Even though the WTCR − FIA World Touring Car Cup is on its annual winter break, Norbert Michelisz, the second King of WTCR, has been keeping busy.
Keen to give something back to the sport that helped to make him a hero of Hungary, the six-time WTCR race winner has developed #NextMichelisz, an initiative to find a future star driver.
Here, the 36-year-old explains his thinking, why the first recipient, the Esports WTCR champion Gergő Báldi, has what it takes and what advice he would give to the man who took his WTCR crown, Yann Ehrlacher, ahead of his title defence getting underway at the legendary Nürburgring Nordschleife in Germany from June 3-5.
You need no introduction of course Norbi, but what is #NextMichelisz?
“It started last year. There are so many very good, young Hungarians who deserve a chance to do some racing, but very few of them get any kind of possibility. The thought was in my head but I never had the energy or the capacity to work on a project like this. But after I won the WTCR title at the end of 2019, I said to myself if I don’t do it now, I will not do it in the future and I just thought it’s way too important to miss out on doing something like this.”
What happened next?
“We wanted to give a chance to everyone who was interested in becoming a racing driver in Hungary. We decided we would do an online championship because the cost is very efficient to see how many young, talented and interested drivers there are. I’m very proud because it was a bit more than 5000 participants we had. The online championship was the same concept as Esports WTCR. We used RaceRoom and did five virtual events. And at the end of the virtual season, the top five drivers were taken to the second step, which was a kind of measurement where we took them to the lab.”
That sounds scientific, was it?
“They had a lot of physical measurements taken, psychological measurements. We basically just wanted to gather data from these five. Then the next step was to rent the Hungaroring for two days. We almost shut the doors and gave them the possibility to show what they were capable of on the Hungaroring in a real racing car.”
Amazing! What did they get to drive?
“They had the chance to drive the Hyundai i30 N TCR. They started with a more basic car but the second step on the second day was to drive the TCR car from the M1RA team. In the end it was Gergő Báldi who won this contest. I wouldn’t say it was surprising, but Gergő was quite convincing, not only driving a virtual Hyundai, but he was also quite convincing when he had the chance to prove himself on the Hungaroring.”
What’s his prize?
“He will do a full season with M1RA. It’s still not decided what championship and which races he will do but of course we would like to give him the best possibility. A few options are on the table.”
Is a wildcard appearance at WTCR Race of Hungary a possibility?
“It’s more Dávid [Bari] who is the boss of the M1RA team in charge of what is going to happen with Gergő but I know that he thinks the same way about Gergő. He also believes Gergő deserves the best possible chance in the best possible level of competition. But it’s also about getting a budget because it’s not an easy task but there is a chance he can do some international races.”
How long will Gergő get to prove himself?
“The plan is to support him for some years. If he proves himself in the first year, the job that we have is to find the funding for him to continue. It would not make sense to only give him one year so it will be my duty to try to find the budget for his racing. With a world title on my CV, I also have the responsibility to help people like Gergő grow and have the chance to prove themselves.”
Given how you started out with a test at the Hungaroring after racing online, some old memories must have come flooding back?
“So many memories! Just looking at the faces of them in the morning when they realised they would be driving a touring car I remember myself from 15 years ago. It was also a nice experience for me and the M1RA team to realise what pressure these young people have before jumping in the car so it was very difficult for them. But the target was to throw them in deep water because only under circumstances like that is it possible to find the really talented ones and the ones who can prove themselves under a huge amount of pressure. And the very best are separated from the good ones because they are able to deliver on the occasions when the pressure is at the highest.”
Do you see any of you in Gergő?
“I remember myself from 15 years ago and there are some similarities to Gergő. He’s also a bit introverted, he’s a hard worker but he also likes to stay a bit in the background. But when it comes to driving, the look of his face and eyes are changing, his whole personality changes. And I was a bit like that as well. Gergő has all the necessary attributes to become a very successful race car driver. Now the task is to give him the possibility and find the funding for him to prove himself.”
What can he achieve?
“If he would get the chance to prove himself for three, four or five years I think he would be a very, very good driver. At WTCR level you can be very good but you could still miss out because of bad luck, because of the circumstances not being right. But if he could get the chance I think he would perform on a very similar level like myself in a couple of years.”
Looking ahead to the new season, you’ve commented on how you hope WTCR Race of Hungary can take place in front of fans in August. Why is this so important to you?
“Last season was all about survival. It was all about survival with the pandemic situation and it wasn’t easy for the whole world to cope with what was happening. We were quite lucky to be able to drive. Even though it was only six events there was some high-level competition in WTCR. But to drive in front of empty grandstands at the Hungaroring really wasn’t the same as the years before.”
How much did you wish that you’d had the chance to defend your title over a full season?
“Not really to be honest. All of us have to understand that we were in a very lucky position last year. If you see what’s happening in the world, even now and what happened last year, you need to understand that, okay you can miss out on some races, but when you take a step back, we are among a few of the most lucky people in the world. We do what we love, what we always wanted to do, but there has to be some years when things are not coming our way. And when you consider the pandemic situation, I didn’t miss out on anything last year, I was in a very lucky position.”
Finally, what advice would you give Yann Ehrlacher as he prepares for his title defence?
“First of all, he’s in a very good place to get advice from his uncle [Yvan Muller]! For me it didn’t feel different after winning the title. I had number ‘1’ on the car but my life wasn’t turned upside down because I won the title. Of course, you enjoy the moment and it’s good for your CV, but the most important thing is that everything gets more easier. You get the confidence to believe in what you do and that you are making the right decisions. He needs to believe in himself because now he can do it and do the same in the future as he did in the past.”