Feature F1 Unlocked
LIGHTS TO FLAG: Timo Glock on his last-minute F1 debut, Brazil 2008, and getting behind the mic
Timo Glock first appeared on the F1 grid as a substitute driver back in 2004, but it was not until the late noughties that his Grand Prix career began to take off. In our latest Lights to Flag feature, the German reveals all about his two cracks at the top echelon, which included a stint towards the sharp end with Toyota and one at the very back with newcomers Virgin, while discussing his future motorsport ambitions and transition to punditry.
From dirt bikes to go-karting
Glock was born in Lindenfels, then West Germany, in 1982, and followed in the footsteps of his amateur racer father Karl by venturing into the world of motorsport – but it was on two wheels rather than four that he first tested the water.
“It came from my dad,” Glock says of his passion. “He was doing it sort of as a hobby, let’s say, and never had the possibility to do it in a professional way. He said if one of his kids has any sort of talent in any sport, he’ll try to help, so that’s how it all started.
“I went to ride dirt bikes in the beginning but had a big crash when I was seven or eight years old and broke my leg, so I stopped that. Five or six years later I got into go-karts, then I moved to Formula BMW and won the championship, then went to F3 and won races.”
Glock’s efforts in F3 yielded third in the 2002 German championship standings then fifth in the 2003 Euro Series rankings and, aided by the backing of a sponsor he shared with Jordan, the youngster secured a coveted F1 test role with the Silverstone team for the 2004 season.
F1 reserve becomes F1 racer
While he expected plenty of practice running under the ‘Friday driver’ regulations in place at the time, the chance to race was not yet on Glock’s radar and, when full-timer Giorgio Pantano ran into sponsorship problems, team boss Eddie Jordan thrust his reserve into the spotlight with a surprise F1 debut.
“Michael Schumacher was my big hero at the time, but I never had really the goal to make it to F1, because it was so far away and [you think] it’s not going to be possible,” says Glock. “Late in 2003 was the first time I thought it could happen, because we had the contact with Deutsche Post, which was a sponsor for me, and they were also sponsoring Jordan at the time, so there was a link.
“In 2004, Giorgio was running out of money, so I did my first race in the middle of the year in Canada. Everything happened so quickly, there was really no time to think about it. Eddie called me on the Saturday morning and said, ‘Listen, you need to drive’, so I came to the track, did FP3, did qualifying, then on Sunday the race.
“There was so much press, the German press came, so it was quite intense and there was a lot going on. I actually can’t remember much about the race. I just tried to not do any mistakes and, at the end we were lucky, finishing in P11 but then the four Williams and Toyota cars got disqualified and I scored two points. Eddie was a very happy man!”
Glock’s first F1 stint ends
But despite scoring those “very important” points, given the prize money at stake, it was not enough to prevent Jordan from selling up to the Midland Group for 2005, sparking the first of several ownership and team name changes and leaving Glock – who also appeared at the final three rounds of the 2004 season – without a drive.
With no other F1 opportunities available, Glock moved Stateside the following year to tackle the Champ Car World Series, where he reached the podium and claimed the Rookie of the Year title, before promptly making the return to Europe and taking on the GP2 Series.
Having placed fourth in 2006, the 2007 season would be pivotal for a driver attempting to impress F1 team bosses once more, and it was one that started in fine style with a victory, second place and trio of top-three finishes from the opening five races – putting plenty of distance between himself and the rest of the field.
“The championship was crazy because I was leading by a big margin after Monaco and people were already sort of congratulating me for winning, that it’s just a matter of time, and I said, ‘It’s just half of the season done’,” recalls Glock, by then a BMW test driver, also receiving interest from Toyota. “Then things flipped around. We had some technical problems and late in the season the incident at Spa…
“It was cold and I was going to the grid, not even on the formation lap. Along the Kemmel Straight I tried to somehow warm up the tyres, then suddenly Ricardo Risatti spun on the straight right next to me, came around and hit my front-right suspension. The suspension was broken and I was out of the race before the racing had even started. I walked back to the pits and said, ‘This cannot be real’.
“I came to Valencia for the final race of the season being two points in the lead over Lucas di Grassi, who scored two podiums at Spa. It was quite an intense weekend because I had to win the championship. Toyota was saying to me if I win the championship I definitely have the seat, and if not… So the pressure was on. It was raining, dry, raining, dry, but in the end I managed it and signed the deal with Toyota.”
A second chance with giants Toyota
Signing for Toyota marked a scarcely believable step up for Glock, as not only was he back on the F1 grid after several years out, but the Japanese manufacturer’s eye-watering budget and cutting-edge facilities were a world away from what he had initially experienced with Jordan.
“I remember still that first day when I signed the contract and they invited me to the factory, but very late in the evening, so no one working at Toyota would see me, let’s say,” Glock comments. “I had a tour around the factory and it was insane. They had two wind tunnels and everything you could think of, which was very impressive.”
It would take time for Glock to get to grips with Toyota’s 2008 package and work out how best to exploit Bridgestone’s tyres, but when he did, the flashes of potential emerged – aptly beginning with a fine run to fourth in Canada, where his F1 racing career had started four years earlier.
“The first year with Toyota was quite tough, the first half of the season, because I was struggling a lot with getting the car in the right set-up direction over a weekend,” he says. “We had the grooved tyres in 2008 and the track was evolving, and I did sort of too much set-up work on Fridays already which led me the wrong way.
“After I understood that you just have to follow the track a bit more, the results were showing. I was competitive in qualifying and scored points, and I got my first podium in Budapest, which was a great weekend from the first lap on. It was a very good performance in qualifying with fifth on the grid and then a very good race.”
I had a tour around the Toyota factory and it was insane. They had two wind tunnels and everything you could think of.
“Is that Glock?!”
Four more points finishes followed over the second half of the season, and the last of them – a solid P6 finish on paper – would go down in F1 history.
With rain arriving in the closing stages of a tense championship decider in Brazil, most of the front-runners – including title contenders Felipe Massa and Lewis Hamilton – opted to pit for intermediate tyres, but Glock gambled by staying out on slicks and initially inherited a host of places.
With the chequered flag approaching, Hamilton was sixth and one spot away from what he required to beat race leader Massa to the crown, only for Martin Brundle to scream ‘Is that Glock?!’ in one the most memorable F1 commentary lines as the Toyota and McLaren came into view in the final sector.
Glock was a sitting duck in the worsening conditions and, as the pair navigated Juncao to climb the hill to the finish line, Hamilton emerged with a decisive P5 in the most dramatic of circumstances.
“I never thought this would happen to me,” says Glock, whose nationality led to claims in the media that he had helped Mercedes-powered McLaren. “We tried to just do our race and make the maximum out of it and at the end we gained positions by staying out, but no one told me that I’m the guy who decided the championship.
“Even when I came back after the race and I parked behind Lewis, I asked my engineer who won the championship and he said, ‘It’s Lewis’. I went to Lewis, said congratulations, walked away and this whole bunch of journalists ran down. I thought, ‘OK, they’re all going to Lewis’, so I stepped aside. Then they all came to me!
“I was asked these weird questions like, ‘Was it on purpose?’, ‘Why did you do that?’, blah, blah, blah. I was like, ‘What’s going on here?’ I had no idea. My physiotherapist came to me, grabbed me, pulled me back to the pits and explained to me what really happened. I said, ‘OK, now I understand what’s going on’. It’s part of F1 history.”
Glock and Toyota continue… for now
That whirlwind experience aside, Glock’s tally was just six points shy of experienced team mate and race winner Jarno Trulli come the end of 2008, with hopes high that he and Toyota could kick on in 2009, when all-new regulations were coming into play.
Kick on is exactly what they did, turning up for the start of the campaign as one of three teams – alongside Williams and eventual champions Brawn GP – with an innovative double diffuser that proved to be a crucial asset in the early races.
“We had a big advantage in the beginning of the season, it was just a great car,” says Glock, with Toyota’s campaign starting in dramatic circumstances when the two TF109s were excluded from qualifying in Australia over a rear wing breach, then proceeded to rise from the pit lane to third and fourth respectively on race day.
“In Bahrain were even on the first row of the grid and led the race. Unfortunately we took the wrong tyre choice as I was the first guy who went to hard tyres. Everyone saw I had no pace with the tyres and they all did a different strategy, so I lost a bit of momentum.”
In and around some “weird moments”, which included a Monaco weekend where Toyota’s pace completely disappeared on Monte-Carlo’s tight and twisty streets to leave them at the very back of the grid, Glock managed to add two more podium finishes, and plenty more points, to his name.
But the momentum he had been building was ended by a violent crash during qualifying for Toyota’s home Grand Prix in Japan, which left Glock with an injured leg and cracked vertebra, and saw test driver Kamui Kobayashi step in as his replacement.
While Glock soon felt ready to return to action, Kobayashi raced on in Brazil and Abu Dhabi amid discussions in the background that eventually saw Toyota pull the plug on their expensive F1 operation – the global financial crisis having taken hold.
A potential title challenger that never raced?
“I think I could have done the last two races, but Toyota decided to keep Kobayashi in,” Glock says. “I think the decision was very close that Toyota will leave F1 and maybe with a Japanese driver they thought they could convince the board to stay on, which didn’t happen. It’s a shame, as I think the 2010 car would have been really good.”
It begs the question how much potential Toyota’s next challenger had and whether it would have provided the step needed to turn what was a failed F1 assault up to that point into one that brought tangible success.
“I didn’t see it, I just heard numbers,” says Glock. “I heard guys from Toyota who had left to Ferrari and they all said that the 2010 car was quite a step ahead in aero performance compared to the Ferrari, but these are the things [that happen] sometimes. I mean, I would have loved to drive the car…
“To be honest, [in general], I think the structure of Toyota was sort of the problem. It took too long to make decisions. We had clever ideas but it took like, I don’t know, three months… It had to go to Japan. Everything happened too slowly. It was sort of a big ship, you try to steer it, but it takes a bit of a while until it turns.”
From the front to the back of the grid
Just as Glock’s F1 journey was taking off, with new heights set to be reached aboard the Toyota that never raced, he had to start again from scratch – landing at one of the new-for-2010 teams in Virgin Racing.
“It wasn’t easy to make that decision,” Glock admits. “I was in good talks with Renault at the time, then Renault also decided to jump out of the championship. There was no other option for me in F1 other than signing with Virgin, because everything was so late in the season already.
I heard guys from Toyota who had left to Ferrari and they all said that the 2010 car was quite a step ahead in aero performance compared to the Ferrari.
“It was tough, coming from a big team to one of the smallest. You could say it was a little garage where they built up an F1 car compared to what Toyota had. You know that after 15 or 20 laps latest, you get the blue flags and the race is already over, let’s say, so it was a totally different type of racing for me.
“I still enjoyed it, because at the end it was still F1. We had a great bunch of people at the time; of course, they had not much F1 experience, but I enjoyed a lot working with them. When Pat Symonds joined the team as a consultant, that was great. He had a clear vision and a clear sort of direction to go in. You could feel the progress, but we never had the money to really make a big step.”
Thus, after three seasons that brought no points and a best finish of 12th at the 2012 Singapore Grand Prix, Glock’s time in F1 came to an end.
“Again, there was a bit of bad timing because they told me on the 23rd of December that it wasn’t going to happen [for another season], so there was no possibility [elsewhere in F1],” continues Glock. “At the end I decided then to go to DTM. I was still trying to find something for F1, but it was just the wrong timing.”
Swapping the wheel for a mic
Glock went on to forge a successful career in the German touring car series, taking several victories and finishing as high as fifth in the 2018 and 2020 seasons, and by this point he had already embarked on another motorsport challenge – one that took him out of the cockpit.
“It was 2015 and I was doing my first race for RTL, because RTL had the rights on free TV,” he says of his developing punditry career. “It was because Niki Lauda was the expert for RTL but he didn’t do the Grand Prix in Russia, so they contacted me. In the first place I said, ‘Ah, no, it’s not what I want to do’, but then I decided to do it, to give it a go.
“I just had a lot of fun. What’s better than to talk about your sport and try to get that across to the fans behind the TV? From then on I did one race, then the following year I did five, then Niki stopped and I shared the job with Nico Rosberg at RTL. Then RTL lost the rights to Sky, Sky contacted me and I’ve been doing it for Sky for two years. I’m really enjoying it.
“But I’m also still open to racing. Le Mans is definitely something I have an eye on. I stopped DTM, I stopped my relationship with BMW, but I’ve been racing in the Porsche Supercup. Le Mans, the 24-hour races, that’s on my list to attack. I’m hoping for that, definitely.”
But what about getting behind the wheel of a current-spec F1 car for one last blast?
“Every time I have a chance to go out on the track at F1 events on a Friday and watch the cars, in terms of the speed, and how the sport has developed in the last couple of years, it’s very impressive,” Glock smiles. “I would love to try, but I think I would not survive more than two laps, because my neck would not hold onto it!”