Ex-karting prodigy Riki Christodoulou is revved on the eve of his full-time Formula Renault UK debut with Fortec Motorsport at Brands Hatch this weekend, as he bids to follow in the wheeltracks of one-time series graduate Kimi Raikkonen.
The 18-year-old – a former British Junior Champion and European Formula A Vice-Champion – competed in a handful of outings in the category at the end of last year, and following an encouraging winter testing programme is now eager to get on-track at Brands Hatch this coming weekend. Here he explains how he is feeling as he prepares for the next step on a career path he hopes will take him, like the flying Finn before him, all the way to Formula 1…
Q: Riki, you have a new challenge ahead and finally a move to single-seaters. Can you tell us when and why you made the decision to step up?
Riki Christodoulou: It was the next level up from karting to be honest, and as soon as the 2006 season was finished I was straight into cars. The timing was perfect because I am still young and I wanted to learn more. We had a few people to talk with but Fortec approached us early on and after that we didn’t feel we had to speak to anyone else. We knew they were a good team and they really wanted me. I was into my karting as much as possible but as the season was coming to an end I was travelling to a few more Renault races and watching Fortec; they were definitely the team to beat.
Q: Was it always going to be Formula Renault for you?
RC: Yes; I had one test in a BMW but when I tried the Renault it was ten times better for me and I enjoyed it a lot more.
Q: Obviously the association with Fortec is positive…?
RC: Yes; it is one of the best teams in Renault, if not the best. I feel very strong being part of the line-up. During the winter tests I wanted to be the number one driver and they kept telling me if I was the fastest then I’d be number one. Lately I have been the quickest of the four of us so I hope that will carry on into the races!
I don’t think there is a concrete one-two-three-four ranking at the moment, but it kind of goes that way towards the end of the season. Being the main guy doesn’t mean more attention necessarily, but if you are pushing for the championship then there will probably be some preference in terms of who gets what material.
Q: It is your second drive with a professional team after the deal with Genikart last year. How does the set-up compare to what you have experienced before?
RC: It is nice to be in an environment like that with the workshop and facilities. To be honest it is not all that different to what I had with Genikart but it is a good feeling to be with a works team again. I have been to the workshop many times to do various things such as seat fittings, sorting out stickers and checking the new body kit for this season. They are a really nice bunch.
There is one engineer for two drivers and then we have a mechanic each. Obviously there is a little bit of competitiveness between the drivers and maybe a little bit of sour grapes when I have been the quickest in my first tests, especially with other drivers who are into their second or third year. We are all friends though and that helps to push each other on more.
Q: Tell us about the first time you drove the car. What were your impressions?
RC: The speed was ok, but being in a vehicle that was a lot bigger than a kart was harder to get used to. I feel a lot more confident now and the speed does not seem as quick as when I first got in. The acceleration and braking were obviously stronger but I was like a little kid in a sweet shop, just really excited. It was tricky getting a whole lap together initially and judging where to be on the track while also trying to be on the limit. A few months down the line I have more experience and it has all slowed down a lot; I can actually think about my driving.
Q: Did it take long to get used to the different size and speed?
RC: There is a lot more to take in and I am learning each time I go out. I have learnt about dampers, wings and cambers and there are so many small things that change the car significantly. It may seem hard to believe from the outside but the tiniest little alteration can affect things. Our engineer commented recently that although I have been driving the Renault only a few months he was impressed by how quickly I could tell he had modified some settings; it is good that I am starting to feel what is happening with the car.
Q: Was it a good feeling to start driving at renowned circuits like Brands Hatch?
RC: Yeah! I had seen places like Brands and Oulton Park on the TV but when it came to driving around them I thought, ‘the TV takes away so much’. It’s an amazing feeling but difficult to begin with. With a kart you can climb to the top of the grandstand and more or less suss the whole track in one go but with a car you either have to go around in the road car or walk the course; it’s not a ten-minute job! There will be drivers with more experience and track knowledge than me this season, but I don’t feel it will slow me down that much.
Q: Despite some excellent speed and decent results do you feel like you have left karting with unfinished business?
RC: Of course there was always more to win. Just missing out on the European Championship because I was knocked off the track was disappointing. I wanted to achieve more but that is behind me now and I have to look at the bigger picture and the end goal of Formula 1.
Q: What did you think of Formula Renault while still in karting, and what are your impressions now after testing and the winter races?
RC: I had good impressions seeing it on TV and at one or two races and now, having driven the car itself, I think it’s awesome. It is a close series; at a track like Brands just one tenth of a second can separate the top eight drivers. Being that tight with cars that top 130mph is pretty exciting.
It is a lot harder to overtake because the cars are that similar. You don’t gain anything down the straights unless you get a much better exit from the previous corner or the guy in front has made a mistake. That aspect of the racing is different for me because in karting you can make a lunge from quite far back; you have to be a lot more patient here. A small error can cost you a lot.
Q: Have you had to change anything in your life with this career move; maybe more training or a new regime?
RC: I have more weekends at home now but there is more to do during the week. I currently work and train every day so I have a solid routine. Driving the car is not that much more physically demanding so I have not had to change my training programme.
Q: Are your previous backers like Alpinestars and Roman Originals still involved?
RC: Yes; the deal with Alpinestars is great and they provide me with high-quality suits, boots and gloves. Roman Originals are still with me too and now I have a firm called BCR (British Car Registrations) who have also come on-board.
Q: Are you feeling at all nervous ahead of this weekend?
RC:I have been more nervous in karting to be honest. I actually feel quite confident. I haven’t had experience of a UK Renault race yet but I am really looking forward to getting out there and seeing what I can do. It will be awesome being on the grid in front of that crowd.
Q: What can we realistically expect from you this season?
RC: I want to try and get as many podiums as I can and go for wins obviously. I don’t want to get my hopes up too much but I have been good in testing and people have seen that. To be going for the championship at the end of the year would be great.
Q: Can you explain the next steps on the ladder for an aspiring Formula 1 star like yourself?
RC: Kimi Raikkonen won this series in his first year and look where he is now. To do well in Renault gives you good skills and provides a decent step to the next level. People look at this class to see the young generation coming through. I feel confident that I can get some good results and then hopefully move up the ladder. I want a good season and I would consider doing a second year in Renault but if things go really well the next step would be to F3, either British or International.