula 3000 and then Formula One. The Panoz reminds me a lot of the Formula 3000 Lola. Formula 3000 was the highest single seat-racing car under Formula One and it has a lot of similarities to the Champ Car.

The Champ Car is a heavy car with a good amount of horsepower, which is not a complaint. The Panoz requires a bit more then the finesse of a Formula One car. The tires are slicks so you have to work harder as these cars have no power steering. There are no driver aids on the car, so that is quite a big difference.

It has given me flashbacks to Formula 3000, so I’ve changed my fitness regiment a bit. This car requires more fitness then a Formula One car and in different areas.

It’s a lot of fun to drive with our level playing field of equal engines, chassis and one tire manufacture, which makes it a lot of fun to work hard over the weekend. When you win you know you were the best driver with the same car and engine combination.

In Formula One you are only as good as your material. If you finish 10th in the Red Bull as I did last year it would be considered a good race. I definitely prefer this combination with the ability to win.

Mecca of Speed: You appear to have a real love for this sport and a pure joy in winning that you share with your crew.

Robert Doornbos: You have to look at what it takes to win. I put a lot of effort and made sacrifices when I was racing in junior formulas where nobody knew me, or people didn’t watch you because you are not in the highest series.

I push hard because I started racing at a late age, only six or seven years ago in 2000. I’ve had to play catch-up and always push myself to the limit to learn as much as I could.

When you come in second you think of all the time and sacrifice you have put into your career. Then when you win it’s an explosion of adrenalin and happiness.

In the last race (San Jose) it was not the way you always want to win, coming from the back of the grid. You want to be competitive all weekend, but when you look at all the problems we had at San Jose, to come out with a win was an amazing feeling.

Mecca of Speed: You said you started racing later compared to other European drivers, what was the catalyst that started your racing career?

Robert Doornbos: I would have to say the Formula One race in Belgium, which I was invited to. I had previously been watching the races on TV with my Dad and all the drivers looked like actors. Mansel, Prost, Senna were racing and there was no emotion, even in the junior formulas.

My father got some tickets to go to the Belgium race That was the first time I got to see the cars first hand. We were invited by Williams and got to talk to Jacques Villeneuve who was the world champion back then (1998). He showed me around the car and I asked him how you get started in racing. He said, “I was lucky because my father was a successful racing driver and I skied a lot when I was younger, about 16 or 17 and then I decided to start racing myself.”

After that I thought, I’m 17 right now, maybe I can start racing.  I was playing professional tennis at the time in Holland and didn’t think about going to a racing school until that weekend. On the way back my father and I talked about it, and got started.

The first year I did was really cool because if I finished a lap I would be really quick, otherwise I would be in the wall. The first part of the season was a struggle. I had to learn the limits. The second part of the season we won a couple of races and finished second in the championship. That kept us going.

I owe a lot to my father who stayed with me the first year until the sponsors came. At the time I had two years to finish in a business college, but decided I wanted to do this and it’s turned out really well.

The last couple of years have been really intense, but to be here with the experience I have and to be able to fight for a championship is great.

Mecca of Speed: You have been taking the fight to Bourdais since the start of the season. During the Cleveland race you were penalized for blocking, which is a standard European defensive move. In the San Jose race your team was coaching you to not block. Was that a request you made to the team, a call made by the team, or a little of both?

Robert Doornbos: Honestly, I have to say we have a great race director in Tony Cotman. After the race in Cleveland he came to me and said, “I gave you the penalty because these are the rules and you have to adjust from what you are accustomed to doing in Europe.” I respect that. This is the series I am competing in now, but it is an instinct from racing in Europe.

After the race in Cleveland I spoke to Mike (Cannon) my engineer who is a great guy and said if something happens I’ll be on my toes, but let’s work together because things change in the heat of the moment and instinct tries to take over.

I recall coming out of the restart in San Jose and him saying, “don’t block, don’t block!” so I let the guy go because I knew I could catch him again.

Mecca of Speed: Do you view push to pass as an offensive or defensive tool?

Robert Doornbos: Offensive, I don’t use it to defend. Unless it’s a situation like the last lap, your car is falling apart and you are trying to win, then you may use it to defend, but my initial use is offensive.

Mecca of Speed: Do you find yourself using push to pass in situations like restarts, or do you try and keep some in reserve for the end of the race?

Robert Doornbos: In races where you start at the front, you don’t use it that much, except for situations like restarts where everyone is on the button. For example, the last couple of races have been a bit messy and I use it when my engineer told me we need to push to make up some ground.

I think it’s a great little gadget. It’s 75 seconds this weekend and at a track like this it can make a big difference. It’s great for the fans, it improves overtaking.

I don’t have a plan in advance on when I am going to use it. I use it when I need it.

Mecca of Speed: At San Jose you timed your use of push to pass perfectly. You were running faster lap times then Neel Jani, used your last shot to make the pass and then continued to pull away.

Robert Doornbos: You have to find your clear shot, take it and go. At that moment when we were behind the safety car Mike said, “all the guys around you have 20+ seconds and you have 2, so you better make a good restart and pass him.”

At the restart I passed him and didn’t look in the mirrors. Mike tried to calm me down, reminding me not to burn the tires, but my lap times were still a second quicker. When your confidence is sky high you want to race to the end and get the win with or without push to pass.

Mecca of Speed: Do you think your experience with standing starts gave you an advantage this season compared to the drivers with a rolling start background?

Robert Doornbos: I don’t think so, no. The clutches haven’t been great. It’s a risky standing start, the clutch is like a light switch, and it’s on or off.

I think it was more difficult for me to adjust to a rolling start, then the American based drivers adjusting to a standing start.

Mecca of Speed: What are you looking forward to with the European races besides 12,000 friends asking for tickets?

Robert Doornbos: Ah, all the friends that come out of the woodwork, “We haven’t seen you in a couple of years, do you have any tickets?”

It will be an amazing couple of weeks. Next week I’m driving a car through my hometown of Rotterdam as part of a show. It will be nice seeing friends and family, but I’ll have to stay focused on the job at hand. There are going to be 60 points available and we want to get a good result.

Mecca of Speed: What are your prospects for 2008?

Robert Doornbos: We are working very hard behind the scenes in Formula One. Red Bull is very happy with me at the moment, with the job I’m doing here in North America. Formula One is still an option. My contract with Red Bull runs out at the end of the summer.

If Formula One does not happen (because I would only go back to a competitive car, I won’t go back to run at the back of the grid when I can run at the front here) I definitely won’t be disappointed if my career continues here in the U.S. Formula One is still on my mind though, as I have some unfinished business there and would like to drive a competitive car.

Mecca of Speed: What Formula One team would you have a preference for?

Robert Doornbos: Any car, but right now there are only two cars capable of winning racers. The Williams is a good car, scoring points on a regular basis and making constant improvements, Toyota is also improving.

We are pushing hard behind the scenes, but I am more relaxed now because I’ve been there. It was a dream come true even though I didn’t get a podium, or a bottle of Champaign. It was an amazing and valuable experience, which I use now running with this team. I’m pushing hard and doing well so we’ll see where I land and if I’m back here next year.

Mecca of Speed: What is one think you would like the fans to know about your approach to racing?

Robert Doornbos: There is a phrase I always use – Work hard play hard. Life is all about balance. When you look at all the time and effort it takes to compete at this level, if you get a good result or win a race you should celebrate to balance it out.  It’s then you realize you’re alive; the work is worth it, now look forward to the next one, work hard play hard.

Mecca of Speed: We have asked your teammate this question and now it’s time to compare, if someone grabbed your iPod and looked at your Top Ten list what would they find.

Robert Doornbos: I have a lot of R&B, some Hip Hop and a verity of songs. Club music, I like hose music being from Holland, but not the really hard die-hard stuff. I bit of top 40 mixed in. My girlfriend listens to Lionel Richie, so that’s also on there and a little Barry White for the later hours in the evening.

Mecca of Speed: I would like to thank you for your time, and all the best for the rest of the season.

Robert Doornbos: Thank you.

Content credit Robert Doornbos and John Vatne. Photo credit Scott Rohloff and John Vatne.