Meet Fernando Rees: the man who is faster than many of today’s Formula 1 drivers in equal machinery.
A speedy racer in his native Brazil, Fernando moved to Europe in his teens to and caught the attention of the works ASM Mercedes Formula 3 squad, which offered him a test drive.
Despite the unfamiliar surrounds, he went quickest of them all, beating a field which included the likes of future DTM racers Bruno Spengler and Alexandre Prémat, and future Formula 1 drivers Adrian Sutil and two-time World Champion Lewis Hamilton. It was an impressive showing.
Yet it didn’t land him a works-supported drive – “It didn’t serve any purpose whatsoever, because the cards were marked as to who would be the future ‘racing heroes’,” he told us – and so he had the odd drive in the F3 EuroSeries and the Toyota Atlantics before moving into the World Series by Renault in 2005 with the underfunded Swiss Racing Team.
The sadly all-too-common story of budget constraints reared its head that year, and his results hardly reflected his actual talent. That was underlined at the end of the season when he was given a test outing with the crack Draco squad at Valencia, and he promptly went quicker than that year’s frontrunners, Robert Kubica and Pastor Maldonado
Rees simply didn’t have the backing to get him into a frontline seat for 2006, but Draco drafted him into a seat in the Formula 3000 International Masters championship.
Then came disaster.
Fernando was involved in a big accident during a test at Monza, striking the back of an unsighted car in torrential rain, and was seriously injured. He had two broken vertebrae, three compressed vertebrae, a broken ankle, and other excoriations in both legs.
As a consequence, he was away from motor racing for a period of 18 months – of which 12 months were spent under serious immobilization, and the remaining 6 months with continuous physiotherapy sessions.
Not surprisingly, the accident and his injuries made him completely rethink his priorities.
“I didn’t want to race anymore. I became very cynical about it,” he would admit. “Formula 1 was not what I aimed for nor how I saw my career. F1 was never a priority, and it was never a dream for me.”
An alternate avenue came through sports cars, and at the end of 2007 he was offered a drive with the Larbre Compétition team at his home track of Interlagos. Despite being an uncharted world of sports car racing, He did it in style by winning on debut.
“I felt back home, at ease. It’s what I wanted to check, whether or not I would feel comfortable inside a race car, mentally and physically. But it worked out perfectly. It motivated me to continue racing.”
The success triggered something of a love affair with endurance racing, and it’s an environment where the Brazilian has happily found his home. Today he headlines Aston Martin Racing’s GT attack in the FIA World Endurance Championship, and is a shining example of how determination and true grit can translate into realising his childhood dreams.
We spoke exclusively with Fernando below…
|1993-1998||Karting: Brazilian National Championships|
|1998||Karting: North American Championships with CRG Official Factory Team|
|1999||Karting: Italian and European Championships with Danilo Rossi Racing|
|2000||Karting: Italian, European and World Championships with Danilo Rossi Racing|
|2001||Karting: Italian and European Championships with Birel Official Factory Team|
|Italian Formula Renault 2000: Team Bicar Racing, 1 race|
|2002||Italian Formula Renault 2000 Eurocup: Team Bicar Racing, 9 races|
|2003||South American F3: Team Cesario Formula, 12 races, 1 win, 6 podiums, 6th overall|
|Formula 3 Euroseries: Test drive with ASM Mercedes-Benz team|
|2004||Formula 3 Euroseries: Swiss Racing Team, 2 races|
|2005||Formula Toyota Atlantic: Brooks Associates Racing, 1 race|
|World Series by Renault 3.5: Interwetten.com, 12 races|
|World Series by Renault 3.5: Test drive with Draco Racing, fastest overall among 30 drivers|
|2006||Formula 3000 International Masters: Pro Motorsport|
|Suffered two broken vertebrae and three compressed vertebrae in testing accident|
|2007||Le Mans Series: Larbre Compétition Aston Martin DBR9 GT1, 1 race, 1 win|
|2008||Le Mans Series: Barazi-Epsilon Zytek 07S LMP2, 4 races|
|2009||Le Mans Series: Barazi-Epsilon Zytek 07S LMP2, 1 race|
|2010||Le Mans Series: Larbre Compétition Saleen S7-R GT1, 4 races, 3 wins|
|2012||FIA WEC: Larbre Compétition Chevrolet Corvette C6.R LMGTE Am, 4 races, 1 win|
|2013||FIA WEC: Larbre Compétition Chevrolet Corvette C6.R LMGTE Am, 7 races, 2 podiums, 7th overall|
|2014||FIA WEC: Aston Martin Racing Vantage GTE LMGTE Pro, 7 races, 1 podium, 6th overall|
|2015||FIA WEC: Aston Martin Racing Vantage GTE LMGTE Pro, season in progress|
You started karting at the age of eight. How critical was the support of your family during the formative years of your motorsport career?
The support of my family has been and still is the most important element of my racing career. In the beginning of my career it was only possible because we all agreed that it was worth trying, although we certainly did not have the ideal conditions to start a racing career.
Who were your first motorsport heroes? What was significant about their achievements or character that you admired?
Only one hero: Ayrton Senna. He was bigger as a human being than a racing driver, even though he was and still is the best racing driver that ever existed. He meant hope for every Brazilian no matter what your challenge was.
São Paulo’s great hero, Ayrton Senna, was dominating the Formula 1 landscape during your childhood and early years spent karting. Can you describe how important his successes were to you, and the Brazilian people, during his life? Conversely, what effect did his death in 1994 have on you as an aspiring racing driver?
I only started racing and got interested in it because of Ayrton. At the same time, he died just as I started racing. For some reason, good or bad, I never felt that I lost him. The only Formula 1 races that I watch are his races, and for me it’s as if he’s still going.
You enjoyed success in your youth and by 1998 you’d made your overseas karting debut in the North American Karting Championship and later went on to compete in the Italian, European and World titles. Your open-wheel debut came in the Italian Formula Renault 2000 Championship in 2001, and you stayed on in 2002 in the Italian and EuroCup series’. How did the cut and thrust of the overseas championship compare with racing back home and what key lessons did you take from the experience that helped you in your later career?
It’s very different. In Brazil, people of all ages like having baby-sitters. They seem to trust that someone out there will be there to help you with whatever you need, and in the end maybe they are right.
But in Europe it was a kind of free for all, do it yourself. The atmosphere was more aggressive, intimidating, violent. So it took a while to get used to it and be able to fight back and find my space. Every experience counts, and I believe that living and understanding both worlds gave me a very strong basis to build my career later on.
You returned to South America in 2003 and competed in the Sudamericana F3 Championship, claiming your first open-wheel victory at your home track of Interlagos. What did the success mean to you?
It honestly didn’t mean much other than a first place trophy to put at home. It was not a very competitive championship, the cards were already marked as to who was supposed to win the championship, and I only won that race because the chosen person crashed out.
Your performances earned you a Formula 3 test with Mercedes-Benz at Estoril, where you auditioned against the likes of Jamie Green, Bruno Spengler, Alexandre Prémat, Adrian Sutil and Lewis Hamilton. Despite going quicker than the lot of them, Hamilton was picked for the plum drive with ASM’s F3 EuroSeries team, and you had just two drives with the Swiss Racing squad in 2004. How did you handle the disappointment and rebuild from there?
I was the quickest of all of them, the whole day, with old tyres, new tyres, standardized setup, modified setup. Any time, any condition.
And plus: I didn’t know the track nor the European F3 car, which was very different from the one we used in Brazil. So it was a very good test for myself, to prove to myself that I could beat anyone of those who had all the opportunities I never had.
But other than that, it didn’t serve any purpose whatsoever, because just as in Brazil the cards were also marked in Europe as to who would be the future “racing heroes”. But I’m very glad that I learned this system over 10 years ago, when I was still very young, so I could focus my career elsewhere and find a place where talent really counted for something. It was a disappointment that ended up helping me to find the real way.
You raced in the World Series by Renault championship in 2005 and was offered another test shootout with the crack Draco Racing squad at the end of the year. With the likes of Robert Kubica and Pastor Maldonado among 30 drivers at the event, you were quickest again and it looked like 2006 would be your year. What opportunities came as a result of this performance?
I had a good car with Draco, and I knew that with a good car I could as fast or faster than any other driver out there, so it was not surprising at all.
But things didn’t work as they should, I ended up racing in F3000 with the support of Draco – basically because they needed drivers who could pay them, and I was not a driver to be paying for my seats. So they found a different solution for me while they worked with sponsors to try to make it work, which didn’t happen because of my accident in Monza.
Do you have any recollection of that accident?
Yes. It was raining more than the race directors would allow us to race in nowadays. I was coming in a fast lap, full throttle, almost 300 km/h before braking into Parabolica. I just saw the red back light of another car, then everything faded away.
Later on I was told that another car was simply driving really slow in the middle of the racing line. I hit him straight on, flew, crashed. It was a really bad one, and I was lucky not to get hurt much more.
You spent 18 months away from racing while you recuperated, of which 12 months were spent under serious immobilization before you embarked on an intense regime of physical therapy. How do you look back on that time and your motivation to recover? What did you learn about your character?
I didn’t want to race anymore because it didn’t sound like something that made sense to me, you know? I became very cynical about it. What’s the point of running in circles as fast as you can and getting nowhere?
So I started to see racing pretty much like we see hamsters running in their wheels, and I didn’t like it anymore because although it was silly, it was still dangerous.
But then little by little, I think we get stronger – and perhaps dumber! – and we begin to feel emotions and passion and then silly things start to take your attention again. So after an year I decided to try again if I ever got cleared by the doctors.
Fittingly, you made your return to racing on home soil in the final round of the 2007 Le Mans Series at Interlagos, co-piloting a Larbre Competition Aston Martin DBR9, and took a clear GT1 class win after nine hours of racing. How would you describe the significance of the result for you, personally?
The win was not very important, but my feeling of sitting inside a race car again was. I felt back home, at ease. It’s what I wanted to check, whether or not I would feel comfortable inside a race car, mentally and physically. But it worked out perfectly. It motivated me to continue.
Switching from open-wheel cars to much heavier GT or LMP-category cars would – outwardly – appear to be a significant transition. Were there significant changes you had to make to your driving style to adapt to these heavier cars?
Not much as the mental style. Single-seater drivers are used to cry and moan about anything, because they want everything to work perfectly for them. They blame engineers, mechanics, the set-up, the seat, the weather, etc. Never themselves.
But endurance racing demands compromise and talent, so you have no escape: you must adapt to whatever you have, and nothing will ever be perfect for you in your way. Never the set-up, never the seat, never the planning of your stint, when you get new tyres, nothing. So it reinforces talent, and that’s how I felt my chances were growing.
In 2008 you moved up to the LMP2 class with the Barazi-Epsilon squad and when the series hit Monza – the site your nearly career-ending crash – you vanquished any demons with a superb performance. Can you tell us more about that weekend in the context of what was (mechanically) a year where the car’s results didn’t match your potential?
It was brilliant. I was quick the whole weekend, I never had a bad feeling about it. The car wasn’t great, of course, but we had chances for a podium so it was a very interesting battle until one of my teammates crashed out. But it was part of the game, we had to push to the limit each lap to keep up with the Porsches, while they could cruise around and still be as fast as us.
The Barazi-Epsilon team shut down midway through 2009 and you returned to Larbre Competition and claimed a number of GT-class wins once again, as well as helping the team to the championship titles. How was this time in your career for you?
Yeah, they ran out of budget and I ran out of a seat. Then I switched to GT1 with the Saleen S7R of Larbre, which was a tough car to drive, but good fun. I learned much more about GT racing in that year, because up until that point my only experience was with the Aston Martin DBR9 GT1 from 2007 in Interlagos. It was good year of learning.
For 2014, you switched back from a Corvette into a drive with the works Aston Martin Racing squad. After many year spent with privateer or semi-works outfits, what changes did you notice in joining a proper manufacturer-backed effort?
It was a big change. They cover all possibilities around a driver in order to help him maximize his full potential, so it’s much more than just developing a race car. I started asking myself, “how was it possible that I achieved that kind of success without all of this?” It’s a big difference, indeed.
Paired with Alex MacDowall (as well as, occasionally Darryl O’Young) a class podium finish at Fuji was probably not the standard you were hoping to achieve in 2014. What were some of the factors at play last season?
In fact the podium was more than I thought it would be possible. We had an all-new car crew in terms of mechanics, and the car itself was new for all three drivers, so we were a whole group learning together. Some learned faster than others, and we saw that as the season progressed.
You’re reconfirmed to drive the #99 Vantage GTE in the coming WEC season. What targets are you setting for yourself in your second year with the team?
I believe we have good chances of winning the Manufacturers’ Championship and our #99 will play an important role pursuing this team objective.
You’re unique (to an extent) among racing drivers by taking a very active approach to social media engagement, particularly via your Twitter and (most notably) your Instagram feeds, where you display many of the beautiful photos you have taken on your travels. Can you tell us more about your interest in photography and your approach to engaging with your fans?
I believe that fans got used to being mistreated by the F1 drivers and teams, so they don’t realize anymore that this is what’s happening. So when someone comes and offers them what they should be getting by everyone else, it kind of shocks them in a positive way. That’s how I see it. The mistake is that they were looking for something in the wrong place. Hopefully we can change this – not to help F1, but to burn down the rest of it and present racing fans with the kind of commitment and respect that they deserve.
We’re seeing more sports car drivers come through the ranks via the unusual route of Sim Racing, where you yourself gained quite a reputation in your younger years. Can you tell us more about your exploits and (in your opinion) whether online gaming is a useful proving ground for racing drivers?
It is in the sense of learning about cars and tracks and driving lines. Also for learning about yourself, how you deal with winning and losing. And it’s a good exercise for reaction time, too. It definitely helps. But to be honest, I don’t think that by itself it can identify a good race car driver. It takes much more than driving a car.
You’ve raced on an incredible array of circuits around the world. What is your most favourite circuit at which you have raced and why?
Interlagos is my favorite if I could only pick one. It’s my home track, where my career started, where I had my comeback to racing in 2007, and a very special circuit with a perfect balance of challenge, technique, and speed.
What have been the best and worst racing cars you’ve driven?
The best is probably my current Aston Martin V8 Vantage GTE. The worst I would say the Saleen S7R in its final GT1 year, after all the GT1 technical changes.
The World Endurance Championship has garnered praise for open regulations and sensible costs which have attracted a number of manufacturers. Contrastingly, Formula 1 is not enjoying this, seemingly stifling innovation while costs continue to blow out and smaller teams close down. What are your thoughts on what F1 needs to do to regain its status and appeal?
I don’t follow F1 at all, so I would not be the best person to suggest any kind of change. I can, however, speak about the reasons which led me to ignore F1 completely. It’s a business, not a sport. This is the problem now. So everything that happens is based on a specific business model and in reference to the stakeholders who are investing money in this business platform. They still sell themselves as a sport and racing, however, because that’s part of the investment platform. So to regain status and appeal, they should go back in time and return to being a sport with a business model behind it, instead of a business in disguise of a sport.
Images via Auto123, Fernando Rees, Motorsport.com