Tom Dillmann graduated from junior single-seaters after winning the 2016 Formula V8 3.5 title, but the Frenchman never really left and has been a key part of a Euroformula team while also racing professionally
Since joining Euroformula in 2019, Motopark has been pretty dominant via its main team and the CryptoTower-branded offshoot it supports. And while learning last year’s new Dallara 320 it had a secret weapon on its books: Tom Dillmann.
The Frenchman, now 32, raced against the team early in his car racing career and won the 2010 German Formula 3 title for HS Engineering against Van Amersfoort Racing’s Daniel Abt and Motopark’s Kevin Magnussen. Dillmann joined Motopark for a F3 Euro Series round the year after, and soon began to coach its drivers in F3 and then Formula 4.
He’s now been at the German outfit for a decade, with a racing stint there that included GP2 in 2013 when it was the operation behind the Russian Time team. It was a move that came after part-seasons in GP3 and GP2 that had followed his F3 title.
“It was a cool story because I did a half-season the year before with a win, and I was trying to get a seat but it was really difficult,” Dillmann told Formula Scout in the Barcelona paddock last year.
“I was in Jerez in the official test and I did the best time with Hilmer Motorsport, and then Timo called me there and said ‘don’t sign anything with them, I cannot tell you anything yet but something is happening’. And a week later I was signed with Russian Time for a full season.”
In Motopark’s one attempt at GP2 it was able to win the teams’ title with Sam Bird and Dillmann, but not without compromise.
“For me it was more a two-year plan,” Dillmann said. “Sam was much more experienced than me. Many times I had to experiment on the set-up because the team wanted to really build very quickly, so I was not on the ideal set-up quite often but we learned as much as possible.
“And the second year was going to be my year, basically, but it didn’t happen for sad reasons with the death of Igor Mazepa [the Russian Time owner who died in February 2014].
“After, I was let’s say the driver of choice when a team needed a driver. And then I found a full-time seat in Formula V8 3.5 for a couple of years as well. And this was also linked to coaching, because basically my team-mate brought me into the team to be the lead driver and develop the set-up but also work with my team-mate and try to help him with my experience.
“I was driving and coaching at the same time when I was doing FV8 3.5, the first year with Sean Gelael and the second year with Alfonso Celis Jr was the same programme. That was what was supposed to happen actually in the second year with Russian Time, with Artem Markelov. I was supposed to stay there, go for the title but also build Artem up, as I was working with him in German F3 with Motopark already.”
Markelov took the Russian Time seat and went on to have a long career in GP2/F2, while Dillmann made cameos and coached ex-Motopark drivers in the series. His FV8 3.5 switch came in 2015 and he claimed two podiums with Carlin before moving to AV Formula for his second season, where he not only turned the team into a race-winning one but also became champion.
“The team had never won a race. But the first time I jumped in the car after the year with Carlin – which was difficult, disappointing in a way – I was really happy with the car and much faster than I was with Carlin. And then the season, we were just building a championship by being consistent. There was only one goal: to win the championship.
“So we did what we had to do to win the title, take the points, the podiums. We had a little slump in the final third of the season, and then we came back here at Barcelona which was quite a crazy race to take the title. It looked spectacular the last race to win it, but I think we were very strong as a whole the whole year, very consistent and just very much a good season.”
Dillmann had led the points for much of the time, but a tricky penultimate round at Jerez put him behind Fortec Motorsports’ Louis Deletraz. That gap grew in the first race of the Barcelona season finale, with Dillmann starting ahead but losing to Deletraz in a scrap for second as he built up knowledge of AVF’s spare chassis he was now driving. Deletraz then took pole for the title decider, with Dillmann down in seventh, but the latter undercut his way to victory and title success.
F1 didn’t come calling for Dillmann, but as he says, “the thing is I was already professional”. In GP2 with Motopark, and then in both FV8 3.5 campaigns he had been a professional racing driver in a junior series – a rarity – as he was paid to race.
“Thanks to the title in ‘16 then I got a shot in Formula E, so it was great. I did my debut in the middle of the season in Paris in 2017, and it went well, and then I finished the season. So I did half a season of FE, then the year after I was really busy because I did LMP1, some races in Super Formula, where I was only supposed to do two races but then I ended up finishing, and I did three races in FE as well with a good result, which led to a full-time seat with NIO [for 2018-19].”
While Dillmann’s career appeared to be taking off, he was still in the F3 paddock with Euroformula. In sportscars he quickly worked his way up the ranks, starting with Alpine in LMP2 and then moving to the top LMP1 prototype class with ByKolles Racing. While he won’t be racing for the team this year, he will be developing its Le Mans Hypercar for 2022.
“Of course I’m really grateful to ByKolles because they gave me my first shot at doing Le Mans. I did a couple of World Endurance Championship races before with Alpine, which was successful, but my first Le Mans was with ByKolles and I will always be grateful for that.
“For sure the ByKolles LMP1 was not the most competitive LMP1, but it’s still a nice car to drive. It’s faster than LMP2, and LMP2 are already great machines nowadays. They are already very fast in Le Mans, and we are a bit faster than them, so it’s still enjoyable to drive. I know I cannot fight for a podium, but still I prefer driving this than a GT3 for example.”
Dillmann is used to lower levels of downforce though, whether it being in FE or when hopping into one of Motopark’s cars.
“Actually I’ve been testing a few days since they got the 320,” Dillmann said. “I did the first test in December  with the car, just to help the team to do the first set-up, the base set-up, and also when we started to test with the new drivers, to give them a reference, to build them up a bit faster.”
Motopark’s set-up makes it stand out at some tracks as the rear of its cars move more – so to achieve higher apex speeds.
“The team has a philosophy in terms of car balance, and I know how to apply the driving style for that car balance,” Dillmann said of his role.
“I can drive any car balance I would say, without being arrogant or pretentious. So if it’s oversteer or understeer, I have the knowledge to know the driving style you need to use the car like this. Here, they have a philosophy and I know how to drive it well. I can show the drivers that maybe are not so convinced. I can jump in the car and show them.”
One famous example of this is Marino Sato, who spent two years in FIA European F3 with Motopark with no podiums and a reluctance to the team’s usual set-up, but the switch to Euroformula and Michelin tyres unlocked title-winning pace.
“I don’t know why some drivers adapt better or not. There’s also examples of teams where for drivers it doesn’t work. I think one of the most noticeable ones is also ART Grand Prix. For some really good drivers, it just doesn’t work for them because they also have a philosophy, and if you don’t apply you’re not going to be fast. And it’s similar here [at Motopark]. But it depends also how late you get a driver. Because if the driver has done already three to five years of single-seaters and he has built a habit, it’s very difficult for some drivers to change that.”
One of the drivers Dillmann got to work with at the start of their career was Max Verstappen, who did his first F3 test with Motopark and won the Masters of F3 at Zandvoort with the team.
Dillmann added that while it may take longer for some to successfully adapt their driving to suit the set-up, a longer process may put them at a higher ultimate performance level in and out of Motopark’s cars than the faster learners.
Talking of drivers at the start of their careers brought Dillmann back to his own racing origins, after a quick side-step as to why a proud Frenchman has spent a decade embedded in a German team.
“I know I am one of the only French that Timo can support, but that is probably because I am from Alsace, in the east of France. So we get on well, because I’m from this part of France that is on the border. Like 10 minutes from my hometown is Germany.”
Despite the proximity to Germany, all of Dillmann’s formative racing was done in his home country.
“I didn’t do a lot of karting. My father used to race, but he was also building his own race car. He was his own mechanic, he was doing everything. So I did soapbox, my first year in racing my father made a soapbox and we did that for fun.
“It was interesting because you need to be very smooth and always keep the speed up because you have no engine. It takes some skills to be fast in these.
“Maybe I wouldn’t push so much [if I got in a soapbox now] like I was doing when I was nine years old. I didn’t really care about the risk or anything. Maybe it would be different now.
“Coming back to karting, I only did three years because basically I was doing everything with my father. He was doing the engine, mechanic, just him and me. As he was more into racing cars, he didn’t understand fully karting, so it was much easier for him to take care of a race car. So as soon as I turned 15, I could race in Belgium in Formula Renault 1.6. And there our sponsor bought us the car, another bought us a truck, and we did the championship just him and me.
“He was driving the truck, doing the mechanic, everything. We had no laptop, so I never saw data until later on in my career.”
Dillmann also entered some races in Italy and Spain, before selling on the car to fund a step up to FR2.0 where a father-and-son team wouldn’t be competitive without assistance.
“We had to start to go to teams. Luckily with what I was doing with our small team, with my father, we found a lot of help from many great people that we could put a budget together because they liked the story and they believed I could do something better with a proper team and all. That’s how I could go to FR2.0 after.
“And when I was in FR2.0, then I got Red Bull, so it helped me to go F3.”
The first year in FR2.0 didn’t include any points finishes, and was spent with several teams across part-time campaigns in the Eurocup and France, but the next year he moved to SG Formula and claimed his first wins as well as Red Bull’s attention.
“It was quite funny actually because it was here in Barcelona, the last race of the Eurocup I was starting second twice, and [Red Bull junior] Filipe Albuquerque was starting P1 with Motopark. He had to win the race to win the championship.
“On the grid, when I was sitting there on the front row, Dr Helmut Marko [head of the Red Bull Junior Team] came to my car when I was sitting in the car, and he told me to be careful with Albuquerque. He didn’t tell me to finish second, but he told me just to be careful and that he wanted to see me after the race. So then I got a shootout, and after the shoutout I got a seat.”
It was as a Red Bull junior that Dillmann got his first taste of F3 in 2007, driving for ASM (later to become ART GP) in the Euro Series. It didn’t go to plan.
“Unfortunately I had a crash in the last pre-season test where I broke my sternum [central chest bone] and a vertebrae. I was really fast until the crash, even compared to Romain Grosjean, Nico Hulkenberg, Kamui Kobayashi, I was really fast in the tests, all the tests. And then the crash put me quite on the back foot.
“I missed the first round, and yes there were some podiums, but not spectacular. The second year they put me with SG Formula, that were beginning in F3, and I had also to bring a part of the budget then. They started to not pay the full one, which was difficult in my situation because once I got Red Bull on my [side], all the help I had from before they thought ‘OK, job done, you made it’. And when I came back and had to ask [them] to put something in so I could do the full season, it was not possible. So my only hope was to do good with SG at the beginning so that Red Bull say ‘OK, we will keep going’. But unfortunately it was a complete disaster.
“SG was my team in FR2.0, so I had faith in them but it was a complete mess. We missed some free practice in the race weekends, the car was failing. The first six races I had four DNFs for mechanical reasons, so it was really, really bad and I had no chance to do a result with this team. And then came the moment where the part of the budget I was supposed to bring had to be brought, and it was not there. It ended like that.
“One month later I found a seat with Jo Zeller Racing, again in the Euro Series, and I finished on the podium straight away in front of all the other Red Bull juniors that were there. But it was not enough, Marko didn’t take me again.”
But for Dillmann there was a third year in F3 once he was out of Red Bull’s doors, split between the Euro Series and the German championship, and race-winning pace in the latter then led to him returning there in 2010 when he won the title.
“From then on, I had no budget. It was impossible [after Red Bull]. At some point it was very likely that it would be the end for me. But luckily I got calls from struggling teams that wanted a driver to help them to do a result or to develop the car, and like that I could keep racing in F3.”
Eight years later and Dillmann would be doing the same in FE, on the streets of Paris no less, being called up last-minute to make his series debut with Venturi based on the reputation of his previous years of quick adaptation and the development work with Motopark. He scored on his debut, kept the seat until the end of the season and then was a stand-in again in 2018.
While he failed to find a seat for the 2020-21 season, Dillmann is very much on the FE radar and he seeks a full-time return to a series which is almost the complete opposite of his Euroformula-based role with Motopark.