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Saturday, March 1, 2008

Champion starts racing season with Nissan


Contributing writer

Benoit Treluyer was just age 4 when he obtained his first set of motorized wheels.

Benoit Treluyer
Benoit Teluyer, winner of the Nippon Championship in 2006 ANGELA JEFFS PHOTO

"My father was a motocross fanatic," he reminisces, just a short walk from his condo overlooking Tokyo Bay. "I kept saying I wanted to try. He kept putting me off, saying I was too young."

Then on his birthday, his father teased him, saying maybe he would bring something back after work.

"When he came home, I couldn't see anything. But then he told me to look on the rear seat, and there it was: my first bike. Kids' size in white and red with a 50cc engine — the most beautiful thing I had ever seen."

Now Treluyer is a professional racing driver for Nissan, based in Japan, but with a home in France, and the world at his feet.

Maybe it's not surprising when you consider he grew up in Alencon, northern France, with the sound of engines revving in his ears. His father was a truck dealer, initially for Mercedes, but then owning his own company.

"Also we lived near Le Mans, so speed was in the air."

As a teenager he began to race in motocross, and became pretty good, too, coming in second in the French Championship and first in the European Cup. But gradually he came round to acknowledging that the sport was pretty dangerous, so changed to go-karts.

Even so, he regarded it as fun; he liked the fact there was no pressure. But with such a natural talent, his father was soon suggesting they look around for sponsorship to start racing serious cars — the fastest in the world.

"In 1994 I was selected by Elf La Filiere, which supplies lubricants to Formula One. That was when I started to compete. I never wanted a normal life. I was never like other boys, wanting to be a doctor or a fireman. I always knew I'd be a racing driver."

The most important year of his life, he believes, was 1996. He was having trouble with his parents ("I was 19 and very stubborn") and he met his future wife. "She's from the racing world but we met in a bar. Her father was kind of my boss at the time." The couple and their son, Jules, age 17 months, now live en famille in Tokyo.

Treluyer became professional here after driving for free to be seen and acknowledged. "Japan realized I was good when I won the Formula 3 World Cup in 2001." Not long after — the same year, in fact — he won the All Japan F3 Championship. Though driving since for both Toyota and Honda, he is now locked in with Nissan.

"Winning the Nippon Championship in 2006 was big for me. I'd missed twice before, each time touching another car. But when I won, I cried so much I couldn't speak at the press conference. Yes, 1996 was important, but it wasn't emotional, as in making my family proud, my parents happy."

Last year was the tough one. He had his first major accident, and for the first time felt fear. "I hit a wall, thought I was dead, realized the car and I were sliding upside down. Then the smell of fuel and thinking, 'Oh, I'm alive, so I must get out.' "

For many drivers — forced to take time out for ligaments in knees to mend and to regain a sense of balance — that would be the end. But Treluyer is made of sterner stuff.

"I love racing," he explains. "This is what motivated me to get back at the wheel. I'm not ready to stop getting out there on the circuit yet, and when I am, I'll still be involved in racing. It's my life. I'm only 31 and I'm still good, so why should I stop?"

Japan has been amazingly good for him, he says. When he first arrived, on the advice of a friend met while racing in Macau, he was by his own admission "a bundle of nerves — very excitable, pushy, aggressive."

He believes he has calmed down a lot, remembering with amusement how Japanese mechanics would stand bemused and watch him throwing tantrums, no doubt thinking, "Crazy foreigner!"

Now in Europe he has a nickname: The Japanese. "Ironic isn't it? Well, I always did like to be different! But nowadays it's more a case of wanting to be better."

The period between mid-December and mid-January is quiet in the racing world. But things are stirring, and the fact that Treluyer just had a haircut — the first in months — signals a new season getting under way.

"I'm just off to the airport to meet an engineer coming in from France. Then Wednesday I go to Atsugi, as part of the Nissan Nismo work team, to take the wheel of their most prestigious car, 23. I was sad to leave Calsonic Impul's Super GT family, but now working in NISMO with Satoshi Motoyama, I'm challenged again: helping Nissan move into a new era of mechanical engineering."

Treluyer thinks of mechanics as special people who live in a special world. "They are totally passionate about what they do, and give 100 percent. They will do anything to get their car on the track running the very best it can."

He remembers when some tiny part broke in his car competing on the Sepang Circuit in Malaysia. The mechanic called the Japanese sponsor, who flew someone with a spare overnight to Singapore, where a car was waiting to carry the part to the track. Where was Treluyer while this drama was under way? Fast asleep.

"It's all about winning, being the winner," he explains. "Not just about having the best car but driving the best race. What I like here is not just the budget but the dedication and passion."

Not that success depends only on the driver and his mechanic. Lined up behind are the engineer, the guy driving the truck that carries the car, the guy who checks the air pressure, the guy who looks after the driver's helmet! "It's about detail and working as a team."

People tend to think of car racing as a solo sport, but far from it. "Football is a team sport, but it's full of individual egos. In racing, everyone has different jobs with a single target. There's no room for ego."

His favorite race is the 1,000 km, with a team of three drivers who change place every couple of hours. Even so it's hard to take the heat, with temperatures rising to 50 degrees Celsius in the cockpit.

Once, in the Le Mans race, mechanics forgot to take off the foam that protects the driver from flying gravel at the pit stop. Soon the gauge topped 67 degrees, with one driver's hands stuck to the wheel and having to be hosed free, another having problems with his feet. As for Treluyer, he was "nearly dead" at the end of the race, having "seen many (hallucinatory) things."

Usually there's too much to think about while driving, but once last year he entered what he could only assume was a meditational state. "I went into another world. Everything slowed down. This was not when I crashed, though. That was when I guess I lost concentration for less than a second."

That's the job, he emphasizes: to focus, be concentrated. In the shortest race, of 300 km, there's little pressure. This increases with the 500 km and reaches its limit with the 1,000 km on tracks like Suzuka and Fuji. "After two hours, I'm very tired."

He relaxes by playing with Jules and planning the next stage of his house renovation in Provence. No sitting still for this energetic fast tracker.

"Actually, the house belonged to my wife's grandfather, so Jules is the fourth generation to live in it. I'm rebuilding, restructuring, redesigning the garden. There's a lot to do. I'm not good at doing nothing. I start twitching."

Which is why on his home page, he gives his blood type as A Rh + FNC (Formula Nippon Champion). Because speed is racing in his veins.



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