A cheeky chappie in the Formula 2 paddock, what you see is what you get when it comes to Clément Novalak. Authentically himself, the self-described “positive, unfiltered, joyful person” sums up the Frenchman’s personality to a T - a driver, who despite enduring many difficult moments, remains an eternal optimistic.
That upbeat energy helped carry him through what proved to be a rocky rookie season with MP Motorsport. After finishing third in Formula 3 in 2021, he achieved only six points-scoring finishes and found himself firmly in the shadow of eventual 2022 Champion and teammate Felipe Drugovich. Yet while his first campaign didn’t pan out in the way he would have wished, Novalak has no regrets and admits he couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity.
“I never set myself goals. As much as people like to, I prefer to keep them away because it sometimes puts extra pressure on you which, as a driver, you don’t really need sometimes. You just need to work hard and things are going to come to you naturally. So, in that sense I don’t set myself goals, as long as I give to the best of my ability what I can do, I’ll be happy with my performance.
“Nevertheless, of course, last year was difficult and it’s not been easy mentally for sure. From a driver’s point of view, coming off what was a very good year in F3 and a tough but actually very good year I had in my first season as well with Carlin, so it’s definitely been sort of a kick in the teeth. I’m taking it as extra experience to bring on to this year so I can learn from everything I did last year and push to do an even better job this year.”
He added: “It was an awesome experience, seeing how a winning team functions throughout the year and how Felipe worked and where he was pushing not just on the track through the data, but where he was pushing off the track with the engineers, where he wanted to improve and the detail he was going in through loads of different aspects.”
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Holding the mirror up to himself, Novalak doesn’t shy away from self-reflection. Whilst the events of last season are bittersweet and are a tough pill for him to swallow, the 22-year-old’s maturity and worldly outlook shines through. Rather than dwelling on the negatives, he takes them in his stride and views them as a key part of his life-long development, not only as driver but as a person.
“To be honest, there’s so many ups and downs in a season and I think that sometimes even setting yourself goals is never straightforward. When you’re chasing something and you hit a bump in the road, then you don’t necessarily get to that end goal or it’s more difficult to see it and it can stress you out and often put you in a position where you’re worrying. You’re not 100% confident.
“I feel like if you work towards the single target that is giving your best and doing the best that you can, then down the line it will pay off. Whether it’s this year or next year or in two years, four years or wherever I end up, I know that all the hard work that I’m putting in right now isn’t going to waste.
You always see the light at the end of the tunnel, you keep going, you keep pushing towards the hard thing.
“I definitely found myself struggling in quite a few aspects, whether it’s car-related with the extra weight or the tyres. It’s been a massive learning curve and obviously, it’s not been the easiest. Coming off two years in F3 where you pretty much know the car and everything is second nature, last year sort of felt a bit different to me, which I’m not used to. In a sense it’s a massive challenge because it’s something I haven’t necessarily felt before and I take it as a challenge.
“But I think the tough times naturally end up bringing good times. It’s been up and down, I had good results as well, so it’s not like it’s all been very difficult and hard. There were some moments where it paid off, so hopefully looking to bring about more of those this year.”
Certainly the 12th round of the 2022 season in Zandvoort proved to be one of his brightest moments. Whilst the energy in the MP garage was already high at their home weekend, Novalak’s exuberance was on another level. Snatching P10 in Qualifying earned him reverse pole position for the Sprint Race and surrounded by packed grandstands and with all eyes on him, he revelled in the occasion.
Reflecting fondly on a day that saw him achieve his first podium finish, he admits that the moment in itself was something to savour - a culmination of the hard work, sacrifice and dedication that’s been 14 years in the making and a testament to the man he has become.
“From that point of view, any good moments in your career, I look at them as moments you really need to enjoy. Actually, one of my good friends Antonio Felix da Costa said exactly this when he won the Formula E World Championship, these moments don’t come often so you really need to enjoy them.
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“So as much as people can think of the added pressure starting on the front row and having all the media and quite a few people watching on TV, it could be quite stressful, but I look at it as an opportunity where I say to myself as an eight-year-old starting out in go-karts, I would have never ever dreamt of being there. Even just the fact that you’re starting on the front row at an F1 event in a category just below Formula 1 is already massive.
“I’m quite proud of it from where I’ve come from and at the same time, it’s something that I never thought I’d be able to do, so it brings me a lot of joy. Obviously, racing is very difficult because of the sport and often it doesn’t go your way, but when it does, it is definitely a great sport to be a part of.
“Like in anything, the closer you get to the top, the harder the competition becomes. That brings on its own challenge in being great and being able to race against the best, but at the same time, it can be disappointing because you don’t get it necessarily your way all the time. In the tough moments last year, I looked back on other tough years in my career, some things that weren’t even racing related, and there’s always a good outcome at the end of it. You always see the light at the end of the tunnel, you keep going, you keep pushing towards the hard thing.
Whether it’s this year or next year or in two years, four years or wherever I end up, I know that all the hard work that I’m putting in right now isn’t going to waste
“Generally speaking, there’s a lot of lessons that I learnt in my junior career that I’m still learning today, but there’s a lot of things that I went through last year to push beyond and keep me going. The tough moments help me understand that as much as talent is worth a lot, motivation and hard work is pretty much everything else that’s needed in order to succeed. It’s helped me push deeper than I thought I could push off the track and mentally towards the goal.
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“In life you always look at tough moments as being turning points in life and in the moment when something hard happens, it’s never easy to accept. I can speak from first-hand experience after the unfortunate passing of my father – that was an extremely tough moment in life and still is to this day, but at the same time, I probably learnt more in the space of six months following that than I would have ever had he been around in the sense of some many details and things in life that you don’t pay attention to and learn until much later down the line. As difficult as it was, I still look at it as a moment where the pain helped me grow.”
Turning the page on last season, 2023 sees Novalak begin a new chapter in his journey as he reunites with Trident – the team that helped him to third in F3. Now the experienced pair of hands beside rookie teammate Roman Stanek, he’s eager to go from the apprentice to the master and put the lessons from last year into practice.
Although the season ahead is full of unknowns as to how Novalak’s season will pan out, there’s one thing that is not in doubt – whatever happens, he’s intent on living every second of it to its fullest.
“Qualifying was hard last year and I think that’s something that’s well known from a lot of people. Understanding the tyres and how to switch them on has been a big downside to my performance. Also, this year I technically want to be more accurate in sense of setting up the car, which is where Felipe had been spot on last year. He had been working in minor details and he was quite instrumental in setting up the car.
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“The engineering side of things is extremely important the further you go up the ladder because you’re fighting for tenths and sometimes even just hundredths. As much as a driver’s input is going to make a massive difference, you also need to feel one with the car.”
“As much as much as drivers are goal-orientated in the sense that they want to win, I’m also quite a learning-oriented driver,” he concluded. “I’m very happy to get a really good result and get the maximum of my performance out there, but I’m also equally as happy when I learn something extremely important, whether it’s useful for racing or something else in life. It’s definitely something that I cherish and I love learning it.”