There are many in and around Formula 1 who will assume that new Caterham F1 Team driver Roberto Merhi is just a pay driver, and while he does probably bring some money to the team, it has to be said that this young Spaniard is one to watch. He’s the new kid on the block with the funky hair and the film star looks, but don’t let that fool you; give him the wheel of a fast car and he will be quick.
After two, less than successful years in the German DTM Series, Merhi made a welcome return to single seater racing at the beginning of 2014, switching from the Tin Tops of a Mercedes DTM machine to the 3.5 Litre Formula Renault car for the un-fancied Zeta Corse team.
He also had options to return to the GP3 Series before the season began, testing during pre-season, but opted to drive in the Formula Renault 3.5 Series instead.
Aside from Championship leader and Red Bull-backed Carlos Sainz Jr, Merhi is the only driver in the series in 2014 to have won more than one race, triumphing at both the Moscow Raceway and at the Nurburgring, and the Spaniard sits second in the championship. He is Sainz’s closest rival, sitting 39 points behind his countryman with three rounds to go.
The 2011 Formula 3 Euro Series Champion, Merhi took eleven wins in his triumphant year, but turned his back to try his hand at DTM, and took a best finish of second in his final race in the series at Hockenheim at the end of 2013, but it was obviously that he should return to single seaters that did him so well before his DTM move.
Speaking at the beginning of the season, Merhi was delighted to be returning to single-seaters, and praised Zeta Corse for giving him the opportunity.
“I’m really happy to get this chance from Zeta Corse,” said Merhi on his own personal website. “I’m sure that they will give me a good car to fight at the front of the field. There are a lot of good young drivers in this series and it will be a big challenge.”
Merhi is not wrong when he says there are lots of good drivers in the Formula Renault 3.5 Series, with the likes of Sainz, Oliver Rowland, Sergey Sirotkin, Will Stevens and Norman Nato all tasting the champagne from winning races in 2014. Merhi’s debut went well, finishing second to Stevens at Monza.
“I finished 2013 with a second place in the DTM at Hockenheim, and I’ve begun 2014 in the same way, I hope that it is a good augury” said Merhi after his debut. “The certain thing is that I am very happy to be on the podium. The points from this race are very important, since as the season develops we will be closing the gap to those ahead of us and will be more and more competitive. This result is a prize for everybody at Zeta Corse for the enormous effort that they have been putting in this weekend.”
The Spaniard followed up his podium with a ninth place in race two at Monza, and then took two sixth places at Motorland Aragon, before a ninth in Monaco. His only blemish on his scorecard so far in 2014 were non-points scores in both Spa-Francorchamps races, with a crash in race one followed by a thirteenth place finish in race two.
At Moscow Raceway, it all began to come good for the Spaniard. He took fourth place in race one on Saturday before grabbing his maiden pole position and win on Sunday.
“My happiness is total right now,” said Merhi after his race win. “To win starting from pole is the best you can get. At Spa I had some very hard moments, but this weekend’s result is a big boost for everybody at Zeta Corse. Step by step we are fine tuning the car and the team, and I hope that for the final part of the championship more results like this one keep coming.”
He took his second pole and win combination in race two at the Nurburgring, having finished second to Sainz in race one. It was his best weekend yet, and the momentum heading into the summer break was with Merhi.
“Everything has been perfect,” said Merhi after his second victory of 2014. “In qualifying I had the help of the rain, as on a wet track I always feel very comfortable, and that helped to get a very important pole. In the race, despite having a rival very close I never felt at any moment that the win was in danger as I was running very calmly. And, last but not least, from the three drivers that were ahead of me in the championship, Sainz, Rowland and Gasly, the first two didn’t score and the third just got an eighth place so I was able to recover a lot of points and get back in the fight for the title.
“I know that the first position is still quite far away and that it will be very hard to get there, but I’m fighting with that target in mind as long as I still have any mathematical chance.”
In the subsequent weeks, Merhi raced for Double R Racing in the British Formula 3 championship at Spa-Francorchamps and won two of the three races (he did not start the third due to a technical issue). He used that opportunity to enable him the option of racing in Formula 3’s blue ribbon event at Macau at the end of the season, although he insists his focus will remain on the Formula Renault 3.5 Series until then.
“Whether or not I’ll race at Macau this year, that’s something I haven’t yet decided,” said Merhi. “I would prefer to totally focus on the last races of the World Series by Renault, and, afterwards, take a well thought out decision.”
He now finds himself on the brink of an F1 debut with the Caterham team, who might have found themselves a little gem of a racing driver. We all know Kamui Kobayashi is quick, and Andre Lotterer proved himself more than capable at Spa-Francorchamps, but if they give Merhi the opportunity to put his foot in the door, it might be the case that the young Spaniard pushes that door wide open and refuses to leave.
“I am delighted to be taking part in my first ever Formula 1 Free Practice session and I want to thank Caterham F1 Team for this opportunity, it’s something I’ve wanted for a very long time,” said Merhi ahead of his debut. “I’ve been working very closely with the team during the last few weeks and I feel ready for this opportunity; Friday is going to be a very special day for me and one I will never forget.
“Monza is also one of my favourite tracks – I ended up on the podium there earlier this year during my first race of the season in the Formula Renault 3.5 championship, so it’s a circuit that will bring back very good memories.
“What a year it’s been so far: last Christmas I didn’t really know if I was going to carry on racing and now I’m about to drive a Formula 1 car! I’m definitely going to make the most out of this weekend in Italy.”
Spain has been crying out for a young driver capable of replacing Fernando Alonso in the not too distant future in recent years, and with his good lucks and great driving, we might be just about to witness the start of something special. Roberto Merhi – you now know the name, you might be wise enough to remember it.