Feature F1 Unlocked
LIGHTS TO FLAG: Pedro de la Rosa on his late start in F1, working for Ron Dennis, and his dream of a Spanish F1 team
Pedro de la Rosa didn’t begin karting until the age of 16 but went on to start more than 100 Grands Prix during a Formula 1 career that spanned over a decade and intertwined race roles with lengthy spells as a highly-rated test driver for top teams like McLaren and Ferrari.
In our latest Lights To Flag feature, De la Rosa reflects on his late start in racing, working for Ron Dennis, losing out to a young Lewis Hamilton, and pursuing his dream of a Spanish F1 team…
Radio Ga Ga
De la Rosa was involved in motorsport from a young age in his native Spain, but initially in radio-controlled cars, rather than karting.
“I wanted to become a karting driver, it was my passion, but my father was very reluctant to allow me to go racing because his brother had died in a road accident,” he explains.
His father, who had participated in rallies, instead bought nine-year-old Pedro a radio-controlled car.
“They were 3.5cc, 1/8 scale, off-road, and I became European champion and took second in the world championships, so I was pretty good,” he says. “After a few years I told my father I want to go karting, and he accepted it, but I started very late – I was 16, when you think Max [Verstappen] already was in F1 at that age.”
Despite the late entry into karting the radio-controlled cars “allowed me to understand motor racing, about set-up, how sensitive changes can be, and while you were driving from a distance you still had to accelerate, brake, and steer.”
De la Rosa was accepted into a scholarship by the Spanish motorsport federation and worked his way into single-seaters, winning titles in Formula Ford and Formula Renault.
In 1995, De la Rosa moved to Japan, winning the All-Japan Formula 3 Championship, and spent another two years in the country, culminating in achieving the rare double of taking the title in Formula Nippon (now called Super Formula) and Super GT in 1997.
Entering the big time
Spain had been without a Formula 1 driver since 1989 and there was growing interest to end that drought. De la Rosa joined Jordan as a test driver and that enticed oil and gas company Repsol to provide support.
“I will always remember one of my first ever tests in F1 was with Jordan at Silverstone,” he says. “I was going through Becketts, and I was exiting Becketts, going along the Hangar Straight, looking in the mirror and [Mika] Hakkinen overtakes me in the McLaren – like wow! It was a strong moment. I had been watching the TV, the Grand Prix, a few days ago, Mika had won the race and next thing I’m testing alongside him, it was incredible.”
There was no room at the inn at Jordan for 1999 so instead De la Rosa and his Repsol support joined Arrows, and at the age of 28 he had a full-time race seat in Formula 1.
“When you get to your first Grand Prix, it’s an amazing episode in your life,” he says. “You go to Melbourne, the first race, and I remember arriving to the Crown hotel, it was late, 11pm, I came from a long flight, and Michael Schumacher was there by chance. We had never met, he opened the door, and said, ‘Welcome to Formula 1.’ For a newcomer, a rookie, coming there and having this was something I’ve never forgotten.
“Then you have to remember you’re there for a reason, you have to win, you have to beat your team mate, you’re in a honeymoon period but you still have to do what you’re meant to do.”
De la Rosa’s honeymoon phase continued on his debut as he avoided trouble in an attrition-filled race to collect a point for sixth position.
“I remember on Sunday evening I had dinner with my wife and we were discussing about Formula 1 and I thought everyone says how difficult Formula 1 is, but actually first race I’m sixth, it’s not that difficult, you know?” says De la Rosa with a laugh.
It proved to be the sole point Arrows scored in a season defined by an uncompetitive and unreliable A20. De la Rosa finished only four of the remaining 15 Grands Prix while team mate Tora Takagi made the flag just three times.
“The honeymoon period finished after the first race! You start facing reality: reliability issues, not being quick enough, budget issues. You realise how difficult Formula 1 is. You are lapped, and for a racing driver being lapped is like… watching the mirrors someone one lap ahead is the most disgusting thing that can happen.
“It’s quite natural, with an uncompetitive car, having to set up your strategies around when you’re going to be lapped in the race, but it’s very damaging: I’d never been lapped in my whole life.”
He stayed with Arrows for 2000, adding another couple of points to his tally, but recognised the need to start afresh elsewhere.
Jaguar leap soon stutters
De la Rosa was without a seat for 2001 but remained in Formula 1’s sphere by testing for Prost. He was at Portugal’s Estoril circuit, preparing for a test, when an unknown number rang at eight o’clock.
“I thought who the hell is this? I said, ‘Hello,’ he said, ‘Hello it’s Niki.’ And I am thinking, ‘Niki who?’ I didn’t say that, but then I realised by the tone of his voice it was Niki Lauda! I hesitated to pick up as it was very early in the morning and I didn’t recognise the number! But he made an offer to join Jaguar as a test driver and I was very happy as I could see the potential.”
He swiftly switched allegiance from Prost to Jaguar and stepped up to a race role after just four rounds when incumbent Luciano Burti – stung after being informed he would not stay for 2002 – opted to instead join Prost.
De la Rosa scored a best of fifth, at Monza, but after a point-less 2002 season was not kept on for 2003.
“It was a potentially fantastic project which never fulfilled our ambitions, mainly because we didn’t have time,” he says. “We didn’t have the infrastructure needed, we didn’t have a wind tunnel, we didn’t have a simulator, we didn’t have many instruments or tools that other teams had. But that team is now Red Bull, so it proves with the right investment you can make it succeed.”
The McLaren move
De la Rosa “got to a point where you realise either you are with a good team, or you’ll never succeed” – so aimed for a test position at a top team.
“I called the only competitive teams – Ferrari and McLaren. I called Ferrari, they said ‘we have Felipe Massa and Luca Badoer’, I called McLaren, they said ‘we have Alex Wurz,’ I said, ‘OK, but Ferrari have Felipe Massa and Luca Badoer so maybe you need another one.’
McLaren called back and after a four-day test at Jerez, De la Rosa joined Wurz on the test roster.
“Those years were the best in my career in terms of learning, working with the best engineers, drivers, realising how much effort and investment had to go into an F1 team to succeed,” he says.
That included experimenting on McLaren’s new state-of-the-art simulator, attending Grands Prix as reserve, while also extensive days of testing in an era of unlimited running.
De la Rosa got an opportunity in Bahrain, in 2005, when Juan Pablo Montoya suffered a shoulder injury and was sidelined. On his McLaren debut, De la Rosa set a new lap record at Sakhir and finished fifth.
“I look back now and I was really naive, I went to every race thinking it might be me [racing],” he says. “The fact we were testing two days a week in every track in Europe made me very strong mentally because I knew if I had the chance at any point I would deliver.
“So I had that self-confidence that I could be as quick as Kimi [Raikkonen] or Juan Pablo, they could be ill, they could have a problem, and it did happen. I raced the MP4/20, 2005, it was the fastest car I ever drove, it was a rocket. I still hold the lap record in Bahrain!”
Super-sub but no full-time seat
Montoya upped sticks and left McLaren in mid-2006 and De la Rosa was drafted in to partner Raikkonen.
“I was thrown into it on a race-by-race basis, so it’s not easy on a Wednesday getting the call of ‘yeah, it’s you’,” he says. “Ron [Dennis] wanted Lewis [Hamilton] to jump into the car as early as possible but the engineers were backing me as they wanted consistency through to the end of the year, so I kept it to the end of the year.”
De la Rosa picked up a sole career podium in Hungary and scored points in five of the eight races. McLaren had already signed Fernando Alonso for 2007 and Hamilton – then on the cusp of the GP2 Series title – was waiting in the wings.
“I remember testing at Silverstone alongside Lewis for the first time,” he says. “That day I realised how special Lewis was. Straight away, I thought ‘wow’. After a few laps he was already on the pace. He’s always been incredibly strong at jumping into any new car, any new circuit, like in two laps. This was the biggest difference between what I’d seen until then and Lewis.”
De la Rosa happily slotted back into a test role for 2007, but was less enthused a year later when an opening for 2008 was firmly shut.
“I realised these guys are two monsters, the best drivers in this era,” he says, describing Hamilton and Alonso. “I was like, ‘Okay, I will go back to my original role as test driver, but to the two best drivers I’ve seen in a long, long time.’ When Fernando left, before 2008, I had this hope that the team would pick me again and actually it was looking like it was heading to my direction and I’d partner Lewis for 2008, but at the last moment they picked up Heikki [Kovalainen].
“That was a gamechanger for me. I had no issue being replaced by Lewis, Fernando obviously, a two-time champion, but when they picked Heikki I felt a bit uncomfortable as I realised they will never pick me again, McLaren, so I had to look for a race drive again.”
A difficult year at Sauber
De la Rosa joined Sauber for 2010 as team mate to Kamui Kobayashi but the outfit was recovering from a tumultuous off-season in the wake of BMW’s withdrawal. De la Rosa made it into the top 10 only once, in Hungary, before the situation came to a head.
“They were firing people, everything was diminishing, the budget, all the resources, so it was difficult to be in a team that wanted to be big but actually had to be small,” he says.
“Losing a lot of people during the year meant there was a lot of tension inside as when people start losing their jobs [other] people get a bit nervous. It was very difficult for everyone, and also for the management, because they had to take really difficult decisions, so it was not a comfortable season, and I never finished the season because they fired me.”
Owner Peter Sauber, De la Rosa relays, believed “his car had to be on the podium” though the Spaniard’s response was “there’s no way this car is built for the podium – we have no money for development!”
“He said he’d get [Nick] Heidfeld, who was very similar to [Robert] Kubica, to prove me wrong. I said, ‘Okay, I can guarantee you it’s impossible.’ He said, ‘But Kobayashi is a rookie, you should be a second faster than him’ and I said, ‘No way, Kobayashi is a better driver than you think’ – which he proved after winning in WEC.
“We fell apart, the reality was that car never did a podium, and not only that, Heidfeld never beat Kobayashi. The reality is okay we did not see eye-to-eye, we didn’t have the same opinion, but then the year after Checo [Perez] had the accident in Monaco and wasn’t feeling well in Canada, the first guy they called was me, so we parted ways but came back together again after a few months.”
De la Rosa’s outing as a super-sub for Perez in Canada was his sole race drive in 2011, a season in which he returned to McLaren as their test and reserve, but early on he had his eyes on a new project for 2012.
The Spanish dream
De la Rosa linked up with Spain-based HRT, which had joined the grid in 2010, as a new team enticed by the prospect of financial regulations and technical freedom.
“I called Ron [Dennis], because I remember I told him in China, ‘I want to leave, I want to go racing.’ He said, ‘I can understand that, where are you racing?’ I said I’d be racing next year for HRT. Ron just suddenly was nervous when I said HRT. He never looked at my eyes again, pointed at my chest again, ‘HRC? You must be f****** nuts!’ I didn’t tell him, ‘Sorry it’s HRT!’ It proved Ron didn’t even know what the spelling of that team was as he didn’t care; you’re only focused on the teams you’re fighting against, not the ones you’re lapping!”
HRT was never competitive and their 2012-spec F112 was several seconds off the pace, with neither De la Rosa nor team mate Narain Karthikeyan qualifying in Australia. De la Rosa finished the majority of the races but peaked with 17th place.
“I knew where I was heading, what type of challenges we were going to face,” he says.
“It was a team with no budget, a team that was restructuring itself, but it was a Spanish Formula 1 team – at the end of my career, it was the thing I wanted most. I realised if I didn’t commit to it I would never see a Spanish Formula 1 team again.
“Honestly, it was one of the most incredible years I’ve spent in Formula 1.
“In the first few races we didn’t have DRS working, we didn’t have the budget for KERS. I remember after we qualified in Malaysia our Team Principal Luis-Perez Sala said, ‘When you pit and we change tyres, select neutral but don’t rev the engine because I want the mechanics to replace the tyres in a safe manner, if you’re putting the throttle on it’ll be more stress for them – do it slowly and safely.’ I said to him, ‘Luis, I’ve never been told by any team principal to do anything slowly!’ But it’s a different mentality – you are there to survive.”
Pedro the team boss?
The plan was for De la Rosa to race for HRT in 2013 before becoming Team Principal in 2014, but the team collapsed after 2012.
“I met fantastic people who did a lot with very little,” he said. “The prospect of a future Spanish team in Madrid, with Spanish engineers and mechanics was appealing. I would have taken the same decision again, it was one of the best years in F1 for me.”
HRT’s exit proved to be De la Rosa’s swansong from the grid, a year earlier than planned, but already into his early 40s.
He spent two “very demanding years” as a Ferrari test driver, across 2013 and 2014, with extensive simulator duties in Maranello, before scaling back.
“I realised I had to spend more time at home, my kids were growing up, so I kind of retired away from Formula 1 – though I kept TV commentating in Spain, remaining involved,” he says.
After a couple of years as a Sporting Advisor to DS Techeetah in Formula E, De la Rosa is back in the paddock, as an ambassador for Aston Martin’s Formula 1 team, as well as a pundit for Spain’s broadcaster DAZN.
“I’m back into Formula 1 as I feel I have taken a long enough break to recharge batteries, now my kids have grown up they don’t want me at home anymore! I’m happy to be back. I was happy to leave the sport for a few years because it was the end of an era for me, racing in F1. Now I’m back, and happy to be an ambassador for Aston Martin.
“I have no plans over the future rather than keeping my role here, and we’ll see what the future brings – there’s no ambition or plan ahead, I just take it as it comes.”