iSport International’s Sam Bird will go into the new GP2 season as one of the title favourites – and he’s demonstrated his intention to be in the thick of the action by qualifying on the front row for the opening race of the campaign in Turkey. BritsOnPole spoke to him at a drizzly Silverstone during pre-season testing to see what he thought the year ahead might hold.
It was a damp and dreary day at Silverstone and Sam Bird was being cautious: “My aim is to be there at the end of the season. I’d love to say my aim is to win the championship, but it’s a long, long way away.”
The 24-year-old enters his second year in GP2, the main feeder series for Formula One, with a simple target: to shoulder his way into what is expected to be an all-French title battle between ex-F1 driver Romain Grosjean and Ferrari protégé Jules Bianchi, who is also Bird’s former team-mate at ART Grand Prix.
Every list of pre-season favourites begins with those two names, but most go on to pick the Englishman as their closest rival – a prediction given weight by qualifying for the first race in Turkey, where Grosjean and Bird took the top two places and Bianchi came fourth.
On the first morning of pre-season testing at Silverstone, though, the waters seemed muddier. Grosjean was fastest, but the session had been red flagged after Bird stopped out on track.
After the car was hauled back to the garage, the fault was swiftly identified: “We had a mechanical issue that caused me to pull over on the circuit,” he said. “However it was a minor one that we’ve seen before, so we were able to sort it out very easily.”
So easily that he would later go on to set the fourth-fastest time of the day, while in further testing at Silverstone and Barcelona he would continue to set times comfortably in the top five or better.
And even the disrupted session wasn’t wasted, as it allowed team and driver to gain some precious experience with the new Pirelli wet-weather tyres – experience that would pay off when the Turkish weekend began rainy.
Bird said: “The most important thing is we learned an awful lot about the wet tyres, which was important because we hadn’t run on them before.”
A full schedule was planned for the dry afternoon: “This afternoon we’re going to be doing quite a few laps, working on new things. We’ve been very quick before and I’ve no doubt if we can make some new strides forward we can be even quicker.
“We aim to continue learning. Because this car is new we haven’t been able to test absolutely everything yet. We had four days in Abu Dhabi but what works there might not work in other places.
“We’ve got to try new things – and there’s a lot of things to try. We’ll be going through all the things the guys want to go through to make us quicker in race and qualifying.”
With a new tyre supplier and a new series car, the GP2 teams have a lot to get to grips with. Bird is confident iSport will be among the first to adapt: “It does make a difference being with a good team – a good team will be able to get the car up and running very quickly, and that’s what I found here at iSport.
“Thankfully, I’ve been able to get myself up to speed in the new car quickly. The car is dictated by the tyre this year – the races will be very exciting this year as the tyres degrade faster than the Bridgestones.”
Exciting races were something Bird specialised in last year but, unfortunately for him, that was often because he found himself nearer the back of the field than his raw speed warranted. The result was a lot of thrilling overtaking but, initially, no wins.
The breakthrough finally came at Monza, where Bird won the feature race, earned a podium in the reversed grid sprint race, and set fastest laps in both. After so long winless the triumph came as a relief, even though he had never doubted a victory would eventually arrive.
He said: “I didn’t let it affect me too much because I was still getting a lot of podiums and front row starts and fastest laps, so it was just a matter of time.
“But I couldn’t help but have a tear when I crossed the line – and I’ll have quite a few more before this year ends. The clock is ticking down to the next win and I believe it will be a short wait.”
GP2 Asia saw him retire from three of the four races, but the statistics disguised some strong performances while the car was running. He said: “I’m not really worried about it because every time we were unable to finish we were extremely quick. It’s disappointing, but the main thing is we were quick.”
His front row start offers an opportunity for a better result – and he will need to perform well if he is to remain on the radar of the Formula One teams he hopes to impress. After several years performing straight line tests for Williams, his achievements in last year’s GP2 championship earned him a post-season call-up from Mercedes.
He said: “Obviously I was in the Young Driver Test with Mercedes, and that was a fantastic opportunity, but now I have to do well this year and impress people. That’s the key.”
If he can, the sky’s the limit. Asked by BritsOnPole if he had a message for his fans, he said: “I just to thank everyone for their support so far. I think this is going to be a good year – and I’m looking forward to sharing what happens with them.”