Gabriele Tarquini is one of the most decorated drivers on the #WTCR2019SUPERGRID with two FIA World Touring Car titles, countless domestic touring car successes and 38 Formula One grands prix starts to his name.
Ahead of WTCR JVCKENWOOD Race of Japan, the 57-year-old Italian reveals his early memories of racing at Suzuka, his love of the track, the future and how he plans to help his BRC Hyundai N Squadra Corse team-mate Norbert Michelisz win the 2019 WTCR – FIA World Touring Car Cup presented by OSCARO.
When did you become aware of the enormity of Suzuka?
“I know the Suzuka track from Formula One and I always enjoyed it from the first year I raced there in 1988. I love the design, the corners, the ambience, especially in Formula One during the Senna era. The Japanese people loved Senna, especially when he started driving with Honda engines. They had a very special relationship with Ayrton. I remember the crowd was full of people, it was an amazing atmosphere and for this I always had a very good feeling in Suzuka. Then after I discovered Suzuka was as old as me, it was built in 1962, probably the feeling I get when I go there is also for this.”
Given it was the pre-internet era, what did you know about the track before your visit?
“I watched the Japanese Grand Prix [from 1987] but there was no internet, there was no simulator and not much video apart from the recording of the previous grand prix. When I was there for the first time the circuit was very difficult to understand and it took me a lot of time to learn the track, to learn the lines. It’s a difficult track.”
Why is it so difficult?
“It’s a very narrow track with old-style kerbs and real gravel traps around so there is no space for a mistake. If you have a mistake you can pay quite hard. It’s not like the new tracks where the run-off is always on asphalt. It’s very easy to make mistakes, to lock-up, to be wide in some corners.”
Your early Suzuka experiences perhaps weren’t the best…
“The first two times I did not pre-qualify, the third time I did not qualify. But in 1991 I did qualify [and I finished the Japanese Grand Prix in 11th].”
Where does Suzuka rank among your list of favourite tracks?
“For me, there are three tracks – Suzuka, Mugello and Spa. These three have a very good layout and you really enjoy when you are in the car driving. I feel something special on these three tracks.”
How significant was your victory at Suzuka last year?
“Last year was one of my best races ever because I scored a lot of points and it was the key of my championship win, because the fight with Yvan [Muller] was very close at that time.”
Can you win the WTCR / OSCARO title for a second time?
“The championship is clearly out for me. Not in terms of points because in this championship you never know, you can recover, but in terms of position there are a lot of drivers in front of me. I am far away and I am ready to help Norbi [Michelisz] in any circumstance. Last year, I was always leading the championship in front of Norbi but the distance was very small, except in Race 2 and Race 3 in Macau when it was clear Norbi was out of the championship. But he made a fantastic job, he helped me a lot and I am ready to give back what he did last year.”
How will you help him?
“He is experienced so he doesn’t need my help on the way to approach the championship fight, but on the track if I am in front of him or behind him in the position to help him, I will do with a smile in my face. He deserves the title for sure.”
In your opinion why does he deserve the title?
“He was very unlucky sometimes but he deserves it from 2017 when he make a very good season. He was disqualified for the technical problem in Ningbo and the problem with the brakes in Qatar probably cost him the championship, so he deserves it for sure.”
What’s it like to win a world title?
“It’s a good feeling, especially the first time. If you never win a championship you need to win because of the psychological point of view. I was fighting very hard in the past but I’d never won a world title until 2009. When finally I got it, you feel stronger, you have this title behind you and you are well supported for the fights you will have later on. Even though I was quite old when I won the world championship in racing – I got the world title in karting when I was very young – but the first title in touring car in 2009 give me an extra power to fight again and be stronger in the next fight. I felt much better and I think it will happen to Norbi.”
If you can’t win the WTCR / OSCARO title this year, can you win it next year?
“This is too early to say. We have a lot of things around my job. Now I am very involved and very pleased to work with a brand like Hyundai. They are very passionate, very good in motorsport. They don’t have a long history in motorsport like other brands but they want to recover this time. They make a lot of effort, they are a fan of motorsport and we feel the real support from the brand, from the manufacturer and this is very good. I feel very good with them and I am sure we will sit at the table at the end of this season and discuss about the future.”
Hyundai has launched the Velostar N ETCR. A proud moment?
“I was very proud to do this [launch] video because they can use me in marketing and promotion because they recognise my face with the Hyundai brand and I feel very proud. It’s a new era, many things can change but I am positive on ETCR. It’s the best way to go. Even if I am very old and I come from a different era, I am not stupid. I am involved in motorsport for a long time and I must adapt my style, my mentality. I started without data, without computer but the world has changed and the racing has totally changed. And I am still there, still winning. I won the last championship. It means I adapted my driving style and my mentality to the modern technology. ETCR is a new tool, a new step forward and I am curious. I don’t know if I will be involved in the development or not but just for my own curiosity I want to test once the car because this is a white paper. If you have clever and smart ideas you can have a big advantage at the beginning.”
So you wouldn’t rule out racing in ETCR in the future?
“Why not? I am open. I want to test the car, to feel the car, to be able to drive the car. My last experience of rear-wheel drive was in Formula One in 1995! I am open, open to test, sit at the table with the Hyundai people and to plan my future with them in the best way possible.”