Armed with long-time backing from Red Bull, Christian Klien rose through the junior ranks to Formula 1 as one of the first drivers in the energy drink company’s Driver Development programme.
After a chance encounter with Ayrton Senna, Christian started racing karts at the age of 13, winning races in Switzerland and Austria, as well as honing his skills for a possible trade career as a sheet metal worker.
At age 16, he moved to the Formula BMW ADAC Junior Cup, and won his first open-wheeler race in 1999 en route to fourth overall in the championship. Joining Team Rosberg, he moved to the senior series in 2000. It was a solid, but unspectacular season, and he didn’t start winning races until 2001 – he picked up five top-step results and finished third in that year’s season standings.
Following this success, he moved to German Formula Renault with JD Motorsport, taking the national title and finishing fifth overall in the European championship.
His final year in the junior categories saw him in the Formula 3 Euroseries, now equipped with serious Red Bull backing. He took four race victories and finished runner-up to Ryan Briscoe in the championship, adding to this an all-important win at Zandvoort’s Marlboro Masters event.
Support from his compatriot, Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz, propelled him into the second seat at Jaguar Racing alongside the formidable Mark Webber. With several embarrassing seasons in British Racing Green and with their budget slashed by parent company Ford, Christian faced an uphill battle trying to adapt to the jump from F3, on many circuits he wasn’t familiar with. Unsurprisingly, it was a thin season punctuated with a few rookie errors, but he peaked with a sixth-placed finish at Belgium.
Jaguar pulled out of F1 at season’s end, but Mateschitz came to the rescue, buying out the operation and rebranding it Red Bull Racing for 2005, and in turn keeping Christian on at the team. With a new team-mate in the form of the experienced David Coulthard, the early part of the 2005 season was spent sharing his seat with fellow Red Bull graduate Vitantonio Liuzzi. This arrangement made little sense, and the smart move was made to keep Christian in the seat for the rest of the year. His results steadily improved, and he took a career best (to-date) fifth at the Chinese Grand Prix.
Kept on for the 2006 season, he was put in the shade by the veteran Scot a few times too many, and his star was beginning to wane. The team took the decision not to renew his contract for 2007, and Christian opted to leave the team before season’s end.
He managed to earn himself a test drive role with the Honda F1 outfit for 2007, but his appearances were limited and the RA107 was a very ordinary car.
BMW Sauber came knocking, and Christian was much more at home in 2008-9 in a German team, and delighted to feel more integrated in the day-to-day operations at Hinwil.
Tragically, BMW decided to withdraw from F1 involvement at the end of the 2009 season, and the protracted sale of the team to Qadbak – and later, back to Peter Sauber – saw his opportunities for a race seat rapidly diminish as each seat in the other teams were filled.
It seemed Christian would be on the sidelines for 2010… that is, until he got the call…
Now fresh from being appointed as the Hispania Racing Team’s new test and reserve driver (set to make his maiden outing for the team in practice at this weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix), Christian kindly answered our questions about his motorsport career in a particularly refreshing and insightful manner. Read below about his relationship with Red Bull, his jokes about David Coulthard’s age, colliding with his team-mate, and working for the big manufacturer teams such as Honda and BMW Sauber.
RichardsF1.com is extremely thankful to Christian for his time and support in compiling this interview – and we offer enormous thanks to his management team for their assistance in coordinating the interview.
|Full Name:||Christian Klien|
|Born:||7 February 1983, Hohenems (AUT)|
|First GP:||2004 Australian Grand Prix|
|Last GP:||2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix|
|Wins:||0||Best Finish:||5th||Best Qualifying:||4th|
|1999||Formula BMW Junior, ADAC Motorsport München, 20 races, 3 wins, 4th overall|
|2000||Formula BMW ADAC, Team Rosberg, 19 races, 10th overall|
|2001||Formula BMW ADAC, Team Rosberg, 19 races, 5 wins, 3rd overall|
|2002||Formula Renault 2000 EuroCup, JD Motorsport, 8 races, 6th overall|
|German Formula Renault 2000, JD Motorsport, 14 races, 4 wins, 1st overall|
|2003||Formula 3 EuroSeries, Mücke Motorsport, 20 races, 3 wins, 2nd overall|
|Masters of Formula 3, Mücke Motorsport, 1st overall|
|2004||Formula 1, Jaguar Racing Cosworth R5 / R5B, 18 races, 3 points, 16th overall|
|2005||Formula 1, Red Bull Racing Cosworth RB1, 13 races, 9 points, 15th overall|
|2006||Formula 1, Red Bull Racing Ferrari RB2, 15 races, 2 points, 18th overall|
|2007||Formula 1, Honda RA107, Test Driver|
|2008||Formula 1, BMW Sauber F1.08, Test Driver|
|24 Hours of Le Mans, Team Peugeot 908 HDi FAP LMP1, 3rd overall with F. Montagny & R. Zonta|
|Petit Le Mans, Team Peugeot 908 HDi FAP LMP1, 2nd overall with N. Minassian & S. Sarrazin|
|2009||Formula 1, BMW Sauber F1.09, Test Driver|
|24 Hours of Le Mans, Team Peugeot 908 HDi FAP LMP1, 6th overall with P. Lamy & N. Minassian|
|1000Km of Spa, Team Peugeot 908 HDi FAP LMP1, 1st overall with N. Minassian & S. Pagenaud|
|2010||Formula 1, Hispania Racing F1 Team Cosworth F110, 3 races, 0 points, Not Classified|
How did you become involved in motorsport? Was it always your ambition to race in Formula 1?
As a child, I was involved in all sorts of sports. Football, skiing … whatever was on offer in the Vorarlberg, I did it. As far as motor sport was concerned, I was about eight years old when things really clicked. In 1991 I met my great role model Ayrton Senna at the Hockenheim Grand Prix. My father and I had slipped into the paddock through a hole in the fence. We were hardly inside before I ran straight into Senna. I was wearing a Harley Davidson T-shirt and a Salzburgring baseball cap. Totally the wrong dress code…
So was Senna your great idol as a young racer?
I would rather call him an inspiration. An idol is something else. I never had an idol like girls have idols in rock musicians or actors. In Hockenheim, Ayrton spontaneously came over and asked my father to take a photo of the two of us. He was very patient and seemed to know that was what we wanted, even though we would never have dared to ask. That was a moment that pointed me in a whole new direction. From then on I was a committed motor sport fan and soon took up karting. I’ve still got the photo of Ayrton Senna and me up on the wall at home, taking pride of place.
You climbed through the junior motorsport ranks, winning races in Formula BMW, Formula Renault and Formula 3. What was the competition like in these categories?
We were completely clueless to begin with – not like your typical motor sport family. In any case, originally we saw it more as a pastime than anything else. The whole family came along to kart races in the caravan, and we ended up travelling all over central Europe. My mother cooked, my sister played with other girls and my father in those days acted as mechanic and team owner all in one. Everywhere there were the professionals, with their motor homes and hugely expensive equipment. And then there was us – the tinkerers. To me it was all pretty much of a game, though when I kept on picking up trophies it became clear not everybody saw it that way. From that time on one thing was clear: now I had found something I actually seemed to be good at – and that was also loads of fun. Robert Kubica and his family were in the same boat as us, incidentally – tinkerers that other folk tended to make fun of.
Obviously things got more professional once I was under the wings of Red Bull’s junior program. I rose through the ranks and had race wins in every series. Competition got tougher and tougher but I never feared the opposition. Things went quite quickly in hindsight. I was only 20 and had less than a full season in F3 under my belt when I first climbed into the Jaguar at the end of 2003.
By this stage, you were receiving considerable support from Red Bull, which led to your appointment at the Jaguar Racing team for the 2004 season. Were you personally involved with Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz?
Yes, of course. Dietrich Mateschitz took F1 very seriously from the beginning. He was around very often. And we always had a very good way of communicating. He is a kind and very skilful man who has a talent of bringing the best out of people. Even after I left the team our personal relationship was still equally good.
When you joined Jaguar Racing, the team would be entering its final season before being bought out by Red Bull. What were your initial impressions of the team?
As a young driver who makes the switch from 200 to 800bhp and from standard race cars to basically space shuttle technology you have a lot of new impressions. I knew right away that a new era had come for me. Where I had had two people working on my car there were suddenly twenty.
And the first thing I brought home was a big booklet. It looked like 500 pages. And it was only the manual to the Jag’s steering wheel with all the buttons and menus. Amazing! The team were good. Tough British racers. But in hindsight – too few of them.
Your team-mate Mark Webber had a formidable reputation, having outclassed his previous team-mates, Alex Yoong, Justin Wilson and Antonio Pizzonia. Were you nervous being compared with Mark, and what was your relationship like with him?
Mark and I got on well. I had a lot of respect for him and I think I earned his respect quickly. Let’s not forget: I came into F1 in a quite problematic environment for a rookie. It was the years when everybody was saving mileage in practise. I would come to a new track I had never seen before. Sometimes I got 15 or 20 laps the whole Friday and Saturday morning and off we went into single lap qualifying. How can you shine like that? I think Mark knew well what my lap times were worth. Besides that we have a lot in common. He is outspoken and a no-nonsense guy, an outdoor man like every Aussie, and he loves cycling. And he was bloody quick!
Were you offered advice from any notable figures in the pit lane during your Grand Prix debut?
It is not like all the super stars come and take you by the hand to show you round. But I did not expect that anyway. We are all competitive animals, aren’t we?
One thing I should mention though is my first Monaco Grand Prix in 2004. Gerhard Berger put me on the back of his motor scooter and showed me round the track. I never would have dared asking. But that’s how Gerhard is: A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. I highly appreciated it as he did not do it for publicity or anything. He did it because he felt it was the right thing to do.
It was generally a difficult debut season for you, and you failed to appear in the points until the Belgian Grand Prix. Was it a relief to finish in the points?Like I said before it was all but easy. An underequipped team with little time and resources to improve. All we could do was work our butts off and make the most of the rare opportunities.
Eventually it became clear that I would bring home points sooner or later. But you never know until it actually happens.
It was definitely a relief but only a small step.
My mind has always been set on winning races. I would never be comfortable with bringing home a point. But sometimes it can silence your critics.
The golden rule of Formula 1 is not to crash into your team-mate, but you and Mark collected each other in Jaguar’s final race! Can you tell us about it from your perspective?
Next question please…!
Well, you always look silly when that happens. But it was all unfortunate and there were no hard feelings afterwards. But then again nobody expected us to win this race. Mark was on the way out anyway and I think he was happy to do so.
The Red Bull group would go on to buy out the Jaguar team after its withdrawal from Formula 1. Was your future at the team always secure during the off-season?
Yes, as we had a long term plan.
You would be partnered alongside the very experienced David Coulthard for the 2005 season. What was he like as a team-mate?
Quick, experienced, very skillful, just his greyish beard amused me!
He definitely had the bonus of coming in as a former runner up in the World Championship and a proven winner. He fulfilled a leader role that the team badly needed. And he was well connected within the team.
The second race seat would be rotated between you and Vitantonio Liuzzi. Despite securing goods points’ finishes in the opening two rounds (Australia and Malaysia), Liuzzi then stepped in for the third and fourth rounds (San Marino and Spain), and would follow this with further appearances in Monaco and the Nürburgring. How disruptive was this for you?
The worst thing for a racing driver is being without a drive. So it definitely spoiled my season, my confidence. The management had opted to try something completely new in F1. Sometimes you just got to try things to find out that they are wrong. Which became obvious very soon. And I think both Tonio and I will agree that it was not a proper thing to do. The initial plan had been to rotate between us more often, but once I was back there were no more swaps. On a general note I think it is difficult to imagine that a young driver will up his game when you give his car to another young driver. At 21 you hang it in there like hell. It is not like you are 39 and need a kick in the butt by a youngster to find an extra tenth or so.
Fortunately for your sake, Tonio didn’t appear in the cockpit to race again after the European round. Your season continued to improve with more time in the car, and you qualified in the top-ten several times, peaking with an outstanding second-row start in Japan. Your career-best result came at the next round in China with an excellent fifth-placed finish. Can you describe those two Grands Prix weekends?
Suzuka is one of my favourite tracks like many others will confirm, too. It is one of the classic tracks where a driver can make a difference.
Looking back on my career so far (as I am certain you have not seen the best of me yet!) I realise that my best races came on those drivers’ circuits: Spa with my first points and a great race in 2006, Suzuka as we mentioned, and Monaco where I was en route to a podium finish before the car just stopped.
OK, Shanghai is not exactly that but coming in fifth was definitely an achievement. Just imagine: under the new points system I would have gotten 10 points for that!!!
The following year (2006) tougher season for you, and you picked up just two points finishes. The team made the decision not to renew your contract and wanted to place you in Champ Car. Can you talk us through this period?
I was a dead man walking. The decision to replace me had been made much earlier in the season. No matter how hard I tried, the winds had changed. The Champ Car offer was decent and kind as Red Bull was offering me a way out and to still remain in the family. I knew that Champ Car at that time was about to die. And I did not want to ride a dead horse. My goal was always to stay in F1. So the split was inevitable, as brave as it was saying goodbye to a company that had nurtured you and brought you up. But the split was a professional and not an emotional decision. I still do clearly see how much I owe certain people at Red Bull for their support and faith in me.
How close were you to securing a race seat for the 2007 season before signing with Honda as their test driver?
As always, you can never be sure of a thing before the ink is dry. And this is what happened at that time. There were always talks going on and opportunities being judged. At the end of the day it does not matter whether you had a drive for 1% or 99%.
What were your impressions of the Honda Racing team, and its 2007 car? It wasn’t the team’s best car…
The team was definitely going through a tough period. I got to test the car a few times.
My biggest impression was the vast resources a works team has. Rubens and Jenson both had a very high level of professionalism. But I could tell the car did not raise their spirits.
You were briefly released by Honda to test with Spyker, who needed a replacement driver for Christijan Albers. How close did you come to securing the seat?
It is all academic. Colin Kolles wanted me to test their car to judge the other candidates against an experienced and still hungry driver. The test went quite well and lap times were actually very good. But in F1 it does not always come down to that.
You moved on to the BMW Sauber outfit as their test driver for 2008-9. How did the two manufacturer-backed teams compare with one another?
As blunt as it may sound: it makes a difference when your team speaks your own language. While it was never quite easy for anyone to understand the big politics at Honda, at BMW Sauber I was fully involved in everything. The team had big plans after winning their first race with Robert Kubica. I was always on standby. Sadly, I never got to drive a race.
The BMW pull-out and late Sauber buy-back of the team left you in limbo. Despite being linked with roles at Virgin Racing and the Sauber team, it wasn’t to be. What are your hopes for getting back onto the Formula 1 grid?
My goal has always been and will always be to race in F1. At the moment there are so many changes going on behind the scenes. It is a volatile market. And at 27 with six years of F1 experience under my belt I feel I still have a realistic chance. I need a bit of patience now.
But I am all but desperate after last winter. I know why another driver was picked on two occasions and it had nothing to do with my speed or attitude or anything. Times are tough economically.
And with my HRT F1 Team, Hispania Racing contract as test and reserve driver we may have made one significant step ahead now.
You also competed in the Le Mans 24 Hours with Peugeot, co-driving with Ricardo Zonta and Franck Montagny and finishing on the podium. Is endurance racing a career move you would consider in future?
It is the next best thing to F1. We are racing at speeds over 330km/h, 800bhp and everything. Driving a beast like the Peugeot 908 HDi FAP is real racing. I am still in the program as the team’s reserve driver. But my focus is clearly still on F1. Peugeot do respect that and I am very thankful to Olivier Quesnel for his support and understanding.
At the time of writing, you are rumoured to be linked with a Friday test driver role with Hispania Racing. Is there any truth to this rumour?
Well, good research, mate! This announcement was confirmed overnight.
What would you say were your best and worst moments of your motorsport career so far?
Winning the Marlboro Masters in F3 in 2003 was a great day. I had to fight from start to finish. And winning it was my ticket into F1.
Bad moments? Not getting off the grid in Bahrain in 2005. I was seventh in qualifying, 1.4 seconds ahead of DC. And then the engine went out on the grid and I could not start the race. And Monaco was equally bad. I was en route to a podium finish when the car broke down. David who had been behind me all race long came third and stood there in his Superman cape…
What is your favourite racing circuit in the world?
Spa,definitely. And Suzuka, too. It is the kind of place where you can still make the difference as a driver even in modern F1.
Are you happy with the latest rule changes that have been brought in to improve the racing? What is your opinion of the current state of F1?
From a driver’s point of view, the full tanks are a completely new challenge. The aero development has improved further so that we have the downforce levels of 2008 again, despite the much smaller wings. It is really hard to overtake under certain circumstances. But the racing was mostly good. One driver clearly sticks out: my old friend Robert Kubica: what he shows in the Renault is fantastic.
Images via The Cahier Archive and Corbis Images