When Rob Huff secured a drive in the BTCC back in 2004 after wrapping up the SEAT Cupra Championship, he couldn’t have imagined that it would be the first step on him becoming a World Champion.
Huff’s single season in the BTCC as team-mate to Jason Plato in the SEAT Sport line-up saw him finish seventh in the championship standings with two victories – the first of which came in dramatic fashion at Brands Hatch (and which can be seen at the bottom of the page).
His performances during that debut season were enough to earn the chance to compete in the WTCC with Chevrolet in 2005 and that the start of a journey that saw the 33-year-old finally achieve his dream last year as he clinched the title for the first time.
With Chevrolet’s progamme now at an end, Huff is evaluating his options for the 2013 season and has been linked with a return to British shores, as he explained when we caught up with him recently to reflect on his achievement in becoming the fourth graduate from the BTCC to win the World Championship.
It was a long journey for you from competing in one-make championships to go all the way to the top and secure the World Touring Car Championship title. Has the success finally had chance to sink in?
I don’t think it has to be honest. We have come a long way to get here and started a long time ago in one-make championships. I’ve been very lucky along the way, a lot of people have helped me out and there are a lot of people that I need to thank – the list would be too long for you to write down. I’ve been in the right place at the right time, have won the right scholarships and won the right championships and had a wonderful eight years with RML.
It makes me very proud that Ray and Elaine Mallock, and [Chevrolet’s] Eric Neve took a big gamble on me at the end of 2004 to take me to the WTCC as a rookie. To repay their belief in me with a World Championship in the final year for the programme is as special as it gets.
You’d been there or thereabouts and had been in contention going into Macau for a number of seasons but for whatever reason, things hadn’t gone your way. What do you think was the key thing that meant last year was different?
I think I got lucky and Yvan [Muller] drove badly at the end of the championship! He is the first to admit that he made mistakes and we won it on the back of his mistakes.
In 2011, I think I deserved to win it more than I did last year, but everyone in motorsport knows that you can be the best driver in the world with the best machinery, but you still need a bit of luck to clinch the championship. When there are three of you out there in the best car on the grid with the best team on the grid, that luck can only go one of three ways.
In 2010, we all won the title for Yvan and were fighting for him to win – that was laid out fairly early. We wanted to win it as a team and Yvan was our best chance at the point at which we made that decision and it was nice, as we were instrumental in someone else winning the title and that person was in our team.
The 2011 season was difficult as we lost out by three points and last year we got got the luck that we needed. Yvan made the mistakes that we needed him to make and I walked away with the title. It hasn’t sunk in by any means, I don’t know if it ever will, buts it’s amazing to be the champion and it really is a dream come true.
There were occasions last season – such as Monza and in China – where things almost threatened to boil over in the Chevrolet camp. Was it more difficult fighting for the title against drivers within your team than it would have been if they’d been racing for a rival?
It depends. If you’ve got the same changing room, then yes it is! Seriously though, of course it is more difficult but you have to remember that it isn’t just the drivers. First and foremost you are all there to race for the team, but within that team there are then three individual crews with different mechanics and engineers so it doesn’t just go down to the drivers – the engineers and mechanics want to win just as much. It becomes difficult but what Ray and Elaine have got sorted in their team is equality, and making sure that you talk about things before they get out of hand.
It is difficult for the boys, as they can be working 24 hours a day and if we get it wrong, they pay. I remember a few years they were working on Alain’s car until 6am in Porto and had to be back at the circuit at 6.30. These guys are flat out and it is easy to get tired and let frustration come through, but we have a fantastic team that talk to each other and air any problems there are. I think that rubbed off on the drivers. We all want to win as much as each other, but we are all good at telling people if we have a problem.
That might not work in the real world, but for a racing driver in a team with three top drivers, it does. That is something that I think is part of the reason why we had such success in the team.
How tough it is to be in January and find yourself without a drive?
For sure it is difficult but I’m trying to not think too much about it. I spoke to Paul O’Neill recently and said the last time that I was at this stage of the year and didn’t have a drive was when I was going into the Clio Cup; I won the Clio Scholarship in 2001 in February. I think it makes it harder that people say to me ‘You’re the World Champion, people should be queuing up to sign you’ but touring cars aren’t in a great place at this moment in time with lots of manufacturers involved, There are rule changes coming in that I think will attract manufacturers for 2014, but this year looks tough and we are relying on private investors and partners to come in and help out.
We know that RML aim to run a privateer programme in the WTCC and you’ve already said that you would come back to the BTCC if the deal was right, but do you have a preference on what you do or are you just keen to be out in a car somewhere?
Ultimately, I just want to be out on track, but we have to be careful with the decision that we make. I’m not just going to just go anywhere, and the team and car has to be proven as I’m putting my name to it. I’m the World Champion and that is something that you have to be careful with and cherish.
At the same time, I’ve been with RML for nine years and would love nothing more than to stay with them, stay in a Chevrolet, stay with my boys and run the #1 this year. That would be the ideal option as nothing in my life would change and these days, the less you can change in your life, the better it is. If I can stay with them then it would be great, but as everyone is aware, I’m talking to BTCC teams, I’m talking to WTCC teams – I’m talking to anyone I can to see what it possible. More things are coming up but whether anything comes off, who knows.
It would be a sad state of affairs for motorsport if the newly crowed World Champion didn’t get a drive, but stranger things have happened. That is the world of motorsport.
When you look at the list of drivers who have won the WTCC – yourself, Yvan, Gabriele Tarquini and Andy Priaulx – they are all drivers who have come from the BTCC. Do you think that is an indication of the strength of the national series over the years?
Yeah I think it is. There is no doubt that the British Touring Car Championship has a wealth of history and we all know how massive it was back in the 1990s and how it was the place to be. I have a feeling that the BTCC is really going to come strong in the next few years, just like I feel the WTCC will. Alan Gow has a good thing going with NGTC, there are manufacturers looking at it all the time and new drivers coming in and the World Championship is also going to benefit from the changes that will be made for 2014. It’s no surprise that Citroen are looking at the WTCC and I think both championships will be strong, both will be competitive.
The WTCC car is probably a bit quicker but the calibre of drivers is high in both and both championships hold high value. When it comes down it, it’s case of do you want to be British or World Champion? Of course people want to be World Champion, but I think being British Champion is just as prestigious.