Among the drivers taking a step up in series this year will be Daniel McKenzie, who will race in Formula Renault 3.5 for Comtec. Here he talks to Brits on Pole about his expectations for the year, his future hopes, and how injury diverted a sporting career that was once heading in a very different direction.
Daniel McKenzie isn’t setting his expectations too high for his Renault World Series début at Motorland Aragón next month – but by the time the series returns to Spain for its October finale he plans to be telling a different story.
Fresh from a season in British F3 that included two victories, and now driving for Comtec Racing after more than four years with rivals Fortec, he knows it will take time to find his feet as a rookie in a field containing many returning veterans.
The 22-year-old said: “I never entered World Series thinking it would be an easy task. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad driver that you can’t get into the top five straight away, it just means you haven’t got that experience.
“Some drivers say ‘I want to be winning from the first race’ but I think that’s a bit delusional – you need realism. Mid-season is when I really think I can start challenging and opening some eyes so people are thinking ‘this guy’s making good progress’.”
His opponents this year will include current or former Red Bull prospects Daniel Ricciardo, Jean-Eric Vergne, Brendon Hartley and Robert Wickens, the highly-rated American Alexander Rossi and possibly two-time Superleague champion Davide Rigon, who recently took part in testing.
It’s a level of competition that he hopes will ensure his name is noticed by the decision-makers in the Formula One paddock, despite his choosing to avoid the GP2 championship that its teams usually recruit from.
He said: “We always thought the direct route after Formula 3 was GP2 or World Series – and obviously GP2 costs more money. The budget in World Series is much lower, two seasons cost less than one in GP2.
“Also, the competition in World Series is phenomenal. There is such a high calibre and quality, which will make it very difficult to compete – and we’ve always thought that’s one of the things F1 teams will be looking for.”
This analytical approach crops up often in McKenzie’s planning, from the big picture of how his career might develop to the moment-by-moment decisions that make up an individual race.
His dominant victory in the 2009 British F3 National Class came on the back of a high level of consistency and he has a solid reputation for finishing most of his races – he was listed as retiring just once in 50 starts during his two years in British F3.
Nor is it lost on him that last season’s World Series title challengers mixed so many poor results in among their wins that a driver finishing fourth in every race could have beaten them to the championship despite not scoring a single podium.
He said: “Consistency wins. I’d like to consider myself a slightly more level-headed driver then a lot of people out there – than some people who have thrown away wins and podiums. In F3, I knew if I kept my head down I could win the championship. That’s how it came reasonably easily, just by finishing.”
This level-headedness extends to usually having a Plan B if his first ambition doesn’t come to pass.
When, despite more than four years with the team, he was unable to finalise an agreement with Fortec to race in World Series, he already knew Comtec was where he wanted to go instead. And, if he ever finds the road to F1 closed to him, he’s comfortable with the idea of crossing the Atlantic to race in the US.
It’s not his first plan, but he knows that results alone won’t get him one of the coveted places on the F1 grid: “In this day and age, with hundreds of fantastic-quality drivers going for a few spots in F1, you could win every race in a championship but, if you’re not what they’re looking for, it won’t happen – you’ve got to be realistic.
“I want to make a living and a career out of motorsport. My ultimate aim is F1 but, at the same time, with such limited spots I really think you have to be realistic about what your back-up plan would be. I could see myself going out to the States.
“I just think you need to be realistic. You only fool yourself if you have your mind set on just one thing. You need to plan for any possible event.”
This flexibility dates back to his early teens, when a promising career as a schoolboy footballer was snuffed out by a serious knee injury.
The young McKenzie had earned a place in the Southampton FC Academy, which had already produced such stars as Alan Shearer and Matthew Le Tissier and would go on to launch the careers of Theo Walcott, Wayne Bridge and Gareth Bale.
The injury put paid to hopes of soccer stardom, and it also left him facing a year of rehabilitation with a ban on anything that might put his recovery at risk. Desperate to stay active, he tried out karting.
He said: “I had to alter my life completely when I had my injury – I was not allowed any contact sports. I got in a go-kart and never looked back.”
Not only did he discover a new career to devote his sporting life to, he also learned an important lesson about handling unpredictability: “You’ve got to be able to adapt – that’s part of success in itself, being able to adapt to different situations at the drop of a pen.
“It doesn’t stop me from being focused on what I’m doing now, but it means I can be flexible in different circumstances.”
These include his quest for a drive this year: “We were far down the line with Fortec but that didn’t work out, and we always wanted Comtec to be part of the back-up plan if it didn’t go ahead.
“We were impressed with all they have achieved, with their pace in winter testing, their results and experience. Within four days we’d signed the contract and we are more than happy with what they have got to offer.
“Since then, I’ve been impressed with the programme they’ve got set up for World Series – it’s a whole new level of professionalism. The whole team is completely committed to World Series and to succeeding.
“For example, I spent two entire days working on the seat, pedals and everything else so that I’m 100 per cent comfortable in the car. That included manufacturing body parts so that it suited me and how I wanted to drive the car – I’ve never been in a car as comfortable in my life! Spending time on the little details adds up to a massive gain.”
During testing at Motorland Aragon earlier this month, that translated into a series of solid midfield times. Although he didn’t come close to the leading veterans he comfortably outpaced his new team-mate, Dutch youngster Daniël de Jong.
He said: “Working with the team for the first time on a official test was extremely productive. I found getting used to the car a little tricky at first but now I feel very at one with the machine I have.
“I can really push the car to its limits with the confidence of knowing exactly what will happen, which helps me react that much more quickly to whatever scenario I’m in.
“I produced some solid times that should place me in the midst of the action, but with more time in the car I hope to be in the top six more consistently. With more work over the first few races I plan to be challenging for podium places before too long.”
It’s a careful, cautious plan – as befits a rookie in a highly-competitive championship – but McKenzie believes it’s a plan that will leave his name on people’s lips long after the season’s early stars have burned themselves out.