Post-Race Interview: Darren Bloomfield - 2012 European Championships

There have been many words and phrases used to describe Team Losi Racing's (TLR) Darren Bloomfield but until now, the phrase "1/8th European champion" has not been amongst them and as we sit together in the relative calm of the Horizon Hobby UK offices some four days since his historic achievement, the enormity of what he's achieved has yet to fully sink in with the affable 23 year old.

"It's only when Adam (Lewis) posted on my Facebook page (Darren Tlr Bloomfield) that there'll only ever be one FIRST British European Champion that you realise that even when I'm not racing anymore, I'll still be remembered. No one can take that away". There's obvious and understandable pride in his voice as he says it – after all, incredulous as it might first sound, it is as he says; he is the first Brit to ever win the prestigious title in all of its years. Many have tried but all have failed. Until now that is.

It's also the first EFRA or IFMAR title that the TLR 8IGHT platform has ever won which again, seems too incredulous to be true. Despite dominating national championships across the globe and topping qualifying at the World Championships in Charlotte, NC USA, the 8IGHT, a car that created much furore and injected excitement into the class when it was first released almost 6 years ago, has never won an internationally accredited title. Until now that is.

It's clear that Darren is a little uneasy with me. Although we've known each other for some time now, this is the first time we've sat together like this. His body language is tense so I try to joke a little with him, mentioning that whilst I was stoked for him and was glued to my computer on Saturday watching the results screen, I had to admit to cheering more loudly for Mo Farah that night and that I hoped he wouldn't hold that against me. He smiles – it's as if he's almost overwhelmed a bit by the whole aftermath of the race. Darren is a racer. He lives to race and he's one of the most dynamic drivers on the off-road circuit today. He's able to do things with his car when it is seemingly out of control that defy belief but he seems more nervous talking to me here than he ever seems when he's out on track – even when he's just taken the lead for the European Championship title with less than two minutes to run on the clock. The track is his natural habitat; the place where he is at home and where he can naturally and freely express himself – not the office, or the press-room.

I joke some more with him, suggesting that he now needs to get them (TLR) to put his colours on the box art for the 8IGHT. It's a mark of respect that they have done in the past for many of their leading drivers; Dustin Evans has the TLR22 box art, Yannick (Aigion) has the 8IGHT 2.0 EU. Frank Root has the newly released 22-SCT whilst Adam (Drake) owns the 8IGHT-T 2.0. So what about the idea of a Bloomfield coloured box art – it seems only fitting that having given the platform it's first international title that they should grant him that respect. He shakes his head; "No, I wouldn't want that – it places too much focus on the individual and not the product". Hmm. Curious. I had fully expected him to leap at the thought. After all, racers are not normally known for their reticence or reluctance for self-promotion. They exist in a hard world of objective finites. There is no subjectivity about their craft. They either win or they lose. The stopwatch and the lap times never lie. And yet here in front of me is one of their finest craftsman but one who is not bullish or arrogant but is actually more circumspect and thoughtful. It's a side that most never see but it's one I can relate to and respect.

We move on to the actual topic in hand – the Euro's itself. TLR had sent two of their US team members over to support Darren, Miguel (Matias) and all of the other TLR drivers. Adam Drake needs no introduction. There's little that 'The Drake' doesn't know about off-road or nitro racing. He's one of the finest pro-racers in the world and TLR had sent him over to the event to pit and mechanic for Darren and to advise and help all of the TLR team. Kevin Gahan is perhaps a little less well known in R/C circles but he's the US TLR Team Manager and has grown up with racing coursing through his veins, albeit of a two-wheeled full size off-road variety. Those extra hands and extra eyes would prove to be decisive and ultimately would justify the decision and expense to send them.

Much has been written about the fact that not only did Adam pit for Darren, but it was actually with one of Adam's cars and with Adam's Novarossi engines that Darren raced and won the event. Surely the relationship between driver and pit-mechanic has to be one of total trust and confidence? I ventured. "Initially it did feel a bit weird as he (Adam) had prepped the car and
I hadn't. But when you stop and think about who it is who has prepped it, you stop worrying."
And that's the key! Without wishing to take anything away from the brilliance of his driving, it's evident that it would not have been possible without the support of the TLR team and most notably Adam and Kevin. "Normally, you're trying to do so much on the car that you don't get the chance to watch others. But with Adam prepping the car and with Kevin's support with the video replays, I had the chance to relax and concentrate on the actual driving and racing."

Video Replays? It sounds more F1 than R/C but these are the times in which we live. I'd suggest that before long, the term 'pit-man' will be replaced by something such as 'race-engineer' because after speaking with Darren, it's evident that he recognises the impact that Adam's support gave him. To gain the trust that's required between the driver and race-engineer in such a short space of time speaks volumes of Adam's ability to remain calm at all times and devise a setup on his TLR 8IGHT that would enable Darren to drive his natural style and rhythm without imposing any limitations. Couple that to the support from Kevin and the aid of video replaying every run and you can begin to sense the level of professionalism that exists within the sport/hobby today. "After every run, Kevin would sit down with both Miguel and I and we'd all watch each other's runs – spotting where we needed to be slow and where we had natural advantage. I'd then be able to go out and watch the corners and the bumps, come back, watch the video some more and then go back out and watch the track"

The fact that both Darren and Miguel partook in this regime with Kevin's support illustrates the great sense of Team and Teamwork that the TLR team is founded upon. There are other manufacturers out there and other Teams but as history tells us, the winners often are the Teams that work together the closest to maximise their advantage to place their best drivers in positions where they can win from.

Consistency is a word that keeps cropping up during our discussions. Confidence is another. It's apparent that in addition to his great wrenching and set up skills, Adam was able to give Darren the confidence he needed for him to drive at a consistently good pace as opposed to at an incredibly quick pace between the otherwise inevitable crashes. Taking the opening qualifying round with Miguel in 2nd was a great start for Darren and the team. Others seemed able to put a single fast lap in, or even a string of fast laps but consistency was the key.

A less than stellar performance in the second round would have signalled disaster for the old Darren but what was emerging throughout the week was a new Darren; a stronger, mentally tougher Darren who, with Adam and Kevin's help, was beginning to wise up to the fact that he didn't need to drive at 100% to get the result. In fact it was quite the opposite, when driving at 90%, he and the TLR 8IGHT had pace to burn and when driving at that relatively sedate pace, he had the mental capacity to think and strategise. Back on pace in round 3 with a second in round firmly put Darren in the driving seat. Top Qualifier was never on the agenda for Darren and TLR. Their focus was on making the semi and going from there. TQ is a bonus but it doesn't count for anything come the final and so the team were already planning for the semi and beyond as early as rounds four and five in qualifying when they ran harder tyres on Darren's 8IGHT knowing that they would be on those compounds come finals day. As it was, another second in round in round four assured Darren of a semi-final place with his main rivals all taking points off of each other and come the fifth and final round, he went into the race knowing that he had secured the bonus Top Qualifying honours before even turning a wheel. This was perhaps the only time during qualifying that Darren 'let his hair down' and drove the car whilst pushing it without fear. The result was clear for everyone to see. Not only was the new Bloomfield consistent and maturing, he was still devastatingly quick when he needed to be and he swept aside everyone to claim another best in round score along with the fastest individual lap to underline his qualifying dominance.

Until this point, all of the qualifying runs had been conducted using a single tank of fuel for the five to five and a half minute race durations but as they prepared for the semis and looked toward the final, the TLR team clearly had yet another ace up their sleeve. "Some were struggling to do 7:30 – Lee (Martin) was only managing 7:10s but I could go 11:10 if needed and I could easily do 9s and 9:30s even at race pace without having to conserve fuel". With a twenty-minute semi, the fuel strategy would be the same for everyone with every runner taking two stops but come the final, such a fuel economy advantage could yield dividends and result in one fewer stop being necessary. Not only would such a strategy negate the need to enter pit lane and stop for re-fuelling quite so often as his competitors but, as Darren described to me, the risk of a flame-out is often magnified in Pit-Lane because of the effect of dumping cold fuel into the system and then having to rev the engine for a shortburst along the pit lane before braking for the exit.

Listening to Darren recount his preparation for the semi, I begin to appreciate just how much confidence he had gained from Adam's support. To the point where unusually for the Top qualifier at these events, they chose to opt out of the 2nd Semi practice run. Why? Well, as Darren puts it, "Adam said to me that if I didn't know my way around the track by now then I was never going to win." Practice run over, Darren looked to be in total control of his semi-final run. Driving a consistent, no-risk approach and leading the field after all of the fuel stops, his title aspirations hung by a thread as his 8IGHT suddenly ground to a halt out on the track with less than four minutes left to run in the semi. "I just thought oh no – not another Euros!" alluding to the misfortune he had suffered with a shattered clutch shoe in 2011 in the semis and having suffered an unusual throttle linkage failure and a runaway in 2009. "I looked down at Adam who was still looking at the car. The marshal put the car back on the track and it seemed to be OK. At first I didn't trust it – I had lost the lead and was in fourth place. I pushed and caught the leading group but crashed at which point I knew I had to settle for the fourth place and just make it through to the main." In total, Darren lost over 13 seconds with a jammed stone in his rear wheel but was able to half that deficit with his raw pace in the remaining few minutes. At one stage, he comments that he could feel himself getting faster and faster but that the pace could not be sustained without mistake. A small mistake occurred and he had the presence of mind to back off and consolidate his position. Again, I'm reminded that the old Darren, the one before the Euros might well have crumbled into a series of ever more desperate and risky moves to try and regain the time he had lost but this was the new Darren, the one that with Adam's calming and sage-like experience was now able to focus on the end-game rather than the point in hand.

In the end, that fourth place was enough to put Darren 6th on the grid for the final. Not ideal but, as it would turn out, not actually a bad place to start from either. With his main rival taking pole position and with other previous European Champions ahead of him, it was clear that Darren would be unable to dictate the pace of the final or control it from the front. Instead, what transpired was the perfect synergy between driver and race-engineer. If Michael Schumacher ever owed any of his race wins to the brilliance of Ross Brawn then Darren would owe Adam Drake for this one. Starting from 6th would mean a drastic change in position for Darren on the rostrum and for Adam in pit lane. Not only does that affect the driver's perception and viewpoint around the track, it also alters the perception of the pit-lane entrance and also can affect the pit-man as he finds himself amidst the frenetic activities of the other two-men pit teams. It would mean that the TLR team would have to employ a tactical race. They knew they had the pace, they knew that had a superior fuel strategy and what's more, they also knew, from running on the harder tyres in qualifying,
that the 8IGHT was kinder on its tyres than many of the others – a factor that would surely feature and become an advantage in the latter stages of the race.

A curious quirk of fate meant that 6th place on the grid would actually line up going into the dog-leg left in the middle of the main straight; a corner that would otherwise be taken at high speed. For Darren it meant that although he would not be able to challenge Ronnefalk or the front runners, it also meant that effectively, he had a clean run through that corner whereas those immediately ahead of him would have to slow to avoid incident further down the main straight and those immediately behind him would have to do likewise going into the dog-leg. For him it was like a 2nd pole position and he was able to immediately draw alongside and pass teammate Matias into the first corners.
Quickly dispatching another of the front-runners, Darren then eased back into a consistent pace to consolidate his position and not risk anything. Despite appearing to be a long way back on the track, both Darren and Adam knew that with the safety of needing one less fuel stop, their strategy would not fully reveal itself until toward the end of the race. But it all depended on Darren. If he drove too hard, he'd risk burning too much fuel or making a costly mistake. If he drove too softly, he'd lose too much ground on Ronnefalk and Batlle. A small mistake on pit lane entry for the first fuel stop reminded Darren of his positional change on the rostrum but at every stop thereafter, whilst those around him were a flurry of arms and frenetic activity, Darren would take a no risk approach into pit lane whilst Adam would calmly pick
up the car, re-fill it and hurl it down pit lane so that Darren didn't have to throttle up and risk a flame out.

As the race neared its conclusion, Ronnefalk was still out in front but Darren could sense that he was gaining on the young Swede. "I kept on taking it easy – there's so much to think about whilst you're driving but if I missed an apex or didn't hit an up-ramp, I'd let the car ride out that turn or drop it on top of the tabletop before settling back into a rhythm. Kevin and Adam had explained to me that you don't have to always make up time on one lap – just concentrate to taking time out on the corners and bits where you are good without taking risks on the bits where you're not."

It was a strategy that was paying off. With less than five minutes to go and for the first time in the whole race, Darren was almost within striking distance to Ronnefalk and a huge cheer from the Brits in the crowd obviously spurred him on as the pair of them came onto the straight together for the first time. But even at this time, and after 40 minutes of gruelling racing and catch-up, Darren still had the mental capacity to think about how he could pass the young Swede. He knew where the TLR 8IGHT was good. He knew that he had enough grip remaining in his tyres but he also knew that one false move and it would all be over.

With Ronnefalk defending for all his worth and Darren not taking risks, it seemed impossible for the TLR driver to take the lead and even now, after having watched replays of the final, I still can't quite describehow he managed to pass and take the lead so easily. I've watched the videos, paused them and re-watched them. Ronnefalk didn't make a mistake and yet the grip that Darren had in exiting the hairpin after the corner tabletop to enter the infield was astounding. He eased past the Kyosho and into the lead with less than 2 minutes to run. What followed was nip and tuck. Opportune attempts from Ronnefalk to regain the lead resulted in inevitable collisions but the fair play between the two drivers was as evident as their desire to win. Collisions that resulted in a lead change wereimmediately followed by a yield to allow the lead to be regained. Given the stakes of the game that they were both playing, one could be forgiven if either of them would have considered them as 'racing incidents' and forced the referee to make the decision but they didn't and it's a credit to the respect that all of the top drivers have for each other than even when the stakes are so high they can still consider the crucial elements of fair play and honesty.

The rest as they say is history. Ronnefalk was adjudged to have to serve a short stop go on the final
split lap which effectively ended any chance he hadto challenge the track position and lead that Darren now had and the Brit finished off his split lap to take the title to the inevitable roars of applause and cheers from the crowd. Regardless of team, regardless of nationality, racers are non-partisan when it comes to watching great racing and all could acknowledge and applaud the brilliance of what they had witnessed.

One of the most poignant images from the event was the embrace from fellow Brit and good friend Lee Martin. Despite his own disappointment at not making the final and although a fearsome competitor in his own right, he was amongst the first to congratulate Darren on his first European title. Likewise for Team Associated's former electric double World Champion Neil Cragg who undoubtedly would have wanted to become the first Briton to be crowned the 1:8 off road king of Europe to cap the incredible success he has had in the hobby over the years but it wasn't to be for him or his team this time as the day belonged to Darren and the TLR team.

It's been a unique insight into one of the world's fastest drivers and one of the world's most gruelling events. Races are often won or lost before the start flag drops and I sense that this is a great example of that. It's been a huge team effort from all involved for TLR to bring home this crown. Darren's brilliance on track was equalled by Adam's commitment, knowl edge and preparation. Between them all, they created an environment in which the driver could excel and do what he does best. They gave him the belief and calming confidence that he could do it. He spoke about how the week seemed to be all in slow-motion and that he felt relaxed and at ease at all times. Possibly even without realising it, Darren has experienced the nearest thing that athletes and professional sports men and women refer to as being 'In the Zone'; the place where everything appears to happen more slowly and where they can absorb every event in such detail that everything appears with so much more clarity. They, the TLR team created the environment for Darren to reach this place. It may be Darren's name that's written into the history books but it was the Team in Team Losi Racing that all pulled together to make it possible.

Written by:
Andy Carter
Horizon Hobby UK