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‘I am confident in my ability’ says Formula driver Tiago Rodrigues

The Macao-born driver had a successful campaign last year but is in need of sponsorship to reach the next level in one of the world’s most expensive sports
  • Tiago Rodrigues speaks on the Macau Grand Prix, the city’s racing scene and his future hopes

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Less than 1 minute Minutes

UPDATED: 07 Jun 2024, 5:23 pm

Macao-born Tiago Rodrigues had a 2023 to remember. The racer won the 2023 FIA F4 Chinese Championship, raced on his home track at the 2023 Macau Formula 4 Race and gained valuable experience at the 2024 UAE Formula 4 Championship. All in a year, and at the age of 16. 

Macao News spoke to Rodrigues about how his interest in racing began, his proudest racing moments and the recent addition of Formula Regional to the Macau Grand Prix. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you get into Formula 4?

I started karting in October 2021. Then I spoke to Andy Chang who won the 2022 Macau Formula 4 race and asked if I could contact his former team, Champ Motorsports. He gave me the contact and I spoke with my dad. We tested for about a year after I started karting. I won the Chinese F4 with them.

What makes your climb to F4 different to other drivers?

Most F1 drivers start karting at age five and get into a Formula car around the same age I did. They have been karting for almost 10 years before getting into a formula car.  I started karting when I was 13, so I felt unprepared with only one year of experience before competing in the Formula 4 Championship. But I still managed to do well.

[See more: Guangzhou looks set to get its own Formula 1 racetrack]

I karted a lot when I started. But not enough by European standards. They kart multiple times per week. I only did it twice weekly, because unfortunately, we’re limited to only two days in Macao. I disagree with this, but it happens. 

I also have a home racing simulator where I train with Formula and Grand Tourer (GT) cars. I remember I went to Andre Couto’s daughter’s birthday and tried his home sim. I loved it and got addicted. I immediately asked my dad if he could buy me a sim. He eventually gave in and I never stopped practising on it since. It helped prepare me for my first formula test.

How did you adapt to the Formula 4 car then?

The first time I tested a Formula 4 car was in Zhuhai in December 2022. It was overwhelming. During my first test, I got unlucky because of heavy rains. I had to be cautious because I wasn’t used to the car and rain made it difficult. I think I had one spin, but that’s it. As far as I’m concerned, it was pretty successful. I was doing close to the same lap times others did in the rain there. A few months later, I was competing in the Chinese F4 Championship. 

Chinese F4 is not that competitive if you want me to be honest. It’s my personal opinion. There are more competitive championships. 

Walk us through what it felt like racing on the Guia Circuit.

The practice session was horrible because there were so many red and yellow flags. I was in the middle of all of it. I wasn’t involved in any crashes and did not finish one lap. Which meant I had no lap time. Qualifying was basically my practice. 

[See more: F1 Academy: Bianca Bustamante opens up about her mental health]

Before every session, I was nervous. Because it’s my home race. I knew I had to do well and not crash. Not crashing in Macao is 90 percent of your focus (laughs). I was trying to gain confidence in the car because, in reality, I wasn’t. Redbull juniors and other drivers had completed a full season in the car. It was my second race in that car which, to me, was a huge disadvantage. 

Rodrigues pictured with his team after winning the 2023 FIA F4 Chinese Championship
Rodrigues pictured with his team after winning the 2023 FIA F4 Chinese Championship

Coming off as the winner of the Chinese F4 Championship, expectations must have been high right? 

You can’t compare because I competed against some of the best juniors worldwide. The Chinese Championship is not that competitive. They use different F4 cars. So it does not prepare you for these races. 

The Macau Grand Prix is a different competition and a crazy track. I still did quite well in achieving P6. I would have been P5 if the race had not ended with a safety car because I was over a second quicker than the driver in front.

From the outside, it may look like winning Chinese F4 was one of my biggest achievements, but actually it was racing at the Macau Grand Prix. It was one of the best experiences! It’s fun when you’re focused on track and slowly gaining confidence then going quicker and quicker. It’s just another level of adrenaline that you get.

A home debut for Rodrigues at Macao’s Guia Circuit in November 2023
A home debut for Rodrigues at Macao’s Guia Circuit in November 2023

What are your thoughts about the recent changes at the Macau Grand Prix from F3 to Formula Regional?

There is a positive and negative aspect to it. The negatives are that we are losing a great tradition within motorsport and Macao. In the SAR, F3 is one of the most prestigious races in the world and brings more interest than FR. We will also probably never have a car as fast as [F3] racing here anymore. 

[See more: What impact will the switch from F3 to FR have on the Macau Grand Prix and the city’s tourism?]

The positives are that the Formula Regional will allow younger drivers to compete. The regional is a category between F4 and F3 and will certainly have an average age lower than F3.

Any difficult moments?

It has to be the Formula 4 UAE championship. I started quite badly. I lacked performance from the first round and qualified P26 out of 30 drivers. Then P21. I was disappointed with myself. In the second and third rounds, I made it higher up the table with the help of my coach, Callan O’Keeffe. He previously competed with Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc and Alex Albon. 

But in the fourth and fifth rounds, my car suffered a performance drop. I went from being 0.3 seconds to pole to 1.9 seconds off. That doesn’t just happen. I just did the best with what I had and dealt with it. It was a good learning experience. 

Rodrigues says the Formula 4 UAE Championship was his most challenging moment as a driver so far
Rodrigues says the Formula 4 UAE Championship was his most challenging moment as a driver so far

How can the motor racing scene in Macao improve?

They could give the karting drivers more days to test because it’s a pretty good track. 

Realistically, can a driver improve in Macao? 

Just in Macao? No. Every karting driver who has got into F1 has raced on multiple karting tracks for 10 years. They gain a lot of experience before they even get into formula cars. Some of them may look young and inexperienced, but they’re not. They’ve got years of kart racing under their belt.

Formula racing is an expensive sport. How much support do you have? 

Not much now. When we went to UAE, that was from our own pockets. We’ve hit a point where we can’t keep racing with our budget. I either stop or find a sponsor.

It’s a common problem in motorsports. It’s just one percent of drivers who start racing that end up making money. It’s the hardest sport in the world. And the most expensive. But you can’t get demoralised when somebody says, “Oh, you don’t have any money and you should stop.” You have to find a way. It’s part of the sport. 

But I am confident in my ability. For example, in the Formula 4 UAE Championship, when I qualified P7 and P10, it was a miracle. Because compared to a few others who had more than 100 testing days, I had five or six. So if I get a sponsor or backing, I’m pretty sure I will be fighting for wins.

Who’s your favourite F1 driver? 

Max Verstappen. 

[See more: What you need to know about the Macau Grand Prix’s shift from F3 to FR racing]

How would you describe your driving style?

Similar to my favourite driver (laughs). It’s always quite risky, which does bite me sometimes. In the F4 UAE championship, I had a guaranteed P6 but ended up on top of another car when I was challenging for P4 against two drivers. There’s even a video of it online.  

A track you wish to drive in the future? 

Suzuka, for the Japanese Grand Prix.

How have your parents supported you so far?

My dad’s been there with me through it all. But we’ve hit a point where I completely understand why he can’t support me financially. He’s been incredibly supportive of everything I’ve done until now.

UPDATED: 07 Jun 2024, 5:23 pm

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