TOM CHILTON – WTCC racer and tin top star, talks Nordschleife, Formula E, family and Tarmac run-offs

25th January 2018

I have presented the World Touring Car Championships (WTCC) for the past four years so I know the drivers well, but having the opportunity to sit down with them, one on one, and finding out a bit more about what makes them tick is a rare opportunity. However, I was lucky to spend some time with Tom Chilton in China recently so thought I would pick his brains.

He has been busy this year. Not only was he behind the wheel of the Citroën C-Elysée in the WTCC, but he also drove the Power Maxed Racing Vauxhall Astra in the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC). Having lead the Independents Trophy within the WTCC and he finished p15 in the BTCC.

“It has been a good year,” admits Chilton, “but I have definitely had some bad luck at some rounds. My goal was to be at the top of the WTCC trophy from 2016 and so far I am on the right track… but it is so close right now between at least 6 of us in both classes that anything can happen”

Less than two weeks later we were at the extremely challenging and risky track, Macau – a circuit known to throw even the best drivers off kilter. Chilton has had some good results there in the past and this time was no different despite a fairly large incident in the opening race at Police “I had a great start and even gave Michelisz a nudge going in to Mandarin as I had better pace on both front runners but when Norbie lost the car at the corner we just had no chance. I had no time to react any differently and was sadly one of the four to end up in the mix.” The main race however was full of a very gripping tango that took place between Chilton and Argentine, Esteban Guerrieri. “I loved it! It was such a fun race. We were on the limit all the time. I was desperate for a podium before we went and I was willing to do everything possible. It’s one of the hardest circuits in the world and I wanted to prove my ability and I felt I did that”. Finally, after an entire race of chewed nails from the respective teams in the pits, Esteban made a small mistake on the final lap and penultimate corner that cost him greatly “…Honestly, I am sure he was intentionally holding me up at the hairpin. Every lap I was losing three seconds. So I feel it was karma that he lost the podium”. Fighting talk from Tom, but after hearing his passion at wanting to get a podium
so much, I could understand his need to vent.

So with another podium under his belt we moved to the final race of the 2017 WTCC season and Tom was sitting p4 in the main Drivers Championship – proudly perched above four works drivers – and p2 in the WTCC Trophy of which he was only 0.5 off the title win: his main contender being his Sebastien Loeb Racing team mate, Mehdi Bennani

Day one gave him little feedback. After a clash with a tyre stack he was left with only one lap time on the board for FP1. FP2 was far more positive and put him in a more optimistic frame of mind ahead of the final day however he would have rather had more time behind the wheel “I made a stupid mistake. I could give you all sorts of excuses but ultimately, I just shouldn’t have hit the tyres as I put the team and I in total jeopardy. They’ve worked so hard to fix the car. Thank God I have such a solid team at SLR”.

The final day dawned and Tom had a very positive attitude. “I slept well. I’ve exercised hard again this morning. I am ready to win the title.”

And win he did. Not only that but after such a fantastic race win he scored maximum points which catapulted him up to p3 in the main Drivers Championship – a position he never expected to find himself in. “I kept asking: “Are you sure?? Are you really sure??” I couldn’t believe it. It was the race of my life. I was desperate to win the Independents Trophy but never in my wildest dreams did I expect to come third overall. It meant I get to go to the FIA Gala and mix with the ‘big boys’ and I was so, so happy and excited. All my dreams came true in one go! What a way to end my WTCC season and possibly my final year in WTCC!”

Although his previous best result in Macau was seventh, Tom Chilton has proven his prowess on street circuits this year with great pace at Marrakech and Vila Real and we know he has no fear after his performance at “The Green Hell”, aptly named by Jackie Stewart.

“The Nordschleife ring is by far my favourite track -166 corners of which only six have gravel traps. The rest have just barriers or trees. Being on the limit around there is the best feeling in the world,” recalled Chilton wistfully. “I’d say it’s as much fun as you can have with your pants on! In 2016, I got a double podium and outright lap record, winning a Tag Heuer watch for the fastest lap. This year, in race one, I managed to get the fastest lap result again and loved every second of it”.

The Nordschleifen is a physically and mentally demanding circuit and we have seen even the fittest drivers struggle to cope with the demands, but Tom Chilton has been focusing on his fitness levels this year more than ever before. “The fitter you are the faster you heal which is important in our business as we can sometimes race two or three times in a day or at back-to-back weekends like I am doing this year with BTCC and WTCC. It gets very hot inside a touring car, with temperatures at some tracks showing around 76C and we are sitting in it for 45minutes, working hard. Then a 15-minute break and we must do it all over again. That, plus the challenge of coping with jetlag, sometimes makes it impossibly tough.

“At the end of the race you still need a strong left leg to hit the brake pedal very hard to get the car to stop, especially as the brakes lose their efficiency with wear and tear and build up of temperature. You also need a strong core to hold your legs in position whilst turning and controlling the car between the left and right leg whilst jumping around over kerbs and bumps and crests etc. All in all, if you’re not fit and you don’t work on your fitness levels, life is just harder. I’m hardly super fit, but I do try to improve myself all the time.”

Tom Chilton has no airs nor graces. Having worked in this industry for around 12 years, I have met many drivers who seem to have lost a grip on reality and their roots. It’s no secret that Chilton comes from one of the more privileged of backgrounds, but he is aware of this and he still counts himself as very lucky. It is a real eye opener to find someone who is still so grounded. >> 

“Thank you, I do like to think I’m one of the happy ones,” said Chilton. “Keeping grounded is an interesting one. It is very glamorous, and it is easy for people like me to think it’s ‘normal’ to be racing expensive race cars flat out around the track, but there’s nothing normal about it. We use a car on the road to get us from A to B with the kids/work colleagues and for those who are fortunate enough, they may have a sportscar for the weekend. However, you would never think that going bumper to bumper racing in your sportscar is normal. You’d never risk scratching it. So I am aware that I am lucky. My parents have been a big part of my life and they are both very hard working, lovely, respectful, grounded and down-to-earth folk and they have helped me stay human. I was taught to treat others as you wish to be treated. I believe in karma on and off the track.”

There are many talented drivers out there who can only dream of his opportunities, so I wondered what his advice would be if he could do it all over again with the knowledge he has now? What would he do differently?

“It is really tough for up and coming drivers now, more than ever before,” said Chilton. “The easiest part for them is the simulation because the younger generation love their Xboxes and Playstations! However, that world has also grown so competitive too. So much now goes into being the best. There is so much to consider from fitness and consistently fast driving through to marketing and PR. Raising sponsorship is probably the hardest thing nowadays and without that you struggle to do anything behind a wheel. I would highly recommend doing some media training on the side as you need to come across well for companies who want to invest in you and use you as their ambassador.

“Keeping grounded is an interesting one. It is very glamorous and easy for people like me to think it’s ‘normal’ to be racing expensive race cars flat out around the track, but there’s nothing normal about it”

“Would I do anything differently though? I’m not sure. I feel I do the above to the best of my ability. I’ve always gone with the best option on the table at the time. Hindsight is always easy, but at the time you always go with what you currently know and what’s around.”

It seems like Tom Chilton has his foreseeable future pretty much mapped out. There has been much speculation and uncertainty around the future of WTCC and time will tell how that will pan out, but for certain he has another year, at least, in BTCC much to his fans’ delight

“I love the British championship and all the fans who have been following me from a young age are so supportive. I have such fond memories and I will always cherish them. Commercially, for my main sponsors, the BTCC fits in well for their PR and marketing budgets. It is a good championship to invest in with such great TV coverage and fan attendance is always so high. I’ve been in the BTCC for 11 years and am proud that I now have the largest social media following which, these days, is so important. So, it’s the strongest place for me to be for now.”

That made me wonder what this BTCC driver’s thoughts are on the world of electric racing and whether he would consider making a move to Formula E or similar one day. His reaction wasn’t overly positive. “Manufactures are investing into electric/hybrids at the moment and to ensure they want to spend their money in motorsport we have to accommodate it, but I hate it really as it’s soulless and quiet. In the back of the paddock they are burning 1000s of litres of diesel in generators to charge up the batteries. As for autonomous racing, if you want to watch a car going around with no driver go and buy a radio-controlled car for your kids.”

I guess that’s a no then! We swiftly move on to the development of cars and safety. Martin Brundle recently said that he felt racing needs more danger. With the likes of Goodwood Revival and the classic racing series, Tom Chilton has had the chance to get behind the wheel of some old cars that have zero in terms of extra safety, so what does he make of Brundle’s comments?

“I think the cars/safety gear being safer is a really good thing especially as I have kids and want to be around to watch them grow up. But I hate driver aids and most of all hate the run off areas on new racetracks which are just Tarmac. It means when somebody makes a mistake and runs wide they come straight back in front of you with two fingers up their nose. In the old days I’d be cheering as I drove past as they were stuck in the kitty litter!”

It’s clear that Tom Chilton is a true, old-school petrol head. He is extremely positive about his future in BTCC and, despite the rumours, believes that the WTCC will continue in some format or other and he still hopes for a place there. No matter what the future holds within motorsport, this racer is living his dream and we can be sure that we will see his happy face for many years to come.