Belgian Sam Dejonghe has come onto the Auto GP World Series scene this year and shown he can compete at the front. Driving for Virtuosi UK, he has already secured his first podium finish in the series in only his sixth race, but faces an uncertain future as a budget shortfall means he does not know whether he will be able to stay for the whole season.
“We have to get a deal so we all know what to focus on,” said Dejonghe to The Checkered Flag. “That will make me calmer, and a better driver. At this moment, we are doing it on a race-by-race basis. It’s very difficult for a lot of drivers to find the right funding to compete in good, high-level championships. We are working hard to secure a full-time drive, which would be great. Now everything has to be done last minute, without any preparation whatsoever, and that makes it difficult for both parties.”
With his future far from certain, his ambitions for 2014 all rely on him getting a full-time drive, and if that materialises, he feels he can get victories in Auto GP. He always goes into a season believing he can win the championship, and 2014 is no different.
“My ambition [for 2014] is to win as much races as I can and get podiums. We will see where that will bring us points-wise. It’s difficult to say now what’s a realistic goal for this season, but I’m always aiming to win a championship. Another target is to better myself as a driver. I’ve learned a lot when I did the MRF Challenge in India. It was a great way to do a lot of driving and against tough competitors, so I’m hoping Auto GP will let me make the same step and improve my ability to drive a race car fast.
“From driving perspective I can still learn a lot. I actually haven’t done a lot of kilometres in the car, so I’m still getting used to it. I’m perfecting my braking, which is different in a big car like this. And apart from that, there are still a lot of areas to better both myself and the car. We haven’t reached the ceiling yet, so there’s a lot of room for improvement, and I only see this as a good thing!”
Looking back at his career, the Belgian feels he has never had a proper shot at a series, with a distinct lack of testing and racing holding him back. Since the end of 2012, he has only raced in the MRF Challenge in India that race over the winter months, with nothing materialising in the series that generally get noticed more by the F1, GP2 or Formula Renault teams until now with Auto GP.
“I’ve felt that I have always had to develop very quickly and in a sort of a rush,” declared Dejonghe. “Every championship I’ve done was with a maximum of 2 test-days under my belt. And during a season you don’t really test either. That meant that I had to learn everything during a race-weekend, which is quite difficult. On moments where I did get the chance to have a bit more time to adapt to a car or track, I always maximized it and in a lot of situations I ended up on top of the time sheets.
“So considering the fact that even in 4 years I’ve probably driven the same km’s as some drivers do in one or two years, I think I’ve done well to adapt myself. And I think that it, to draw a positive from it, has become strength of mine. Also mentally, I’ve become a lot stronger and less vulnerable to certain situations. To further develop now, I have to drive a lot more, this with a right team of people helping me to maximize this. I love perfecting things, so to drive a lot is a big dream for me.”
Looking now at his first few races of Auto GP, Dejonghe debuted around the streets of Marrakech in Morocco, which was quickly followed by a trip to Paul Ricard in France, but Dejonghe admitted that he was not as happy with his results at either event. His best results in those two events were a pair of fifth places in the first race in Morocco and the second race in France.
“I wasn’t too happy with them to be fair. During my first test ever in Auto GP, in Valencia, I set a new lap record after only one day in the car. That was a great feeling and again I showed what was possible. But after that, we struggled to get a deal together in time and we couldn’t prepare properly for the first races.
“Even more difficult was the fact that the first three races of the season came in quick succession. In Marrakech, I was 2nd in race two until two laps from the end, when my rear tyres went. Disappointing, but it wasn’t a bad start. In Paul Ricard, I was quickest from the first practice on. I lost out to pole position due to my own mistake, locking up the front wheel in the last corner, because I was on my way to the fastest lap.
“During the races, I had a gearbox issue in race 1, so we had to retire and because of this, we had to start last in race 2. There we chose for an intermediate set-up, thinking the track would dry out more, but on the starting grid, the rain started to fall heavily again, which ruined our strategy. From last on the grid I could move up to 6th. Which I think was an OK performance, but of course not the result we are aiming for.”
Moving onto round three, Dejonghe admitted he was not originally scheduled to race at the Hungaroring because of a shortfall on budget, but was given a last minute drive by Virtuosi to continue for them, which he repaid them by taking his maiden podium finish in race two.
”In Hungary, initially I didn’t have the budget to compete. I did travel to the Hungaroring to attend the races, because I love this track and the atmosphere there. At the very last minute I did get the chance to drive, which was great. By that time I missed out on both free practices, so with only 1 clean lap we went into qualifying, which wasn’t easy, also mentally. We put it 3rd on the gird, which was great!
“In race 1, my front roll bar broke on lap 2 giving me major oversteer, this made car un-driveable. My hands were covered with blisters because of it! I finished 5th in that race. I did still manage to have an equal quickest lap time as my team-mate [Andrea] Roda, who finished on the podium, so the pace was there.
“Race two was a lot better. The track was still damp but everyone went on slicks. I was the quickest in the beginning stages and could move up to P2, right behind leader [Vittorio] Ghirelli. After the pit stop we had quite a big unbalance in the car, and I had to settle for 3rd. Sato was really quick, so congratulations to him. It’s my first podium in Auto GP, so I’m pretty happy, but not satisfied yet. I really wanted that win.”
Looking to the future, Dejonghe is hopeful he can continue driving for a career, but knows the financial side of the situation is far from ideal. But he acknowledges 2014 is important for him on many levels.
“Every year is important, but the older you get the more important it becomes, because you’re coming closer to a YES or NO story. Can you succeed and make a living from being a racing driver or not? So in that respect, this year is very important. I want to make big steps as a driver and I would love to be put in a professional structure where I can stay for a longer time and learn a lot of new things. I hope this year may bring loads of good positive moments and wins!”