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INTERVIEW: MICHAEL CARUSO – ALTIMA WARRIOR

Michael Caruso has been Nissan Motorsport leading light

Michael Caruso has been Nissan Motorsport leading light

Michael Caruso was been Nissan Motorsport’s leading light in Supercars last season but he is looking for much more success in 2017

By PHIL BRANAGAN

AA: How would you describe this year? It’s been a bit up and it’s been a bit down, and you have had wins, and some not so good results.

MC: Yeah, I’m actually really happy with our year, to be honest. We’re running eighth in the championship at the moment; we started off the year, obviously with second place, and leading the championships at Clipsal. Virtually everywhere outside of a DNF at Barbagallo and probably one more round at Tasmania.

We have been at the top 10 everywhere we have been, so I see that as a positive step. It’s been very consistent and the race win at Darwin being, in what has been a dominant performance from one team… I’m really impressed with what we are doing – and there’s more to come.

Michael Caruso won in Darwin last year

Michael Caruso won in Darwin last year

AA: If I were to make the point that you are sounding realistic and patient, that’s not often traits that racing drivers are noted for. But you sound like you have a realistic hold on what’s happened in 2016.

MC: I think ultimately, to achieve any good results, you have to be a bit of a realist with it. Because as you said, racecar drivers, we all go to win and that’s the same with everybody in the team.

But some of the time, to achieve that there has to be progression and you have to understand that, particularly in a team that is developing. Things are going on in the background that we have all been aware of. I am just trying to do the best job with what I have underneath me in any given weekend.

AA: Tell us a little bit about the progress the teams made because there’s been a lot of discussion about the hardware – but a lot of it’s been the personnel as well.

MC: The personnel in the category has always one of those part of the teams that people probably leve unspoken. But it’s clearly a very very important role, and it’s not just the individual minds in engineering.

There’s so many other key factors in race teams now. We have over 50 people at Nissan and to get 50 people communicating and functioning most efficiently, when you are racing every two weeks is, there’s quite a lot of procedures, and things to go through. So we are getting to the point now where we believe we are utilising everybody in the team really well – but there is always room for improvement.

In terms of hardware there’s always going to be progression and things to improve and that’s no different we’ve got a big list of things that we would like to tick off before we kick off Clipsal next year.

Michael Caruso behind the wheel of his Nissan Altima

Michael Caruso behind the wheel of his Nissan Altima

AA: Can you talk about some of those things you want to tick off in general terms?

MC: I think it’s no secret that we are not still not where we need to be in a straight line, we see that in the straight line sectors at every track we go to and Bathurst, for instance we were losing, just in what we could see in a straight line, over four-tenths.

For myself personally, when we qualified sixth for the biggest race of the year I was pretty stocked, given that we were only four-tenths off pole. I’ve always had the belief that our cars handle quite well and I think once we can get to the point where we start topping those straight line sectors or at least equally straight line sectors I’m sure those results will be there with that.

AA: Has it been a bit difficult for the team this year to operate, for much of the season, in the environment where Nissan hadn’t quite determined what its motorsport plans were going to be?

MC: I don’t think so; it actually, if anything, made everybody more focused.

We know what we had to achieve, and it didn’t change what we wanted to achieve. But it just gave that little bit more focus to some people in the team, and we always believed they were going to sign. It was just one of those processes that needed to go through the right people.

Obviously being a global company in the way it works – so, unlike the other manufacturers – they are quite direct working within Australia. But having to going through Japan, and what have you, it’s just its just the way it all has to go these days.

AA: From a personal point of view do you just completely put that out of your mind? It’s nothing you can control, do you focus on what in front of you?

MC: After being in the sport for a such a fair period of time now, you get comfortable with the commercial understanding of how decisions are made. In the real world that’s how it is these days and people don’t spend money easily.

So they have to make sure they are ticking all the boxes and that there’s everything they need to achieve as a company to make sure we can achieve the results we do so. As a driver it’s just a matter of focusing on what you are doing, and I feel like I have done that really well this year.

Michael Caruso racing on the Gold Coast

Michael Caruso racing on the Gold Coast

AA: But as someone who’s been around Supercars for getting on for a decade now, and you are at the point of your life where you’ve got a family, at any time during the year, do you start to think about having a Plan B in case things didn’t moving forward with Nissan?

MC: No, not really. I mean people spoke to me but, as I always said, my priorities were stay there [at Nissan Motorsport].
I went through so many years of the hardship of trying to get the equipment to the point where it was winning, and now that we have got to the point where I believe we can win on our day, we just to now smooth that out and have it more consistent, on a week-to-week basis. That’s just the next step in where the team is, and the reasons why I am staying on for another couple of years.

AA: When the announcement came from Nissan, when we all gathered at Sandown, the announcement was, ‘this is what Nissan wants to do for the next two years and, of the four drivers we have got at the moment, this is the bloke we are ticking at the moment’. That was you, and it must have been a tremendous fillup for you.

MC: It was extremely comforting to hear that.

The whole way through, no matter what was going on, Nissan had me at the forefront of their mind. If they were going to do something, it was always going to involve me. So to get that confirmation, to have them announcing it in the way that they did, was very fulfilling. We worked so hard; they know that the effort that I put in, and to reward me as they did is something that I am pretty grateful for, and something that I carry with me while I am representing their brand and try and do my best for them.

AA: With a 23 on your door…

MC: Exactly! The eternal, special, ‘holy’ number of Nissan.

It’s pretty difficult to relate it from what we are used to in Australia. It’s their version of running the HRT car and running with that special livery. For me to represent their brand is something cool to have.

AA: The importance of that, did you know that before you travelled to Japan and you were identified as that or that really underline it for you?

MC: I think that definitely helped, there’s no doubt about it. I think I only got to turn three or four laps in the GT-R but to see how important their brand is to them, how passionate they are, to have an event where I think they had forty or fifty thousand people there, just Nissan followers, Yeah, it is amazing and particularly that number, you see it everywhere plus at the Nismo Festival, you see it everywhere.

I guess they quite loyal people and they find those things very important. It does add a good pressure to driving for them, because you just know what it means to them and try to use that to do my best.

Michael Caruso's #23 Nissan Motorsport Altima

Michael Caruso’s #23 Nissan Motorsport Altima

AA: If we in the media look at a timing screen and we don’t see you as the lead Nissan driver in Practice or Qualifying we kind of raise an eyebrow. Do you feel that responsibility?

MC: I do, not in the sense of just beating my teammates but probably more to the point of the pressure of being their lead driver.

Like I said, it does add that element of commitment and understanding of what you are representing and we all know that drivers want to win and they are doing their best and what have you but for me I try to use that as a tool to get the most out of myself when times are tough and things are going well to get the most out of it.

But, in terms of being the best Nissan on the weekend, until I am winning races week-in and week-out, and it’s coming down to myself and the second Nissan, that’s when I will start to worry about that side of it.

AA: Are all four cars identical in terms of specification?

MC: Yes, Yes they are.

AA: So you don’t get the latest development bits before Rick and Todd and, this year, Dale?

MC: No, the way we’ve done it particularly this year everything that we have had to build or everything that’s I guess been an upgrade they’ve had enough to spread. In the past it’s always been a bit scarce. [New parts] haveprobably gone to the lead car in the championship.

There’s no favouritism particularly when your team owners drive the racecars! It can sometimes, from the outside looking in maybe, look that way. But no, it hasn’t been like that at all.

AA: How close are you guys in terms of set-up?

MC: For myself and Rick, he’s very close to me. At the beginning he probably wasn’t, but he’s tended to come across to where we are and he seems to like my approach of setting up a car.

I guess that is handy because it gives us an opportunity to try lots of things between the two cars. Todd’s got a little different driving style to myself and Rick so, it’s to be expected to have a [his car] little bit of a different.

Michael Caruso on the Gold Coast

Michael Caruso on the Gold Coast

AA: If I go back far enough, I’ll find open wheelers in your career and you have had to make adaptations from racing a purebred racing car to racing a sedan. That’s something that Simona de Silvestro has to do next year, what words of advice do you think you would give to anyone in her position?

MC: I said to her when I met her at Bathurst, she’s got a really good approach and I think that will help her towards her progression in the category. She knows it’s not easy and coming into this category, which is easily the most competitive motorsport category on the planet, she just has to focus on improving herself on a weekly basis.

She had lots of questions to ask at Bathurst, which was good.

I think she is not coming in with the approach that being arrogant. We’ve seen that in the past, particularly people from overseas that come in think it’s very very easy, and it hasn’t worked to their advantage, so I think with that approach of asking lots of questions and just trying to improve herself as a driver, she’ll definitely improve over the year.

AA: If we look at the results you have had in the championships in the recent years there has been one of steady progression. Is top six and more podiums next year realistic?

MC: I think so. It’s always hard to know.

Next year is going to be another interesting one. The tyre change is, without a doubt, going to be the biggest curveball we have had in the category since Car Of the Future. I am really looking forward to that because we seem to adapt to different scenarios quite well.

I would like to say we are going to be higher than sixth but I think it’s just one of those things. How close this sport is, we could either be right there or sixth, it’s just hard to know these days. It’s definitely going to come down to a combination of what I do in the car and what the team can provide in terms of equipment.

Michael Caruso in GT

Michael Caruso racing in Australian GT over in New Zealand

Michael Caruso racing in Australian GT over in New Zealand

AA: A second bow in the arrow, you have stepped in a GT role, is that an added distraction or something that you enjoy?

MC: That’s their pinnacle, the Nissan GT-R and GT3 car is what they race overseas, it’s what they race in Japan. It’s obviously a very special car.

The GTR itself, it’s always been on the Bucket List. When I found out I was going to be driving for Nissan back in 2012, that was there, that was what I wanted to do. To get that opportunity, it’s been great.

[NZ] probably didn’t pan out for myself. It wasn’t good enough, I didn’t get enough laps as I would have liked, but I hope there’s more opportunities in the future, which I am sure there will be. It probably goes without saying that everybody is aware that last year I was meant to be driving at Bathurst until the driver… what do they call it?

AA: The classifications?

MC: Yeah, the classifications, when they changed that, that obviously put me out of the seat. It was good that I actually got to use the racesuits that they had ready to go two weeks before the event over the last couple of races that I did for them!

AA: Are you on board for February?

MC: Well, nothing has been confirmed yet. I’m available for February…

Honestly, nothing has been confirmed yet but obviously they are going to race two cars there and I want to be there. Once the boxes get ticked, hopefully that’s got my name on the door.

AA: Let’s talk about it in a generic sense. As a racing driver who is focus is necessarily on Supercars… if it did come to having a distraction like the 12 Hour, good or bad?

MC: I think it’s only positive. As a driver I think the good thing that is starting to evolve in Australia is the versatility of what we can do.

We are all good drivers and we’re all seen as, I guess, just Supercar drivers, so the way things have gone in the last couple of years its encouraging. As drivers we just want to race cars and win races, so to get these opportunities is really good.

Who wouldn’t want to drive it, a GT-R on of the greatest race tracks on the planet?

AA: Even as a spectator on previous 12 hours are you a bit of a fan of Chiyo-san?

MC: When I met him when I went to Nismo Fest last year, he’s got a good personality and it’s pretty cool. He’s their marquee driver, he is pretty highly spoken of, even when we speak to people within Nismo, even Shigeru [Kugimiya, Nissan Motorsport engine man]… it’s pretty cool to meet someone like that. He is obviously quite a capable race car driver so I will hopefully get the opportunity to race with him.

Everybody knows in the 12 Hour, when he gets in the car at that last couple of hours in that race, for some reason, that car just lights up. They all think that they do something special for him in the car, so they were hoping that they put that in the car for me at the, in the last couple of races that we did, or the one race anyway.

How good was it last year, when they were literally hanging in and out of the fence to catch up to him? It’s good to watch. And that circuit as well, when you know how committed you’ve got to be to be doing that… yeah he is good.

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