Earlier this season, we sat down with one of DTM’s five rookies this season – Aston Martin R-Motorsport’s Ferdinand Habsburg. He tells us how he started in motorsport, how the change to DTM has been and how he remains positive.
New to the DTM championship, rookie Ferdinand Habsburg is a 22-year-old driver from Austria. A real family man, though unlike a lot of up-and-coming drivers, that family didn’t have much of a connection to motorsport. But it didn’t take long for Habsburg to discover a love for driving. “My dad was best friends with Oliver Porsche. He used to go karting quite often. So, that was the only connection I had to some form of motorsport” he said. “At the time, he knew a Red Bull junior driver and he asked him to take me go-karting one day. At that point, I only wanted to do sports. I was doing a lot of fencing, riding, karate, basketball and football. Then I went go-karting and I just sort of took everything and got rid of that – just only focused on karting.”
In 2011, aged just 13, he entered his first international season in karting and just a year after, he qualified for the Rotax Max Challenge World Finals for the first time. In 2013, not only did he qualify again for the Rotax Max Challenge World Finals, but he was also crowned Hungarian and Lower Austrian champion, as well as vice-champion in two further championships. Habsburg continued to impress in karts with more success in 2014, and in the same year, he got his first taste of single-seater cars. He entered the Formula Renault 1.6 NEC championship with Lechner Racing, finishing fourth in his debut season.
So, after four successful years, he left karting behind to fully focus on his single-seater career. Between the Toyota Racing Series, Formula Renault 2.0 NEC and a debut in Euroformula Open, 2015 was a busy season with plenty of silverware for the young Austrian. He continued to race in multiple series during 2016, doing Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup with Fortec Motorsport and winning the rookie championship in Euroformula Open.
A step up to the FIA Formula 3 European Championship followed in 2017 as Habsburg joined Carlin Racing. A win at Spa-Francorchamps along with three additional podium finishes resulted in a 7th place finish in the championship. That season also brought his first Macau Grand Prix entry. The win slipped out of his grasp on the final lap, but his fourth-place finish was still hugely respectable. Habsburg remained in European F3 for a second season but struggled to repeat his debut performance. Despite this, however, he got the invitation for the DTM Rookie test.
“The second-year didn’t go so well for me and the team. We just struggled quite a bit against the competition. Everybody was experienced and we came out not so high up. I still had good results. Obviously, I had my Macau race which sort of put my name on the board. From that, I then got the opportunity to test at the Rookie test days in DTM for HWA. Which is now Aston Martin.”
Habsburg clearly impressed during the test as he scooped a full-season drive with Aston Martin, but when did the call come through confirming his seat? When travelling through Bali.
“I went backpacking on my own, I’ve always wanted to do that. Normally I was testing at that point or going to New-Zealand, but I had nothing fixed, so I wasn’t testing. I didn’t think anything was happening soon, I could just fly back whenever I have to. So I thought I would go and take the opportunity. Because it is not often in life that you can take a month, and just do whatever you want!”
“I was staying in a hostel where I was the only guest. I had to walk around to find a printer and ask if they could print [the contract] for me. It took me two days and the team were getting really angry with me: ‘You have to sign today!’ I had to go to a different hostel to print it. When I signed it, I couldn’t even scan it. I had to take pictures with my phone and send it to them.” He laughed and said: “So, this is not the most casual way of signing a DTM contract.”
It’s not just single-seater experience Habsburg brought to the DTM series. During the 2018 season, the young Austrian made his debut in the sportscar scene, competing at the 24 Hours of Daytona and trying out the International GT Open. But, what has been the hardest thing for him in the transition from single-seater to touring cars?
“I think driving is fine. You know how to drive a car. The hard thing is that suddenly there’s loads to do on top of that. You’re used to just – throttle, brake, clutch, pedals and you just go as fast as you can. Suddenly you have many things to manage, temperatures, vibrations, DRS, push-to-pass. And a roof over my head, it’s really hot in the car. You have to manage tires, you have to check that you’re not running out of fuel, you got a pitstop, the strategy. You’ve got so much going on. Then there are media and you’ve got to talk on the radio – reporting to the team what’s going on with the tires.”
Turns out mental training is just as important as physical training for a rookie DTM driver with Habsburg training his grey matter more than his muscles! The team would fire mathematical or geographical questions at him while he was in the simulator and if he got one wrong? Jump out, and do 20 push-ups. “My math skills have gone dramatically up!” he jokes. “Every race is becoming easier now. The more autonomous the driving is, the more you have space to think about other things.”
Aston Martin and R-Motorsport may a new manufacturer team on the grid this year, but they are actually the HWA team who used to run the Mercedes cars. Asking Ferdinand if there were any expectations prior to the start of the season:
“They are the most successful team in DTM history, so there’s got to be some expectations. Of course, the development started late. Let’s be honest, Audi and BMW are no slouches, they know what they are doing. There were expectations, but at the same time, we had to be realistic. Also for myself, I knew I was going to learn so much in the beginning. I didn’t expect to be ahead of everybody straight away.” Habsburg is happy with the progress they made so far but knows it would be a lot tougher if they didn’t see any improvements. It’s not been plain sailing for the team this season, so how does Ferdinand stay positive?
“If you wake up every morning knowing that you are an Aston Martin racing driver, it’s not that hard. You’ve just got to keep reminding yourself of what you are actually doing. I have come quite far already. I’m in DTM, with a manufacturer like Aston Martin, I’ve got a cool road car. There’s so much stuff that you need to see in a relative way. If you start looking at only the result page and forget what you’re actually doing, then I think you are going to fail. And I don’t want to fail.”
R-Motorsport runs as a slightly split team. Jake Dennis and Paul di Resta sit on one side of the garage, with Ferdinand and Daniel Juncadella on the other side. So naturally, Ferdinand’s relationship with Daniel is closer. “He [Daniel] is very useful and he can definitely help me or say ‘focus a bit more on this’. And he can see the rookie mistakes I am making, he remembers it from when he was making them as well, which is only a couple of years ago.”
The other rookie in the team, Jake Dennis, has a little more experience with these type of cars, though, Habsburg doesn’t notice that much difference between them. “I think his age shows a little bit, I mean that he’s just a little bit older and more mature. Just a little more experienced. He’s got strengths which I have to work up to. And vice-versa I’d say.”
Come the end of the season, every driver reflects in a different way. For Habsburg, a lot of it is about the experience. “I’m a big believer in enjoying what you’re doing. If I can walk away from the end of the season party, and be like ‘that was cool’, it was a good year.”
“If I learned a lot and enjoyed it, and I smiled and laughed. When it was like a lot of positives to pull, then it was a success. Because generally, I know from myself, if I’m enjoying my driving, I’m going to go quicker.”
It’s not always easy to remain positive or to keep enjoying himself, as there are weekends the car feels hard to drive. But, Habsburg feels very fortunate to be in this position and realizes how lucky he is. Handily, he has found a way to keep reminding himself of that – something he learned from his brother-in-law and fellow driver Jerome D’Ambrosio.
“When I’m leaving the pitlane, I look at all the fans. They’re all here to watch a DTM race, which I am driving in! That’s cool. When you go on to the grid and you got 20 minutes waiting for the race to start, you’ve got to look around and be like ‘That’s my car!’ So I hope that this is my recipe to success.”