McLaren & Me: Pedro de la Rosa Part I
Pedro de la Rosa may only have started nine races for McLaren, but he was part of the team for an incredible nine seasons. And as the popular Spaniard recounts here, in the first of a series featuring the team's past drivers, his spell with the team was a life-changing experience.
It was a very exciting part of my career when I joined McLaren. Who hadn't been a fan of the Prost/Senna era? So it was incredible to be part of the team, and also for so long. My first year as a test driver and simulator driver was 2003. I went for one year to race for Sauber in 2010, I came back in 2011, and then I went to race for HRT in 2012, and that was that. It was amazing to be involved for so many years, and with such a great team.
It all started because I was fired from Jaguar by Niki Lauda! That happened in late November 2002, and there were no race drives available at that time. I thought if I'm not going to race in F1, I'd like to become a test driver, but only in a top team. Coming out of Jaguar it wouldn't make sense to be the test driver of another midfield team. This was when the test drivers were flat out, doing two days every week. So it was an interesting role.
I think I played it quite cleverly. Ferrari and McLaren were my two targets, the two top teams, and then I realised that Ferrari already had Luca Badoer and Felipe Massa, and McLaren only had Alex Wurz. So I phoned McLaren and just offered my services to Martin Whitmarsh.
He said, 'Why are you calling us?' I said, 'Mainly because first you are a top team, and also because you only have one test driver, and with the requirements of testing with the current regulations, I think you will need a second one. As Ferrari does...'
I think this was a key – I believed that it was a weak link of McLaren, that they needed someone else. He said, 'OK, we'll see, we'll think about it.' And I remember him saying, 'Whenever you are in the UK, just give me a call, and come and visit us.'
Four days later I was in the UK! I went to Heathrow and directly to Woking – this was still the days of Unit 22, the old factory. I was only going to the UK to meet McLaren, because that was my target. I was very committed to getting that test drive, because it was very interesting for me to become a McLaren test driver, and actually there was a need for them to strengthen that position.
I had a meeting with Martin and Dave Ryan. I knew I was going to be asked technical questions in that meeting, so I went there quite well prepared. I remember sitting down and the first question Martin asked me was, 'What is your philosophy of modern F1?'
Man, I was preparing for this interview, and the last question I could imagine he’d ask me was that one! I thought it was a terrible meeting, a disaster. I couldn't answer that question, and Dave Ryan was falling asleep during the interview! What a terrible experience. I came back home and my wife asked me, 'How did it go?', I said, 'Forget it, they will never take me...'
A month went by, and they didn't call me. I kept ringing Dave Ryan, and asking if there was any interest. It didn't look like there was. And then one day he said, 'Come and do a seat fitting and we will test you in Jerez. And then we will make a decision.'
I had been karting all the winter and my ribs were really sore. I was a bit afraid that I would go to Jerez with a broken rib or something, and not deliver. So I was a bit afraid about not being fit enough. But it went very well, and that test was fantastic. And I got the job.
It was the year of the MP4-17D, and Kimi lost the championship by a few points, mainly because he had a massive engine blow-up in Germany when he was leading. The plan was to introduce the 18 after a few races, but it was very unreliable and had many issues, and it never made it.
However, it was a big opportunity for me to learn. Alex was the third driver, but he didn't want to jump into the 18. He had a massive shunt at the first test in Jerez, going flat out in Turn 4 – we still don't know what happened. So in fact that was an opportunity for me, because I said I'll test it. It also helped me to get the respect of the whole engineering team at McLaren.
Meanwhile Alex had a simulator sickness, and that also helped me a lot, because he couldn't do the correlation work, and I could. It was early days for simulators, and it was easy to get sick. I wanted that role and I knew if I got sick like Alex, they wouldn't take me! The last thing McLaren needed was two drivers who had simulator sickness...
The first time I drove a few laps in it I felt terribly bad, but nobody knew. I just held my breath! The second time I jumped in, it was gone. I just worked on it, because it's very easy to have an initial bad reaction, and then not jump in any more.
I treated every test day like a Grand Prix weekend, because I knew that it was important to be fast any time I sat in the car. And then there was all the simulator work that I had to do. So I pushed very hard to gain the respect from the team, and to gain track time. For me the most incredible thing about my time at McLaren was there wasn't a day where I didn't learn something.
The brainpower of the whole engineering team was, and I believe still is, amazing. Coming from Jaguar Racing, where we had limited resources, jumping into McLaren with the simulator, so much information coming from all the sensors we had, with all the experiments the engineers were doing on the test days, it was fantastic. I was learning, learning, learning every day, in the simulator, or at the track. And that's why I believe my years at McLaren were the best of my career.