An Extended Interview with Bas Leinders

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Bas Leinders during his tenure as Team Principal of the Marc VDS Team. Image Sourced from the Blancpain GT Series Website.

Earlier this year, Aaron Collins got the chance to talk with former racing driver Bas Leinders.

During their conversation, the Belgian discussed his successes and struggles in the junior formulas. Alongside this, Leinders also gave insights into driving a Formula One car and his transition into becoming a team manager in various GT categories.

Following in the footsteps of his compatriots Jacky Ickx and Thierry Boutsen, Bas Leinders has gone on to become one of the most successful racing drivers that Belgium has ever produced.

Born on 16 July 1975 in Bree, in the Flemish province of Limburg, Belgium, Leinders would start his career in karting. At aged 14, he became the European Champion, having battled against the likes of Jarno Trulli and Ralph Firman.

Like many of his fellow competitors, Bas was a fan of Formula One legend, Ayrton Senna:

“At the beginning of my career, I didn’t really look at other drivers in Formula One, but then there was Ayrton Senna and I admired him and the way he drove the car.”

“Unfortunately, he died during my first year of single seaters in 1994.”

“I liked Senna because he drove with flair and had no compromise which made him exciting to watch.”

“He was also very good in qualifying and producing memorable overtakes against his competitors.”

“Outside of the car, he had a philosophy and a way of thinking which made him stand out to me.”

Bas Leinders’ helmet design has prominently used a mix of red, blue and black stripes throughout his career.

However, the story behind this colour scheme had an element of luck about it:

“The first time I bought an Arai helmet, it was originally proposed for another driver called John Neilsen, but it wasn’t produced in the right size for him.”

“The helmet was quite cheap, so I decided to use it.”

“Over time, I used a mixture of light and dark green alongside various blues, before changing them to match the colours of my Dad’s small construction company which specialized in making roofs, walls and basements waterproof.”

“I then added the Belgian flag on top when I first started to compete full-time in Formula 3000 in 1999.”

Bas Leinders would follow many young driver of that era and competed in Formula Ford. He went on to achieve a lot of success in the series as he won the Belgian-based Benelux Ford Formula Championship in 1994.

The following year, Leinders also claimed the British and European Formula Ford titles in 1995. During my time with Bas, he reflected on his time in Formula Ford and how vital the series was towards his development as a racing driver:

“Formula Ford was very useful because there were no wings on the cars. This meant that the racing was wheel-to-wheel and it attracted drivers from around the world to race in the British series and the Formula Ford Festival.”

“Back then the cars were cheap to run, and you would test on a lot of weekends and have several test days listed on your schedule.”

“For me, Formula Ford was very important for my learning curve and now, some youngsters miss this opportunity because they go straight into an expensive championship.”

“I still think that there are still some good categories out there which are useful at developing young drivers, such as the French Formula 4 academy.”

“The new ladder which the FIA have created is also another great improvement, but it is still costly.”

For 1996, Bas Leinders moved up to the Formula Opel Euroseries with Van Amersfoort Racing. Having gone on to win the Drivers’ title in his rookie season, Leinders spend the next two years in German Formula Three.

There, he would win another Drivers’ championship for the Dutch team in 1998. However, despite his continued success, Bas explained why it was hard to earn these achievements:

“First of all, there was a struggle financially as I only had half the budget necessary for a full Formula Opel season.”

“This meant that I was limited on the number of tyres I could use and we slept in the cheapest hotels that we could find.”

“I knew that I had to win the German F3 title to move up the motorsport ladder, despite knowing that I could compete in the first two races of Formula Opel but wasn’t sure if I would be able to do the remaining ten.”

“But looking back, I’m thankful for this experience because it brought the best out of me as a driver.”

“For 1997, I wanted to move to a top team for German Formula Three but again, my budget was quite small, so I stayed with Van Amersfoort.”

“At the time, the engineers had only done the lower formula categories, so it was a brand-new experience for everyone involved.”

“By doing so, I showed I had the talent necessary to compete at the highest level.”

At the end of 1998, Bas Leinders was invited by McLaren to race in the season finale of the FIA International Formula 3000 Championship at the Nürburgring. Leinders would drive for their junior team, West Competition alongside Nick Heidfeld, who was battling Juan Pablo Montoya for the Drivers’ title.

However, after qualifying 17th on the grid, the Belgian had to give up his race seat in favour of Heidfeld, who was disqualified from Pole Position due to a fuel irregularity. Bas looked back on that weekend and how the scenario unfolded from his point of view:

“Back in those days, there was no free practice and we went straight into qualifying with 33 cars and I managed to qualify myself amongst the midfield.”

“After qualifying, Nick was disqualified for a problem with his car and I knew that only 32 cars could race.”

“So, I proposed to [team principal] David Brown that I would give up my seat for Nick, but David initially refused and instead wanted to see if one of the slower drivers would drop out.”

“I personally didn’t think that this would happen and recall that the driver in question was Christian Horner, who is current Red Bull team principal.”

“However, I remember talking to Christian that weekend and he explained that this would be his last race before retiring.”

“I was happy to step down for Nick as I had a pre-contract in place to race for McLaren’s Formula 3000 team the following year, but Heidfeld lost the championship to [Juan Pablo] Montoya and he stayed on for 1999.

“Because of this, McLaren didn’t honour my contract and I felt that I could have challenged Heidfeld having been able to do so in German Formula Three.”

“However, the impression I got was that they didn’t want a driver who could compete with him and that might be why they opted to go with Mario Haberfield instead.”

Bas Leinders would spend the next three years racing in Formula 3000. This would consist of two seasons at KTR, with this sandwiched by a year with Kid Jensen Racing.

The 2001 campaign would prove to be Bas’ most successful, as he achieved back-to-back podiums at Spain and Austria to end up seventh in the Drivers’ standings on 17 points. Despite being able to score points on a regular basis, Bas wasn’t a fan of the Formula 3000 car:

Bas Leinders driving for the KTR Team during the penultimate round of the 1999 FIA International Formula 3000 Championship at Spa-Francorchamps. Image Sourced from Pinterest.

“I really liked the handling of the Formula Three car, as it had a good level of downforce.”

“In comparison, the Formula 3000 car was a major surprise and I found it difficult to tame and overall it wasn’t nice to drive.”

“I could driver it okay, as I had a test prior to my debut with McLaren at the end of 1998.”

“However, when I joined KTR the next year, I didn’t qualify for the first two races of the season.”

“Later on, I managed to get some good results and enjoyed the 2001 season, but the car wasn’t so great.”

“The concept of the car’s design wasn’t nice and it seemed quite old fashioned.”

“The Dallara chassis that was used in the World Series [by Nissan] was better, because it felt like an evolution of the Formula Three cars and the racing was closer because of it.”

“It had good balance between the mechanical and aerodynamic grip of the car, and the front suspension was well designed so that it was predictable to drive.

During his time in Formula 3000, Bas Leinders felt that none of the drivers he raced against stood out to him, expect for one particular Spaniard:

“Honestly, [Fernando] Alonso in Formula 3000 stood out.”

“He arrived as a very young driver who spoke little English, but was able to get results quickly.”

“The rest, I’d say I could beat them on my day and would like to think that they would say the same about me and that I could do so in Formula One.”

Bas Leinders would stay with KTR as they moved to the World Series by Nissan for the 2002 season, before going to Racing Engineering in 2003. During his two years there, the Belgian would win four races and finished third in the Drivers’ Championship in both seasons.

Looking back at period of his racing career, Bas told me why his results in the World Series by Nissan helped to put him on the Formula One radar:

“The key point in my career was winning the German F3 title, and the McLaren contract would’ve opened more options. But the issue with Nick Heidfeld and poor showings in Formula 3000 created limitations for me.”

“The move to the World Series helped to get my name out there.”

“I raced against highly rated drivers such as Ricardo Zonta, Justin Wilson and Heikki Kovalainen, so I felt that I was in the mix again and I got some Belgian investors behind me as a result.”

After his two-year tenure in the World Series, Bas Leinders was given the opportunity to test a Formula One car. In January 2004, he tested for the Jordan team as he began to look for a race seat.

On the eve of the season opener in Australia, Leinders was unveiled as Minardi’s test driver for the 2004 season. Bas recalled how an F1 car felt to drive, as well as discussing his time with Minardi:

“There was a big step between the cars used by the World Series and Formula One.”

“The acceleration was much quicker and there was a lot more downforce and mechanical grip.”

“In 2004, it was quite interesting because you had the tyre war between Bridgestone and Michelin and the cars were powered by V10 engines, which made them quite physical to drive and took a long time to get used to.”

“I bought some Belgian sponsors together to test for Minardi.”

“I knew that they’d looked at my CV and saw that I had the credentials, but I wasn’t expecting to do it for free as they really needed the money.”

“I recall that the monocoque they used that year was three years old and after a while, they noticed I had given good feedback, so I got given more parts for my car as the season progressed and I was integrated into the team more.”

“In addition to attending the technical briefings before the Friday sessions, I was included in the technical briefings on Saturday mornings and talked to the drivers about the new parts and how they effected the car.”

“I learnt a lot from an organisational perspective from my time testing for Minardi.”

“There were some moments during the season where I hoped I might get a chance to replace one of the drivers and race for Minardi, as there had been a lot of chances in previous seasons due to unpaid sponsorships.”

“However, I never got given the chance. My biggest regret of my career is to not have raced in F1.”

Australian Paul Stoddart was viewed as a colourful character by many within the Formula One paddock during his time with Minardi. This was something Leinders agreed with:

“I loved working with him! He always says what he thinks and was always straightforward and I’m the same in that sense. We got along really well.”

“I remember that he asked me to drive the two-seater Minardi in South Africa which was great experience.”

Paul was colourful for sure, and I have great memories of working with him.”

“I also got on well with the Sporting Director John Walton, who sadly passed away mid-season.”

“He was probably the first person in the team who said that I had potential to make the team better with the way I worked and the feedback I gave.”

After leaving Formula One, Bas Leinders entered GT racing. Between 2006 and 2008, he would win the G2 Class of the FIA GT Championship with Belgian Racing.

Bas would later win the 2015 24 Hours of Spa as the Team Principal of the Marc VDS Team with BMW Motorsport. He explained why he found winning as a team principal more satisfying than as a driver:

“Success as a driver is easier than when you are as a manager. As a driver, you have to pick the right team and focus on what to do behind the wheel and make sure you communicate any issue there may be with the engineers in the technical briefings.”

“In management, you must get everyone that works for the team – so the drivers, pit crew engineers – in the right mind-set and it requires a lot of energy to do so, which is why I get more satisfaction from winning as a manager.”

“As a driver, I was lucky to end up in teams that were willing to listen to what I had to say.”

“When I was with Van Amersfoort, I would visit the workshop regularly to talk to the mechanics and see what I could learn.”

“I think I did that so much that they told me to go away!”

“But I would still go to the workshop and see what they were up to.”

“I ended up spending four years combining as a driver and team principal at Marc VDS, then when the deal with BMW Motorsport came around, I had to make a choice.”

“Although I still felt I could keep going as a racing driver, the time felt right.”

“It took two years to find the right balance between the people and management. I focused on restructuring the team and hiring new staff between 2011 and 2013.”

“After that, we started to get the results we wanted as I personally felt that the previous manager obstructed some things.”

“We then focused on the BMW partnership because we had too many commitments.”

For 2016, Bas Leinders left Marc VDS and looked for a new challenge and was put in charge of McLaren’s GT programme. Here, the Belgian talked me through his objectives during his two years with the automotive giant:

“When I was put in charge, the priority of focus was on the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup.”

“However, my first race was the 2016 Bathurst 12 Hours Tekno Autosports, and although it wasn’t planned for me to be the Team Manager there, we ended up winning so it was a great start.”

“The potential in the programme was clear and they needed someone to streamline their successes.”

“I remember we won the first race of the Blancpain GT season at Monza and went on to win the Drivers’ Championship.”

“I also worked with Garage 59 in the British GT Championship in the GT3 and GT4 classes and came close to winning the championship there as well.”

“I enjoyed my two years with McLaren and it was nice to be a part of that success.”

More recently, Bas Leinders has remained in the British GT Championship and joined Optimum Motorsport midway through 2018.

After a turnaround in results, the team won the Drivers’ title with the pairing of Jonny Adam and Flick Haigh. Bas assessed how Optimum Motorsport’s season unfolded:

“Having worked with Garage 59 in British GT beforehand, I knew the series well and Optimum were struggling after Snetterton having won the first race of the season at Oulton Park.”

“My first race with them was at Silverstone and we developed a good relationship and went on to win the title.”

“I must add that it’s not just myself, it’s a team effort, but I like to think I helped to bring something to the team.”

“It’s not just one driver, or one engineer, it’s the whole team and that is very important.”

“I’ve been quite busy preparing for the new season with Optimum Motorsport in the British GT Championship and the Open GT.”

“This year, we will be using the new Aston Martin GT3 Vantage, so that’ll be exciting.”

Bas Leinders has also spent time as a F1 commentator in his native Belgium. He shared his views on the direction of the sport in recent years and whether the introduction of renewable energy put motorsport’s heritage at risk:

“Now, it’s been better for the last two years. Before that, the cars weren’t competitive enough and it was too easy and before 2014, the cars were still slower than when Formula One used V10 engines.”

“But now, the challenged has returned and I’m looking to seeing the new regulations and they improve the overtaking. I hope that Mr Brawn has some more ideas to improve this further.”

“I’m commentating again, so hopefully I’ll get to see some exciting races in 2019.”

Regarding the use of alternative power in motorsport, I see it as an evolution. You can’t sit still and look at the past.”

“I drove the Lola Aston Martin with a V12 at Le Mans and it was revving and signing!”

“The fans talk about Ferrari using the V12’s in the 90’s but over time they were phased out.”

“First it happened with the V10 engines, then it went down to V8’s and now they use V6’s.”

“It’s the same with the introduction of the halo, it just takes time to get used to it.”

“I still think combustion engines have a few years left before we stop using them, but I believe the TCR electric series could be big in a few years.”

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