Last weekend, in Barcelona, Indiana-born racing driver Conor Daly won his first European race at the wheel of a Lotus GP3 car. Aged just 20, and competing in this prestigious junior single-seater series, he is one of a handful of Americans racing in Europe and targeting Formula One.
This week, Formula One legend Jean Alesi has crossed the Atlantic. The 47-year-old French Sicilian is at the opposite stage of his career to Conor and has come to the US to compete in the Indianapolis 500, having never driven an IndyCar or raced on an oval before. He, like Conor, has come to a different continent to experience a different racing culture, and to do so behind the wheel of a Lotus single-seater.
“I was hoping for a new challenge,” says Jean, who retired from Formula One in 2002. “I’d never raced on an oval before, never done anything like the Indy 500, but it’s a very important and special race. I’m interested in the cars and the history and the culture of racing in the US, which is a very different experience to Formula One. I thought it would be a satisfying and fun challenge, and I’m very grateful to Lotus and my sponsor F.P.Journe for giving me this wonderful opportunity. I will be able to say I have raced in the Monaco Grand Prix, the Le Mans 24 Hours and the Indy 500, which is something I’m very proud about.”
He’s more used to drinking podium champagne than victory milk, but Jean appreciates the cultural differences that exist between Indiana and Monte Carlo. “I’ve got to see a lot more of the fans than usually happens at a grand prix, which is really nice,” he said of his Rookie Orientation Program, and autograph sessions. “The teams are smaller in IndyCar, there are less people in the crews, there’s not as much equipment. It’s such a huge event, the Indy 500, but there’s a kind of back-to-basics feel compared with Formula One. I think it’s less corporate, more relaxed, and obviously the cars and the racing are really different. It’s another world really.”
The culture clash took Conor a little while to get used to when he came the other way, from Indianapolis the UK, and to Formula One’s support paddock at its European rounds.
He moved to Bracknell, a small town south west of London last year to work with British GP3 team Carlin. Now he’s racing for Lotus GP, which is based an hour from Paris, but continues to live in the UK where the majority of F1 teams are situated.
“It’s completely different, a real lifestyle change,” reflects Conor. “I still love Indiana, but I have to be over here because this is where the Formula One teams are. This is the place to be. You have to make sacrifices to get what you want in life, and I’m actually as happy as can be living here because I’m realizing my racing dreams.”
Conor’s surname may sound familiar. His father, Irishman Derek Daly, raced in 49 Formula One grands prix between 1978 and 1982, the highlight being two fourth places for Tyrrell in 1980, before turning his attention to CART and the Indy 500, and raising his family near the Speedway.
Conor grew up watching the races on both sides of the Atlantic, and while he decided F1 was his ultimate goal, he also developed a love of ovals, which is rare among his GP3 peers, most of whom have never seen one.
“People don’t give oval racing the credit it deserves. I love it, it’s very different and very challenging”. Conor raced at four oval races in the Star Mazda Championship, which he won in 2010. “Those were the most fun races I’ve ever done. I really wanted to race on ovals in Indy Lights, but I didn’t have the finance”. He contested five Indy Lights rounds last year, alongside his GP3 program, but all on road courses, winning the Long Beach Grand Prix.
Racing on the twisty tracks of Europe, with bigger budget teams, Conor describes it as “like playing a different sport” compared to US auto racing. “For me it took a long time to get used to it, and get the results coming”. He finished his rookie season with Carlin 17th in the GP3 Drivers’ Championship. “The season ended too quickly for my liking. With Lotus GP I am converting everything I learned last year and now I’m getting the results. We’re in a great position now”. After two races, he’s currently second in the title chase.
From GP3 (280bhp, 630kg, 165mph), most drivers step up to GP2 (612bhp, 688kg, 206mph). The best and luckiest then move up to the pinnacle of motorsport, Formula One.
“The ultimate goal is to have a long and successful career in F1. I’d never count out the option of IndyCar, but I’m so focused on F1 I can’t think about anything else. That said, I grew up in Indianapolis, and I would love to return one day to race there. Maybe as a one-off race, like Jean is doing. That would be cool.”
Conor will be in Monaco next week for the first time, racing on the world’s most famous street track just as his Lotus colleague Alesi straps himself in at the legendary Brickyard. “It will be difficult for Jean,” warns the American. “It’s not too difficult to go flat-out, but it’s hard to find those last few miles-an-hour, to trim the car and get to the point where you qualify well and have the confidence to do all 500 miles faster than anyone else. Fair play to him for really going for it.”
Daly is sure to be doing the same between Monaco’s fearsome Armco barriers that same weekend. Two of the world’s greatest motor races, 4500 miles apart, both totally at odds in terms of layout and racing culture, yet with Lotus machines racing in both: For Jean and Conor, it will be an all-new experience and one they’ve always dreamed about.