Some drivers link their racing career to specific brands or racing teams, while others try different vehicles and situations. There are drivers whose passion for racing arises almost by chance and others who find their childhood idols an inexhaustible source of inspiration. Matt Griffin, 38, from Ireland, dedicated his sporting career to the Prancing Horse after watching Jean Alesi’s only Formula 1 victory on television. The date is hard for many Ferrari fans to forget: 11 June 1995. On the Montreal circuit in Canada, the French driver crossed the finish line with his 412 T2 with the iconic #27 on the red nose. For Griffin, that was the moment Ferrari burst into his life. To date, Griffin has 35 wins with Ferrari, including a victory in the Pro-Am class at the recent 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps.
What does it mean to you to race behind the wheel of a Ferrari?
“It’s extraordinary, something you can’t understand until you do it, until you’re on track, in the race, behind the wheel of a race car with the Prancing Horse on the bonnet. It would be special for anyone; imagine for someone like me who has been a Ferrari fan since he was a kid. One of my earliest childhood memories, just so you understand, is Jean Alesi’s fantastic win in Montreal in 1995. For me, it was a magical moment. I was already hooked as a kid: my bedroom walls were covered in pictures of Ferrari F40s. I never imagined myself becoming a driver. The opportunity came in 2008. A year earlier, I had met Amato Ferrari at the Paul Picard circuit: then it was suggested I race with him and so we started to work together. It was only then that I realised that I could make a career as a professional driver. Before getting into the car, I didn’t have any particular preference as to which manufacturer to race with, but when I went out on track for the first test, my heart sang”.
So Alesi was the spark that ignited your passion?
“Before 1995, I already had a passion for cars. It started when I was tiny. Even at an early age, I felt the need to know every single detail of every model. Not surprisingly, a few years later, my father gave me a go-kart that I used to race on weekends. Karting today is different from when I was racing in the mid-90s. I was good and very enthusiastic, but I didn’t have the ambition to become a professional. I didn’t dream of Formula 1: I simply loved cars and the whole universe that revolves around them. When I discovered that I had the potential, I began to think that this hobby could become a profession. I said to myself: ‘maybe I could be like Schumacher...’. Since I started to compete seriously, however, I have to say that something has changed. My passion is intact, but it’s affected my enjoyment a little: To become a professional, I had to focus on results and performance”.
Your first race with Ferrari was at Monza, behind the wheel of an F430 GT2. What are your memories, your feelings thinking back to that moment?
“Monza is a special circuit. Imagine someone from Ireland suddenly finding himself breathing motorsport history. We don’t have that tradition in my country. When I arrived at Monza, I felt overwhelmed by the history and charm of Italy, with its people, landscapes and food. All behind the wheel of a Ferrari. It was on that circuit that I scored my first win, in the GT Open. At that moment, I remember being overcome with emotion, literally. I was so dazed and confused that I asked one of the mechanics if we had really won. I couldn’t believe it. There is a tradition at Monza: when you cross the finish line first, you have to sign the winners’ book, and that was one of the most memorable moments of my entire life. Over the years, I have signed many other times, but Monza remains an iconic circuit. It is the only circuit where the podium is literally enveloped by the public, and during the awards ceremony, you are in the midst of a unique atmosphere. Racing at Monza is an incredible experience”.
It’s no mystery that you particularly like fast tracks. In this sense, is Monza the one best suited to your characteristics as a driver?
“There are tracks, such as Spa, for example, that you can’t help but love. They are fantastic, even if it doesn’t actually suit my characteristics. As far as I’m concerned, the correct use of the brakes is fundamental, which is of primary importance given my driving style. During a race, using the brakes in the right way, at the right time, is crucial, and this is my strong point. So, there are circuits that allow me to make the most of my talent: Monza and the Red Bull Ring are among them. Spa is terrific, but I can’t make the most of this skill of mine”.
How necessary is preparation and motivation before a race?
“It mattered less before because the level of drivers was lower. Let me explain: the participants were divided into two groups. Some aimed just to have fun, without too many expectations, and some aimed at Formula 1. If they couldn’t make the big leap quickly, the latter would lose motivation and stop racing. So, in practice, one way or another, those who simply wanted to have fun stayed on track. However, over the last six or seven years, this is no longer the case. In fact, Formula 1 drivers increasingly decide to continue their careers in these series, raising the level considerably. So, to answer the question, motivation, preparation and fitness today are very important. I also train a lot harder than I used to because if you aren’t fit, if you don’t focus, if you don’t spend hours and hours on the simulator, you fall behind. Take the case of my idol, Andrea Bertolini: he is an example of a motivated and skilled driver whose commitment and dedication have led to a long career. If you open the dictionary at ‘professional driver’, you won’t find a definition, but rather a photograph of Andrea. That’s the only way you can hope to stay on top for a long time”.
You are taking part in the European Le Mans Series: what are your goals for this season?
“My goal is to win every race, but it’s obviously difficult to achieve: as I said before, the level is very high. When you enter the European Le Mans Series, you have to be realistic: you have to think race by race, trying to give your best on every occasion. Of course, you hope to win the championship, but the real goal is to finish in the top two positions to secure a place in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Imagine a pizza maker: their goal is to prepare the world’s best pizza; mine is to arrive among the top two to allow AF Corse to participate in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In addition, this year marks my tenth consecutive participation in both the 24 Hours of Spa and the 24 Hours of Le Mans”.
At the start of the season, victory at the 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps was a declared goal. Now that you’ve reached it, how do you feel?
“The 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps is the most difficult and challenging race, partly because the high number of cars at the start means you are constantly duelling with someone on every section of the track. For me, this victory is simply perfect, and I think this is the first time in my life that I have used this term to describe a win. I have competed in ten editions of this race, winning in 2013 and on the podium on two other occasions. We didn’t have any mechanical problems despite needing to be aggressive on this track to be fast, which means we don’t exactly treat the car with respect on the kerbs and along the track. Despite this, everything worked to perfection. I am very proud to be part of the Ferrari and AF Corse family”.
What’s the best racing Ferrari you’ve ever driven?
“Personally, my favourite is the F430 GT2 because it was simpler than today’s models. Of course, it’s not just Ferrari because times have changed for everyone and there is constant technological progress. Racing cars have improved in many ways. However, the cars have lost some of their soul with the advent of turbocharging. I’m referring specifically to the sound. The Ferrari 458 and F430 had a fantastic, unique sound, and with the turbo, the music is different. On top of this, there is an emotional component: the F430 GT2 was my first racing Ferrari, and in that sense, it’s a bit like the first love that you’ll never forget. Also, the F430 GT2 had a sequential gearbox and no paddle shift, so you had to drive using the heel-and-toe technique. There was “more driver” and “less technology”, and human skill mattered more. Today’s cars are much more complicated, and engineers have to set dozens of parameters for your car to be competitive. In a way, it’s the team that allows you to go fast on the track. Before, driving counted more. It was more straightforward, maybe crude if you like, but also purer”.
What was the best race of your career?
“Hard to pick one. I would say the race we won in 2007 at the Paul Ricard. There were two hours to go, and I was one lap behind the leading driver. In those two hours, I gave everything I had until I won. I remember that at the end of the race, I was shattered. I had no energy left. But these are exceptional achievements. My first experience at the 24 Hours of Spa was memorable, a tough battle with strong drivers like Richard Westbrook and Mika Salo. I was exhausted then too, but I found the grit and strength to go beyond every limit despite being very tired. And this is the approach that allowed me to win so many races. Indeed, my wife is worried because we don’t have room for trophies anymore... Another memory was from the 2013 championship when I won the European Le Mans Series. It was a perfect year, perfect car and perfect strategy in every race. That season I did one of the things I am most proud of, not in a race but during a qualifying session. I was pushing hard, trying to use the brakes as little as possible, until I lost control of the car and ended up off the road, in the gravel. The car was in bad shape, and they towed me to the starting grid. The session had two minutes to go, and I decided to try again: which is insane considering the state my car was in. Despite everything, I got back on track and took pole position. It’s not a victory, of course, but it feels like one. On the other hand, the most rewarding races aren’t necessarily the ones where you bag the win”.
You’ve partnered with Duncan Cameron for years now. What makes your partnership so unique? What are your strengths?
“I was fortunate to meet Duncan. First of all, he is a fantastic person, in love with motorsport just like I am. He is a winner in all areas of his life, also in his business career. Unlike him, I am a professional driver, but when we are on track there is no difference: the mindset is the same; the goals are the same. Duncan and I have been racing together for ten years, and in that time, I’ve had two major offers, but I turned them down because I didn’t want to leave Ferrari and Duncan. They were very tempting offers that on paper could have benefited my career, but for me, it’s not just a job, it’s also a passion, and like all passions, it’s lovely to share them with the right people. Duncan and I have developed a deep friendship over time. Our goal is to win, but when we are together, it creates a special atmosphere: he’s like a brother, and to have found a teammate such as him was a real stroke of luck. The friendship will last forever, and I hope that the partnership will continue for many years to come”.