When you're the number two driver for Formula 3000 team Arden, there's not much expectation laid on you. At the end of last year, team boss Christian Horner chased hard after Vitantonio Liuzzi to lead his efforts in claiming back to back titles for the young team, seeing the Italian as the next star of F3000 and wanting to prove to everyone that the title brought home by Swede Bjorn Wirdheim wasn't a one off. Liuzzi wanted to race with the hot team of the series, and the deal came together quickly. After that Horner cast around for the second driver, and although he tested a few drivers there weren't that many who were able to drive and also had the budget to be there. From a short list he picked Dutchman Robert Doornbos, signed him to the usual two year option deal, and hoped that he'd made the right choice - there wasn't much to go on with his record, but he put his trust in his team to get ‘that Doorknobs guy', as he became known in the paddock, through.
Doornbos set about proving his worth - he immediately gelled in with the team, who were impressed by his fitness (Doornbos lives in Viareggio, Italy because his fitness trainer is there, which makes it easier for him to train every day), personality and eagerness to learn. And, bizarrely, Doornbos and Liuzzi hit it off too - not in the token we're teammates and we're also friends way that usually lasts until the media are looking the other way before the knives are stuck in, but in a genuine sense of camaraderie and admiration for each other.
Horner, who had last seen this situation with Wirdheim and team leader Tomas Enge, was quietly hopeful that he'd put the right package together again. The results show that he did: Liuzzi took seven wins and the title, and importantly Doornbos got four podiums, including the top step in a crushing victory in Spa, on the way to third place in the Championship - a much better result than even Horner could have hoped for at the start of the year.
"I want to do what Bjorn did," Doornbos said at Belgium, after his breathtaking win, "to get a few podiums and learn all the tracks, maybe get a win - that's come now! - and set myself up for the [F3000] title next year before looking at how to get into Formula One."
That last ambition was achieved a little earlier than anyone expected.
When the Jordan team learnt that the budget for the remainder of the season might not be forthcoming from Giorgio Pantano's management, they made a call - it came from out of the blue, but the Dutchman's team hit the road running. "Marco (Zecchi, Doornbos' manager) and my sister started working on it right away," Doornbos reflected, smiling widely behind his large, Elvis styled sunglasses around the back of the Jordan office in the Shanghai pits. "I was in Monza for the last round, and then I went back to my training camp. I was calling my manager six times a day saying ‘what are we going to do?' He said ‘don't worry, just train and do your thing as normal, and I'll give you a call.'
"I was sitting there wondering what am I going to do, so I went to Holland to visit some friends, because during the season I have no time for that. I took my car and went back, but in Germany or Switzerland I got a phone call from my sister, who said ‘you'd better hurry up because tomorrow you have to fly to England' and then hung up the phone! I was thinking wow, what is it, and then Marco called and said ‘yeah, you've got a seat fitting in Jordan, the plane leaves Amsterdam at 9:00am, so you better push!' I had a big smile on my face in the car and I really pushed, but I thought it would be for a test, maybe for later in October, and then he called and said ‘now we have to sort out the visa because we're going to China!'
"I hadn't even met Eddie Jordan yet, but obviously Marco's good friends with Ian (Phillips, Jordan's Director of Business Affairs) and Eddie and they trusted me - it's good that I was in F3000 because they already knew me, they saw my races. I went over to England and they were really friendly and they made a seat, although it's not very comfortable because I'm a bit taller than Timo and Nick so I'm just sitting in the carbon shell, but it was comfortable enough to do the job.
"In the beginning I was a bit nervous - really excited, but also a bit nervous - is it a good way to do your first ever Formula One test, straight away and on a Grand Prix weekend? Obviously no one has done it before, and I spoke with Tonio [Liuzzi] about his Formula One test with Williams and Sauber, and he said ‘it was quite easy - you have to think about the car, but forget it is Formula One and just drive it and enjoy it.' And then I came here relaxed, with a big smile, and also it was my birthday and I thought this is the best present ever, and a mega opportunity also to learn three new tracks and get some mileage in. It just went really well."
DC: Liuzzi thinks everything is easy, though! So you just jumped on a plane and got here Wednesday?
Doornbos: "Wednesday, and I got introduced to all the mechanics and my engineers and I was off to walk the circuit straight away. It was not a problem to learn the track because in F3000 all the circuits were new to me too, and then we did the test."
DC: Well, this track is so new they don't even have it on the PlayStation yet...
Doornbos: "Yeah, that was a real shame because I was really looking for it but nothing, nothing! For Suzuka and Brazil, I will spend some time on the PlayStation for sure! It's incredible how realistic it is sometimes!"
DC: When you got to Shanghai, did you have to do any press engagements or anything like that?
Doornbos: "We had my birthday on Thursday night and went out with the Dutch press, and they brought some champagne for the table which was really nice, and everyone was in a good mood because for a long time there hasn't been anyone Dutch in Formula One."
DC: Friday morning you woke up, and I guess the first thing you thought was ‘I'm going to sit in a Formula One car today.'
Doornbos: "I woke up earlier than any of the mechanics here, I think, because I was at the track at eight o'clock and most of them weren't even there yet! They saw me sitting in the garage and said ‘okay Doorknobs, are you motivated for today?' I said ‘yeah, I couldn't sleep anymore, I have to drive the car now!' I think that put a bit of a smile on their faces! I had to do the job in the car, but I think every lap I was quicker pretty much straight away on the pace of Timo, so that was good."
DC: What was your first flying lap like?
Doornbos: "For the installation lap, I went on the radio and asked 'can I go flat one more time, just to try it?', and they said 'sure, sure', and that is the best feeling to go flat out of the pitlane, but because of the brakes I couldn't push. On my first flying lap when I really … you know the long back straight? I just arrived at 200 metres and I thought why not? So I just hit it as hard as I can and see what happens, and that was a really nice experience because it really stops so quick - stepping on the brakes is like running into a door! I actually had to accelerate to reach the corner - it was a bit pathetic really! But I built up to it, and later I was braking at the same points as Timo (Glock), so that was quite good."
DC: You said yesterday that the speed wasn't the most amazing thing - it was the brakes.
Doornbos: "Yeah, you can compare if you arrive after 320 km/h on the straight and just hit it as hard as you can - if you don't expect it, it's really something! The brakes were really nice for the first few laps, and by the end they are still nice but you are used to it, you expect them to be there at the corners. And also the steering wheel was really light compared to F3000 – I went on the radio and said 'I think something is wrong because I can't get a good feeling from the car', but they said 'no, no, it's just how light it is', and in the end I got used to it. Physically I think it's less tiring that Formula 3000."
DC: Tonio and Bjorn said the same – the F3000 car is so heavy…
Doornbos: "You should have seen me after the first [F3000] test day in Jerez - I came back to the hotel after my first test with Arden and I couldn't move my arms anymore!"
DC: What did Jordan expect from you? Normally the third guy just tests tyres.
Doornbos: "Yeah, it was obviously a difficult situation to be in, and when I came here even Eddie said to me 'we're not expecting you to break the track record here - it's your first time in a Formula One car, you haven't done a shakedown test or anything, so just go out there and learn, improve, and we'll see what we can do in the second session'. Basically they had no idea what to do with me, but after the first session we had a meeting, another briefing, and they said ‘okay, we cancelled the programme we had planned because you have learnt the car already - you're on the pace and you get some data for us.'
"So we started doing that in the afternoon, but unfortunately the engine got less and less and blew up at the third outing, but I've experienced that as well now. They said normally in the programme they will let me get familiar with the circuit before tyre testing for the guys, hard and soft compound, and one light run with low fuel - you saw [on Saturday morning, during practice] with Nick (Heidfeld) he took out forty kilos and he went two seconds quicker, so ten kilos is half a second. They wanted to do that with me too for the last outing but the engine blew up, and it's a shame we didn't do it because if I had gone two seconds quicker I would have done Nick's times."
DC: How is your neck?
Doornbos: "Good - the sessions were no problem at all, and obviously the arms are light - last night I was really cool saying to everyone I had no pain, but this morning I woke up and just the one to the front" - he nods his head forwards violently - "is hurting because of the braking forces, and you have to get used to that. I did my practice in Italy for left and right, and you can train as much as you like, but you've got to drive the car to get used to it."
DC: Was your head moving around in the car much?
Doornbos: "No, no, no - I had no problem. Sometimes drivers ask for fanny tape or whatever you call it, fanny foam the mechanics were calling it (padding on the sidepod against the helmet to cushion the blows), but I was quite well prepared physically and there was no problem."
DC: How different are the debriefs in F1, compared to F3000?
Doornbos: "A lot, really, because you jump out of the car - and my session [in China] was cut short by half an hour or something - but from three to seven o'clock I was only talking to people from Bridgestone and Cosworth, my engineers, the mechanics for problems with the seat, and before I knew it, it was time to go for the drivers' briefing, so that's a lot different. It's a real job, you arrive really early in the morning and you leave quite late in the evening. But it's fun - in F3000 you're so bored most of the time that I used to fall asleep, and Tonio as well, and just wait for the races!"
DC: So what have you been doing since then?
Doornbos: "It's like being at college here - there's so much to learn! I've been to all the briefings so far, and it was a bit disappointing to arrive at the circuit this morning and not drive the car, but it's quite interesting to learn the differences between hard and soft compounds - obviously in Formula 3000 there is only one tyre and you just have to go for it. And I've been to a drivers' briefing - it was nice to see my name there, under Michael Schumacher as well!"
DC: What was the drivers' briefing like?
Doornbos: "Different to F3000! In F3000, Charlie [Whiting] comes in and says 'guys, last race excellent job, any complaints? No? Okay, do the same this week – bye'. In F1, it was like a bunch of old women moaning - they were really like ‘oh, I think the guy with the blue flag was a bit too slow', or [Juan Pablo] Montoya went ‘the entry into the pitlane - some people are cutting it' - they really give Charlie a hard time, but it was funny to listen and to be there."
DC: Did you say anything?
Doornbos: "No, I kept quiet! Charlie said, ‘obviously there are some new faces around here' - because he knew me from F3000 - and [Kimi] Raikkonen I knew, because we did an Alpinestar event at Magny Cours with the motorbikes, and he said ‘hey, I watched your first day, did you enjoy it?' And also [Ricardo] Zonta is a friend, so it was quite fun to be a part of it."
DC: Motor racing is a bit like school - sometimes you repeat a year, sometimes you jump a level, and there are all these guys going back and forth around each other.
Doornbos: "Yeah, sometimes you move too quick, like Chris [Klien] - in the European [F3] Championship, the last race was Magny Cours, and the last podium was Glock, myself and Christian Klien, and it was quite funny to be back with them. But I think maybe [Klien] got pushed a bit too fast."
DC: I think you've got a good thing here, and maybe it's what Christian should have done - come in and learn the cars, learn the tracks, learn the team, learn the drivers before stepping up.
Doornbos: "Yeah, it's a great option - I can offer that I know 80% of the Formula One tracks, with three flyaways and ten in Europe - it's a big advantage. And I can learn a lot, and you do learn a lot - I'm really exhausted in the hotel because there's so much information. For example, the steering wheel: when I left the factory they gave me thirty pages just about the steering wheel, and for thirteen hours on the plane I was just reading and reading, but it's interesting, and much more fun than school! It's really cool!"
DC: Have they had you doing any PR stuff?
Doornbos: "I just came back from the Paddock Club, where there were many sponsors' guests who were doing a Q&A with me, and they said I was a new signing and also that I was the first driver to do a flying lap of the circuit - I didn't know that, and they told me upstairs. It was good, I answered the questions - the circuit obviously is great, you don't need to lie about that, and the team had a warm welcome for me. In the end they said 'okay, Robert will be here if you want a signature', and I thought maybe four or five guys would stand up; but the whole room stood up - eighty people with caps! So I said, here we go... But it was a great experience - the last couple of days have been incredible!"
DC: By the way, why are you registered as a Monegasque with the FIA?
Doornbos: "Because the license is from the Automobile Club of Monaco, and I asked for a superlicence there. [FIA president] Max Mosley brought it himself personally, because there was no time to collect it before flying [to Shanghai], and I guess they wrote down the licence number and it was from Monaco, but obviously I am Dutch.
"In Spa, when I won the race, there was the national anthem of Monaco, and I was just waiting and wondering is it finished already, because I've never heard the song before! But in the end the Dutch people understood, and next year for sure I'll try to get a Dutch licence! Jenson [Button] said he had the same problem, but then he asked for a British one in the hope that he wins a race, because it is pretty sad if they don't have the right national anthem!"
DC: The Dutch have a history of supporting their drivers avidly, which some other countries don't - there is still talk about Jos Verstappen, of course, but perhaps this will put your name forward.
Doornbos: "It's good, and also the international press is starting to take notice, and they can now pronounce my name right, which is good - it's not Doorknobs, it's really Doornbos! I'll see how it goes - I already feel comfortable in the car, and that's a start."
DC: After the press conference in Spa, you said you are planning to win the F3000 Championship next season. But with F3000 now gone and GP2 set to replace it, how does it affect your future plans?
Doornbos: "I would have set out for a Championship, definitely, if the car would have been the same - I'm sure if I had done another year with Arden with the car like it is now I might have had a season like Tonio had, really dominate like Bjorn and Tonio, because you know the car - it's such a difference if you know the car. Since Spa, I've had a huge confidence boost in the car, and at Monza I qualified third and finished on the podium as well. It's all about confidence in that series, and I think I would have done a great job because I know all the circuits.
"But Formula 3000 is finished and GP2 is starting, and Christian [Horner] said that it's not really fair to say we're going for the title because it's a new car, although I think Arden are a great team and will find the right set up straight away, but you can be unlucky with mechanical failures or whatever - you never know, because it's new series. There was an option in the contract that if it's possible to go to Formula One, I can go to Formula One, and it's a good start now, so we'll talk at the end of the month. Christian is also playing a bit with Formula One, and he said if you are finished playing with it we'll talk about what we can do for next year."
DC: I don't think Arden have decided yet if they are doing GP2.
Doornbos: "Yeah, that's why he was quite happy to see me on the plane here as well - we were on the same flight and he said 'I am busy in Formula One as well. But if we do Formula One, we might want to do GP2 next to it'. I said I'd prefer if he only does GP2 if I stay, because it's quite difficult to run a second team. The team is great - like it is now, it works, and he knows that as well. But we'll see after Brazil - maybe if I do a really good job we can get into Formula One and stay here."