With the Bathurst 1000 only days away, we dive into the archives of our sister publication www.prodijee.com to bring you a 2012 interview with rookie race winner, Nick Percat.
HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE A BATHURST WINNER?
It still hasn’t really sunk in. I didn’t even have a chance to watch the race on TV until the Christmas break, and I couldn’t remember how a lot of it played out so it was good to watch it over and understand that I did actually win Bathurst. It’s a crazy feeling. It’s something I have dreamt of doing my whole life and, now that it’s actually happened, the feeling is unbelievable.
WINNING AS A ROOKIE IS PRETTY SPECIAL, TOO.
It’s not something that happens very often. I knew the car was quite good, because I had driven it during the year and driving alongside Garth (Tander) was easy because he has mentored me for a few years now. We know each other quite well and we get the best out of each other.
There was never the stress of driving an HRT (Holden Racing Team) car because I’m in the team the whole time and, basically, it was just a different coloured car to what I normally drive. So, from that side of things, it was much easier than people probably think. But, to win Bathurst and go through all that emotion is pretty crazy.
THOUGH YOU ARE STILL YOUNG, IT’S BEEN A LONG TIME COMING.
I started (racing go karts) when I was seven and raced through until 15. We got out of it before I went to seniors.
WHAT PROMPTED THAT DECISION?
A lot of guys in karting who go to seniors never leave because they never progress. We didn’t want to get stuck in karting, so we made a decision just to go to the end of juniors and then go into cars with Formula Ford (FF).
HOW DID YOU FIND THE TRANSITION INTO CARS?
We started off in the South Australian FF state series, with an older car. It was just me, my Dad (Marc) and a friend of ours, Ian Hall.
In my first year of car racing we won the SA State Championship, even though we had a very limited budget. It was a pretty cool thing to win in my first year of cars.
WERE YOU THINKING ABOUT A CAREER THEN, OR JUST SEEING HOW FAR YOU COULD GO?
I always wanted to race for a career. It is what I have wanted to do ever since I can remember, so there was a lot of determination and drive there to somehow make it all happen with what (little resource) we had.
In the early days, a lot of the time, we were racing against guys who were in newer cars and things like that, so we fought quite hard and made every moment count.
HOW DID THAT LACK OF RESOURCE AFFECT YOU MENTALLY?
I think I might have been hungrier for it than other guys. It’s just the way I am. I did the best I could and that was good enough for us to win at a state level in 2005. Then we went into Aussie Racing Cars (ARC) in 2006. We were just going to do a few rounds and see how we went because we didn’t have the budget to do it completely. ARC is a category where all the cars are the same and have even performance.
The first round was at the Clipsal 500 (Adelaide) in 2006. I had only done half a day of testing in the car and we ended up finishing fourth overall for the weekend. It was quite a promising start against guys who had been in the category for years.
BEING IN A SUPPORT RACE ON THE V8 SUPERCAR CHAMPIONSHIP EVENT WAS A BIG STEP UP.
It was my first attempt at driving on a big stage in front of a lot of people and with 40 cars on the grid. It was a very different situation for me.
We went well and managed to get some sponsorship, and did the whole season. We were leading the championship going into the last event on the Gold Coast, but it became a round full of mechanical issues with the car.
We didn’t get to start two of the three races, so that destroyed the championship.
At that point we thought, ‘We have run out of money, we haven’t really got anything left’. We weren’t even going to run the last race of the meeting. It started raining and Dad said, “I think we should go out and have a go; you’re quite good in the wet”.
I started in 40th place, because we hadn’t finished the previous two races, and won by about six seconds in a six-lap race. It was good to get a win, but it also got the interest of Walkinshaw Racing (HRT).
From then on I have been under Walkinshaw’s wing. They have helped me in every aspect; financially, my training, everything. It is a credit to them that they have taken a punt on a young guy. I have been with them since 2007 and it has worked well for both of us.
DID YOU KNOW THEY WERE WATCHING YOU?
From what I understand they half knew my name because I had won a lot of the races towards the end of the year when I started getting the hang of the car, so they kept hearing my name mentioned over the (public address) speakers.
At the Gold Coast a lot of people ended up watching that race because the commentators were quite into it, watching someone go from 40th, and last on the grid, to the lead and then just drive away. It got a bit of attention and the very next day I got a phone call from Walkinshaw.
WHAT WOULD YOUR LIFE LOOK LIKE IF WALKINSHAW HADN’T CALLED?
Before that we were like, ‘Well, we gave it a shot. Hopefully, we might be able to race something next year’. Otherwise, we would probably be go-karting and I’d be working in my Dad’s mechanical workshop in Adelaide. Walkinshaw helped us get into the national FF series. I spent three years there and won the championship in 2009 and they helped me step up to the V8 Supercar development series in 2010.
WHAT DID YOU THINK WHEN ONE MINUTE YOU ARE LOOKING AT GIVING IT AWAY, THE NEXT A FACTORY RACE TEAM WANTS YOU?
I was quite young, I was only 17. It was all a bit crazy because we thought it might have just been someone playing a bit of a joke.
We went to a meeting with them on the second morning after we got the phone call and it was all legit, and it has been good ever since.
It has been a big commitment from us too. I moved to Melbourne by myself when I was 17 to be near the team and have been living by myself ever since. If I wasn’t going to training or I wasn’t performing, if I wasn’t getting the results it would have all ended a long time ago. They didn’t let me have it easy and I wouldn’t expect anyone to. I have had to work very hard.
Towards the end of 2007 I wasn’t even sure if I would be there the next year because I didn’t have a great year. Part of the deal was that I had to win the championship to continue, so to keep me on was a sign of faith and eventually we won the title.
YOU ALSO GOT THE OPPORTUNITY TO RACE IN ENGLAND.
In 2008, I did the FF festival, which is like the world championship of FF. All the best FF drivers from around the world come to race each other. The cars in the UK are different to the cars in Australia and we rocked up without doing much testing.
We got there the week before and I worked on the car myself with my engineer.
We managed to get the car sorted and even with a bit of jet lag we won the semi-final against guys who had been racing those cars all year.
That put us on pole (position) for the final race of the championship, so we went into that with a good chance. But we had a mechanical drama on the first lap, so the race was pretty much all over before it began, which was a bit upsetting.
But it was a good experience to learn from. Going over there and racing against these guys made me a better driver because it was a different level.
DID YOU APPROACH THE EVENT ANY DIFFERENTLY BECAUSE OF THAT?
No, I always approach a race meeting with the same frame of mind. Even when I went to Phillip Island and Bathurst with HRT this year I treated it the same way as if I was in my car at Clipsal. I was racing against guys in the UK that do a lot more testing and a lot more miles than what we do in Australia.
They weren’t necessarily any better than what we have in Australia; it’s just the amount of testing they do. They were on the pace straight away. We were probably on the back-foot there because it was an unknown car and unknown tyres, but once I got close to our rhythm I was the quickest there.
AND LAST YEAR YOU RACED AN OPENWHEELER IN A SUPPORT RACE AT THE INDIAN FORMULA ONE GRAND PRIX.
India was quite good. I hadn’t driven an open-wheeler for two years. I went there with Walkinshaw Racing. Ryan Walkinshaw, who is Tom Walkinshaw’s son and now looks after Walkinshaw Racing, and his mum, Martine, invited me to go over there and race. It was just a one-off kind of thing. I didn’t expect to do as well as we did because again, I was racing against guys from all around the world, but we gave them a really good run.
We qualified on pole by about 1.6 seconds and won Race One by about seven seconds. That was a pretty good feeling because it didn’t matter if I was driving a (V8) Supercar or an open-wheeler, I was quite quick. I could go up against these kids in any car I wanted to. It was a good experience and good to learn another track. It is an awesome track. It would be good one day if the V8 Supercars could race there.
AS A PROFESSIONAL RACER, WHAT ARE YOUR OFF-TRACK COMMITMENTS?
There are sponsorship commitments. Coates Hire is my major sponsor and before every round we generally go to a Coates Hire location in whatever state we are racing at and do an autograph signing. They also put on a bit of a BBQ and do a Q&A with me, so there is that side of things.
There’s training every day of the week doing various things – gym, running, cycling. Then I go in the (race shop) a fair bit, not to work on the cars, but more to talk to the team and try to find out where we can improve and how we can make our package better.
Before each round we have a sit down together, all the engineers and drivers, and we plan for the weekend. We go through the different things we might change on the car and when we get back from the race meeting we will have a big debrief to see what areas we can improve on, what we did well and what we didn’t do well. We don’t just rock up on the weekend and have a bit of a bash. A lot of people don’t really understand what goes into it and how much money is invested to get there.
AND OF COURSE THE SPONSORS WANT A RETURN ON THEIR INVESTMENT.
The team has sponsors and everyone wants to do well for them. If it wasn’t for the sponsors 90 per cent of the teams wouldn’t be there, so you really have to look after them. They want results, but it’s not just that; the whole team is working to get the car to the track and make it as fast as possible. It is definitely a team sport.
AS A BATHURST ROOKIE, DID YOU FEEL ADDITIONAL PRESSURE TEAMING WITH GARTH TANDER IN AN HRT CAR?
There was probably a bit more pressure in those two (endurance) races, but I don’t mind having the pressure on me; I probably get a bit more performance out of the way I drive. There was never a point where I thought, ‘Oh God, I have to perform’. It was just jump in and drive the way I normally drive. Obviously, it was good enough because we won Bathurst.
Once you try to make one race meeting different to the others, things can go wrong. You feel the pressure more because you put so much on the one race meeting.
I treated those races the same as any other race, did the same preparation and had the same mentality leading into them and drove the car the way I normally would. I was quite quick, so I don’t want to change that.
WHAT HAPPENED WHEN THE CAR SLID INTO THE WALL AT TURN TWO WHILE LEADING AT BATHURST?
Lowndesy (Craig Lowndes) was behind me for a while and he kept putting his nose in, so eventually I thought ‘I’ll just let him go past and I’ll follow him’ because he was no quicker than me; I could just sit on his rear (bumper) bar without losing any time. I wanted to follow him and learn, because he is a guy who has been around Bathurst as much as anyone and he does it quite well.
That was all well and good, but there were a lot of marbles off-line and the outside wheels got into them a little bit and from then on I was a passenger; I just had to chase the car all the way out to the wall and make sure it didn’t cause too much damage when it hit.
WERE YOU WORRIED THE DAMAGE MIGHT HAVE BEEN MORE SEVERE THAN IT WAS?
I knew it was a decent hit. I gave the car a bit of a wobble to make sure the Watts Link wasn’t broken at the back of it. As soon as I realised that was okay it probably took me a lap to get back into a rhythm because the car had quite a big vibration through the wheels, which were damaged on the left-hand side from making contact with the wall. Once I got used to having a big vibration I was straight back into it; the pace was straight back to what I was running before and as soon as we put the next set of tyres on, the car was absolutely fine. The car was in a top running position and it was all good.
WHAT DID THE TEAM SAY TO YOU OVER THE RADIO?
They watched it on the (TV) monitor and once it hit the wall I just said to the guys, “I’ve hit the wall at Turn Two”, they came back on the radio and said, “Yep mate, saw that. You’re all good; just get back into your rhythm. You’ve got 20 laps to go till the end of your stint, so keep your head down and keep going”.
The person talking on the radio can’t get all fired up and angry at the driver because he’s never going to get back on track. Both of us were quite calm, so we were fine.
HOW WOULD YOU SUM UP YOUR 2011 SEASON IN THE FUJITSU SERIES?
It served its purpose. It was to give me more laps in a V8 Supercar because I was one of the most inexperienced guys teaming up with a guy who could potentially win the biggest race of the year. We wanted to be up the front or winning in Fujitsu, but it was used more to give me experience and keep me learning about V8 Supercars. It is the closest car they could give me to the HRT car and we tried to make all the setups similar, but they could never be identical. It was a good year though; having Coates Hire on board and being associated with them was a big deal. It’s a good place to be at the moment.
YOU ARE RACING IN THE DEVELOPMENT SERIES AGAIN THIS YEAR. ANY TALK OF WHEN A FULL-TIME MAIN SERIES DRIVE MIGHT EVENTUATE?
I want to make sure I don’t go into the main series underdone. When I go to the main series I want to be competitive. I don’t want to be floundering around in 18th or 19th position. It has been a joint decision between me and the team to go another year of the Development Series and see where I am.