No stranger to on-track success, 2018 Clio Cup driver and race winner Dan Rowbottom will make his BTCC debut in 2019 with Cicely Motorsport. With a strong background in karting and over 20 years of racing experience in karts, SEATS, Lotuses and Clios, Rowbottom is well equipped to succeed. I caught up with Dan to talk about his racing past, time away from driving and his hopes for 2019.
What’s your first BTCC memory?
It was with my dad to Donington Park in 1993. I remember because it was the day Nigel Mansell had the big shunt at the bottom of the Old Hairpin and hit the Donington Bridge. That’s my oldest BTCC memory, and it was the day my dad bought me my first helmet for my birthday, too.
My first taste of BTCC machinery came in 2004, where I won a karting championship where the prize was a test in a BTCC car. So I ended up driving one of the Team Halfords Peugoeot 307’s when I was 15 years old at Bruntingthorope! That test at Bruntingthorpe was a real game changer for me, and my ambitions changed from a career in single seaters to one in touring cars.
What is your favourite UK race track, and why? Do you have a least favourite?
I’ve got two favourite circuits now! I love Thruxton, because its raw, old school and very quick. For similar reasons I also love Brands Hatch Grand Prix. I didn’t actaully drive the GP circuit until my 2017 Clio Cup campaign, so I’d managed to do almost 28 years in motorsport without driving it! We’ve had two good years there in 2017 and 2018 which helps, and its similar to Thruxton where its got that real old-school vibe, little bit of danger around the back and you’ve just got to focus and keep the speed up.
I don’t have a least favourite circuit, but the one I’ve always struggled to get results at is Oulton Park, even though its a beautiful track and setting. I never quite gelled with Rockingham either, but it’s a weird one because I think I’ve won more races there accross the different classes than anywhere else!
Which other motorsport series do you follow?
I love Australian Supercars and NASCAR. My wife took me to the Coca-Cola 400 at Daytona for my birthday which was brilliant!
Tell me a bit about your past, and your successful karting days.
I started karting unofficially at four years old! Both my mum and dad’s sides of the family were always Motocross people and in fact my grandfather was a founder of the AMCA, the Amatuer Motorcycle Association. So I was always destined to go bike racing but my dad bought me an off-road kart. I did a bit on that when I was four and five, and then they bought me a proper kart, a Cadet, and I literally did three years of testing and practice in that!
We went down to the local circuit Wednesdays and Saturdays, so by the time I started competing three years later I was already up to speed. That experience showed, because when I was eight I won my first championship! I stuck with karting from 1997 to 2005, and I was lucky because we were really succesful and I had a really good karting career. We won British championships and some European championships, and I’m sure that if I had wanted to we could have had a professional karting career.
I do still love karting, though. In fact just this week I’ve ordered a kart to keep myself up to speed over the winter when I’m not in the touring car.
You took a break from racing between 2008 and 2015. What happened?
I guess I never really left, in the sense that from when I was five years old I was never in doubt that I was going to do anything but race a car, and that’s what I wanted to do for a living. The problem was the SEAT Cupra Cup, which I was competing in folded at the end of 2008 and it really cost us financially. We’d put so much into the series as a family, buying the equipment and the cars, and then almost over night it lost so much of its value because the series folded. That’s what put us out for 2009.
I tried for a few years to get back into single-seaters after that and very nearly had a breakthrough moment in the US with the Star Mazda championship. We were so close, but we couldn’t quite put all the funding together. It was hard because we had spent so many years pushing and trying, and I started to think that things might not happen.
How did you end up in the Clio Cup?
The new Clio Cup car was announced and I managed to get a few sponsors involved at the end of 2013. We got to February 2014, three weeks before the season kicked off and the main sponsor pulled out, so unfortunately we had to sell that car.
That made me more determined to get back into racing, and in 2015 we did half a season in the Lotus Cup. We did a few races in the Lotus which managed to generate a little bit of interest for 2016. We got halfway through 2016 but again ran into sponsorship and funding difficulties, so instead of continuing the season and running deeper in debt we decided to stop competing, take three months out to secure funding and sponsorships and come back in 2017.
As luck would have it, I managed to get in touch with the team at Cataclean and had a chat about what had happened the year before. It was brilliant, and from that point on we haven’t looked back. They’re fantastic and we’ve already come such a long way together. We’ve got other brilliant partners and sponsors too like Platform Hire, but Cataclean is my title sponsor. It’s crazy because although I’ve been racing and driving since I was four years old, this part of my journey from nothing, to Clios to the BTCC has taken two years.
How did the drive with Cicely Motorsport come about?
It sounds crazy to say, but having eight years away from motor racing was the best thing which ever happened to me in terms of getting to the BTCC. When I was racing up to 2008, that’s all I did, I just went motor racing. We were out almost every weekend somewhere karting or driving cars. When you’re in that situation all you think about is going racing. You don’t think about things like buying a house etc, but most importantly you don’t think about how you’re going to pay to keep racing!
Having the eight years away helped me to come back with a completely different, almost business-focused mindset and a really good understanding of the financial side of motorsport, what sponsors want to get out of it, and how to raise funds to race and plan properly. But the bottom line is to keep sponsors happy, you need to be successful on track. That’s the harsh reality of it!
Back to Cicely, there are no real bad teams in the BTCC but when looking for a 2018 drive we looked at both the best opportunities for my sponsors and myself. We went through three options very seriously, which included big, multiple race-winning teams. But I’ve known Russell and Adam Morgan who own Cicely Motorsport for almost 20 years! We started karting together and have always kept in touch, so it was a natural fit and it felt like home.
We started talking quite early this year, as I had made the decision in my head that the BTCC was where I wanted to go. We put together a good deal really easily, and I think the Mercedes is one of the strongest cars on the grid which also helps. It’s nice to be making your debut in a car which has won multiple races.
How does the Mercedes differ from a Renault Clio?
I’ve already had my first test at Silverstone in horrendous weather, and it sounds crazy but for me, the BTCC car is in some ways easier to drive than the Clio. The hard thing about the Clio is that you’ve got loads of grip but not a lot of horsepower. So its very very easy to overdrive the car. For example, let’s say you’re a tenth off pole, that’s not a lot. So what you try to do is just brake that little bit later at one corner. But what happens then is you overload the front tyre and you don’t have the horsepower to pull the car out the corner. So rather than going a tenth quicker you go three tenths slower! It leaves you even more frustrated and you just end up in this cycle of overdriving the car.
When I jumped in the Mercedes I thought it was incredible! I put my foot down the car just pulls you along. I’m not saying necessarily that I’m going to find driving the car easy, but for me, I think I’m going to enjoy that extra element of control and having the power to get yourself out of corners and situations quicker. The Clio is a great car, and I owe a lot to the Clio Cup because without that there’s no way I would be a BTCC driver in 2019.
Finally, what are your hopes for your debut season?
Obviously it’s my long-term goal to win the title, and I’ve got a time frame in my head of when I would like to be in the title fight. The BTCC is such a tough series, and nobody really walks in and dominates. It’s a series where you have to earn your stripes a little bit. There were 17 different winners last year so that just shows you how competitive the series is, and how good it is. There isn’t anything else in the world which comes close.
I was a little bit nervous before the first Mercedes test at Silverstone, but now I’ve driven the car I can’t wait for the season to get started. Partly the reason why I’ve just gone a bought a new kart!
In terms of 2019, I want to have a good first year and get some results in the bag. My aim is the Jack Sears Trophy, that’s what I’d love to win in 2019. I know there are going to be lots of other really good drivers eligible for it, but I do have a lot of experience and racecraft now after so many years of racing, which I know is going to help next year. The BTCC is a series where you have to be able to come from 25th on the grid and get a result, and strong racecraft was something I think we did really well in Clios this year.