“You have friends away from the track, but on the track you have no friends”, says Roberto Merhi, new Cambridge resident and Spain's hottest prospect for a Formula One berth in the next few seasons.
The Mercedes driver moved to the UK to base himself for the forthcoming DTM season and to improve his English at Kaplan International Colleges. Merhi won the 2009 Formula 3 season, which propelled him on to the international stage, counts on friends Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, and is a hot tip by Autosport magazine to rival Fernando Alonso as Spain's No1. At the tender age of 21, Merhi will be racing around Brands Hatch, Silverstone and other European circuits at speeds of 175mph, contesting the DTM championship. However, it is his competition with other drivers, no matter how friendly, that will be the key to success and promotion to the next stratosphere and the Formula 1 stage.
“I'm happy if I’m first and my friends are second and third, but if I’m not happy if my friend wins and I don't. I want to win, he wants to win.”
Growing up in Castellón, just north of Valencia Merhi's father would take him go-karting as a young child. “He didn't have much money when he was young and therefore didn’t have the opportunity to do things.” His father was a motor-racing driver, but only after being successful in business and didn't race until he was 25.
Racing go-karts Merhi progressed through the categories, winning races, even though he was always the youngest. Up until the age of 15 he raced first in his home city, moving to regional and national level and then on to Europe in Formula Renault in 2006, the first step on the ladder to F1.
“Racing in Europe was a big step, as it wasn't just Europe, it was the whole world, including Americans, Chinese and Japanese,” Merhi said. “It's like Formula 1 as 90% of the teams come from Europe.
Merhi raced Formula Renault for four years and in 2009 moved up to Formula 3.
In only Merhi's third season, driving a Mercedes-powered Prema Powerteam, he won the championship receiving the prize in a gala awards night in New Delhi where he was joined on stage by that season's F1 champion Vettel
DTM is similar to the touring car championships of Cambridge's Robert Huff. Merhi could also race in GP2, but it's expensive and his budget from Mercedes doesn’t allow for this, rookie drivers race for satellite teams of the big outfits. GP2 uses only Renault engines, but DTM includes Audi, BMW and Mercedes, and a winning season would also mean getting an F1 drive.
A normal day for the Spaniard is an-hour-and-a-half running or three hours cycling and the gym in the afternoon after a siesta and refuelling. However living in Cambridge, Merhi combines his studies with the fitness demands of the supreme stamina required of racing drivers. “I'm living alone in Cambridge which is another challenge and an experience I will have to get used to in my job,” he says. On the track too, Merhi will start testing in Germany in early April, he will need to learn new disciplines including pits stops and coping with longer races.
On a race-day, it's an early rise and a physical warm up. Next is discussing race strategy with his team, followed by the first practice run. Then it's a debrief with the engineers and analysis of the data from not only Merhi's, but the other team's. After the second practice run is the media work followed by the race itself.
Merhi could have chosen Cambridge's historic rivals Oxford as a base and be closer to the Silverstone racetrack and most of the F1 teams. “I like Cambridge,” he laughs. “It's very modern and I’m still reasonably close to most of the factories.”
Lewis Hamilton is Merhi's favourite driver, who he has met many times, and other friends include Alonso and Vettel, as is Jenson Button.
Mates they may be, but Roberto Merhi can expect no friendly favours if the Valencian reaches the promised land of Formula 1.