Oliver Rowland: “We’re on the right track”

Oliver Rowland: “We’re on the right track”

Monaco win shows the fightback is on

It’s quite possible that you are surprised that a rookie driver has been able to come into Formula 2 and dominate, to take a couple of wins and all the poles and to lead the championship. And if you’re surprised, then just imagine what his rivals for the title think.

Oliver Rowland has a tremendous track record – 6 titles in karting, a couple more in cars, on the podium in about half of his races, probably more if you include karts – and he’s racing with DAMS, a team with a proven pedigree and numerous championships at most levels of motorsport. You would probably have forgiven him for thinking about where to put his championship trophy ahead of the start of the F2 season.

And then along came Charles Leclerc.

The young Monegasque driver is in the car that won the championship last year, sure, but that was in the hands of Pierre Gasly, another proven champion who joined a rookie team and helped them pick up both titles in their first year. Leclerc is the reigning GP3 champion, of course, with an impressive track record of his own, but surely Rowland thought he had them covered before season started?

“I think as a team we were hoping that for the first two races!” Rowland laughs when we sit down in his truck, his maiden win in Monaco claimed just a few hours previously. “With Formula 2 we’ve got 45 minutes practice and then qualifying: they’ve never been here before and they’re already on it, so we’ve got to throw that excuse out the window!

“I actually worked as Charles’ driver coach in 2014 when he was in Formula Renault, and I know he’s extremely talented: it was already quite clear, as it was his first year and he was already extremely fast, and he’s a quick learner. So I have some experience of him, working with him and trying to coach him, and I already know a little bit about his strengths and weaknesses, and it’s nice to know that.

“But I don’t think we can count on them being rookies anymore: they come quite well prepared from GP3, [Alexander] Albon and Charles, and I see them on an equal playing field and as the most likely challengers, that’s quite clear.”

Rowland is extremely confident in his abilities, and given his record it’s pretty understandable. But with Leclerc coming along and making such a splash, it was probably helpful to get a win himself, if only to get the monkey off his back. It’s not something he completely denies: “yeah, it’s good. It didn’t worry me too much before that I hadn’t won, but I really wanted to win here, even though in the feature race, starting from third I thought it might be a long shot. Obviously it is off our back now, and as a team we’re still building, still getting everything up and going: they struggled a bit last year, and so did I.

“But we’re working to a common goal, and we’re not 100% there yet but it’s off our back now. We can all gain confidence from that: the guys have worked extremely hard, and it’s nice to reward them with a win. They believed in me as a team: without DAMS and Renault I wouldn’t be here, so it’s a big thank you to them, and we’ve scored big points over the first five races with four podiums: I think that’s the way to start the championship, and we will really try to build on this momentum.”

All the talk of big points is something the Briton has brought up since the start of the year, and obviously the title was something that he and his team have targeted from the beginning. “I was, yeah,” he confirms. “When I first joined the team they didn’t have the best season with Alex [Lynn] last year, and I think they’ll openly admit they could have done a few things better, and that’s why they brought me onboard: they wanted to not have the question marks so much on the driving side of things. So we had things to improve, and I think there’s a lot we can take from the first 3 races where we were just learning all the time.

“They won in the past with Romain and Jolyon and Valsecchi, but things have changed a little bit now: PREMA have come along and set a new level. We’ve done a really good job of catching them: we’re not quite there is qualy, but in race trim more often than not we’re there. It’s good to be surrounded by people who’ve done it before, and I feel a lot of trust from their side in me: it’s nice to have that full support from the team, where everyone’s behind me.”

And he has no doubt what the difference between the two teams, and the two drivers, is right now: “Yeah, it’s qualy at the moment. We were closer this weekend, within two tenths, although he didn’t completely put his lap together which frustrates me, because everyone says ‘oh, it was an amazing lap’, but he still missed two or three tenths from his ideal lap, whereas I didn’t, I had everything on one lap. So the potential for them is even higher than he showed, which is why there is still a bit of work for us to do.

“But we’re on the right track, we’ve made some really good steps forward, and it’s all about putting everything together, the small bits. I had an experience last year of some good races, some bad races: I’ve never been given something that’s far superior to everyone else, so I might be working with something that’s not quite good enough at the moment, but I think it builds me, makes me stronger. I’ve changed my approach, and these guys have helped me.”

Given his fightback in the races it’s pretty clear that DAMS are on top of their race pace, so could he win the championship without starting from the front? In a fight of such fine margins, Rowland knows what he needs. “At the moment it’s the points for pole that we’re missing,” he sighs, “and yeah, at other tracks where you can overtake and it’s high deg then for sure it’s not imperative to be on pole.

“But some of the tracks we go to next, not Baku because we use the supersofts there and it can be quite high deg, but at the Red Bull Ring, at Budapest now, they’re not very high deg so qualifying’s so important: you need to qualify at the front and just pull away, like you would here [in Monaco] if there wasn’t a pitstop today.

“Our aim is firmly on qualifying: in Bahrain and Barcelona we showed that we’re really strong in the race, so I think we’ve cracked that and we know why, which is a good thing. We know exactly why we’re good, and why we were bad before, but we still need to finalise what we’re doing in qualifying to find out why we’re not quite extracting everything.”

Right now Leclerc leads Rowland in the Drivers’ Championship by just 3 points: 3 poles at 4 points each is demonstrably the difference between the pair at the moment, but media coverage always goes to the guy on top, and it’s clear that the Monegasque driver is getting the lion’s share of the attention outside of the paddock at the moment.

How do you deal with that if you’re the other guy? “It is a little bit frustrating to be honest with you, but I have to just work on my job: I have a job to do for DAMS, and a job to do for myself, and if I focus too much on him then I’m not doing my job for DAMS. But on the flip side it’s quite clear that that car has been on pole almost every time it’s been out: it’s a different driver this year, and everyone said Pierre was in an exceptionally different place last year, but it’s clear that they’ve found a little bit in qualifying.

“But you know, DAMS were on pole nearly every weekend before, and I kind of see it that they [PREMA] have got the sweet spot for the tyres now, because the Pirelli tyres are difficult to manage. When you’re a driver and are at the limit, you know that’s the limit: we have some work to do, and me also, but there’s no reason why we can’t challenge them, and I can’t challenge him.

“It’s nice to be able to fight with him, and I agree with everybody: he’s highly talented, he’s one for the future and that’s clear, I respect that. So hopefully we can have a good fight and I’ll come out on top, and then I’ll be sitting okay next year. Let’s see.”

Rowland has built championships in the past, and so has Leclerc. If that equals the pair out, then what is the championship going to come down to? “I think the championship will come down to whether I’m quick enough in qualifying. If I improve my qualifying then it’s going to be who’s mentally strong enough, who finishes every time, who scores points and doesn’t lose their head.

“Things don’t always go your way: today things went my way and I was lucky, but sometimes things don’t and you have to stay calm. And that’s what I’m trying to do: we said from the start of the season that when you’re not the fastest then score points, and when you are you have to capitalise. And that’s what we’ve seen here.”

And as Leclerc’s former coach, who is better placed to know who is going to be stronger than Rowland? “I’d like to think me!” he laughs before summing up. “We know each other quite well, although he doesn’t know me from a driving perspective because in your first year of Formula Renault you’re still learning a lot: I was there to help and guide him and we’re quite good friends, and I’d like to think we have a lot of respect for each other.

“I wouldn’t like to say who would do what, to be honest, but I’d like to hope that it would be me.”

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