From the archive: When a BMW tin-top ace sampled F1

Formula 1’s 2021 pre-season test is underway, with teams anxious to get their race drivers as much mileage as possible before the season begins. It was a different story in 2005 when teams could afford to try newbies, leading to a long-awaited moment for newly-crowned European Touring Car champion Andy Priaulx. ANTHONY ROWLINSON was on-hand for the 3 February issue of Autosport magazine.

From the archive: When a BMW tin-top ace sampled F1

This was one for the scrapbook. Whatever else may happen in Andy Priaulx's career, on 27 January 2005 he became a Formula 1 driver and no-one - no-one - would ever take that away from him.

He knew that his one-off test with Williams - a prize for winning the European Touring Car Championship with engine partner BMW - might never be repeated. So today, at Valencia's Circuit Ricardo Tormo, he was going to milk every second and script a tale worth filing in the Priaulx family archive.

Andy's dad, Graham, had come along for the occasion, as had wife Jo, fitness coach Ian Potter, old mate Tim Thomson, racing mentor Chris Cramer, touring car boss Bart Mampaey and a clutch of other supporters who had helped inch him towards this moment. Each was visibly swollen with pride that their lad/hubbie/pal had finally got his butt into a pukka F1 car and would be allowed a full day's play with it.

Together they ensured that Priaulx, an F1 virgin, had an entourage bigger than those of any of the more-established stars (Button, Alonso, Trulli) also present. The gang added a welcome touchy-feely twist to a day that, as far as Priaulx and the team were concerned, was all about business.

By his own admission, Priaulx is "intense" about his racing and the opportunity to show off his skills in a top piece of F1 kit wasn't one he was going to fritter away. When he was first told about the test, by BMW motorsport chief Mario Theissen at the company's annual awards bash last December, a seed was planted in the Priaulx grey matter that this might be a chance to show maybe his was a talent that should never have been overlooked by F1.

That seed was watered and covered with a big dollop of fertiliser a day later at the Autosport Awards ceremony (where Priaulx picked up the British Competition Driver of the Year gong), when Williams co-owner Patrick Head strolled over to Priaulx for a little chat.

"Well done for the award Andy," he boomed. "We're taking the test very seriously, you know." And so, by now, was Andy.

Andy Priaulx Williams F1 test 2005

Andy Priaulx Williams F1 test 2005

Photo by: Motorsport Images

A day later he returned home to Guernsey to begin the hardest month's fitness training he has ever put himself through. No way was he going to let any lack of physical preparation compromise his performance. He used the time, also, to reflect on a gilt-edged year (during which he became the first Brit to win the ETCC since Tom Walkinshaw in 1984) and on the opportunity that lay ahead. At 30, he'd have been forgiven for believing the F1 break might never come. And yet there it was, through one of the most circuitous routes imaginable.

The Priaulx racing CV is unlike those of any of his peers: not for AP the karts-single-seaters-F1 path. Instead his schooling includes motocross, powerboats, hillclimbing (following his dad's tyre tracks), Renault Spiders and touring cars. But a thread of single-seater competition runs through his near-20 years of racing. Karts came first, then Formula Renault, Formula Palmer Audi and British Formula 3.

When he raced for Alan Docking Racing in 2001 against F3 hot-shots such as Takuma Sato and Anthony Davidson, his pace brought two wins, two poles and six podiums. Lack of cash prevented the Docking-Priaulx combo from reaching its full potential, but it did bring sniffs of interest from several F1 teams. All wanted cash, however, and the Priaulx coffers were empty. So when the offer of a full-time paid race drive for Honda in the 2002 British Touring Car Championship came his way, he could hardly say no.

"I made a conscious, deliberate career decision," he recalls. "I'd always been on the pace in F3, but I had a great chance to become a paid driver and when all you've ever known is working out how to fund your next season's racing, believe me that's very attractive. But I was aware it meant turning my back on single-seaters and that did trouble me, because I've always thought of myself as a single-seater driver."

"I want to concentrate and give the engineers better feedback. They don't want some guy in the car saying 'this is amazing, wow, fantastic'. They want proper analysis of what it's doing" Andy Priaulx

It was the kind of decision that most often spells the end of any F1 aspirations. Once labelled as a 'tin-top man', it's rare for a driver to return to open-wheeled racing. Lucky that Priaulx never let go of his dreams. The shift from a 270bhp, front-engined BMW 320 to a thoroughbred, 900-plus bhp Williams-BMW would nevertheless be seismic. Whatever the talent, whatever the past experience, nothing could fully prepare Priaulx for the leap he was about to make.

So he did the best he could and bought himself a day's F3 testing from old buddy Alan Docking. At a drizzly Pembrey in early January, he turned the laps he needed to re-acquaint himself with the poise and purity of a single-seater. He quickly found his groove and brushed up his left-foot braking to clock times two seconds under what he'd hoped for.

"That's what I've missed over the past couple of years," he grins, all smiley-eyed, "that precision and response you get in a single-seater. It's so pure, it's hard to describe. Sure, the racing's incredible in touring cars and that's the buzz you get from it: trading paint, racing door to door and pulling moves you couldn't even think about in an open-wheeled car. But the driving experience doesn't compare."

Andy Priaulx Williams F1 test 2005

Andy Priaulx Williams F1 test 2005

Photo by: Motorsport Images

A Williams FW26 was about to provide him with a driving experience he would never forget. A long chat with Mark Webber at a pre-Christmas media event had prepared Priaulx for the rigours of 4g braking and the needle-point accuracy needed in an F1 car on corner entry. Still, the Williams's sheer speed just blew him away. "Yeah it's fast," he says during a late-morning break. "There's a bit of mental adjustment involved." Never one to over-dramatise, was Mr Priaulx.

OPINION: In defence of Webber's Williams switch 

His earliest explorations aren't helped by the unseasonably Arctic temperatures around Valencia: track temperatures of 2C, combined with hard-compound, 2005-spec, long-life tyres, make for a wild first few corners.

"I was hardly brushing the throttle and the back end came round," he says, making the 'armful-of-opposite-lock' movement beloved of would-be (and real) racers the world over. "I thought the traction control would sort it out, but I really had to watch it."

He learns fast. After a handful of tours feeling his way, Priaulx starts to carve seconds from his lap times. From an early, cautious, six seconds off the pace, he takes out a four-second chunk to start circulating regularly in 1m13s. He hasn't been granted fresh tyres, as Williams engineers want his feedback on this year's tougher rubber. He does their bidding without quibble.

"I know I'm being intense [that word again] about this, which some people find off-putting," he says. "But I want to concentrate and give the engineers better feedback. They don't want some guy in the car saying 'this is amazing, wow, fantastic'. They want proper analysis of what it's doing. I'm pushing to give them what they want, but there's more to come from me under braking and in the high-speed stuff."

All sounds awfully professional and serious - which it has to be, of course, with the start of the F1 season barely five weeks away. No time to waste, programmes to get through...

Yes, but what about the kick, the buzz getting the dream drive, the F1 'wow factor' that brought wife, dad and co to southern Spain to see the boy do well? Coyly, Priaulx admits: "Yes, I am excited about it. I've waited 15 years for this."

Andy Priaulx Williams F1 test 2005

Andy Priaulx Williams F1 test 2005

Photo by: Motorsport Images

There are other, subtle giveaways as to the day's hidden emotions. Early afternoon, as Priaulx pulls out of garage number five to begin a 10-lap sequence, he looks left, visor up, at Jo Priaulx standing tense on the pitwall. It's a fleeting connection, but unmistakable. It brings a smile to Jo's features, breaking the tension of watching her fella, desperately wanting him to do well.

"I wanted one last shot with some fresh rubber. I know I could have got into the 1m11s" Andy Priaulx

He does. By mid-afternoon Priaulx has found consistent speed and he's pleasing the team. "Awesome, mate," says engineer Ian Murphy over the intercom as his driver turns a 1m12.7s lap. Priaulx wants more. He's hoping the team will call him in for fresh rubber and the chance to 'stick in a quick one', but a gearbox glitch stops the fun after 57 laps.

Time's pushing on for 5pm; the team decides it can't do a fast enough fix and tell Priaulx 'game over'. He's frustrated. Adrenaline-high, 'in the zone' - but frustrated: "I wanted one last shot with some fresh rubber. I know I could have got into the 1m11s [the day's best time at that point is David Coulthard's 1m09.842s, in a 2004 aero-spec Red Bull]. If I could have done that I'd have left here happy. I know I'd have shown everyone what I can do."

Maybe he just did.

Andy Priaulx Williams F1 test 2005

Andy Priaulx Williams F1 test 2005

Photo by: Motorsport Images

How Priaulx became a serious prospect

By Marcus Simmons

Andy Priaulx only completed two full seasons in single-seater racing, both of them in the British Formula 3 Championship, and over those 2000/01 seasons he could only hint at the skills that would enable him to take the 2004 European Touring Car Championship title.

In hindsight, Priaulx did an extremely good job for one with so little experience to take two wins in 2001, when he was up against drivers of the calibre of Takuma Sato, Anthony Davidson, James Courtney, Andre Lotterer and Gianmaria Bruni.

Alan Docking, Priaulx's team boss that year, remembers the campaign well: "He hadn't come through years of Formula Ford or karts - he came from hillclimbing and that's just wrong, wrong, wrong for what we do. But he addressed all that. When he was with us it was his second year of F3 and he was coming to terms with what an F3 car needed."

Massive advances were made on Priaulx's technical ability. "He grew a tremendous amount in his confidence and knowledge," says Docking. "At first he approached the car to wring a time out, but after a while he realised what suspension and technical changes were needed. He got the finesse organised."

Priaulx was in his late twenties when he arrived at Alan Docking Racing. You wonder whether, had he been 21 and straight out of karts and Formula Renault, he could have made it further in single-seaters.

"It's a tough one to call," Docking says. "He learnt a bunch of tricks in speedboats and hillclimbing. That may have helped him because he always had to fight in F3. His ability to do that and his determination took him to where he is now.

"Andy is a lucky man. There's a bit of a salesman in him and top drivers need that to work very hard for his sponsors. Andy does and all the backers he's had still vote for him."

Andy Priaulx Williams F1 test 2005 Barcelona

Andy Priaulx Williams F1 test 2005 Barcelona

Photo by: Motorsport Images

What happened next?

By James Newbold

Priaulx would get two more test opportunities with Williams in 2005, logging over 130 laps at Vallelunga before appearing in a post-season Barcelona test. But by then, his already burgeoning career in tin-tops had really taken off.

The World Touring Car Championship dawned for 2005 and Priaulx had been the man to beat. Together with his RBM squad, the Guernseyman only won once, at Oschersleben, but his consistency was unrivalled and a non-score in Macau from main rival Dirk Muller (who had lost on countback in 2004) ensured Priaulx of the title.

PLUS: The 'unsexy' way to win a title

He remained unbeaten for the next two seasons, pipping Jorg Muller by a single point in 2006 before notching a memorable hat-trick in 2007.

Priaulx remained on BMW’s books until 2015, representing the marque as it returned to the Le Mans 24 Hours in the GT2 ranks and racing in the DTM for two seasons before making a winning return to the British Touring Car Championship with West Surrey Racing in 2015.

But for 2016 he switched to Ford as the Blue Oval mounted its assault on the World Endurance Championship and Le Mans. His development work on the Ford GT was credited as instrumental by the boss of car-builder Multimatic, Larry Holt, and the Priaulx-Harry Tincknell combination took two GTE Pro class wins in 2016 and 2017, with a runner-up finish at Le Mans in 2017 another highlight.

When the WEC programme concluded following the 2019 Le Mans, Priaulx remained contracted to Multimatic as a development driver while racing in WTCR with Lynk & Co and running simulator business iZone.

He stepped back from full-time racing prior to the delayed 2020 season to concentrate on developing the career of his son, Seb, who is also part of the Multimatic stable.

"Multimatic is one of the best-kept secrets in motorsport and the engineering expertise is phenomenal," Priaulx told Autosport last year.

PLUS: The tin-top champion who doesn't know the meaning of retirement 

"They've built some of the best racing cars I've ever driven. Larry is a genius, and so are the engineers and his other employees. People want to work with him because he's a loyal man, which you don't find in motorsport very much."

Podium: Race winner Andy Priaulx, Cyan Performance Lynk & Co 03 TCR

Podium: Race winner Andy Priaulx, Cyan Performance Lynk & Co 03 TCR

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz

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