Home Featured Tom Coronel on his racing addiction, Merc’s “insurance” driver and more

Tom Coronel on his racing addiction, Merc’s “insurance” driver and more

by Ida Wood

Photo: Roger Gascoigne

His middle name is Romeo, and his twin’s brother’s is Alfa, so it’s clear racing is quite literally in the blood for Tom Coronel. He joined the Formula Scout Podcast to discuss his career, the cost of F4 and more

“It was mega. Formula Ford was the best series for learning drivers. Mechanical grip, slipstreaming, that was good,” Tom Coronel says enthusiastically. “It’s a pity, it’s not [big] in Holland. It doesn’t exist anymore.”

The wingless category was the starting point of Coronel’s single-seater career, which went on to include Formula Opel, Formula 3 and then Super Formula. He won the title in Japan’s answer to Formula 1, but no door was open in the world championship and so he switched to sportscars and then to touring cars where his name has become synonymous after two decades racing with success in global and European series.

He’s also a bit of a television celebrity in the F1-mad Netherlands, working as an analyst on a panel show during race weekends that actually required Coronel to drive all the way to the studio just a few hours either side of recording our podcast – and racing in TCR Europe – at Spa-Francorchamps earlier this month.

Listen to it here, find it on Breaker, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic, Castbox, Apple Podcasts and Spotify, and read an abridged transcript below too!

“I went [to Japan] the same time as Ralf Schumacher and Norberto Fontana. It was just at one stage you don’t have the budget anymore for going to Formula 2 [then International Formula 3000] and there you were going to be a professional driver so they pay you, and they ask you if you want to race for them. Well that was something unique, something different. So finally we had no choice to go there. I make two years with TOM’S Toyota, good times, and once you are scoring there really well, you win races, they treat you really well, they treat you like a professional driver. But there was a different approach than Europe.”

Coronel followed up a junior single-seater career in Europe that included the Dutch FF1600 title, the Formula Opel Lotus Nations Cup and second place in the FOpel Lotus Euroseries, and second place in the Monaco Grand Prix’s Formula 3 support race with four years spent in Japan where he won the national F3 title in 1997 (and the Masters of F3 race back at home), picked up victories in Super GT and then became SF (then known as Formula Nippon) champion in 1999.

“It was special because the funny thing was if you were P2, they ask you:

‘What’s the problem? The engine or the chassis?’
‘No, no. Don’t worry, I didn’t push enough. I think tomorrow if I push a little bit more I will be there.’
‘But Tom please explain. Was it the engine, or the chassis?’

‘We took you, so that’s not the problem’. So what’s then the problem? And that was a different mindset. Because in Europe it’s different.

“Once you won the championship there, the adventure was over. And that’s how I saw it. A lot of drivers stayed there: Benoit Treluyer, Andre Lotterer, I took care of him [when he first went to Japan]. They are still there, to drive, to pick up professional money. But I said once I won the FNippon championship ‘I go back to Europe, I also have a social life here’. Because otherwise I was going to stay there, so I stopped. They still called every year for five years ‘Tom, please come back, please come race with us’. ‘Nope’. And it was quite funny in 2003, I think they tripled the [Super GT] salary so I said ‘OK, I go’.”

Photo: Super Formula

Japan can be a big culture shock for some European drivers, and Coronel helped others navigate the switch.

“Get in the Japan lifestyle. Andre Lotterer, Sebastien Philippe, I took care of those boys in Tokyo.”

Did that include the night life?

“Well you know, if you need relaxation after tension. Let’s say I took care of them. Ask them, for sure they will say if you are out with Coronel you don’t come home before sunlight.”

He still helps out other drivers today, although in a rather different capacity to cultural guide.

“I’m staying here in Spa because I’m coaching some drivers. Just this morning I was WhatsApping with a driver, maybe to come over, because I want him to see the F4 championship. And I will drive with him in about three weeks’ time I think.”

Other drivers that Coronel has supported at the start of their car racing careers includes Jaap van Lagen, Pieter Schothorst and the considerably older Bas Schothorst. “All the guys who won,” as Coronel describes them. “I always make winners.”

And what is his approach to aiding young drivers?

“Honesty, no bullshit and talk with results. Second place is the first loser. I’m very strict, I’m very open, I don’t like ‘oh but this and this and the team’. No, no, no, no, no, no. First you [look at yourself].”

After taking his FNippon crown, Coronel raced sportscars in America and Europe before establishing himself as a touring car star, a rare move for drivers who get to such a high level in single-seater racing. So why the tin-top switch?

Photo: Super Formula

“The problem was with sportscars you share. And somehow I didn’t like it. Of course I did GT, I did sportscars with Jan Lammers etc, but in the end a person like me has a little bit too much energy. But you know, I’m known of this. And I know it. Because my friends always say ‘you were born in a ball of cocaine, so please don’t take any drugs’. And I’ve never taken any drugs in my life, honestly. Because I have so much energy already for myself, the problem is I’m 50 but I feel 24.

“This morning I drove here from Holland. Last night I drove back. Because of the F1 [TV] show. Yesterday morning I drove here at 4:45am. People say ‘you’re fucking crazy, how is this possible?’. That’s me. I cannot stop. And the car doesn’t know how old you are. So what’s the problem? Some guys ‘but Tommy you’re old’ Ah, ah, ah, it’s experience. You’re using the wrong word.

“You saw the [TCR Europe] race today. Wait, wait, patient, wait, wait, wait. If I would have been aggressive, because he was angry… I treat people how people treat me. If you fuck me, I fuck you twice in the ass without lubrication. You understand?”

That’s touring cars.

“But all around the paddock, you can walk around, everybody loves me. They are all my friends, because they know I know I’m an honest fighter. For Tommy, I’d rather be second with a big fight to have fun afterwards than I win the race with 10-second lead. And that’s where the difference is between me and other people.

“They don’t understand me, they’re too frustrated, too difficult. I’m not difficult, I’m easy. Because if you understand my system, it’s about enjoying life, it’s about results. Don’t party and have a bad result, no, no, no, no, no. The result is P1, that’s what counts, then after party like crazy. I don’t care if evening, tomorrow morning you wake up in the puke, I don’t care. But Sunday, when you have to do the job, you cannot be the weakest list, you have to be the strongest link. If you have a chain, where does it break when you pull it? You have to be the strongest link. And that’s always how I approach myself, how I approach racing, and also there are a lot of people that are frustrated.

Photo: TCR Europe

“And then I’m like ‘you’re a privileged motherfucker that you can race’. All those guys who sitting [on TV] they’re looking at you and you’re driving, and you’re complaining? You’re stupid. It’s the attitude. I don’t like the spoiled kids. I’m very strict.”

Coronel’s strictness extends to costs when it comes to racing, and he feels that Formula 4 is a failure for the FIA. It was originally pitched and launched in 2014 as a €100,000 category. Now the budgets are three times that…

“In my opinion it’s getting out of proportion. F4 is €300,000. It’s completely ridiculous. I made FFord for €30,000. I drove with my car, with the trailer behind it, then when I arrived on the circuits people were helping me with the set-up, I didn’t even know, I didn’t even have jerrycans, I borrowed the jerrycans. Nowadays you have to be with Prema, Van Amersfoort Racing etc. It’s out of proportion. My opinion is racing is only for rich people. There is no opening anymore for people who have the talent. And this is difficult.

“Why is there no FFord anymore? Why is the start category F4? Why? And if I have a F4, that’s my campervan, I arrive with my trailer with my F4. Hello, here I am, I would like to do the race. I’m not allowed?! You’re not allowed? What is this?

“It’s bullshit what they [the FIA] say. The FIA is not – they don’t do what they say. They say we go low price and all these kinds of things, it’s not true, it’s not true. What they do is dictatorship, it’s control. If I have a F4, I buy now a F4, I want to enter the race, I’m not allowed to enter the race. This is not right. I have a talented driver, I would like to start this morning. If you can, you can open the gate, I can show you his laptime. It’s not possible. No I have to enter with a team who I have to pay €350,000. Where can I find the 350k?  But this is the difficulty. This is why in my opinion the FIA is complete, complete off their minds. They lie.”

F4 has just about held on to its father-and-son teams, with Sauter Engineering+Design competing in ADAC F4, and there’s nothing actually stopping a licensed driver with an eligible car entering an F4 series, but series organisers may encourage mid-season arrivals who may only be set for one round to enter as guests if they are not joining the line-up of a team already running in a series.

Photo: TCR Europe

“The problem is [racing] is an addiction, and the difficulty is only rich people can race nowadays. And this is what I don’t like, this is what I don’t like in motorsport.”

It’s not just simply favouring ‘the rich’ by having the most expensive entry route into single-seaters be the best supported, but also that wealth tends to be carried by a group of people lacking in diversity.

“[The FIA] say we make it accessible. They say it’s for women. They talk bullshit. They’re not honest, it’s not true what they do. Because if it’s true what they do, then they have to support the cheap series and they don’t. They only support the series and they make them more expensive, and then they make money out if it.”

The rise of spec series was in part instigated by the explosive success of Formula Opel, in its national championship, continental championship and cup contest forms, in the 1990s. It was a “fucking good series that was cheap, honest racing” and helped propel Coronel’s own single-seater career, but he thinks “100%” its success led to the standardisation of junior single-seaters in the decades since.

“There is no start anymore. My boy is now 11 and I’m really pushing him to see if there are any possibilities, but I cannot even start with F4. It’s too expensive.”

FFord does still exist, in good health in the United Kingdom too, “but if you win the Festival, who are you?” reckons Coronel. “It’s not being supported [by the FIA].”

Coronel’s old friend Jan Magnussen contested last year’s Festival, 29 years after winning it as a young racer, and his nephew Dennis Lind did it too. Both got thoroughly stuck in, with Lind staying late to polish his car.

The 2021 FFord Festival

“This is what I mean, this is what I miss in motorsport. But this is what I like from the TCR Europe series. Very basic, the European series like this one. I walk in every team, I don’t care. I’m very open. Every team i walk inside, I sit, I open their fridge, I start eating, nobody complains to me. Because this is the style, what I miss.

“We are all laptime addicted. You have clinics for cocaine-addicted people, we have clinics for alcoholics, clinics for sex addiction, but there is no clinic for motorsport addiction. So I’m in the shit, I’m in the shit for the rest of my life.

“I need it, otherwise I start to kill people,” he jokes.

Coronel’s TV analyst role means he has to keep an eye on F1’s support series and the competitiveness of the entry-level options, and he has strong thoughts about that.

“You know when you have talent? When you keep growing. There are a lot of people who have talent, but at one stage it stops. And for me, it’s weird that Oscar Piastri wins all the championships and this year he’s not racing. He’s one year on the sidelines. The guy has not been in a racing car for the last eight months, how stupid is this?”

It was actually Coronel who broke the news that reigning F2 champion Piastri may be set for a Williams F1 seat in 2023, but he’s not the only F2 champion he thinks is in need of an F1 drive.

“I have to be careful what I say. It’s weird that young, talented drivers, they don’t get opportunities. And of course I’m 50, and I race against those young shits and I still give them a hard time and I don’t give them presents during the race. And I like to see it, and I like to see them fight because nowadays they get it all so easy. Nyck de Vries is [2019 F2 champion and Formula E world champion]. De Vries is doing all the time good things, never failed, and what I don’t understand is he doesn’t get any chance. Because of political reasons, because of budget reasons, and this is not right, this is not right.”

Photo: Formula E

Alongside his title-winning FE exploits with Mercedes, de Vries has held a reserve driver position with the brand’s F1 team.

“He is the insurance policy of Toto Wolff,” says Coronel. “Because Toto keeps him next to him, I understand. Because if one of his drivers has difficulty, who else to put in? Nyck has the experience, Nyck is clever, Nyck is fast, he knows him. So it’s easy. And Nyck will deliver, 100% sure. He will deliver. So he needs Nyck. He’s a business case. He is the insurance policy for Mercedes.”

But Mercedes faces losing de Vries in 2023 as its FE exit means he’s looking for a seat elsewhere in that paddock and in top-level sportscars. An F1 seat with a customer team would be a good way of keeping him on board, but no such F1 opportunity is actually arising. “This is what I mean. It’s politics and money.”

As Coronel says himself, there’s no bullshit when he’s around and he’s forthright with his views and his insight on the racing world. He’s also a very entertaining man to chat to. You should give him a follow on social media.