Doing it the hard way
Ulsterman putting everything on the line to reach "the big game"
By Michael Wise. Last Updated: November 4, 2010 5:15pm
Adam Carroll hopes to race IndyCars full-time in 2011
Adam Carroll says that, when he meets other sportspeople, they're always shocked when he tells them just how often he actually takes part in his. The reaction comes as little surprise. After all, he has raced just twice in the last 18 months - the 28-year-old from Northern Ireland in effect exiling himself from motor racing as he looks for the break he feels his talent deserves.
It's a belief that many share. Carroll has done little wrong on his way up the ladder, winning races every step of the way. However, as much as victories in Formula Three, GP2 and overall success in the A1GP championship have revealed genuine potential, his career to date is as much a story of dogged struggle against the odds.
A lack of money, in other words. In the age of driver development programmes, there's something quite old-fashioned about Carroll's attempts to break into what he calls "the big game", akin to a top four Premiership club signing a player from the lower leagues. Then again, no young footballer has ever had find millions to realise his dream.
The numbers involved are indeed mind-boggling - even to Carroll, who has doubtless had to crunch them more times than he cares to remember. "People who know a bit about me are probably going to think I sound like a broken record," he admits. "Unfortunately it's the truth. It's the quantities of money that you need, this is what people just don't understand. It's just massive."
He rattles off the figures. "From go-karts to the doorstep of Formula One you race Formula Renault, where a budget is about £250,000 to probably nearly £300,000 (per season) now. Then to go to Formula Three, F3 is now around £700,000, which is just mad - £600,000 to £700,000 for a year of British Formula Three. And then, the next year, the (Renault) World Series is between 700 to a million for a top drive. And then GP2 is €1.5million to go to a top team - and that's for one season."
Carroll raced in F1's feeder series between 2005 and 2008 and says it cost "just under €600,000 - for all of it". Only in the first two years, though, did finances stretch to a full season's racing. His second in GP2 also pitted him against Lewis Hamilton, a driver whose own career runs parallel and yet at the same time could hardly appear more different.
Like Hamilton, Carroll started out as a child when, aged nine, "my dad, sorry Santa Claus I should say, got me a go-kart". However, unlike Hamilton, who has been backed by McLaren since he was 13 years old, Carroll was soon forced to face up to financial reality. "We had enough at the time to start but already by 15, I couldn't go any further."
Rescue came in the form of a scholarship from the French oil company Elf, but the fact remains that Carroll's career has been as erratic and bitty as Hamilton's rise to stardom has been expertly planned and executed. Not that he betrays even a hint of frustration at the contrast. "Lewis is the ultimately-prepared young driver who was given the chance - and that's the way it should be done," Carroll says.
He also thinks his nationality counted against a place on the Red Bull's conveyor belt of talent - "there's no market for things like Red Bull, it's just such a small country". Not that Carroll appears particularly despondent. "It's a pretty ruthless deal. Kids just get an email telling them they're off the programme," he adds, before pointing out another pitfall even well-funded youngsters can face.
Indeed, it's one that puts motor sport in the minority and one which Hamilton experienced for the first time in his career when he defended his F1 world title in 2009. "In golf, if your swing's off, you can hardly blame much more than yourself. Or tennis, or football, if you're not putting that ball in the back of the net or doing what you're meant to be doing then you're not going to get the gig.
"But in motor sport, if everything isn't right then you can be the best driver in the world. Everyone saw that with the two years Lewis did and then last year was a disaster. He couldn't qualify out of the top three and the next year he couldn't qualify in the top 15."
Carroll was again struggling to keep his career afloat when the offer came from Team Ireland to contest A1GP, the late, lamented 'World Cup of Motorsport'. He was immediately on the pace but the opportunity presented was different from those he had previously received in two important respects. First of all, he could forget about finding money for the first time and concentrate simply on driving.
Furthermore, Carroll was also able to race with the same team across consecutive seasons. "I got that opportunity and it was my first real time to have continuity, to have two seasons with the same people in the same team," he says. "And the consistency was just brilliant; I'd never really understood that before, how important it can be. Because I'd always jumped around and gone from team to team. I'd just raced weekend to weekend, because the money was never there."
Nobody can accuse Carroll of not responding: five wins and three further podium finishes helped seal his first title success in international motorsport. People were sitting up and taking notice once more, although the holy grail of Formula One remains, tantalisingly, out of reach. A deal with the new Virgin Racing team was on the table but despite Carroll's efforts - "I tried my nuts off" - the four million euros needed could not be found.
Despite an unproductive spell as a test driver at BAR (now Mercedes GP) several years ago, F1 remains an ambition. However, Carroll has set his sights on IndyCars and securing a full-time seat with Andretti Autosport. The link was forged in A1GP when team boss Michael Andretti ran the American franchise and yet couldn't help but notice the talent behind the wheel of the emerald green car.
It yielded just the two aforementioned races this season but Carroll showed enough promise for Andretti to start working towards a 2011 programme. The ideal is for the team to secure full funding for an entire season but another part-season appears a more realistic proposition. More of the same perhaps, but it's worth pointing out that Australian Will Power, a title challenger this year, got his IndyCar break in similar fashion.
Carroll says he and his family have made huge sacrifices in order to further his career. "I've put everything on the line. Like no joke...absolutely everything we've got." And, standing on the verge of the big game, he's determined to see it through. "There's nothing wrong with sportscars and things like that but I'm not ready to go there just yet."
For now, then, Carroll must wait. Although the road is a tough one, he insists it has made him a better driver. "It's been difficult but this is the way it is," he adds. "I wouldn't have it any other way - and I know it's going to be worth it in the end. Like anything, if anyone wants to be successful, you have to be prepared to go through the pain and at the end of it hopefully you get a reward."