until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Formula E

Dark places to career rebirth - McLaren's reforged leader

by Sam Smith
5 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

In the context of career crossroads Sam Bird’s recent spectacular re-emergence from the downcast and troubled to a victorious force is a signpost of inspired determination.

Over a decade ago Bird almost walked away from the sport to train as a personal fitness instructor. Holed up in his flat he wasn’t even sure how he was going to pay his utility bills.

But he's not only forged a career in Formula E, he's emerged as one of its best performers and most decorated winners.

His 12th victory at Sao Paulo was arguably his best and it re-asserted his own belief, and that of others, that he is far from done in his decade-long quest for the Formula E title.

But before that feat came ditches of desperation. It’s often lost in the fog of competition that drivers have private lives too and sometimes, like the vast majority of people, that naturally creates unwanted ripples throughout professional life too.

He had bristled at some media reports in recent seasons, including some by The Race, that he might be something of a spent force at the sharp end of the grid.

The evidence was split. He was still quick and capable of podiums and running at the front. But with that came accidents too, including two infamous ones with his then-team-mate Mitch Evans at Hyderabad and Jakarta.

“It does and it doesn’t,” Bird told The Race in Tokyo when asked if the articles bothered him.

“It does initially but then if you don’t go and get a result it then becomes a spiral of negativity.

“I can’t tell you the places I’ve been in the last couple of years at some points, it’s not been very fun.”

“Reading stuff about me, my ability, my driving, driving style, has been tough to hear at times, really hard, and it’s affected me emotionally, mentally, physically, whatever you want to call it, but I feel this move to NEOM McLaren has given me this new lease of life to go and express myself again on a race track and I’m really enjoying it.”

There’s a difference now though. The smile and the confident stride have returned now at a team where, he says, “I turn up to work much happier surrounded by people that do believe in me. That belief then gives me belief and then results start to happen.

“All of a sudden, I think ‘you know, I can do this’. It was never gone. 'I can do this'."

A decent chunk of that is coming back into a side of the garage with a familiar face – his former engineer at Envision, Stephen Lane.

Their working relationship was always close. They even had their own strapline moniker together ‘eyes forward’ usually uttered to Bird on the grid or when making progress through the field.

“You’ve got to have someone who you trust and get on with extremely well on a race weekend,” says Bird.

“That’s because your engineer is not only someone that makes set up changes on the car and gives them to the mechanics, but he’s also your psychologist on race day, he’s your best friend, he’s your mentor, he’s the only person I speak to on the radio and he’s my engineer.

“There are so many roles that he does on a race day and he ticks all boxes so well. I know that he can be harsh with me and then at the end of the day we’ll still be mates. It works very well.”

It certainly did at Sao Paulo when Lane calmly instructed Bird to mind his temperatures while stalking Mitch Evans’ Jaguar. In escalating heat, it paid dividends when Bird’s former team-mate hit thermal difficulty on the final lap.

The burst of joy as he took the chequered flag was met with a ‘Bird is back’ statement from Lane. Soon after Bird was addressing the media and while there was obvious elation, you felt it was tempered slightly.

Despite the tough two seasons Bird’s return to the winner’s circle was never in real doubt in the mind of the protagonist. And on this occasion, he was happy to let his driving do the talking without any external need to go over the top in his celebrations.

Could Bird Double Up in Tokyo?

Bird has strong momentum from his fine start to life at NEOM McLaren and securing back-to-back wins is a real possibility in Tokyo.

He’s always been strong on new circuits and some aspects of the Tokyo Big Sight track could complement the Nissan-powered McLaren’s attributes.

“I think you’re going to see a more London-style race, to be honest,” said Bird.

“If anybody’s watched the London E-Prix it’s more difficult to overtake. The energy target that we’ve been given and just how close to flat out it feels already, means I think overtaking is going to be very limited."

With no long straights leading into wider corners means that should drivers get qualifying right they can dictate the pace, keep track position, and relatively 'easily' block their way to a win.

“I think the circuit layout could be good fun, we could be on for a cracking race and track position will be vital I’m sure.

“We’re supplied by a Japanese manufacturer powertrain and it’s a huge weekend for them. They’d dearly love to have a great weekend this weekend and I’m sure that they’ve been pushing extremely hard to make sure this one is a good one.”

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Email
  • More Networks