INSIGHT: Robin Frijns interview

Formula E is a broad church when it comes to drivers. Alongside ex-Formula 1 veterans with literally hundreds of grands prix starts between them such as Jacques Villeneuve and Nick Heidfeld, are young chargers aiming to be the superstars of the future.

One of these is Robin Frijns, the Andretti driver who last time out in Putrajaya became the latest racer to spray the champagne on the Formula E podium. Frijns’ record in junior formula is a match for anybody’s, with championship titles in Formula BMW, Formula Renault EuroCup and Formula Renault 3.5 already to his name.

Now 24, Frijns has already been racing for the best part of two decades. Yet despite this early start, his background is a long way from the new generation of ‘sons of’ such as Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr, who have lit up Formula 1 with their exuberance this season.

“First of all, I never thought when I was a kid that a racing driver was a cool thing to be,” he says. “My parents are completely not in to racing, they are in to football. My brother was playing at quite a high level but he broke his leg and he had to stop. My sister is in to horses. It was actually because a friend of my dad’s started up a racing team with three Porsches. That was back in 1996, so I was five years old. My dad helped him a bit because he had his own company in construction so he sponsored them and went to races even though he didn’t like it, and I had to come with him because I was not old enough to be home alone!

“That’s how I actually started to see the races and I kind of liked being there even though I didn’t know what was going on because I was five years old. At one point, because I was there at almost every race, the team gave me a quad when I was six, and I drove that thing in the garden… my mum was really happy with that! If I had a chance, I drove it. Then there was a sponsor of the team that had a karting event and my dad was invited. It was at an indoor kart track in Belgium. That was actually the first time I saw a go-kart. It was only for the older people, and I would say, ‘I really want to join,’ I drove on the quad every day and I liked driving but I wasn’t allowed to. Then my dad told me, ‘from next week, we will come back and you will have a go’. So we did, we came back, I jumped in a go-kart and I never got out of it again…”

Success came quickly but at this stage there were no thoughts of turning a fun hobby into a career.

“I was small, I didn’t know what was going on. I was having fun. My dad was seeing that I was having fun and of course he enjoyed it, not every day of course! But then he did his biggest mistake, or whatever you want to call it, and three quarters of the way through the season, I learned that there was a championship going on.

“I remember there was a big leaderboard before you jumped in the go-kart and I was second or first, and then my dad told me, ‘if you win the championship I will give you an outdoor kart.’ And I won the championship so I got to have a kart. I went outdoors and first of all we did it all by ourselves, my dad and me. My dad had no idea what he was doing, he didn’t have any knowledge about the go-kart or racing whatsoever, he was a businessman.

“At one point a guy came over to and it was the team owner of GKS and he just asked my dad ‘can I get your son with our team because he’s driving well but he’s driving in a chassis which is way too old and the engine is not quick’. So my dad thought actually I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t have any knowledge about it, have fun! And I drove 10 years for the same team!”

Establishing a long-term relationship with teams would also become a factor as Frijns graduated from karting and into the world of single-seater racing, although again this owed more to the reputation his success had generated rather than a long-term strategy to become a professional racing driver.

“It sounds really stupid or strange but when I was go-karting I wasn’t really looking into single-seaters. I didn’t even know what Formula BMW was, or World Series or GP2, I didn’t know anything, I only knew Formula 1. Then I was driving in the karting world championship in Belgium. Before the weekend started, in the briefing they handed over these pieces of paper which said on it the best two drivers of the weekend will receive a test in a Formula BMW. I thought this was for the factory drivers, our team wasn’t a factory team, and I didn’t really pay attention to it. I drove the race and I finished second…”

So, on the weekend of his 17th birthday, he headed off to Valencia in Spain to pit himself against the best young drivers in the world in an attempt to win a scholarship from BMW that would pave the way for a graduation onto the single-seater ladder to F1. He was immediately on the pace and by the end of the three days of testing it had become clear that BMW support would be heading his way in 2009 for a crack at the Formula BMW Eurocup.

The backing from BMW had no strings, so Frijns and his father had a free choice of which team to spend it and they chose veteran German single-seater expert Josef Kaufmann Racing. The team had already had plenty of success in Formula BMW with drivers like Sebastien Buemi and Nico Hulkenberg.

Frijns was competitive from the off, winning in just his fifth race and claiming the Rookie of the Year title as well as third overall in the points behind Sauber F1 star Felipe Nasr and Mercedes DTM racer Daniel Juncadella. This form carried over to 2010 and six wins and 13 podiums took him to the overall title ahead of old karting rival Jack Harvey.

He also took part in three Formula Renault races in the NEC championship round at Spa, winning one and taking second in another. And with BMW calling time on its series for 2011, Kaufmann decided to switch its attentions to the super-competitive Formula Renault EuroCup and Frijns went with them.

“It was a brand new car for them and we started slow, we were three or four tenths slower than Sainz and [Daniil] Kvyat, but during the year we were getting better and learning about the car a bit more and at the end of the year we won the championship, so that was a real surprise. We all knew that if you win the championship you will get a half a million [Euros] prize money to drive in World Series, so that was the goal.”

Winning what was effectively half a full season’s budget made the decision to graduate to Formula Renault 3.5 a simple one… in fact, failing to win the championship could have been the end of his racing activities full stop.

“I knew my dad didn’t have the money to support me if I didn’t win the championship, so I knew the pressure was on because I liked what I was doing and I wanted to continue it. I knew that if I didn’t win the Formula Renault 2.0 championship I probably wouldn’t be sitting here, I probably would’ve stopped racing.”

With three titles in as many years, Frijns was in a rich vein of form, but in 3.5 he would be up against such talented and experienced racers as Jules Bianchi, Sam Bird and Kevin Magnussen. The season started well with victory in race two of the season opener at Motorland Aragon, but ended in controversial fashion as he and Bianchi clashed in the season finale in Barcelona, handing Frijns the title. He was now one of the hottest properties outside of F1…

“When I won in World Series I got a lot of phone calls because I drove against Bianchi and Bird and all the big guys and I was just a small kid just jumping over from Renault 2.0. I was young, stupid in a way because I didn’t know how the world was, the big world. I had a phone call from a Dutch journalist and I was always an honest guy, still am, but now I’m a bit more…”

Frijns trails off as that conversation ended with him being quoted as portraying the Red Bull driver programme in an unflattering way. Given that Frijns was just about to test for the team in Abu Dhabi as reward for sealing the 3.5 title, the timing of the article could well have hurt his career prospects at the highest level.

“We [the journalist from De Telegraaf] just had a conversation and he asked me several things on why were you never picked up on the Ferrari programme or McLaren or Red Bull ones. No one came to me and said, ‘do you want to drive for us?’ The opportunity never came for some reason, I don’t know. Even though I said to the guy when he asked why were you never picked up from Red Bull, and I said first of all I never got the opportunity, and second of all because I know the stories of Red Bull and I saw every time that a driver comes in, half a year later or one year later they get kicked out again. It brings you a lot of pressure. I’m not sure if it’s the right pressure. I had some really good years together with my dad and guys behind me were supporting me but the guy who put that on a newspaper with the big title ‘treated like dogs’ or whatever it was, that guy was never in racing before, because I checked it later on, and for some reason he just wanted to… I mean, I never had that word in my mouth, like ‘Red Bull treat you like dogs’ because I didn’t know. So that was a real big mess and I was really angry at that person and he never ever called me again. And I still remember his name, I’m really terrible with names but I still remember his name. So that was a big mess, for me I was not treated well, it was a big lie, but sometimes that’s how the Formula 1 world goes.

“I don’t know [if it effected my career]. You never know if it was another way, or if it didn’t happen. But long story short, it happened, life goes on, but the worst thing that frustrated me was that I didn’t say it. But everybody believes it because it was in a newspaper. Still, after four years people ask me did you actually say that? And every time I say no, I never said it. Never in my entire life did I use those words.”

Frijns also tried out the Sauber at the Abu Dhabi test, and joined the Swiss team’s test driving programme alongside a GP2 campaign with the new-for-2012 Hilmer Motorsport team. Despite missing the opening round of the season, it took him just three races before he stood on the top step of the podium with victory in Spain. But it was a false dawn and the relationship ended mid-season. Meanwhile he was also getting frustrated by the lack of mileage F1 test drivers are afforded in the current era.

“Yeah, there’s no testing. I did one straight-line test for Sauber and that was it. That was boring. I didn’t enjoy my years, and probably as you already know by now, it’s important for me to know that I’m enjoying it. Being in Formula 1, yes, it’s a dream being in a Formula 1 team and to be involved but it’s the same as being a football player. You really want to be at Barcelona, but you’re sitting on the benchevery single game and not playing. I would rather go one level lower and play every game.”

After another season warming the bench as a tester for Caterham, Frijns made the step down in 2015 to the Blancpain Sprint GT series, where for the Belgian WRT team he won a series of races and narrowly missed out on the title.

He had been touted as a possible contender for the spare seat at Trulli for the Battersea season one finale, but ultimately made his Formula E test debut for Andretti at Donington Park.

The team’s struggles with its new powertrain meant running was severely limited until it took the brave decision to switch to the season one technology for the final test. The season started in low-key fashion, with Frijns qualifying 13th and taking the final point in 10th as his car ran out of energy on the run to the flag.

But in Putrajaya things improved dramatically. Robin was just 0.350s off of making it into Super Pole as he slotted his dark blue machine into eighth on the grid. The race was even stronger, and he showed tremendous battling qualities to secure third place, despite deranging the car’s steering and suspension when he hit the wall attempting to pass Dragon Racing’s Loic Duval.

With Formula E gaining increased audiences and credibility across the globe, he’s very happy to be a part of a series where talent rather than cash counts.

“I’m feeling good in the team, they are really nice people. I love American people for some reason, when I was really young I was watching American movies and I just like the people, I like the way they talk.”

The Andretti team is one of the biggest and most prolific in motorsport, running cars in Global Rallycross and Indy Lights as well as Formula E and in the IndyCar Series where it made its name. This, of course, opens up the possibility of Frijns racing in the Indy 500 – probably the most famous motor race in the world.

“You have to have ask Michael!,” he says when asked about an IndyCar opportunity. “For sure, IndyCar’s Formula 1 in America. I’ve never been to Indy, I’ve never been to America before. I spoke to [Stefano] Coletti this year about driving an oval, and he said it’s so difficult. I just want to do it once in my life, see how it is, but I’m sure it isn’t quite the same feeling as driving on a street circuit or any other normal circuit. Stefano told me it’s not a nice feeling if you’re driving behind a guy and you’re heading into a corner and you have a slight bit of understeer and that’s it. You can’t do anything else and you’re heading straight for the wall. Here in circuits you have slides, you’re having fun, and you’re controlling it.”

But that’s one for the future. Right now Frijns is concentrating on building on the podium he scored last time out. The attrition in Malaysia definitely played a part in the result, and Frijns knows he and the team will have its work cut out to repeat that result, especially as it’s clear that the teams with the new powertrains are enjoying a power advantage over the season one users.

“It’s not traction because I didn’t have wheelspin whatsoever, it’s just power,” he explains when asked where the advantage is. “With electric engines you have full power from the moment you hit the throttle. From the first minute we hit the throttle until braking that’s where we lose. We have to work with what we have and hopefully we can score some more points.”