Briton Darren Manning took a superb ninth place in the 2003 CART Drivers' Championship in his first season in the competitive series, and his first racing in the US.

For 2004, Manning is moving to the IRL and a plum drive with Target Chip Ganassi Racing, and caught up with Darren at the Autosport International show...

Darren, last time you exclusively spoke to was two seasons ago at Rockingham, when you had a one-off Champ Car drive that gave you your first taste of the American racing scene and competing on ovals. Since then you have had a full season with Walker Racing, how was that?

Darren Manning: "Rockingham was great really, the catalyst that triggered the career I've now carved in America. The good thing about American teams is that they really look at what sort of job you have done in the car that you had and the experience you have - they were aware of the fact we'd had no testing, I led some laps, I didn't crash, was holding my own with some really quick drivers. Rockingham got me through the door with the teams, which is always the biggest hurdle, and ultimately got me my drive.

"I went out to Miami, Mexico, and Indianapolis, and we were able to visit the awnings of the teams and people wanted to speak to me - you don't get that in Formula One nowadays!"

In that Rockingham race you brought the car home in the top ten, and were putting in competitive times at the end despite having lost a rear-wing endplate, the teams were really aware impressed with what you had done?

DM: "If things had worked out a little better we could have finished I the top four or five. We had the air-jacks fail on the final pit stop which probably cost us about ten seconds, and I was running in front of Dario Franchitti [the eventual winner] for a lot of the race. We had a bit of a mix of pit crew, and they were doing a great job but we were losing a second or so on each pit stop. All these things were taken into account by the team bosses - and that enabled me to get the drive."

So what was it like racing in the Champ Car scene full time?

DM: "It was a great scene to race in, and I loved racing there. The season was great, it was nice to be a racing driver and overtake people, not be a qualifier as seems to happen in some series in Europe. You can work on set-up, pit strategy, and you can really strategise your race a whole lot more. That was very different to any racing that I had done, and it really suited me."

Do the cars suit your style? One impression people have of you going all the way back to your time in Formula Three is that you were always happy to run with less downforce than other drivers, which benefited you at certain circuits - is that something that has carried over?

DM: "I think it has a little bit. I work really hard to get the mechanical set-up on a car right to suit my driving style, which is probably quite a bit different to a lot of other drivers, and that enables me to get the speed in the corners without running as much downforce.

"At certain circuits that works really well, and at others you are hopefully just as quick as everyone else. It's worked well - a Champ Car is in a lot of ways like a big Formula Three car. You've got what you've got - you can tweak the aerodynamics a little bit, design some of your own buts, but basically there is the gearbox, dampers and suspension to play with - very like F3, where I excelled."

There is a perception of the American racing scene as relaxed and laid-back, but still getting the job done. Is that the reality of racing in the US?

DM: "Very much so! I was saying earlier today - racing in Europe is very pretty, and most Formula Three garages probably look like they have more money than a Champ Car team does. In America a lot more onus is put on the actual racing instead of looking very nice and having the right sandwiches. Over there they want to go racing and put on a good show for the fans - which is why you have so many people coming to watch the racing over there, and so many drivers over here needing million pound budgets for drives.

"If you could put together a little something from both I think you would have things perfect."

Obviously a move into the IRL, a new series for you, in 2004 with Target Chip Ganassi Racing, a drive that possibly didn't come in the way you'd have liked, are you looking forward to that?

DM: "It's not how you'd like to get a drive, but they are a championship winning team, they have one of the biggest budgets out there - so it's pretty much a dream come true for a me. You are always very envious of the people who have these drives, and now it's a big opportunity for me.

"I've rarely had a quick team-mate, and with Scott Dixon I have the champion to race alongside, which has to be good for me. You never stop learning in this sport - if you do you start going slower - so it has can only help me as a driver. I have the Indy 500 to look forward to, and have a real shot at the championship."

Just competing in that one race alone must have been a dream for you when you were starting in Formula Vauxhall Junior?

DM: "Absolutely! There is the Indy 500, the Le Mans 24-Hours and probably the British Grand Prix at Silverstone that as a British racing driver growing up you watch and want to be involved in.

"Now at least I can tick one of them off the list! I thought I might have got to the British Grand Prix before this one, but Indy is the biggest sporting event in the world. I was there as a spectator last year and it was amazing, 500,000 people in one venue for one day was great.

"The track is fantastic, and Indianapolis is my home town now, so I will be well-acclimatised, and maybe even to stay at my own apartment. It's going to be cool!"



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