“I have no doubts I can do it, otherwise I would not have come back. Actually, I’m even more hungry than before my accident”
As Tiago Monteiro continues to prepare for his 10th season as a member of the Honda Racing family, the WTCR − FIA World Touring Car Cup’s ultimate comeback hero talks about the challenges he faced hitting the front last year and his firm belief that he can return to the top of the podium in 2021.
The 44-year-old, a podium finisher in Formula One, also explains how he’s kept busy living life under lockdown in his native Portugal and why guiding his son Noah’s fledgling karting career is a case of history repeating.
We’re still a few months away to the 2021 WTCR season getting underway. How excited are you at the prospect of going racing again in your Honda Civic Type R TCR?
“Considering everything that’s going on with the pandemic, we have a strong season ahead with a lot of quality drivers. It’s looking like it’s going to be a really, really strong grid, similar to what we had in 2019, so that’s positive and exciting. The events we have planned will be amazing. To start on the Nordschleife is a big challenge, it’s the toughest racetrack in the world and to start there will be interesting to get in the rhythm right away. Then it’s straight to Vila Real, which is another tough track but on the streets. The two first races are going to be really hard but we know they are important to position yourself for the title. You’re going to have to be really ready and on top of things right away to have a chance.”
You delivered an excellent podium in Hungary but perhaps there wasn’t the volume of podiums you were hoping for. How can you change that in 2021?
“The results were not what I wanted but, overall, the performance was actually not that bad. I just couldn’t really show it many times because of mistakes, a lack of performance at a certain track or the rules of the team. We are a team and we are a strong team together and at one point we have to work for whoever is leading the ranking. Even if you are able to do a bit better you can’t because you have to think about the whole picture which is winning the Teams’ title and taking one of the Honda drivers to the overall title. I’m fine with this but for sure we have to sacrifice sometimes. It is a bit what happened last year, but for sure it’s down to me to perform better at the beginning.”
What stopped you from doing that?
“I had the engine problem in the first weekend and three races with a very weak engine so it was a nightmare until we changed it. We were going to change it for Slovakia but then we didn’t and it was a big mistake because I was nowhere. I was losing five-tenths on the straights to my team-mates so it was a really frustrating. Then we changed it for Budapest and that’s when the performance came right away. It’s a little bit my fault not to have pressured more to do the change, but we take the decisions altogether and we thought we could live with it.”
And you were on top form in Hungary…
“Definitely, I was on the back of Esteban [Guerrieri] for the whole of Race 3. If I wanted to, I could have taken the fight for the win but these are the rules and you have to follow them. I’m okay with that and I’ve been on the other side where the team is helping me. It’s how it works. Anyway, from Budapest onwards the performance was better. But it’s such a tough series and you can’t leave anything to chance.”
In your mind are you still able to reproduce that amazing form from 2017 when you were consistently right at the top, is that still in you?
“I have no doubts about it otherwise I would not have come back. I didn’t want to come back just to be part of it. I want to be back at the top and I want to be fighting at the top and I want to win the world title. I still believe I can do it and maybe I’m even more hungry than before [my accident]. But, then again, you have so many drivers that can win the title but they will never do because it has to be the right timing, the right package, the right state of mind, everything has to be gelling together. You can have a very strong speed, but then if you have a few failures or a few crashes with competitors or whatever then it’s over even though you were personally ready to perform. So many things have to be on your side, especially when you have such a competitive grid. It’s very easy to go from pole position to P15 the next weekend or even more sometimes. It’s very difficult to be consistently at the top.”
What improvements can you make to the car to help you in your bid to win?
“There are always things to improve and everybody is working hard for that. New cars are coming in but we don’t have a new car so if we don’t improve we’ll be really struggling. You could see some weaknesses, on traction for example in some places and top speeds. We have a very good chassis overall so we are good in the technical parts. But if you have long straight lines with big stops and slow-corner exits, this is one of the weak points we have so we’ve been working hard on that. We noticed from our competitors that’s where they were gaining on us. We’ve analysed a lot what happened last year, we’ve analysed our strengths and our weaknesses.”
The WTCR is set to return to your home country this season and, of course, to Vila Real. How good is that going to be for you?
“First of all, it’s a great opportunity to drive in front of your home crowd because I missed it last year to be honest. Sometimes you take it for granted because you go there every year, but you don’t realise how great it is until you don’t go there! When we missed it last year it didn’t feel the same and the WTCR for me was not the same at all with missing Portugal. But it’s such a demanding and tough track, one of the toughest apart from the Nordschleife. To be able to race there with any kind of car is just fantastic and I’ve missed it for all these reasons. I am really looking forward to doing it and hopefully the pandemic conditions will let us do it properly.”
What’s been keeping you busy since the 2020 season ended?
“Honestly it’s been really, really busy since we finished the season. We’ve had a lot of conference calls to prepare the testing and soon we’ll be testing everything we have been working on during the winter. Of course, the management side of things is also keeping me busy. Some of my drivers from Skywalker Management are already racing, some of them are not yet and some of them still don’t have programmes so there have been a lot of phone calls to finalise everything. I have 12 drivers so it’s quite busy and I’m involved with Jean-Karl Vernay since last year and António Félix da Costa is keeping me busy in Formula E.”
So busy times but do you get time to relax?
“I’m trying to keep fit, training and also taking care of my parents. They both had COVID over the winter and it was very tricky in December but they recovered very well. They live not so far from me and it’s quite easy to check up on them. We have been confined in Portugal for the last two or three months but the start of this week was the first day of a partial de-confinement.”
And what about your son, Noah, and his karting career?
“My son has made a big jump to a new category of go-karts, a junior category, and he’s been racing internationally this year. I’ve actually been travelling quite a lot with him to the tracks in Spain and France and Belgium. He had two races in a row, plus testing. Then we had one week off and we’re leaving next week to Belgium again.”
It must be like history repeating for you because it was your father who was such a guiding light to you when you started racing?
“It’s true and I was talking about it the other day with my father. We can be lucky to have parents who can guide us and help us during the difficult beginnings. My father was not anybody from the motorsport world, but he just helped me from his business experience and his personal experiences and we did okay together. I’ve used a lot those experiences to help my son, but I am helping a lot of drivers, some experienced ones, some young ones. When it comes to your son it’s always a bit different and I cannot hide that. I look at him as a driver, yes, as a potential professional driver but at the same time he’s still my son. But it’s nice and I’m really enjoying this experience with him.”
How complicated is fitting his schooling in at the same time as his karting?
“We were two weeks on the road but he has to do his schoolwork online when he’s not testing. The school has been quite good to adapt to the timings for his exams and stuff. He does a day of testing but then comes back at night and even though he’s tired we had to make him study more. He’s going through an amazing lesson of life which I never had because I started racing at 18 and I didn’t go through all this initial process. He’s 11 and it’s crazy he’s so young but he’s already at this level. It’s a great opportunity for me to live this life with my son and I think he’s enjoying himself as well.”
And it sounds like your son’s career is beginning to take off?
“He’s impressed me a lot in the last few weeks in these races. He’s been doing much better than anybody was hoping for and that’s good to see of course when you work hard but you see it’s paying off. Everybody that’s around him, working with him is quite motivated because he shows a lot of improvement. It’s a path we go together and I must say we enjoy that a lot. I have no idea what the future will hold, if he’s going to become a professional driver or not or what he’s going to be choosing. But it’s great to be sharing this passion together.”
Any thoughts and hopes for the future?
“One secret that I have, something that I’m hoping secretly is that he reaches cars quickly enough that I can race with him at the Nordschleife or Le Mans for the 24-hour races. I would love that and if I am still competitive in five or six years that would be really a dream come true.”
MORE ON TIAGO MONTEIRO: REVISIT WTCR FAST TALK, THE WORLD CHAMPION WHO NEVER WAS
“I hit the brakes and nothing happened. I took the handbrake but nothing happened, I down-shifted once but it wouldn’t let me downshift more. I saw the wall coming at very high speed. My reaction was ‘no way, I am not going to hit the wall head-on’, so I tried to make the corner. But at that speed, sideways on the grass, the car spun, which slowed down the car to 186kph when I had the impact. When I missed the first race [after my accident] I thought, okay, I’ll be there for the next one in Japan. But I couldn’t see with my eyes [like they were], I couldn’t move, I could hardly take a bottle of water with my right arm, so how the hell could I think about driving? I was lucky enough to be here and to survive and my goal was to try to have a normal life, be able to take my kids to school, go and buy the groceries, even if I have to wear glasses and can’t see very well. But there’s no way I’m ever going to drive again and, even if I could, do I really want it, is the risk worth it?”