- Exclusive Esteban Gutierrez interview
'Formula One is all about the results'
Esteban Gutierrez is the youngest driver on the grid this year. At 21 years of age he's come through the lower ranks of the sport at a remarkable rate and in the process earned the nickname "The Chosen One". Most 21-year-olds might let that go their head, but sitting down with him at the final test before his debut there's not a hint of arrogance or entitlement from Gutierrez. Instead he is polite, cool and softly spoken, although underneath all that there is a quiet confidence that helps to explain why Sauber has entrusted him with its car this year.
On his announcement as a 2013 race driver at last year's Brazilian Grand Prix his mild manners and modesty were perhaps misinterpreted. Asked if he was ready to make the step up to F1 from GP2, he said, "To be honest I don't know yet", leading to suggestions that perhaps he was heading for the top tier of motorsport unprepared. But talking to ESPN at the final test he stressed that that is not the case.
"It's funny because a lot of people took this as if I had doubts about myself, but it's not true. What I meant at that time is that people asked me 'how much are you ready' and my reply was 'I won't know until Melbourne exactly how well I am prepared'. That's what I meant.
"But right now I feel very comfortable with the whole situation. The team is helping to fit exercises around the programme for me to practice pit stops, procedures and do lots of things that will help me to get up to speed. I think this help that I have been receiving has been important and I have been focusing very much on the key things that can help me a lot. Of course once you start the season it will be another process because a race weekend is different to a test, but I try to do my best to be as prepared as possible."
As a Mexican joining a team partly funded by the Mexican telecommunications giant Telmex, he has been labelled as a 'pay driver' by some. But while it's true that Telmex has sponsored him since 2009, he made clear that his career is not a product of a driver programme but very much a family affair based on hard work and earning each step up the ladder.
"[My career] has been like a family project," he explained. "My father has been helping me on the administration side of my career, which is very important. At the beginning there was a lot [of money] from my family, yes, but then we were able to bring sponsorship in order to race in the good teams and at the best positions. This is something my father and family contributed to a lot.
"On every decision they have given me the opportunity to decide by myself and to take my own risks and decisions. I have had advice and my family has come to the races and together for the whole process that has been important.
"We have been working together with Telmex as sponsors. We started working together in 2009 but it's always been a sponsorship relationship. At the end of the day the decisions were made from our side. I've had a relationship with Sauber since 2009 when they were not there yet and from then on I had my plans for the future with the team. Yes, we have a common interest which is helping a lot, but they are my sponsors."
But the only way to prove any remaining doubters wrong will be to perform on track. In 2010 Gutierrez made a name for himself by winning the inaugural GP3 championship, but in the following two yearshis star hasn't shone quite as brightly in GP2. Last year he finished a respectable third in the championship but lacked the consistency of the two drivers ahead of him, Davide Valsecchi and Luiz Razia.
"I think in GP2 there was great potential, we used our potential in a good way but definitely we could have seen more consistency," he said. "It's something that was related to myself as the driver, of course, but as well to the team. As a team we were sometimes making mistakes in the pit stops and I was sometimes making mistakes as well, but at the end of the day we achieved third place in the championship.
"The only thing that I'd like to improve is my consistency and this is something that I'm looking to do right now. I know that consistency is great base in order to then go to the next steps. I'm conscious of that and it's something I'm looking into. Sauber and I have a common goal for the future, because the team has also been a bit inconsistent in the last two years, they have been achieving great results but also very inconsistently so hopefully we can achieve that."
Consistency is easy to talk about but difficult to achieve in Formula One - just ask Gutierrez's fellow GP2 graduates Pastor Maldonado, Romain Grosjean and Sergio Perez. So how does he intend to achieve the consistency that will be so important if he is to establish himself in the sport?
"The main thing is to feel stability in yourself, to have a good atmosphere in the team, to have good people who are willing to put their full focus on everything and every detail. At the end of the day, yes there are a lot of variables that are playing around, but that was also the case in GP2.
"Sometimes I had a yellow flag on my pole position flying lap and I remember at Barcelona I had a great lap but just before crossing the finish line I had a red flag. I believe that these things happen for a reason and I don't regret how my career has gone because it gave me a lot of experience, not only in the way things can happen but also from a psychological point of view to deal with the pressure and the ups and downs.
"But I'm aware that below Formula One you are there to gain a load of experience and learn a lot, but when you get to Formula One it's about the results. It's not so much about learning and I'm aware of that and looking for consistency."
In short, success in F1 will be about mind management; looking at challenges in a positive light and learning from mistakes. But expectations are high after the success of fellow Mexican Sergio Perez at Sauber last year and his subsequent move to McLaren this season. Perez scored three podiums with the team in 2012 and, if the car is still as competitive, Gutierrez and team-mate Nico Hulkenberg will be expected to do the same.
"For me the main thing is to consolidate my position in Formula One," he said of his targets for 2013. "I think if the team has the potential to achieve podiums last year, I think this year we are looking to at least keep the same level of competition. I have a great reference, which is Nico, and in the beginning of course everything is a process and it will take me some time to adapt, but I want to create some consistency in order to get the chance to achieve great results during the season."
That word again: consistency. There's no doubt that Gutierrez is approaching his first season with his priorities in order, but what will happen when the visor goes down and the pressure of the race environment is on? It should be fascinating to watch.