In a welcomed break from the norm, the F3 desk caught up with Danish racer and 2018 British F3 vice champion Nicolai Kjaergaard, who has just finished his first season in Euro Formula to find out how the Esbjerg-born driver got on and how he found the jump up from British Formula 3…
Euro Formula is a single-seat open wheel formula held across Europe. The championship features drivers competing in two-litre Formula Three racing cars built by Italian constructor Dallara which conforms to the technical regulations of the championship.
Nicolai finished 7th in his first season, driving for Carlin for whom he continues the partnership with from his British F3 days.
Overtake sat down with Nicolai just before the Christmas break and we began by asking him how he found Euro Formula compared to British F3 and where were the main differences.
“I would say the two most different things were the cars and the tracks”, he began. “In terms of tracks, last year we raced on Silverstone GP but that was the only GP big circuit and Spa, but the rest were smaller so there was quite a big difference.” In terms of the car, Euro Formula cars are a step up from British F3. “The car is quite a bit quicker especially round the corners, high speed corners and stuff like that”, Nicolai explained.
And it wasn’t just the hardware which was a challenge. “I’d say the whole grid had very good drivers”, Nicolai said of the current grid personal. “There wasn’t anyone who you would say was really far off (the pace) ‘s why I think you saw so many people who could finish in the top ten”.
Delving a little deeper, I wondered if I could pin the Danish ace down as to what he found more difficult out of the two. “That would be the car,” Nicolai explains. “But I also think we as a team struggled a little bit with that at the start of the season.” Going a bit further, the young racer explained, “If you looked at the results all four Carlin drivers improved throughout the season and I think that was a combination of us drivers getting more used to the car but also the car behaving better.” Carlin had three out of four rookies for the new season and the car with a new engine was an all-round new package. “By the end of the season by the last three races maybe ever four we got the hang of it but that was definitely the most challenging bit to start off with.”
I wondered what had attracted Kjaergaard to Euro Formula and why he and his team thought that it would be the best step in his career so far, compared to other series. “First because there were a lot of European tracks on the calendar and track knowledge is always a good thing. [They are] big tracks as I say, and there was the car…” Going further Kjaergaard explains, “We had heard good things about the car, and it didn’t disappoint. They were the two biggest reasons.”
Any driver knows track time is a rare and valuable asset and it was an increase in track time with Euro Formula that cemented Nicolai’s decision to race there. “Even though there is limited testing you get a lot of track time over the weekend which is quite rare at that level of motorsport. So, in that sense those were probable the three reasons that for me Euro formula was the logical next step, and I’m happy I did it because I think I have learned a lot.”
Nicolai has continued to race with Carlin in 2019 and this was a decision that the racer felt made sense. “I think from memory we had a brief discussion about other teams, but we quickly settled down with Carlin. Obviously, they have performed well with that car in the past although it is a different chassis and I knew the whole team so I wouldn’t say it was an easy decision, but it made sense to go with them”.
With his first year under his belt, I asked Nicolai how he would rate his first Euro Formula year out of ten and where did he feel he could have improved on. “There were a few moments like Barcelona where I got overtaken on the last lap and I could have won the race, but I think the last three weekend we were in the top five in every race which was really good, but we should have been better from the start. I would have liked to have started with top seven and then moved up from there but instead we started further back which delayed the time we got to fight for podiums and wins once we were at the top. The Danish ace felt a combination of driver preference and the Carlin set up, early on, just didn’t click in the first half of the season. “I would say that I would have like to have got up to pace quicker and as I said before I think it was a combination of me as a driver and what preference I have in the car and the traits the Carlin car had at the time. Maybe Carlin weren’t good enough to get the car to do what we wanted it to do but were went good enough giving Carlin the feedback to get them to do it quickly enough, I think it was that combination that didn’t work out quickly enough.”
An honest critique and a humble one which I think shows how this up-and-coming racer has focus and the mature head needed to win races and championships. “We got there in the end but it would have been nice to get there earlier, to start that progress in preseason testing and then start the races higher up because I was happy with the progress, we could always say we could be quicker we were going up and up and up but we just started too far back, which is where I should have done better. So maybe a 5 or 6 out of ten, because the first half wasn’t good enough but the second was better”.
“If it was only the last three of four weekends, I would maybe give it an eight, the only thing it lacked was a win, in terms of podiums I had the most, but the first half of the season pulls it down so yeah maybe a 6.”
In terms of highlights it was the Danes weekend at Silverstone which stands outs. “I really liked Silverstone with the lap record round there as well. We got the first podium on a bit of luck and strategy with tyres because it started raining and things like that but Silverstone was the first podium where we had the pace to be there so that was quite special, it’s always better when you get the job and you have equal chances as everyone else and you still managed to get up there.”
Nicolai wasn’t the only former British F3 alumni to make the step up. He was joined in the Carlin team by Billy Monger who he raced with last year, along with British F3 champion Linus Lundqvist who continued his partnership with Double R Racing. I asked what it was like to be back racing these guys in a different formula. “First of all, with Linus I found it frustrating that the year before we have been battling so closely. He got off to such a good start (in Euro Formula) where we were really lacking but overall the racing was very hard.” Going further Kjaergaard explained, “If you had a bad qualifying in F3 you could still have the pace in the race, there were some guys you’d quite quickly get past and overtaking was maybe a little bit easier, but in Euro Formula everyone fights for every inch of track, it was harder to get past people because they were so good at defending, taking a position back, breaking late when they had too and stuff like that, they had a bigger arsenal you could say in defending and attacking.” An overtaking specialist, Nicolai lit up the F3 reverse grid races through 2018, but the Dane relished a harder task in 2019. “I found that quite challenging because in British F3 you had the reverse grid races and I remember you could come up from last to 5th quite quickly, then it starts getting difficult, where as in Euro Formula, also you have more downforce so you lose more downforce when you are coming up behind people so It’s technically more difficult but I think the drivers made it more difficult because they were fighting, I wouldn’t say they were quicker but maybe more experienced, it’s hard to say exactly what it is but its definitely hard racing. Which was good fun.”
When Overtake last spoke with Nicolai, it was sponsorship and time away from home that were two of the biggest challenges. I wondered having made that step up a formula if those challenges were the same or harder. “So, if we start with the sponsorship, if anything it’s a little bit easier because now we have some racers, for example in Germany where it’s easier for sponsors to come and watch”, Nicolai explained. “So before if you go to the UK you have to fly everyone over, but it’s easier to take say 4 ,5 or 10 people to Hockenheim, it’s a 5-hour drive from where I live so it’s a bit easier, that’s the only real difference. Some companies export to Germany so there is a bit of a link there too but realistically its quite a small difference whether it’s in England or in Europe, I think the main problem is that’s its abroad (the UK), it’s easier to get over Europe.
I always find it very impressive that drivers at this age and this level are so business savvy and able to tap into a world some people would only associate with F1 and Nicolai is no different. “There are more companies who have in interest in the area, say they have a customer in Italy or something like that so that’s an advantage.” Moving on to the friends and family, The Carlin driver elaborated “I’d say it’s similar, when I go away it’s for longer because sometimes we have back to back races so I have to go to the UK to see Carlin and do simulator work and then onto the race, but it’s fewer times because we don’t have some much in season testing.” Going further, “It’s limited so in that sense its more of a preference thing the amount of days are the same you are just sometimes away for two and half weeks whereas last year it was just under a week probably. I quite like it because you don’t have to go backwards and forwards so much. So yeah away for longer but not as often.”
“Also if you have a race in Hungary and then a week later a race in Austria you have one or two days off and then maybe you could stay in Hungary or go for a few days in Austria in-between because there is no point flying home, then you get to see a little bit rather than just going to the circuit and back.”
This year Nicolai was nominated an won the Danish Motorsport talent of the year. I asked him how that came out. “So basically, the Danish Automobile Union nominate I think its four and it’s from motocross, speedway, motorbike and four-wheel racing and rally, and they nominate four and then anyone can vote on each of the four and then I ended up winning it.” Nicolai explained. “I was lucky Lundgaard (Christian Lundgaard, Danish racing driver currently competing in FIA Formula 3) had won it the year before so he wasn’t nominated but, in the end it’s still good enough for me!”
The big question; is there any prize money!? Nicolai explained; “So there is no prize money but there was quite a lot of publicity in Denmark around it and the (Danish) media followed it, so I got out to a wider to a wider audience.” Going further the young racer said, “ It’s just nice to have something to say when you go out to the sponsors you can say you have achieved the Danish Talent of Year award in Motorsport, it gives the sponsors an idea that you are not just doing it for fun its quit serious.”
I, and everyone at Overtake, would like to congratulate Nicolai on his win.
With our chat coming to an end I just had time to ask Nicolai what his plans were for next year, and what if anything he could let me in on. “Yeah it’s about what I can say at the moment we are definitely looking at doing Euro Formula again with Carlin but as always you keep your eyes out for anything else we finished so strong in Euro Formula we would hope to start off that well and end up even better and maybe have a chance to fight for the championship, so that’s what I can say!”
As always, I’d like to thank Nicolai for taking the time to talk to Overtake.
Nicolai can be found and followed on all the usual social media channels and at his website www.nicolaikracing.com