He races under the Serbian flag now, but 38-year-old Milos Pavlovic started his career as Yugoslavia’s greatest racing hope and came very close to being the first driver from the Balkan Peninsula in Formula 1
Moving to another country where you know nobody is a daunting feat for anyone, and especially so when you can’t speak the local language. Even more so if you’re making that kind of ambitious move before reaching your teenaged years, and as a member of a country where there is sentiment from the international community against your homeplace and people.
Enter 10-year-old Milos Pavlovic, who in just over two years since first racing a kart has become winner of the Yugoslavian Karting Championship at the Mini and Junior levels, and finishes ninth in Italy’s prestigious Trofeo delle Industrie in the 100 Junior category a week before his 11th birthday. The drivers ahead of him include future Formula 1 racers Giorgio Pantano and Viantionio Liuzzi, who he proves he can get the measure of in one of Italy’s regional series.
“Let’s put it this way, those times were more romantic, for sure,” Pavlovic tells Formula Scout.
“So even though I’m coming from a country that today is going through terrible times, at the time it was not so terrible. At least not at the very, very beginning of my career. And therefore I was lucky because my parents could actually support me, but shortly after that my career became a real job because my father and my family could not afford to sponsor me, there were no sponsors in my home country and it was very hard to find sponsors elsewhere.”
The shortly after was hyperinflation of his local currency and a succession of wars that led to the break-up of Yugoslavia into seperate sovereign states that continued to fued through the 1990s. There are still regional tensions today in the Balkan Peninsula, and the voilent events that occurred there last century also increased discrimination against Yugoslavs abroad.
“Going away from home happened when I moved to Italy, that happened when I was [around] 12 years old. And I was never supposed to stay there, I was supposed to be there for racing and then come back,” Pavlovic explains.
“First due to racing obligations, and then because of the situation in my country I never went back. I stayed in Italy, and then after I moved to Britain. I was growing up very fast.
“It was very difficult, it was very difficult. And when you grow up in a foreign country, as a Serbian at that time, was very hard.”
Italy was the centre of the karting world, and in 1994 Pavlovic was a frontrunner in the contiental competitions being held in the country. He then moved up to senior karts in Formula A, which evolved into the top OK category that exists today, and made history in his second year in the category by beating Pantano and Jenson Button to win the 1996 CIK-FIA World Cup at Suzuka.
“The World Cup at the time was a single race, so you had to go there and win it. I led less than a lap, and won it; that was the strategy. I won it against the person who I believe was the best in my generation, Giorgio Pantano, and it makes me feel really proud about that. A whole lot of people I raced against, James Courtney, Jenson Button and others – maybe less known, but also Fernando Alonso. There were a lot of good drivers. At the time it wasn’t like today, you could do it at a very good level with not so much [money]. Today, it’s just impossible.
“When I won the World Cup, believe it or not, at the time I was not official. I decided for that year, because I was struggling with the budgets, I decided to do it by myself. I took a very good engine tuner, through his contacts we got an official chassis and we put together a team. If you look at the results, there is no team name next to the [driver name], it’s just blank.
“That is more or less the moment I understood: this could really be my job. Maybe I was too naive.”
After sampling Formula Ford and Formula Renault, Pavlovic moved from Italy to Great Britain for 1997 and was part of the Jim Russell Racing School while continuing to kart. He went single-seaters only for the next year, competing in the entry-level slicks-and-wings series Formula Vauxhall Junior.
While the results weren’t suggestive of anything special, when he moved up to the more senior Formula Vauxhall in 1999 he won two races and took the fight to the likes of future DTM champion Gary Paffett and Ryan Dalziel.
“UK was like Italy’s go-karting, that’s what UK was to single-seaters. So I moved to England, I lived in Milton Keynes, and with a lot of struggles – I had to sacrifice a lot – I was racing. With ups and downs obviously. If you think, in my spell in England which was four years, I think I had a budget for half – or even [only] one year. It was really tough.”
The third and fourth years were spent in British F3, with three fifth place finishes in a season-and-a-half to go alongside multiple mechnical failures. His form abroad was more convincing, as he was seventh in the Pau Grand Prix and 12th in the Korea Superprix and Masters of F3 with the Benetton-branded RC Motorsport team.
A return to Italy for 2002 had a far better return, as he won five rounds out of nine to claim the Italian F3 title with Target Racing. While he had his sights set F1’s primary feeder series International Formula 3000, he instead ended up moving across to the F3-level World Series Lights support series to World Series by Nissan (later known as Formula Renault 3.5).
He finished third in the points, and his year ended on a high as his karting achievements were recognised at the highest level.
“It was basically – I got invited by CIK-FIA, the karting [arm of] FIA, to Monte Carlo to a gala. I go, and they awarded me with the Karting History Makers prize, it was great. I didn’t even expect it. I just went there to see some friends, and then…”
With an extra bit of momentum behind him, Pavlovic returned to World Series Lights and swept to the title in a grid light on competition. That gave him the finances needed to step up to FR3.5, and now as a national of Serbia and Montenegro. To make it to the level of racing one lower than F1, and against drivers like Robert Kubica and Will Power, was a big deal.
“It was Formula 1 [to me]. That series was F1,” Pavlovic says, emphasising the prestige of racing in FR3.5.
“My problem was, again, every time I had no money – I was broke. The first two years I can honestly tell you now, I look back and say: this is the budget I had, how the hell did you have the courage to do it?”
At times in his career, Pavlovic was actually backed by state-owned companies. But new democracies do not tend to be rich.
“The problem was at the end of every year I was in trouble, so finding money to pay off the debt to be able to continue I could never start from even ground with other people except in 2007. In 2007, I had almost the right things. So at least I could choose a competitive team, and I won two races and got several podium finishes.
“There is always something you could have done better. But honestly my own regret is I have never had the chance to do it at a fair level compared to others. I’m over it, but if I think about it now, I was never in the fight.”
17th in the points in 2005 was followed by two team changes and 11th in the 2006 standings, with two podiums in his first three starts with Draco Racing in the second half of that season prompting him to return to the frontrunning squad for a full campaign the year after. He finished third in the points in a field packed with talents that included Sebastian Vettel and Giedo van der Garde, and many more who didn’t make it to F1.
“I think the top 20 drivers there were really good, top 10 very, very good, and a few of those had the luck to be at the right place at the right moment,” Pavlovic summarises.
The global financial crisis put pay most to most of the grid’s racing ambitions, with only four drivers from the top 20 in the points securing full-season seats in series of the same, or a higher, level for 2008. Most drivers stayed in FR3.5, and several tried to move across to GP2 but ended up losing their drive mid-season. Pavlovic was one of those.
He stepped down to the cheaper all-new MotorSport Vision-run FIA Formula Two for 2009, but by then he was 26 years old and his F1 dream looked over. Or so you would have thought.
F1’s response to the credit crunch was a cost cap for 2010 that would enable new, smaller teams to enter as fully fledged manufacturers. This brought totally new investors to the paddock, and new connections meant drivers who wouldn’t have a look-in at other teams were now offering their services – and sponsors – with greater success.
One of the three new teams granted a 2010 F1 entry was the ill-fated USF1, which planned to split its operations between Spain and the USA, and it signed then-two-time Argentine touring cars champion Jose Maria Lopez as its first driver. As its F1 plan unravelled ahead of the season opener it would not attend, Pavlovic declared he had signed a contract to race its second car.
USF1, in the middle of undoing the contract with future World Touring Car champion and Formula E driver Lopez, denied any such contract with a second driver – despite claims from ex-Honda F1 test driver James Rossiter in addition to Pavlovic’s.
“I signed, I paid – not me, somebody else paid for me, the sponsorship that was required for me to be there – and then the whole thing went bust,” Pavlovic recalls now. “And after that, basically I didn’t have money to take a train.
“I almost decided to quit racing, I did maybe a race or two a year, and then I got a call from a team of friends who asked me if I was free on that weekend to do a race. I said yes. So I did the one race, we won. They invited me to do the second, again I did well. Then they said ‘come on, lets finish the season’. I did it for free. And we won.”
That call-up marked the start of the current chapter of Pavlovic’s racing career. In 2014 he made history by winning the Lamborghini Super Trofeo Europe and World titles alongside Edoardo Piscopo at Bondaldi Motorsport, and has been racing Lamborghinis ever since.
“Lambo was great, they took me in the family. I work for Lambo today a lot, that’s where I take my salary from, but unfortunately never got a chance in a official [factory] seat, which is a bit of a shame.
“And honestly, I can’t be bothered anymore to spend days and days and days asking for money, I can’t do that. Now, if you want me, if you need me, you need to pay for my service. I think I’m good enough, and that’s it.”
Pavlovic won races in Super Trofeo in 2017, and returned to the top step earlier this year alongside his new team-mate Raul Guzman, who raced in F3 in 2019 and is now an official Lamborghini young driver.
“I really think this is the greatest one-make series in the world, in the GT world at least, and I really think it’s a ladder for somebody who wants to go into the GT racing. Because the cars are very difficult to drive, at the same time very fun to drive, but GT3 are very precise and there is no overdriving the problem, almost.
“In the Super Trofeo it’s very much down to the driver, when you have a decent car, to make a difference. So the talent comes out. Therefore I think Lambo’s doing a great job in the formula they created, and I think you will be able to see a lot of good drivers come out of it.
“The times have changed. When I was 25, 26, 27, at the time the GT world was still like ‘you can do that when you’re 40’. And now, it’s like when you’re 18: ‘come on man, move to the GTs’.”
Pavlovic says he finds it “very hard to inspire people” with his career path, despite being a paid professional driver, but he does get involved in coaching the next generation of talents.
“I must say my career has been a real roller-coster ride, ups and downs, and I’m very proud of what I have achieved. Because if you look at what was spent, if we need really to get down to that bit, then I have done something which is pretty unique, I really believe.
“You know, I ask myself how it could have been, if I just had somebody to make me do a few mistakes less than I actually did.
“Because you go to a new place, you know nobody, and you see something you like but maybe that is not the best thing you can get. The new kids have a possibility to ask me for free for advice.
“There is one guy [in Serbia] that I really think is quality material. His name is Filip Jenic, he’s been winning on the local levels, and in Eastern European championships, and I think he’s very good. The only problem is whether he will have the possibility to approach the road in the right manner. If he does, I think he can be top class.”
Jenic was the Central European champion in Rotax Junior karts last year, and was 10th in the OK-Junior-level CIK-FIA Academy Trophy.
“Funny thing is when I help this guy today, it’s like in the 1990s; nothing’s changed in the kart world, the people who are ruling the kart world today are the same. I’m the only one from that region, from the Balkans – when I say Balkans, the Yugoslavian countries – who has achieved this much. I hope to be some kind of inspiration, or light in the car that they can seek for help.”
Before Pavlovic, Eastern European drivers rarely tasted international success between the Second World War and the turn of the century.
Motorsport existed with prominence in the Eastern Bloc, and East Germany was represented in F1 by four drivers in the 1950s. It took almost 50 years for the next driver from the formerly communist republics to make it to single-seaters’ pinnacle, with the Czech Republic’s Int. Formula 3000 ace Tomas Enge starting three races for Prost in 2001.
Fellow Int. F3000 graduate Zsolt Baumgartner debuted at his home grand prix in Hungary two years later with Jordan, then scored a point in a full season with Minardi in 2004. After him was Poland’s Kubica, who replaced 1997 world champion Jacques Villeneuve at BMW Sauber in 2006 and was a race winner two years later, and Russia – the world’s largest country – finally made it into F1 with Vitaly Petrov in 2010. Daniil Kvyat and Sergey Sirotkin have followed since.
Early Yugoslavia had a few drivers of note, with Milivoj Bozic racing a Porsche 550 in sportscar races abroad through the 1950s and 1960s, and Francy Jerancic scored points in the open-class Interserie championship. He also did Formula 2, but rarely made it further than the entry list. In 1977 he did make the grid for the Prize of Vienna race at the Aspern circuit, but retired in his Surtees TS15 run by AMD Skofja Loka (based in what is now Slovenia). He failed to quality for the Adriatic Grand Prix at Misano, which contributed to the European championship, but is recorded as coming fifth in the Salzburgring’s Festival Prize race that year.
Sead Alihodzic (born is what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina) raced in British F3 and also tried entering F2 races with Skojfa Loka at the time.
MotoGP had a Yugoslavian GP from 1969 to 1990 at tracks located in modern-day Croatia, but the only noticable visit by international single-seaters was a grand prix around the streets of Serbian capital Belgrade way back in 1939; on the same day Britain announced it was at war with Adolf Hitler’s Germany.
Interview by Stephen Brunsdon