A Chat with Darren Turner
I was fortunate to catch up with the affable Darren Turner recently while attending the 10th anniversary of the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta. I mean “catch up” quite literally, because you can find Darren on just about any given day, either testing or racing a car somewhere around the globe. If it’s not racing a Ferrari F430 (as was the case this weekend) in Atlanta or Brunei, it‘s a DBR9 at Le Mans or a Touring Car in the UK. DT is a busy chap for sure. Of course all work (!) and no play makes Jack a dull boy, so in his rare spare time, Darren enjoys soccer, golf and flying.
For those unfamiliar with Mr. Turner (as if!), he has more experience in the DBR9 than any other driver. He won in the car on its debut at the grueling 12 Hours of Sebring in 2005 and more recently took the chequers at Le Mans in 2007
in a nail biting race along with AMR alumni David Brabham and previous team mate Rickard Rydell. This is not to mention the other wins taken in the ALMS or the LMS in Europe over the past few years.
But don’t think for a second that DT is content to run the race tracks of the world in Astons. Far from it. He is one of that rare breed of racing driver, exemplified by the likes of Messrs Moss and Elford, who by the very nature of his battle to the top, had to become a winner in many different cars.
Darren was born in Surrey and currently resides in Royal Leamington Spa. As is the case with most of the European drivers, he cut his teeth in karts, after deferring to his mother’s wishes that he not race motorcycles. “I wanted to race bikes. My cousin raced motocross, but my mum said that’s not going to happen! My parents said that there was a go kart track not too far away, so I went up there to watch the racing. Eventually, my dad said that if I saved up the money to buy a kart, then he wouldn’t mind putting the time in. So after a year of saving money from birthdays, Christmas, paper route, that sort of thing, I had enough to buy my first go kart. It showed my dad that I really had a commitment, that it wasn’t just a whim. I really wanted to do this. I was thirteen years old and spent five hundred pounds on my first kart and that’s how it all started.” Darren continued to race and became immersed in the racing scene. Not being from a moneyed nor a racing family, Darren had to work for his living, and did anything he could to get his foot in the door somewhere in the industry. “It was difficult, because no one in the family really knew much about racing. In fact no one knew anything really! I was enjoying racing the karts, but I didn’t know that you could actually make a living racing cars. I enjoyed working on the car as much as I enjoyed racing.
“When I was at school I did a part time job with a small racing team, and when I left school I went on a Honda apprenticeship. I started to put my CV out to every race team. From Formula 3, to Touring Car to Grand Prix teams, then I got a job interview at Jordan’s. I must have made the right impression, because I said, “You don’t have to pay me. I just want the experience.” It wasn’t about the money, I just wanted the work. Well, they did pay me. They liked that I was that enthusiastic and that got my foot in the door.”
That job led to a move from home to a bed-sit at Silverstone. Starting as a parts inspector, and helping the guys on the race cars in his spare time, he quickly endeared himself to the right people, and when a job in the R&D department came about for an experienced model builder, he was quick to extol the virtues of his gusto and fast learning abilities! His constant hassling and eagerness to learn landed him the position. He may not have known it at the time, but this training with a top tier F1 team would prove invaluable later on when it came to car set up and testing and race craft. “They loved it, because I was cheap! It was really interesting, because I was learning so much about how race cars worked. Putting things together and taking them apart again, all put me in good stead with my driving as well. I have a good understanding of all the data and how a race car works and when the mechanics are talking, I know what they’re talking about, how what happens on track relates to what they’re trying to do.”
Realizing that he really wanted to be driving professionally, Darren came up with a plan to land a one week course with the Jim Russell racing school. “I was quite a cheeky eighteen year old, and I knew a lot of people in the Silverstone area because a lot of teams are based there. The Russell school was the best place to get experience in race cars and to see if you could actually do it! It was a thousand pounds for a week course which was lot of money when I was earning only sixty pounds a week. So I went around to everyone and asked for five or ten pounds and if I made it as a professional driver, I would return the money double, which obviously, I was never going to do!” he says laughing.
“People would give me a fiver just to get rid of me because I was giving them such a hassle! Some people gave me fifty quid, and after a few weeks I had a thousand which enabled me to go on the course.”
After reaching the World Scholarship Finals at the Jim Russell School in 1996, he made an instant impression the following year becoming the Formula First Winter Series Champion by winning three races in a privately run and poorly funded team. The next two years saw Darren in the Formula Renault series taking several podiums and wins, ultimately coming 2nd in the 1996 championship. Things were certainly looking up, because he was voted BRDC McLaren Autosport Young Driver of the Year in 1996.
“That was definitely the turning point. The Young Driver Award has six drivers over two days of testing competing for the title. Drivers are chosen from different championships, and up until then the only ones who had won, came from the Vauxhall Championship. So I went along thinking that something was going on and it wasn’t a level playing field. I would just go along and enjoy the two days of driving different cars, Formula Three cars, some Touring Cars, have a lovely time and talk to everyone. That’s in October, and you don’t find out until the Autosport Awards in December who’s won. I didn’t even know until they announced it that I’d won! But it was definitely the biggest single thing in my career. It was what pushed me from being a driver paying to go racing, to a driver being paid to go racing. That’s when I turned professional, and I haven’t looked back since. Everything that’s happened has been as a result of that award, and if you look at all the other people who have won it, they have just about all gone on to be professional racing drivers.” That distinction led to a testing contract with McLaren that was to last nine years and Darren was the official driver of the two seat McLaren that was used to give a privileged few a taste of what it was like to pilot a modern F1 car in what had to be the ultimate thrill ride.
In the intervening years, he has found success driving in Formula Palmer Audi, AMG Mercedes at Le Mans and in the DTM (German Touring Car), ASCAR (UK’s version of NASCAR), GT1 and GT2 sports cars and currently he is contesting the British Touring Car Championship, driving for SEAT (a Euro brand owned by VW/Audi). “I wanted to try BTCC because it was so different from anything that I’d done before. Half the horsepower, half the aero…maybe less, half the tires, and being front wheel drive, it was a whole new discipline. I really enjoyed the fact that I had something at this stage of my career that was totally new to learn. I’m still adapting to it. The pace is good, but sometimes the car does something strange, and I can’t put my finger on what it is! I’m having to sit down with engineers to go through the data and try to teach myself why it’s doing what it does.”
Driving a FWD Touring Car is a big change from a DBR9 that has rear drive, 600 horsepower and bags of grip. “I love driving the sports cars, especially GT1. You have to hustle them around, because they are quite heavy in relation the front drive cars and have lots of horsepower. But what you put in is what you get out, and I really enjoy that.”
Darren was a friend and team mate to the late great World Rally Champion, Colin McRae, who lost his life in a tragic helicopter crash, along with his son and two other family friends recently. Being a flyer himself, Darren remains philosophical, however about the loss of his friend’s life. Although he now has his fixed wing license, he still flies low level and usually with an experienced pilot. He won’t let the death of McRae or the subsequent and coincidental death defying crash of David Richards and his wife the following day let it affect one of his passions. “No I won’t stop flying. If you look at life with a view that you could die doing something, you end up doing nothing. The biggest tragedy was the loss of the young lads whose whole lives were ahead of them. But Colin fitted more into his short life, than most people do in a whole lifetime, so having that thought about him, I just feel, “Good on him!” If I died tomorrow, I’ve had a great life, I’ve enjoyed it, and really, there’s plenty of us out there aren’t there?!
“Before I met Colin, all I ever knew of him was what I’d seen on TV and in magazine articles. He seemed a bit quirky, but when I met him, he was the most genuine person I’d ever come across….such a great guy. One of the memories that I have from Le Mans that year, is when we were doing a seat fitting at the circuit. Normally the mechanics get stuck in with the hack saw blades and sanding blocks, but there was him and me with this foam seat rubbing it down. I was doing a bit, he was doing a bit. I just didn’t expect him to be so down to earth and one of the lads. But he was and it was a real pleasure to drive not only with Colin, but with Rickard (Rydell) as well. We had so much fun and all had good pace. Colin adapted really well. His pace was….perfect. For that sort of endurance racing, it was spot on. Other than a small spin, that really didn’t cost us much time, he had a great race. I think he adapted his style perfectly.”
Driving all over the world gives a driver real perspective on the difference between not only many circuits, but the difference between countries too. Those of you like me, who follow Formula One, have lamented the demise of the “real” circuits, which seem to have been dropped from the calendar or emasculated to the point of almost non recognition. Spa, thankfully was back for ’07, but gone is Suzuka. Hockenheim is a shadow of its former self. Monza has been chicaned to death, and the fastest track of all, Silverstone is now one of the slower tracks. Who’d have thought that some of the best driver’s tracks left would be right here in the good ol’ US of A? “I really like driving in America. It’s a bit more relaxed and the circuits I find more challenging than the majority of European tracks. They are like the European tracks were twenty or thirty years ago. The safety isn’t as good as it is in Europe, but I don’t know if that’s bad thing or a good thing. Take this circuit here (Road Atlanta). You know if you make a mistake, the consequences can be quite bad, so that makes you heighten your ability to drive on the limit and makes you concentrate that much harder. All the extra runoff that you have on the new Grand Prix circuits in Europe mean that if you make a mistake you can get it going again, and I think that makes the difference between the good drivers and the okay drivers.”
After doing early shake down runs and initial testing on the new DBR9, Darren was invited to join the works team, and as we all know, the car won first time out. This came as a surprise to everyone, including all the team and especially to the Corvette team! Although a dream result, that Sebring win put undue pressure on the team to get results. Considered by all those who know, to be a more difficult race than Le Mans, it would be the French classic that proved to be that elusive crown jewel. Coming close in ’05 and ’06 proved to be a bitter pill, so for ‘07 the team took a page out of Reg Parnell’s playbook from 1959, when Astons won overall. Instead of contesting a full season of racing, they concentrated all their efforts on Le Mans. A GT1 class win and an incredible 5th overall, coming in only behind some very state of the art prototypes proved that the team had indeed done their homework.
“The plan was to run two stints on the tires. Come in for fuel and then go again. When the track is dry, that’s what you can do. The first safety car came out just after I had got into the car. The guys were saying, “Right Darren, it’s raining heavily on this side”, and I was telling them that it’s dry on the other side and I decided to stay out on the slicks. I would go slow through the wet and then make it up in the dry sections. It was a good call because we saved a pit stop. The Corvette and the 007 car did stop, and that certainly helped our cause with gaining track position.
“Staying out is a joint decision between the team and the driver. I’m in the car and I can tell them what I see, but at the end of the day I’m concentrating on driving the car but they can see everyone’s lap times, the telemetry and all of the track on the cameras, so ultimately it’s up to them to call me in. We got out of sync in our stops at some point, so I did a triple stint on the Saturday night. I felt comfortable in the car, so I said “Let’s go!”
“Without a doubt, winning at Le Mans was the highlight of my racing career. Winning the Young Driver award was the biggest thing away from the circuit, but that was the best win I’ve ever had. I think that because we’d been so close in the other years, and because it was our only race of the year, so much focus on it, so much pressure. Everyone had this feeling that it was going to happen, that this would be the year. Even with the torrential rain at the end of the race, Brabham did a fantastic job just to keep it on the track and it was a very tense last ten minutes. The amount of relief that we all felt as the chequered flag came out….it was very emotional for everyone. The party that night was fantastic! It was well deserved by the whole team. The three drivers, me, David and Rickard all did a solid job with good pace and no mistakes throughout. We spent the least amount of time in the pits compared to all the other teams and I think that was what won us the race.”
One of Darren’s team mates was again David Brabham, who has driven more Le Mans races than a lot of drivers will ever see! He had a very hard fought win with David Coulthard snatched away a few years ago on a post race scrutineering fuel system technicality. How did it feel to help get the senior team member that win finally?
“I love driving with David. He’s such a chilled out driver. He’s very confident in his abilities, which means he’s never trying to have one over on you. If you need extra time in the car, he’ll step away and give it to you. You can feel very comfortable with your strengths and weaknesses, because he won’t exploit your weaknesses and he’ll try to make your strengths stronger. That’s a great team mate. When you’re doing sports cars, that’s the kind of guy you want to be with. Even though he’s an old boy, he’s a fast as you can get!”
2007 was indeed the year for Aston Martin Racing. Though vanquished, the Corvette team were all wearing smiles as the Champagne flowed. The two teams have had some extraordinarily close battles over the past few years, but at the heart of it, they are both out there doing the best job they can and have to acknowledge when the other team out does his rival. Both teams have the utmost respect for each other says Darren.
Although he was unable to divulge plans to race for AMR in 2008, he is obviously very tight with the team, living only a few miles from the Prodrive works, frequently popping in for a chat or to “drive a car somewhere if something needs to be looked at or tested”.
He remains humbled by his good fortune, to be getting paid to do what most AMOC members could only wish for. “I’m living my boyhood dream!” he says with a twinkle in his eye. Who could ask for more?
(First published in The Vantage Point, Winter 2007. Reproduced with kind permission of the Aston Martin Owners Club)