"Never in a million years did I think I’d win a race" – The Gryphon meets Sam Tordoff

Many students have an extra job to earn some money while studying, but it’s unlikely that you’ll spend your weekdays working, and then race across Britain as a weekend job. Leeds driver, Sam Tordoff, was runner up in this year’s British Touring Car Championship, and spoke with The Gryphon’s Luke Etheridge about his season, and how he fits racing around working for his dad’s firm.

When the season started in March, did you have a feeling straight away that it would be a really good season for yourself?

Yeah, I’d been with BMW a year already so I was comfortable with the team and with the car, I kept the same mechanics and engineers so all that side was consistent.  I was confident in the car and my driving, but the problem is in touring cars the regulations change year on year and the cars can get faster or slower, so you know you are starting well but you don’t know how everyone else will do.

You mentioned that you were comfortable with the car, did driving in the Porsche Carrera Cup help with the transition from front wheel drive in the MG to rear wheel drive in the BMW?

Yes definitely, Porsche was the only rear wheel drive stuff I’d done before joining BMW, so the two years definitely helped. But when you switch between the two, it does take a little while to get back into it. Yes, you can jump right in straight away and be fast, but its finding that last little bit, you only have to be two tenths slower and suddenly you’re sixth or seventh on the grid, so it’s those last little bits that make the difference.

Was Porsche an avenue you considered further? You raced in a couple of Supercup [The European Porsche series] events when they came to the UK.

Yes, we looked at the Supercup, it’s a good championship and I love Porsches and the brand, the Carrera Cup GB was fantastic. The problem is with Supercup it was too time consuming and too much travel so that’s why I never pursued it. Basically, all my sponsors are based in the UK and they want to be able to bring in guests, which is easily done when you race in Britain, but hard when only one in 10 is actually held in Britain. And if the sponsors don’t pay the money, I’m not going racing.

Your first full BTCC season was 2013, alongside Jason Plato. Do you think being alongside an experienced driver helped your development?

Yes, absolutely. I would rather have teammates of that calibre than rubbish ones. Two years with Jason and I learnt a hell of a lot. He’s won more races than anyone else, something like ninety-five, a ridiculous number, so there’s no one better to learn off of. And he’s made a career out of it, he’s one of the few people to make a living out of it. So on both the driving and non-driving side, he’s someone to look up to.

Tordoff and Plato raced for two seasons together (Image: Getty Images)
Tordoff (left) and Plato raced for two seasons together (Image: Getty Images)

Carrying on talking about teammates, you see a lot in Formula One not getting on, like Hamilton and Rosberg at the moment. Is that something that you get in touring cars as much?

Yes, I think it happens a lot. I just don’t think you necessarily know about it. First of all, you want to beat your teammate, that’s the true test of how good you are as you’re in the same car and you want to be the number one driver and not the number two. So I think it’s interesting. Most teammates pretend to get on, some actually do get on, with regards to sponsors you’ve got to be civil in public. Obviously I get to see a lot of what happens behind the scenes, and it’s interesting.

Would you say you have a good relationship with Rob and Jack? [Collard and Goff, Sam’s two teammates in 2016]

[Laughs] I knew you were going to ask that question. Jack for example, I’ve known since I was ten, we did karting together and moved up the ladder together so I get on with Jack really well. It helps that he’s a similar age to me, we hang out a lot outside of racing as well. Rob’s different, he’s a lot older than me, and I only met him two years ago. Rob’s obviously very experienced, he’s been driving a BMW for, I dread to think how many years, and he was a good benchmark for when I joined West Surrey Racing. But I’ve beat him both years in the championship, so I think I’ve done myself proud.

Did it get more tense with Rob as the season went on, as you were both involved in the title battle? [Rob finished 5th]

Yes, definitely. The problem is, we’re supposed to help each other, for the benefit of the team to try and win the championships. But when both of you have still got a chance in the driver’s championship, you don’t really want to help each other, and you want to beat him just like you want to beat whoever else has a chance. So it becomes difficult at times, it gets a bit heated, and you end up probably going out of your way to not help each other. This year was probably more difficult as it was so close at the top, but on the flip side, we were both trying to win the teams and the constructors, so you want to get as many points as possible for that.

Would you say it’s more enjoyable fighting with your teammate as you’re both in equal cars?

To be honest, I think it’s less enjoyable, because if it was anyone else you’d treat them differently. You could be more aggressive, you could run them off the road and never have to answer for you actions. After every race, we as a team all sit in the office ten minutes after it’s finished to discuss what has happened, and if you’ve been too aggressive with your teammate you’ve got to explain yourself. So in that sense it’s more awkward, because if it was anyone else you’d just push them off and not worry about it.

What would you say the highlight of the season was?

Obviously the two race wins were a highlight, but for me it was the recovery drive at Rockingham. I think Saturday was a disaster for all three cars [The team qualified 26th, 27th and 28th], but then the drive we did in race one and race two, to ultimately win race two, we didn’t think that was possible. On Saturday night we didn’t think we were going to get any points, and never in a million years did I think I’d win a race, so Rockingham was a standout.

Do you think the ballast makes it harder to win the championship from the front? [Cars are made heavier for qualifying and races depending on their championship/race finishing position]

Yes, massively. I think it’s the weird thing about touring cars, it’s all for show and it’s not pure racing and you have to accept that, and accept that you can’t be good all the time, because as soon as you have one good race they chuck a load of ballast in or reverse the grid. Someone told me if you finish fourth in every race you’ll win the championship, so you have to accept that you won’t win them all. I led the championship for so long, and you start every race weekend with full ballast, so you’ll probably only qualify at best tenth, and have a very average first race. You don’t feel like you’ve done a good race, but considering the weight you’ve done the best you can and you’ve got to maintain that mindset.

How do you find balancing two jobs, working for JCT600 [A chain of dealerships run by Sam’s dad, John] and being a racing driver?

It’s weird, I’m not going to lie, but I love this place and I love working, probably more than driving sometimes. I work every hour and balance them both, but without JCT600 I wouldn’t be racing. I wouldn’t have had that opportunity, and now I’m standing on my own two feet and racing professionally. I owe everything and more to JCT600, so for that reason, I’ll always work here, I’ll always give it my all. Monday mornings can be a bit difficult when you’ve been away since Thursday, so I get back to a pile of work I haven’t done. It’s weird spending Sunday afternoon on TV signing autographs, and the next morning I’m making tea for the office, so it brings you back down to Earth.

In a way, does having this job help you if you’ve had a bad weekend, as it can help take your mind off racing?

Yeah, if I’m being honest I don’t think about racing in the week. Whether it’s been a bad or good weekend, I wake up on Monday and go to work and racing’s just a memory. I’ve got to get stuck into work and two or three weeks might pass before I go racing again. It’s good when racings not gone well, it’s easy for me to forget about it as I’m so engrossed in work. I love motor racing, I’m always seeing what’s going on in the press, but with regards to driving I forget about it and move on.

Do you plan to take over from your dad?

Yeah absolutely. I’m still twenty-seven so I’ve got plenty of time, but my ambition is to be CEO, I’ve always wanted to do that from day one. After getting my engineering degree I joined in accounts, I’m now a chartered accountant, added that string to my bow, and I’m slowly getting more experience. At the moment I can just about juggle racing and work, but I think in the next few years as work gets more serious I’ll have to stop racing. It will get to that point in the next five years where I can’t physically do both, and I accept that. Racing was just something I did as a bit of fun, and it’s got to the point where it’s a second career and I have to be fully focused, and when I can’t be focused I’ll have to hang up my boots.

Sam hopes to take over the running of his family's dealership chain in the future (Image: JCT600)
Sam hopes to take over the running of his family’s dealership chain in the future (Image: JCT600)

So you can’t see yourself carrying on as long as Matt Neal, Jason Plato and Rob Collard, and carrying on until you’re nearly 50?

No, to be honest I don’t know how they do it. They can’t be as involved with work as they should be if they can still do BTCC as well, there’s no way you can run a company of this magnitude and race at the level that I do. Because I’ve raced at such a high level now, I couldn’t go back to doing it for fun. BTCC is the biggest racing series in the UK, and unless I stay or keep going forward I can’t see myself carrying on, I just wouldn’t enjoy it the same.

Are you plans for 2017 and beyond to stay in BTCC?

I don’t know is the honest answer, at this time of year I’ve usually signed the contract for the following year. But with the situation in the championship this year, that took precedence, so we decided to not worry about next year. It was only last week we were like ‘What are we going to do?’, and my manager Tim is doing the rounds and speaking to lots of people, and we’ll sit down and put everything on the table and see what’s what. As well as BTCC, we’re looking at sportscars in Europe and stuff like that, or I might stop all together, I don’t know.

Assuming you do stay, will this years’ experience of the title battle help?

Yeah, I learnt a lot because it’s different, there’s a lot of media anyway in touring cars but if you go into the last round leading, that media expectation goes through the roof. It’s bonkers. Brands Hatch was hard work dealing with that and still racing, and if I’m ever in that position again I know how to deal with it and I should be better served.

You mentioned racing in other series, now that you’ve built more of a profile is Europe more realistic?

Yes, I’m looking at Europe and across the world. Last year I raced a Ferrari in the European Le Mans Series, we travelled across Europe and that’s something I’d like to look at again. I’ve never raced at Le Mans, Spa and Monza. I’ve got this bucket list of things I want to do, and I’ve never even raced at Monaco. As I get to the latter stages of my racing career, I’m definitely looking at different things if I don’t do BTCC.

Spa in Belgium is one of the tracks Sam hopes to race on in the future (Image: Nathanael Majoros)
Spa in Belgium is one of the tracks Sam hopes to race on in the future (Image: Nathanael Majoros)

If you took a break from touring cars, could you see yourself coming back?

I think I could always come back, even if you move away people will always know you as a BTCC driver, it’s the biggest thing in the UK by a mile, and it’s one of the easiest things to get sponsorship for. They know of the series, they know the millions on TV and the thousands every weekend, so it’s the easiest to sell. So if I ever wanted to go back I’m confident the door would be open.

Have you ever thought about moving into engineering?

I studied it at uni, and the problem was it was 100% theory. I never picked up a spanner or looked at a real engine, saw plenty of diagrams of them and after three years of that I wanted out. The problem was because I needed so much time for racing, the only place that would let me do that would be the family business. When I leave on Thursday and come back on Monday, it’s only my dad who will let me off. I think doing racing has allowed me to scratch the engineering itch. I work really closely with my engineer John, and touring cars are highly complex and you can do million and one car setups, and I have access to all that and we discuss it in great length, and I think over time you have an understanding of how stuff works and how the car reacts. So in a weird way, I’ve come full circle and I still use my degree every weekend, and I think that’s an advantage I have as a driver.

Featured photo credit: PSP Images

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