Marcos Ambrose tells Speedcafe.com’s Stefan Bartholomaeus about the factors behind his decision to step down and what happens next.
SPEEDCAFE: Marcos, we saw some brief words from you in the statement last week that probably brought with it just as many questions as answers. Can you expand more on the background behind your decision?
MARCOS AMBROSE: To give you the background, I came to race in this series really for one goal and that was to unite DJR and Team Penske together and be a part of that.
There were moments in time when that certainly wasn’t guaranteed, so I felt obligated to try and help Penske come to Australia. I know it’s a great thing for Australian motorsport to have a racing company like that want to participate. That was a really big reason for me to come back, to help that happen.
This (decision) is to help the team grow. Being nominated as the lead driver for a one-car team… if we were a two-car team we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation. Me being the lead driver in a one-car team means I’ve got to lead the team forward by improving the race car and engineering the race car better and ultimately improve race results.
It became just really obvious to me after the first couple of races of the year here that, in my situation where I’m at as a returning driver to the series with the testing restrictions, tyre restrictions and formats of the weekend, the domination of qualifying effecting the race results, I just couldn’t lead the team forward like I wanted to or that was expected of me.
The amount of variables in our team is just too many. New driver, new FG X race car, new single-car team. I’m just trying to eliminate a variable here before we lose a season.
When I looked at it I came to the conclusion that by me stepping aside it’s going to help the team move forward faster. That’s really all it is. I’m not going to let myself and my lack of experience in these cars hold the team back. I’m not going to do that.
It was a humbling thing to go through and a humbling road to walk down, but it’s the right decision for both me personally and for the team to move forward as fast as it can.
SPEEDCAFE: One of the aspects that has made this so extraordinary is how early you’ve made this call. Did you feel this coming after the Clipsal 500 and that your top 10 (in qualifying) there was not a true reflection of where you were?
AMBROSE: It is true that it is very early and to make a call this early you’ve got to have a strong conviction. I do feel that there have been some triggers here for me.
It’s a combination of a lot of factors that have come together to make it very clear in my mind that it’s going to be very, very difficult for me to lead the team like I’m expected to.
Certainly there have been moments of sunshine and the top 10 at Clipsal was one, but a general lack of feel for the race car and what the race car needs, the formats of the weekends and how that really impacts the results… It really stood out to me that they are the key factors and they’re not going to go away, so we had to deal with it head-on.
I’m not going to drag the team down to my level to give me the time I need to get going. I don’t think it’s appropriate. It’s not what Roger Penske and Dick Johnson have paid me for. They haven’t paid me to learn, they’ve paid me to get the job done. I just don’t feel like I can do that for them at this point.
SPEEDCAFE: My understanding is that you went to Roger with your mind already set that this was the way forward. Did you feel a risk of pissing him off, especially with it being so early into the program?
AMBROSE: Look, it was a phone call that I didn’t want to make and I didn’t enjoy making, but Roger understood my position. He gave me a lot of time to explain the situation and how I saw we could fix it and he supported it.
The whole team has supported me through this process. It’s not an easy decision to make and it’s certainly a humbling one, but I think in the long term everyone is going to benefit from it.
SPEEDCAFE: Did you seek advice from anyone before making the call on this?
AMBROSE: The short answer is yes. I had confided and sought advice from several people, but at the end of the day I’m the only one who can jump in that race car and really know what I think and what I feel.
SPEEDCAFE: Is it fair to say that the people you went to suggested you should stick it out a bit longer?
AMBROSE: We had spoken about the timing of it and absolutely timing is critical here. It’s completely my decision and it did come as a shock to a lot of people inside the team as well as out and at the end of the day it was my call.
I know that it comes with consequences and one of those is not participating in Tasmania, my home race, which is a real disappointment.
Emotionally I would have loved to have raced in front of the home crowd, but you’ve got to take emotion out of decisions like this. Time is of the essence and waiting another week is just that; waiting.
I didn’t want to go into the four week break carrying the same question marks that we do right now. I think the best way to eliminate a lot of question marks and see where we’re at as a team is to use the resources that we already have, which is Scott Pye.
He’s already been driving these cars for a couple of years, he’s committed to the team and can help us really evaluate where we’re at right now. My decision to step aside allows a very quick snapshot of where we are and what we need to do.
SPEEDCAFE: You’ve detailed that there were many and varied factors involved in the decision, but were they all racing related? You’ve obviously gone through a pretty big life change in a short space of time.
AMBROSE: I hear where you’re coming from, but my brain is sound and my body is sound. Yeah, I’ve been through a lot, but I think the pressure coming in from my angle has not helped the situation.
Dealing with the expectation of the fans and the sport and the drumming up of the media attention and the glare, it’s a factor.
The burden of that, as well as the issues that we have in front of us from a team perspective, as well as the formats and testing restrictions that are in place, it was just too much.
SPEEDCAFE: What have you been up to since making the decision? I imagine it’s been a bit of a pressure release for you.
AMBROSE: Obviously it’s been a tricky week with a lot of people asking a lot of questions, family and team.
The biggest thing I’ve tried to do is really set the tone for what’s coming up internally in our company. This is a situation that time will make obvious. We’re a solid team that’s going to go forward.
Personally, once I’d made the decision and it got announced internally to the team on Tuesday before hitting the newswire, I just took a couple of days away and drove myself back to Tasmania. I spent the weekend with the family and we’re moving forward.
SPEEDCAFE: What’s your current feeling on when you’ll be back in the car? It’s been officially stated that you’re just stepping out for Tassie, but can we realistically expect to see you racing again before Sandown?
AMBROSE: As a minimum I will be taking on the co-driver role and everything else is on the table.
Stepping back from that lead driver role will give me a chance to reset the clock and work my way back into the feel of these cars and what I need for them to go fast. Time will fix everything else.
SPEEDCAFE: Other than waiting for Scott to help the team improve the package, is there anything you can do in terms of ride days and other activities? Obviously stepping out of the car, purely in terms of yourself as opposed to the team, has to hurt your progress.
AMBROSE: That’s right, but how long is the team going to wait for me to turn to the corner?
At the end of the day I was paid and asked to be the lead driver and I’ve been very open and candid about the fact that right now, I’m not the best fit.
I honestly believe that I can turn the corner, it’s just stacked against me at this point. It’s just a fact of life and I’ve identified it and I’m dealing with it.
SPEEDCAFE: So part of the reason that you are so clear of mind about the solution here is that you believe that you can eventually compete at the front in this championship again in the right circumstance?
AMBROSE: Yes. I made the Top 10 Shootout in Adelaide (this year) and have won a lot of road races around the world.
I don’t think I was never going to get there, it’s just that there is a better solution to where our team is at right now. I’ve made that call that Scott Pye is going to move this team forward faster than I can.
SPEEDCAFE: And from a motivation point of view, being a full-time racing car driver is still where you feel you are going to want to be for a few years?
AMBROSE: Yes. You don’t make a decision like this lightly. Stepping out of the lead role in a race team is not something you can quickly recover from, but this is a selfless decision.
I’m not thinking about my own career, I’m making sure that Roger Penske, Team Penske and Dick Johnson Racing in their new entity have the best chance of success as fast as possible.
SPEEDCAFE: Do you hold any hope that, whether it benefits you or the guys that come after you, this will trigger some sort of a V8 Supercars review of how hard it is for drivers to come in?
AMBROSE: The rules are in place for a reason and the teams and the series have set their rules for a reason. I’m not here to criticise or bag them, it’s just the state of play that we’re in.
(But) if I can’t come back in with my experience and level of success from the past, if I can’t break back in easily, I would imagine it’s pretty hard for anyone to.
The testing and tyres are very restricted and the weekend formats are absolutely dominated by qualifying runs. You just can’t pass in these cars.
If you’ve got qualifying early on in the race weekends, which we do, if you have a poor qualifying run you’re down the back and your weekend is cooked.
SPEEDCAFE: Were you aware when you committed to the program that you were going to be facing this challenge as a single car team?
AMBROSE: No. First of all it was ‘would I be part of Penske coming to Australia?’. The answer was yes, I’d like to help.
Without making too much of a sticking point on this, because it’s not the number one reason, but a single car team is different to a two-car team.
That certainly changed over the course of the build-up to what we were doing down here and that has come with consequences.
SPEEDCAFE: The fact that the technical relationship exists with Prodrive means you have had access to data showing how those guys go about driving the cars. Did that help you? Or did it in a way accelerate the decision, because you could see that you were lacking?
AMBROSE: A bit of both. Certainly it’s advantageous to be able to see data from cars that are winning races and it was clear to see that we weren’t running at their performance level.
(But) having access to basic data from another team isn’t the secret source to turn your own program around.
I guess one of the prime drivers of the decision was that we need more reliable feedback from behind the wheel and that’s where Scott can really help.
I just don’t have the time or the experience in these cars to lead the team forward the way I’m being asked.
SPEEDCAFE: What role will you have while you’re outside the car? Will you still go to each event where you’re not driving and fulfil all the commercial elements as normal?
AMBROSE: The plan at this point is to absolutely go to all events and be an integral part of the day-to-day running of the team, to assist where I can with media and activation and sponsorships and have a co-driver role.
I’ll be as engaged and supportive of this team as I ever have. I’m fully committed to helping where I can.
Obviously we’re not sure how this new role is going to be and how long it is going to be past Symmons Plains. But what is certain is that I’m going to do what’s best for the team at all times. The decision I’ve made this week is part of that.
It’s certainly not a decision that helps me personally. It is a somewhat humbling experience to go through and is somewhat of a selfless decision to try and help the team get to where we want to be.
SPEEDCAFE: Are there any sort of key indicators that you will be looking for over the next few race meetings that will trigger you to come back into the car?
AMBROSE: Firstly we as a team need to know where we’re at, not just at Symmons Plains because it’s a soft tyre (in the final race). But when we get back onto the hard tyre races, we will be able to see where we are and be able to make some decisions from that. That’s a big driver.
One of the big question marks that linger around my mind is that at Clipsal, we really picked up our form on the Sunday and ran a second a lap faster than what we had done the day before, but I couldn’t really feel where the speed was gained from.
So I’m going to want to feel these cars better than what I currently am to make better decisions for the team, to engineer our way to success rather than just stumble across speed as it comes to the car. That was really one of the triggers for me.
Even though we ran really well on the Sunday at Clipsal, driving the car didn’t feel a lot different. That’s unusual and it’s not right that my lack of feel for these race cars is going to hold us back.
SPEEDCAFE: As much as needing that feel makes sense, you’re going to have to be in the car at some point to know whether you’ve got that feel back…
AMBROSE: That’s very true. To be honest, Dick Johnson Racing had a tough year last year and it wasn’t a Triple Eight standard race car. It wasn’t winning races like Triple Eight were.
Until we can get our car more competitive we’re going to have a question mark. Is it me? Is it the car? What is it? Well I’m taking a question mark out of play.
Time will help us improve the car and when it does, we’ll be able to make those decisions on the feel I’m getting from it and whether it’s going to work out.
I know what you’re saying, it sounds strange to step out of the car to get better feel, but what I’m saying is that I need to step out of the car so the team can step forward first.
SPEEDCAFE: Do you have a direct message for the fans? Obviously some of them are pretty concerned that you won’t be back at all after this decision.
AMBROSE: The timing of this is pretty crook, it sucks that it’s right before my home race in Tasmania. I know there are going to be a lot of disappointed fans.
All I do ask is that they just treat us all fairly. I’m not running away from the sport, I’m making a humbling and difficult decision for the benefit of DJR Team Penske.
I think it’s the right decision to make, even though it doesn’t help me personally, and the fans just need to give us all time to settle in here. Time will help make the path clear.
I know there’s a bit of confusion out there. Why would I jump out two races into the year? What’s it all about? Well there’s nothing more than what we’ve spoken about today.
I’m very conscious that I’m expected to lead this team forward and I feel that I’m not able to do the job that’s required of me as well as I should.
If they can just let our team grow and time will tell us everything we need to know.