The weekend of 29 and 30 August saw WEC land in Germany for the 6 hours of Nürburgring. I had made up my mind to go months earlier. With Aston Martin Racing being my favourite team, the #97 my favourite car and Darren Turner my favourite driver, I decided to add a bit of fun to my already brilliant weekend. So before going I asked the cheeky question: would he have a few moments for a quick Q&A? Remarkably, Darren found time for me in an undoubtedly busy weekend and he very patiently answered all my questions.
AGWLC: On your website there is basically no information from before 1996. What did you do before then?
DT: What did I do before that? I did karting, but just club level karting with my dad. We got an old transit van and it was just father and son, something we did at the weekends. Not every weekend; we went racing maybe 10, 12 times a year. It was very much me running the car; prepping the car. In fact, I enjoyed that as much as the racing. Go away for the weekends, do a bit of racing, coming home and it was never thought there could be a career from driving cars. It was literally a hobby and an ideal chance for me to learn some skills about working on race karts The idea was to work in motor racing and become a mechanic. So it was perfect. It was only later that things started to be a little bit more of ‘actually I could do alright with this, I could have a career’ and hopefully jump from working on them to actually race them full time. That was 1992,1993. And then in 1993 I did Formula First. Did half a season running my own car and then did the winter series. In 1994 I did half a season of Vauxhall Lotus and then ’95 and ’96 I did Formula Renault. I was always very lucky that I’ve met some very, very important people in my career that wanted to help me. Either they were financial backers or they just made things happen for me. The turning point was coming second in the Formula Renault championship and winning the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award at the end of 1996. That was the real turning point for me, actually having a chance of being a professional driver.
AGWLC: Was that then the moment you decided that was what you were going to do rather than the technical side or did that happen earlier?
DT: I don’t know if it was ever a clear cut decision. Because if you’ve got no financial backing or financial resources privately, from the family or anything, you can’t choose what your career is going to be. It’s going to happen from other people who would like to see you move up the ladder. So that was the crux of it really. Winning the award in ’96 meant that I had a test with McLaren at the beginning of ’97 and effectively they took me under their wing. They put me into DTM at the beginning of 2000 and 2001 and that was really the turning point: winning the award and being with McLaren and then McLaren taking me under their wing and giving me work from 1997 onwards. It was the turning point of being a guy that wants to be a professional racing driver to being a professional racing driver. And I never really looked back after that. This industry is very much a case of: if you work hard and you meet the right people and you make the right impression and people want to help you, things can happen. There’s quite a lot of drivers that have had that happen for them even though they don’t have the big resources or finance to get them to the top. The fact is there was never a plan and we’ve just gone from one season to the other and, amazingly, I’ve ended up with a career from being able to drive fairly well up to the level that is required to be a professional. I was very fortunate to be with Prodrive in 2003 and then that went from a privateer Ferrari programme to a works Aston role. I’ve been there ever since.
AGWLC: You just said there never was a plan, but you seem quite happy with Aston Martin. Is that what you want to keep on doing?
DT: It’s one of those things. It’s a great brand to be with; certainly as a British driver being an Aston Martin driver is fantastic. And also the programmes they’ve done. GT1 was amazing. Then they did LMP1 and that was a great challenge with the Lola Aston. Then with the AMR-One and then coming back to GT racing with the GTE programme. So there’s never been anything that hasn’t been of interest and the programmes are always good. The team’s fantastic, very small team compared to some of the bigger manufacturers, and they always punch very much above their weight. So I’ve been happy. There’s been other opportunities and other possibilities as well. But you look at it and – it has even happened this year – you put all the facts of what you get from one team and one manufacturer, what’s on offer from another team and manufacturer. Sometimes it could be more money or it could be less days, there’s always a benefit, there’s always a positive and a negative for each of the situations and scenarios. I’ve always looked back at it and go: I’m really happy here. It’s local to me anyway, I’m on the doorstep from the team and, as a guy that’s been with them for now 12, 13 years, it’s a long time. I’ve got another three years extension on my deal, I can see the end of my career with the manufacturer and that’s really important with the next thing that happens after. There is a point where you stop driving. You’re no longer competitive and there’s a natural point where you’re saying: I’m going to hang up my helmet and still maybe race some things for fun, but you’re not out there as a professional. And for me it’s important to have that brand association, moving forward, because it just opens up other opportunities for the future.
AGWLC: From the press release it seems more is added to your role outside of driving already. Do you expect that is the way it’s going to go after you stop driving?
DT: Yes, very much so. I’m involved with the new Vulcan programme. I’m just coming from Italy from 10 days of that and there’s going to be more programmes like that in the future and that’s what the brand association is. You build that so you become part of the team that looks after the customers that are buying the road cars and you become part of that package.
AGWLC: You have been involved with the development of the Vulcan. Does that also go back to your interest in the technical side or is this something which evolved through time?
DT: The Vulcan is a new project and it’s from the road cars, not from the race team, but it’s got race team involvement. They know it’s going to be a track day car so they wanted the experience of people that drive – it’s not a high performance road car, it’s a high performance track day car – big, big difference. And that’s where my experience came from and I got involved with the designers. I’m not saying what they should do, I’m just giving an opinion of what it should be like from the driver’s point of view and then they come back with the design and the concepts. Sometimes you sit down and go ‘that’s amazing’. And a lot of the stuff they come back with you would never have imagined doing it like that and that’s why I drive cars and they design them. It’s basically been a very exciting project to be involved with. There’s still quite a lot of work to do before the cars get to the point where we hand them over to the customers. That’s all the fundamental testing to make sure it’s reliable, it performs well and it gives the customers the experience that we hope they enjoy. Even today I’m getting updates. There’s two younger drivers pounding around in southern Italy today and I’m going back and join them next week. It’s been an interesting 8 to 9 months with that project.
AGWLC: It sounds like development continues until the very first car rolls out.
DT: The prototype car is actually the first chassis as well. So it is a customer’s car, but they want it to be used as the prototype. I think, the customer cars will be handed over February next year, but by then we will have gone through all the procedures we need to make sure it’s the definitive finished article.
AGWLC: And when the customers start picking up their cars will you also be involved in teaching them how to drive them?
DT: Yeah. There’s a group of us. So initially I’ll be demonstrating the car in the next couple of months to the customers and the potential customers as well. And then there’s a group of us that will be part of that driver/coach element to bring them up from performance road cars. Effectively it’s sort of like a GTE/GT3 car, so it’s got that sort of performance. It’s not something they can just get in and drive straight off and be able to get the full potential of the car. There’s a gang of us that will be there to help them go through that learning curve and get higher up the ladder of performance the car is capable of.
AGWLC: I understand you are also involved in the programme Aston Martin Racing runs for people who’d like to get their race license?
DT: A little bit, yeah. Aston Martin Racing has done it with a few drivers recently. I have my own simulator company [Base Performance Simulators], so they come to me first for a bit of a look-see, to see what they’re like. Because some of them have got no racing experience. And then we give them a bit of a programme. I do the very initial thing and then probably go do a track day with them to see what they’re like and they end up going with one of the teams that are running GT4 cars and they gain their experience there. But I’ve certainly seen quite a few on their first few days and it’s important just to give them the right sort of direction. And also the right sort of time frame. They have to go through a programme. It’s not like they can just jump from doing nothing straight into a GT3 and expect to do a good job. They have got to go through that learning curve and I think that’s what Aston Martin Racing does very well. Start you off on a step one, give you all the tools to be able to move up to step two and build your confidence. At no point is there a backwards step. The worst thing you can do with drivers is throw them in at such a level that they end up making loads of mistakes. It’s costly, because they’re expensive cars to run and repair, and then they lose their confidence and they’re not coming back. From that sort of side I think the programme that Aston have got in place, the racing side, is very good for people that come from zero experience.
AGWLC: The way it’s been described on the website the programme is in three very clear steps in what seems to be three days. Can it happen it will take more time?
DT: It’s tuned to the individual. There is no guarantee that someone will get in and have the natural ability to drive a car well and it all depends on their actual background of experience of road cars etc. So you just have to go through it at the pace that fits that individual. Some people pick up very quickly, some people just take a bit longer. I’ve got a similar experience. I’ve learnt to fly about 8 to 9 years ago and the actual flying side was easy. It’s just controlling a machine. It’s very much similar to what we do. But obviously what we’re doing is pushing to the limits and the edge of the performance of that vehicle. Flying is the opposite. It’s being well within the envelope of the performance and to be safe. So that was a little bit of a thing to learn but there are so many other elements and procedures and radio communication and navigation and all that stuff that was out of my comfort zone. From that point that was a longer process than learning to fly. The plane, pretty much, three hours of flying, yeah, I get this, I know what I need to do. And all the other things were the elements that took me longer. You could take another person with zero flying hours and they would take twice, three or four times as long as me to get used to flying, but pick the other stuff really quickly. So everyone is different and you just tailor it to suit.
AGWLC: Did anyone ever quit half way, because they just couldn’t do it?
DT: I’ve not experienced that. I think most people just want to get to the stage where they can safely say they’ve done a couple of races and they’ve got past their rookie stage. And also, most of them, once they’ve got the bug bitten, they’re in for the long haul. Until bank accounts or family or something means that they need to stop for a bit.
AGWLC: Currently in the media, regardless of which series of motor sport you watch, there is a lot of talk about the teams, but hardly about the driver. So my question is: what makes someone a good driver?
DT: Being part of the team. [laughs] The level of driving is generally high and there’s more people at that level. A lot of that is because there’s so much data available now and there’s a lot more science behind it. You can educate yourself more. Gone are the days where it was all down to the driver having great car control and being a natural racer, which means he’s always going to be on top of the tree. Now there’s so many things available that a lot of people can get to that level. I think being a team player, being consistent, being able to deliver week in, week out and over a period of a year being able also to deliver over that whole period. And an understanding of the individual element of what makes the team tick. There are some drivers that are fantastically fast on the track, but they don’t look at the bigger picture. Then they make more mistakes and they might damage the car; that puts the development behind the programme. All those elements, especially in sports car racing and at a professional level, will have a knock on effect. So you have look at it and say ‘well, I’m just another cog in this big mechanism that is the race team and I’ve got a job to do. No more, no less, and if I do my job at a high level then that’s my contribution. We’re not going to win races if we’ve got the slowest guys on the guns on the wheels, so every part of it has to be up to the high standard and everyone has to be highly motivated to make sure that these race weekends they bring their best game. Because that’s the only way you’re going to beat the next guy down the pit, within your team and then the competitors from the different manufacturers.
AGWLC: I get the idea that for Aston Martin Racing this is mainly within the team. There’s a lot of first, second and third places for them.
DT: It’s a strong team right now. There’s the younger drivers coming through with a lot of experience and speed and the team’s growing and growing, certainly in confidence as well.
AGWLC: I have noticed that at Aston Martin Racing there are five cars and usually fourteen drivers. Why are there – apparently standard – only two drivers in #97?
DT: It changes really. Normally pre-Le Mans we always run a third. We have Jonny [Adam] in there now for the rest of the season; more of a chance for him to get the experience to be part of it full time next year, possibly; to see what he’s like. The ideal scenario is you only run two drivers in a car. It’s not the same for the AMs. The AMs have to run with three, but in the Pros, you look at the Ferraris and the Porsches, they are all running two drivers. But this weekend #95 is running two, because Nicki [Thiim] is away. We’ve got three, because we’re trying to get Jonny the experience he needs. Because Aston Martin is such a small manufacturer the financing of a team like this is not as straight forward as the big manufacturers. So things have to happen and that means sometimes you have to compromise the absolute best scenario to cover all the bases. Sometimes you have to run three because of the way the budget works etc.
AGWLC: Why is two the optimum scenario?
DT: Because at a six hour race you don’t need three. It’s only three hours, so you can do hour on, hour off, hour on, hour off. And also with the testing time up to it [the race], sessions one, two, three, they get diluted with a third driver. It does just mean you get less track time, so two is always the optimum on this type of weekend.
AGWLC: Completely different question: have you ever driven a One-77?
DT: Yeah, Jan Struve, one of the car owners for the #95, he’s got a One-77, so he kindly let me have a little blast around.
AGWLC: Can you even compare the One-77 with the Vulcan?
DT: Oh no, it’s totally different! It’s a great road car and I didn’t take it out on track, I took it out on the road and really enjoyed it, but the Vulcan is something completely different. Absolutely. It may have it’s heart within the One-77, but after that there’s not really much similar between the two.
AGWLC: What do you think is your biggest achievement professionally?
DT: I think being a professional driver. It’s funny. It’s such a hard industry to be successful in and to have a long career. I’ve pretty much been a pro since the beginning of 1997 when I got my first cheque for driving a race car. And that’s now 18 years of being paid to go racing, amazingly. I look at it as a whole, rather than a single element. But from a racing point I’d say winning at Le Mans in 2007 and 2008 are the stand out events that I’m most proud of.