Change is a foot for twenty-three-year-old Alex Fontana in 2016, as he begins a career in GT Racing as part of the newly formed McLaren GT Driver Academy, but that does not mean his single-seater is over.
Following communication with someone within his 2015 GP3 Series team Status Grand Prix, Fontana found himself in contact with McLaren who took him for an evaluation, after which he was one of only a handful of drivers to be selected for the Academy.
“The first contact came out mostly thanks to a connection I’ve made with my previous team, Status GP,” revealed Fontana to The Checkered Flag. “It always amazes me how from a small thing can happen something huge, and thanks to this person I was called in Woking for a meeting.
“After the first meeting and a review from the McLaren GT headquarters I was called to drive the car alongside other new drivers. Apparently what I did there was enough to get this chance.
“I always thought that if I ever had to move to GT I wanted to try and get a factory/works seat to be sure I could actually say something anywhere I would have driven. The switch from single-seaters to GT is something big for a driver, and I wanted to make the right choice. McLaren GT sounded about perfect to my ears.”
Despite limited time in the McLaren 650s GT3 car during this first experience, Fontana quickly found a rhythm and ended up enjoying himself behind the wheel, and revealed both himself and fellow new McLaren GT Driver Academy member Struan Moore both did things in a similar fashion.
“I didn’t have a big GT experience, but I notice how with the 650s GT3 you can actually feel the downforce on the quick corners almost like a single-seater, and then goes back to behave like a GT with a huge amount of mechanical grip in the slow ones,” said Fontana.
“Both Struan and myself didn’t have a huge amount of time, because we needed to share the drive with other people to get the same chance as everyone to show what we had. But both Struan and myself have a similar way of taking things.
“We started on a cooler rhythm but we did a big progression through the session without any mistake, and when we were done we felt like we could have done so much more. It was very fun to drive overall.”
Fontana revealed he will be back in the car for testing within the next month or so, but knows which series he will be racing in, although that has yet to be revealed by McLaren.
“I will begin end of February with some meetings and mid March with testing,” said Fontana. “Then, once the program is settled, every new chance will bring new opportunities.
“I know exactly what my program will be, at least the main one, but I don’t have the authority to say it before McLaren GT decides it to be the right time.”
Despite three full seasons in the GP3 Series (and two partial seasons), Fontana only graced the podium on three occasions, and admitted that he was never comfortable with the machinery, and rues never having been able to put together a season he felt capable of doing.
“It’s a really strong category and despite the lack of track time can really make you learn,” said Fontana. “To be honest I never found myself really comfortable with the type of car, but despite of that I made some really good performances with more than one team, fighting often for poles or first rows starts and podiums.
“My only “regret”, is that I don’t feel like I ever put together what I was capable of doing, and ending the last season in a difficult way with the problem with my team on setting up the car wasn’t great, especially when I showed I was able to be quick on WSR 3.5, Formula E and at the end even on GP3 bigger sister, the GP2.
“I always felt I was better in cars with more horsepower, but that’s what my budget was giving me the chance to do.”
During 2015, Fontana had the opportunity to race in both Formula Renault 3.5 and Formula E, with the Swiss driver securing a top ten finish at Monte Carlo for Pons Racing in the former while receiving career-boosting media attention in the latter with the Trulli Formula E team.
“It was a great chance to have,” said Fontana. “In WSR I had already tested in Jerez with Lotus finishing the day in second place, but I had never driven in Monte Carlo.
“So when Emilio De Villota of Pons called me to race in the city, I was wondering if it was a good idea or not. In the end, collecting straight away points in P9 was a great results and one of the best experiences I had in racing.
“Formula E was also great, thanks to the trust of Jarno Trulli and Francesco Guarnieri I was able to race in the last event of the year, which was quite hard, but very different from everything I’ve ever done, rewarding me with a very big media boost. I was attracted by the category straight away.
“I think of myself as I driver who can adapt quite easily, because I always had to take last minute opportunities. One big difference from GP3 and WSR is the amount of downforce and power, but once got that, you need to understand how to use the tyres, which require a different style from Pirelli to Michelin.
“Formula E is just something else. You need to understand how the electric engine generates the power on the ground, then try to risk more and more every lap, because that’s what you do on city tracks, and they are all city races.
“And when you go to a GT, well, pick a veteran, ask him a lot of questions, and try to put all the answers in practice. But mostly, from a single-seater to a GT you need to be patient, and wait for the weight transfer to do his thing. The car is heavier, softer and with less downforce: you can’t just throw it everywhere as you do a formula.”
As is it with many drivers, Fontana’s budget basically dictated where he would race, and he admitted his frustration that the cost of reaching Formula 1 is sky high, but his biggest aggravation is that drivers who have the money but not necessarily the talent to match are able to leapfrog him in the pecking order.
“Of course it’s frustrating; we all get that,” said Fontana. “From the driver that needs the budget to get a seat, from the driver who won everything and still didn’t got the seat, from the journalist who wants to make a living with racing but it’s hard to cover all races on track, from the fan who wants to see the race, has the time, but the ticket is too expensive.
“Motorsport it’s hard, motorsport isn’t like a normal sport. There are technologies, pieces and people who need to be there to make the car, the championships and everything else work. And pieces need to be paid; truckies need to live, as long as mechanics and engineers and who knows how many other people. So yes, racing is expensive, but I can also understand why.
“Formula 1 is expensive? Yes. If you need to bring half million to do any competitive single-seater because the team costs 5 million per year to be run by his owner, than it’s normal you need 20 million for a medium team in F1, because it costs 300 million to be run.
“The frustrating part for me it’s not to do with not having the chance to race in F1, for talent or money. It’s because I work hard everyday to gather up more than 60 sponsors, still being careful to not do any damage on the car, and then a rich kid, maybe even a fast one, just wakes up in the morning with no problems at all, jumps on his car all paid, crashes you out, and gets forward in bigger categories you will never be able to do.”
Despite this and his GT commitments with McLaren, Fontana still has ambitions to compete in single-seaters, and still has a chance of stepping up into the GP2 Series in 2016 at some point.
“Single-seater is always an open door,” said Fontana. “I’ve got some opportunities in GP2 so it can still happen to see me this year in some testing or races, but the priority goes to McLaren GT.”