Twelve months ago, Carlo van Dam arrived at the Macau Grand Prix as a relatively unknown racer, despite his success in the ATS Formula 3 Cup in Germany.
Now, however, he is not only riding high as the Japanese Formula 3 champion, after getting snapped up by crack squad TOM'S, but he also taken a well-earned pole position for Macau's qualification race.
Autosport.com spoke to the Dutchman after qualifying, to hear about his amazing year, his thoughts for the race and what he thinks is the most important thing to do tomorrow.
Q. How excited were you coming here to Macau this weekend after the great season you had had in Japanese Formula 3?
Carlo van Dam: "We were looking forward to it for the whole season! Although myself, I always try to take things race-by-race, day-by-day, we just approach it like any other race actually. You shouldn't make it bigger than it is.
"Of course, the expectations were high and I was really looking forward to it, especially as we finished the season quite early in Japan. It was in the middle of September we had our last race already. So it is great to be with TOM'S here, not only because they won it last year but they have been preparing for it so well, and they have such a big name.
"It is an honour to be in their car, and I see it as an honour and am proud that they selected me. I think they have one of the few F3 seats where you cannot just give them a call, say you have some budget and then jump in. You had to be really selected for it. And it is great that just before Christmas that they gave me a call."
Q. Could you have imagined 12 months ago, when you were in Macau as a relatively unknown newcomer, that you would be here now as Japanese F3 champion and on pole position?
CvD: "No, especially before Macau because it was only in Macau (last year) that TOM'S approached me. But before then, I would never have expected to be in Japan driving for them. It was great - because I did a good job last year in German F3 and, although I think the level is not so bad there, there are not a lot of people who see that.
"Fortunately, I got a chance to drive because financially it has always been quite difficult for me. I got offers to do it, but I had to pay most of the budget which I could not do. Then I got the possibility to do it with HBR, who pushed hard, and then I had a bit of doubt about whether I should do it – because they were not a top team. But I thought I had nothing to lose – if it went well people would see that and if it didn't then at least you have given it a try.
"In Macau last year it was their first and my first year, and I didn't have a very competitive teammate. It (a quick teammate) is important because we saw today with my teammate how much you can pull yourself up, but I was very happy that they (TOM'S) gave me this chance based on my German F3 title.
"Then I did pretty well. Although the result wasn't good, the speed was there, and TOM'S have the eye for that – they don't only look on paper, they look at the whole package. It is great that they chose me, and so far this race everything has gone quite well."
Q. How important was that experience from Macau last year in helping you come here and do what you have done?
CvD: "Definitely, without the experience it is very hard on your first appearance to be there – although my teammate here has done an incredible job. On the straight, he got a bit extra (speed) thanks to me, but it is all about your approach to the second time – especially as last year I wasn't in a top team.
"So it helped me to gain the necessary track knowledge and learn about where to push. So I felt, from the first moment on, confident. I knew what to do, I knew the key points on the track and that helped a lot."
Q. What do you think is harder – getting pole position today with red flags and traffic, or finishing in front in the qualifying race tomorrow?
CvD: "We will see! But the qualifying wasn't easy actually. We expected to make another step and in terms of speed we did. I think for everyone it was a bit difficult with the red flags because everyone had improved on their best times (when the red flag came out), and I was quite a bit down, which I think would have been an 11.6 or something. But red flags hit everybody the same.
"It was also quite tough because I hit slightly the guardrail on the corner before Melco, and then my steering was bent. So then, on the last run, I was thinking just do the best job. Although second was not bad, you are a race driver and you want to be the quickest of all, so you give it a try.
"The most important thing is that I knew there was only one lap to get the heat in the tyres and get the rhythm, and I managed to do a nice lap. It is a good boost for myself and the team, and also showed some people today that we can still keep improving."
Q. How do you judge the engine fight here? There are three different engine manufacturers in the top four places on the grid and Volkswagen appear to have made a step forward.
CvD: "Yes, the Volkswagen is one that appears to be quite strong now. But I think that the differences are quite small in terms of top speed and performance. There are three different manufacturers in the top four, and to be honest I think we are struggling a bit more on the straight compared to what they did last year, but I think that is normal.
"Last year, TOM'S came with an engine update and now, this year, Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz did. Of course you need to have a quick engine, a quick car and a quick driver – but especially you have to make them work together well.
"I have a lot of confidence. It is not only based on last year's result but it is on the work we have done this year. It is such a great team, great people – so already no matter what I did last year you come here with confidence to push even more. Now we have to focus on improving the driving. I have to improve still as there are still a lot of points with the car, so we will see about tomorrow. You just have to keep your head as always."
Q. Who are you most mindful of – your teammate or Edoardo Mortara?
CvD: "No, the only thing is I focus on my own driving. Everybody yesterday was saying that it was between Mortara and I, but today you see different guys again. And it might be tomorrow that there are different guys coming up again. So if I do my job, there is nothing else I can do. I am confident."
Q. What is the next step for you after this weekend – and will a win here change your plans?
CvD: "Well, like I said, I am not focusing on winning the race. I am focusing on the things which matter to be quick. So, I can be honest – most probably in Europe there are not a lot of chances. In terms of the normal ladder, the next step would be GP2. But the last two years, I have shown that even with an alternative step you can be successful.
"So I am not too much focused to be in GP2, especially if there is not a top team around. And there will be good possibilities to stay in Japan, I think. I have been at all the F3 races on the podium there, I did GT races – in a total of 22 races, I was on the podium 21 times.
"So in Japan I have built up something. Unless there is a very good alternative it would be stupid to throw that away. Again, last year I did not expect to be in Japan this year, and maybe at the moment you can't expect to be somewhere else.
"We will just take it day-by-day. Tomorrow, the most important thing is to wake up again."