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GP Week : Issue 39
5 Minutes with ... Alan van de Merwe Meet the FIA’s new medical car driver – the 2001 Formula Ford champion, 2003 British F3 champion, a BAR Honda test driver and pilot of the team’s F1 speed record attempt on the Bonneville Salt Flats. ByWILL BUXTON GPWEEK: Alan, welcome back to the F1 paddock. What have you been up to for the last year? ALAN VAN DE MERWE: Last year after my deal with Honda ended I did something completely different. I had my first foray into endurance racing with Aston Martin, which was more of a development programme than a race programme, but I still got to do two races and do a bit on the development side, which I’ve always enjoyed. I quite like the technical side of things. And then this year, a completely different change again, even further away from the race side of things but it is great to be back in the F1 paddock. I think once you’ve worked with an F1 team, or at this level at least, everything else almost pales in comparison. The standard is much higher here, even than the highest level of endurance racing and it’s nice to be back in here and hopefully, in terms of opportunities, if I apply myself it’ll be a good one I think. Can you explain your exact job role with the FIA? I’m the medical car driver, so that basically entails getting the doctors around the track as quickly and as safely as possible. The one unique bit about it is I’ll be on the F1 grid finally, albeit at the back! The thing that is the most noticeable about this is that I’ve always taken it for granted that you turn up to a race track and there’s all this personnel who are there for your safety and the scrutineering and 22 Forget the FIA medical delegate: van der Merwe’s most important passenger to date has been GPWeek editor Will Buxton ... whatever, and you take it for granted. To see what effort goes into it, particularly with things like KERS and the extraction crews, it’s quite interesting. It’s been an eye opener. So how did the job come about? David Lowe, who is the team manager of the FIA, used to be my team manager when I raced at Carlin in 2003 when we won the British F3 championship together, and we had a lot to reminisce about. He called me up out of the blue in December, and I still assumed he was with Carlin and he told me he was with the FIA. When he first mentioned the job it wasn’t something I’d ever imagined doing, but I’ve done land speed records, two-seater runs, as you know, and this is a high level and professional job. The FIA operates at the same level as the F1 teams, so it didn’t take too long to realise it was a good opportunity. What’s the car, and how does it handle? It’s a C60 AMG Mercedes, it’s modified in the sense that its lighter, has racing seats, racing brakes, and for a road car it’s quite exciting to drive. Usually road cars on the track are quite lethargic and a bit boring, but this is good fun, and it’s got a good noise to it. Dr Gary Hartstein, who sits next to me has a lot of experience, so it’s a good fun job. And it’s pretty different to record attempts. Talk us through that because it must have been incredible and yet slightly bizarre. Yeah. Probably the most surreal thing I have ever done. On a salt lake, in a high tech piece of machinery, and you can’t see anything or anyone for 10 miles. I never thought that driving in a straight line would be like that, but it’s almost like a qualifying lap where you have to get everything absolutely perfect to get the record. That again was a massive eye opener. It was still racing, and seeing a different side of it like that was interesting. Will you be able to get any racing done this year? I’m committed to the full season with the FIA, and the only things that would be possible would be endurance racing. I’m working hard on a seat for the Le Mans 24 Hours, which is something I have always wanted to do. It’s definitely a priority for me and it doesn’t clash in any way. Aside from that there’s a couple of opportunities in terms of testing in Formula 1. I qualify as a rookie driver and there are a couple of things there which are opening up with reference to my South African background, so yeah we’ll just see how it goes. The best thing about this is that, unlike a race seat where you rarely have any stability, this is a nice stable job and enables me to concentrate on the job in hand. And the good omen is that the guy you’re replacing, Sebastien Buemi, went and landed himself an F1 seat this season. Well yeah [laughs]. You can only hope.