When I was eight or nine, my father said that if I did well at school in Barcelona, he would buy me either a go-kart or a bike. I chose the go-kart and we – my brother and I – did it just for fun. One day there was a “spotter” who came – and he spotted my brother, not me. My brother got involved in racing go-karts and I thought, “If he can do it, so can I.” I was the Spanish champion at 13 or 14.
I wanted to study at the same time as racing, to have something to fall back on, but studying in Spain while racing in England was logistically difficult. The team I was racing with for the following year was based at Silverstone, so I looked at universities around the Oxfordshire area. I heard that Buckingham had an international atmosphere and went to be interviewed. At the interview, I asked, “What’s that noise?” Malcolm Rees of the Economics Department said, “That’s Silverstone down the road.”
I did the two-years Economics degree and a Masters. How has my economics degree been useful? Sponsors may ask about the economy of Formula 1 and I can explain that Formula 1 runs on the same principles as any other company. My favourite subject was macroeconomics. I’ve always been interested in the big picture. There was a Spanish community in the University and I still see friends from that time. Graduation was one of the most important days of my life; Margaret Thatcher gave me my degree.
In 1997 I did the International F3000 Championship and in 1998 I won the Open Fortuna by Nissan. Finally, I made it to Formula 1 in 1999. Three things stand out in my career. The 24 Hours of Le Mans: I’m the first and only Spanish driver to win that race and the day I won it was a big day in Spain. In future I’ll look back on it and know that I made something big and fulfilled all the years of hard work. Then there was the time when I first signed for Ferrari – I was never a racing driver for them but a test driver – and I put on the Ferrari overalls and joined the Ferrari family. And finally, in the history of Spain, only ten drivers had made it to Formula 1 before me.
My degree was the best investment I made and I’m so relaxed now. If the racing suddenly stopped, I would be very relaxed. A degree is like having a passport. You might not need it, but it’s there.