Superleague driver Craig Dolby takes the long road toward Formula One dream
Tuesday 12 July 2011
Sitting in one of the vast temporary grandstands overlooking Silverstone, a few days after Fernando Alonso's dramatic victory, the scene is very much one of 'after the Lord Mayors show'. There is not much noticeable activity happening anywhere on the old WW2 airfield.
Take a few steps back from the circuit though and three racing cars are being taken from their workshops and loaded onto transporters, each car is liveried in a different national flag, Brazil, Australia and England. Amongst those at work is the English racing driver Craig Dolby who almost affectionately pats the nose of the car which is dressed in the team England flag.
Dolby has come in especially to help the team load-up. He doesn´t have to do this but it says a lot about the man that he does.
“I think of these guys almost as part of my family, so why wouldn´t I, they have given me a fantastic opportunity to race at the highest level, and I´ll never forget that.”
The cars are Superleague Formula cars, being taken to the Belgian circuit of Zolder where the will be competing this weekend in the Grand Prix of Zolder. The cars themselves are thoroughbred racers, powered by 4 litre, V12´s with 750bhp rising to 800bhp when drivers activate their ´push-to-pass´ system.
“I was here at Silverstone for the weekend watching the race and you see why F1 is the pinnacle of motorsport and I´d love to show just what I can do.”
Dolby now 23, has taken a very unusual route to reach top-class motorsport. The road to F1 is not only hard but above all an expensive one, from karting to GP2, you will need a budget of at least €7 million to fund it that far, and even then it´s in the lap of the gods – or sponsors, as to whether you eventually get a drive.
He began racing karts as a four-year-old and won his first championship at eight. As he was entering Lewis Hamilton was ending his karting career and the two raced on occasions. Unlike Hamilton though his parents had sold their house to provide him with his opportunity to race, but by the age of 13 the money had run out.
However a family friend had seen enough innate ability to organize a test session in a Formula Renault car, and at 14 in his first experience of the car in Barcelona, he was only a second off the best lap times set by experienced drivers. He was though too young to race in the UK but he was eligible at 15 to race in the Renault 1600 championship in Belgium, competing at circuits like Zolder and the mighty Spa Francorchamps. In his first race, one week after his 15th birthday, he qualified in fifth and finished the race in third. He then won race two. By then end of the season he had finished fourth in the championship, collecting the most race wins along the way.
The following season he had signed a two year deal to race in Formula Renault in the UK, but halfway through the first season the team pulled out. In 2005 at the age of 17 it looked like his career was over already. He didn’t sit in a race car for over a year.
However someone in Belgium remembered his first season results and a call from the Astromega team offered him the chance to race again. “I needed to take enough money with me to pay for the first race, and I´d been working as a swimming pool life guard and I had saved enough to fund one round.”
“But after 18 months out of a car I was rusty and made a few mistakes. The team weren´t completely convinced, but they said I could race again if I paid for the drive. By this time I had nothing left, unbelievably my friends and my girlfriend at the time, all chipped in and raised enough for me to race in one round. I qualified on Pole and won both races and the team kept me on for the rest of the season and I won the championship.”
In 2007 the team set him up with a drive in France but the season was a low point. “I remember one race where the rain was coming down in buckets, but the mechanics were all working on my team mates car and I ended up lining up on the grid in slicks. It summed up the year.”
In 2008 it again looked like it had come to an end, when out of the blue, the Astromega team again called him to say that they were entering two cars in the brand new Superleague Formula series and wanted a driver for next weekend at Donington Park. “I had no idea what it was all about but when I went for my seat fitting and saw the cars I couldn´t believe it. They were and still are awesome.”
“I went straight into qualifying and finished 8th out of 18. It was amazing as there were people like Antonio Pizzonia and Richard Doornbos who had been racing in F1 and I was racing wheel-to-wheel with them. I was behind Pizzonia at Nurburgring and I was literally learning from him as I was in his wheel tracks, I´d never raced with carbon brakes. Then at some point I found that I was faster than him on the day, and this guy had raced with Williams and Jaguar. ”
2010 was a big year for Dolby as he again lined up in Superleague Formula, although he finished the season in second place, his win at Silverstone and victory in the Super Final gave him a cheque for €100,000, the first money that he had earned to keep as his own in his career. By the end of the season he agonizingly finished just two points adrift of Champion Davide Rignon, who was immediately signed to join the Ferrari F1 driver squad.
“Everything that I´ve been through as a young driver, when your parents sell a house and you go through so much emotion and now the desire to make it as far as I can is unbelievable. My parents are coming out this weekend to watch me race in Belgium and this will be the last race that they can afford to come to all year. So I´m going out there to win. I have such a great team around me now with Alan Docking Racing that I feel ready for Formula 1. I believe in myself, I´m not arrogant. It´s frustrating when you haven´t got the big budgets but when I see Davide doing things with Ferrari I know that I´m strong enough.”
“Superleague is a top-level world-class championship, it´s not F1 but when people watch it they are hooked. It is racing and motorsport at its absolute best. No matter what happens in my career I will always love this championship. It gave me a chance to race against top-class driver in top-class cars and for a young British driver without a big budget, it´s given me an opportunity to show just what I can do. Money talks in motorsport and Superleague Formula has given me a voice.”
You can watch this weekend's Superleague action at independent.co.uk/superleaguelive
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