Monday, December 21, 2009

An interview with J.R. Hildebrand

First of all, Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me, as I’ve enjoyed listening to you on Autosport Radio with Don Kay and also enjoyed your recent article on SPEED TV regarding how your testing opportunity with Force India F1 came about.

HILDEBRAND: Life in the Fast Lane

Tomaso) Growing up in Sausalito, CA and taking the traditional route of Go Karts and into the ladder series of Single Seater Racing Cars, were you aware of other such Californian talents, i.e.; Robby Gordon, Rick Mears, Scott Pruett, Jimmy Vasser, etc.

J.R. Hildebrand: Absolutely. My dad and I were both big race fans before I ever got involved, and while I don’t think if was necessarily because I knew that they were from California and maybe more because they all just had that bit of Californianism in them, those were all guys that I cheered for as a kid and still do. I lived about 25 minutes from Sears Point and only a couple hours from Laguna Seca so if there was some racing to be seen we were there.

T) Who were your “Heroes” growing up Motorsports or otherwise, since I know you also competed in Baseball.

JRH: My heroes were definitely race car drivers. Dale Earnhardt was always someone that I looked up to and admired growing up, but with my dad driving a vintage Trans Am when I was young, I also grew to respect a lot of the names from much earlier times. Mark Donohue, Dan Gurney, Jim Hall… those were all guys that I really had high regard for after learning a little bit more about them. If I had to pick someone outside of racing I’d undoubtedly say Steve McQueen, only because he’s got to be one of the coolest people to ever walk the face of the planet, and I’ve always really looked up to my dad as well.

T) And were you ever interested in racing in the Dirt? As Gordon, Mears and somebody named Jimmie Johnson all cut their “teeth” in Desert Racing I believe?

JRH: I’ve always thought that dirt track racing looked like a hell of a time, off road maybe even more so, but haven’t yet gotten the chance to get involved. Racing at Baja if nothing else is definitely on my list of things to eventually get into. Without a doubt.

T) Have you ever raced at Portland International Raceway, Pacific Raceways or elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest; either Karting or Cars? And if so what are your recollections about these tracks?

JRH: I raced at PIR four times, twice with two wins in FF2000 and then again in Atlantics, and I always really enjoyed the track. It was one of those places that, especially if you were starting up front, you might need to risk running less downforce just for the run down the frontstraight on the start! It was a challenging track that had a lot of character.

T) I’ve read that you moved up steadily from Formula Ford (FF2000) to Atlantics to Indy Lights and now beyond. Do you feel that this has adequately prepared you for your future in either IndyCars or F1?

JRH: I think that my progression has prepared me in every way necessary for racing in IndyCar, and has prepared me as well as possible for F1 being that I’ve raced in the states. The formula of open wheel racing over here just in terms of the way the cars behave is a little bit different than in Europe, and I clearly wouldn’t have much experience on the tracks over there, but from the perspective of driving cars that allow you to develop as a driver I feel prepared for almost anything. Either one is a big step for different reasons, and while the American feeder series’ naturally prepare you a bit better for IndyCar than F1, I feel like I’ve gained experience along the way that would be extremely valuable regardless of the direction it goes from here.

T) And how does an Atlantic car stack-up against an Indy Lights chassis?

JRH: There are a lot of compromises between the two. The Lights car was obviously adapted from a design that was originally just for ovals, so like the IndyCar, it has to be able to do both road courses and ovals. It has quite a bit more power but is a little heavier and isn’t quite as high on downforce, so it accelerates quite a bit faster out of the corners and is really quite a capable car, but it’s not quite as good on the brakes and isn’t as nimble. Driving the Atlantic car, you have to really take advantage of the braking and cornering ability of the car, whereas in the Lights car it’s a little bit more of a mix of everything since you have to really utilize its acceleration power as well. They’re definitely different to drive, but I think that they both teach different things that are all useful down the road.

T) Did you enjoy your brief time in A1GP? And was this another step-up the Ladder in terms of Machinery?

JRH: I had a great time driving the A1 car. It was a lot different both from a driving and engineering perspective with the more F1-style big sidewall tires and everything, but I really enjoyed the challenge. It was a step up in it’s basic performance but wasn’t too far out of the window that I had already driven in over the years so a bigger task from a driving perspective was just getting used to how to adapt to the car’s attitude on the brakes and in the corner. The competition was definitely stiff and I did pitstops for the first time that weekend in Brands Hatch, but I thought that was all a ton of fun so I really enjoyed the experience.

T) And I hope you didn’t have to take a Taxi Cab all the way from Heathrow to Silverstone, as that would have been one “BLOODY” Damn long & expensive ride. (To get to the Force India Factory)

JRH: Well, I didn’t take a cab the whole way, but that probably would have been easier looking back at it! I took the Heathrow Express to Paddington, got on the Underground to Euston, then walked through the 40 degree rain in hurricane force winds from the Euston train station to Milton Keynes… THEN got in a cab to Silverstone. Quite the journey to be taking after a red eye I have to tell you.

T) Was that your first time working on a racecar simulator at Force India? If so, how was the experience overall and did it help you with the test?

JRH: I’ve been on some simulators before, and been on some pretty good ones, but there’s really no comparison. It definitely helped me to understand a little bit more about the track and the way the car worked, so those were both very positive aspects of it. Having said that, “flatout” in the sim is not quite the same as flatout at 4.5g in real life and are two very different sensations!

T) Did you get to meet Dr. Vijay Malia (the man behind those Classic Cars) during your F1 test outing in Jerez?

JRH: Unfortunately not at Jerez, no. I had met him once before a few years ago, but I believe he is quite a busy person and wasn’t able to attend.

T) And was that your first time ever at the Jerez Circuit?

JRH: Yes it was.

Jules Bianchi:(Bianchi spoke recently to L’Equipe about his feelings on driving an F1 car for the first time.)
“It’s strange,” he said.” Everyone is looking at you, the engine is running. I didn’t want to put myself under pressure, but it was certainly there. I had doubts, the fear of not getting the job done. It was astonishing when I accelerated hard, the power is considerable. And I won’t talk about the braking! I thought my head was going to go through the steering wheel it was so violent. I feel exhausted, it’s a huge physical effort and a lot of nervous tension. ”
(Source: James Allen on

“I learned a lot, including what it means to go through a debrief facing fifteen engineers, given that I'm used to talking to just one person at the end of a session."(Source:

T) So I’m guessing you must have had some of the same anxieties as Jules did when you were actually preparing to leave the Pit Lane for the very first time in Jerez? And was it a bit daunting doing an F1 debrief?

JRH: Yeah, I suppose there’s a bit of added pressure, but I also took a pretty relaxed view of the whole thing going in. Both Paul and I were there because we had preformed so well in the simulator, so that made me feel like I had already beaten some of the odds just getting to that point. I went in with the outlook that I was going to try to learn as much as I could as quickly as possible and to get comfortable with the speed that the car was capable of in the high speed sections of the track as I figured that to be a fairly limiting factor if I couldn’t sort it out. I was inevitably lacking some of the experience that they other guys were going to have so I saw no reason to get anxious about that. I found it very easy to get along with the team, and while there were a few more faces than usual, I just sort of focused on what I was doing and on doing the best job I could do given the circumstances.

T) And is Jules description of a modern Formula 1 car a good assessment of just how amazing these racing cars truly are?

JRH: I would definitely agree with that part of it. You end up being all reactions for the first couple of runs just sort of coming to grips with how fast the thing really is. More so than the braking ability of the car, its cornering speeds are sort of mind-bending at first, so it took a little longer than usual to push the limits in that sense. By the end of the second day my speeds were actually quite high through those sections, so I think it’s all sort of relative over time, but even at that point it was still a little shocking.

T) And did you have a chance to talk with any of the other drivers participating in the test besides your teammate?

JRH: I really didn’t. Everyone kept to themselves somewhat I suppose, but to be fair I did too. There were a lot of things to think about and focus on, so getting to know the other guys was sort of secondary at that stage.

T) Did you have any chances to chat with Alexander Rossi? Do you know him from any “Junior” Formulae days, since you’re both from California.

JRH: He and I actually started racing go-karts at the same time, albeit in different disciplines. We were sort of teammates for our second year and then went our separate ways. I didn’t get the chance to speak with him at all at the test, however.

T) And I’m sure you’ve already been asked this; how does driving an F1 car feel vs. A1GP, IndyCar and Indy Lights?

JRH: In terms of the speed of the car, particularly it’s acceleration it’s probably most like an IndyCar, but in terms of its general handling characteristics it’s much closer to the A1 car. So I sort of had to mix and match driving styles in a sense to figure out how the car wanted to be driven, and how I was going to get the most out of it.

T) And is there anything you can tell us about your 2010 plans? Any possibilities of racing in IndyCar next year?

JRH: Right now I’m in the middle of figuring it all out. I was definitely gaining some traction from a sponsorship perspective and with regards to speaking with IndyCar teams, so I’m trying to get a handle on where that’s all at now that I’m back. I’m also looking into what opportunities there might be to race in Europe and what kind of relationships I might be able to take advantage of over there, so things are certainly getting busy.

T) It would be great to see you there alongside other past Indy Lights competitors, which I’ve been claiming the IZOD Indy Car Series needs to do, i.e.; have past “Feeder” series Champions racing there. Now that “Rafa,” (Raphael Matos) Alex Lloyd, Jay Howard are there along with Richard Antinucci and Hideki Mutoh, how do you feel that you stack-up against them and is this what IndyCars needs more of in the future?

JRH: Each of them has done a great job, but I think I could make a pretty strong case against those guys. I tested the AGR IndyCar this year both on a roadcourse and oval and felt very comfortable while being quite quick straight away, and am confident that I could put that into action next year if I get the chance.

T) And have you raced against either Graham Rahal or Marco Andretti?

JRH: No sir. I had to think about it for a second but I’ve sort of been a year behind them the whole way up the ladder, so I’d look forward to getting the chance to mix it up with them at the next level for sure!

Once again Thank you for taking the time to let me interview you, as I look forward to seeing you race in either IndyCars or Formula 1 in the near future…

Good Luck J.R.!

And Muchos Gracias to Arni Sribhen; Media Relations of the Firestone Indy Lights Championship for making all of this happen!