At first, it was strange to see the name “Roberto Merhi” on the entry list for Formula Renault 3.5 pre-season test.
Had the Spaniard not parted ways with the HWA Mercedes DTM team after last season, Merhi’s presence could easily have been explained by his new Zeta Corse team wanting an experienced head during the test.
It would not be an unknown. Indeed FR3.5 veteran Marco Sørensen had spent time testing with the Signature-Renault F3 project only the week prior; however that theory is smashed by his lack of FR3.5 seat-time.
Thinking for a moment, Merhi’s considers his return to single-seaters. ‘It’s different, but not very different. The main difference is that it’s a big car – my maximum before had been Formula 3 and GP3.’
A comeback of sorts for Merhi? Maybe. A kid? At 23- years-of-age, he certainly is not, but the Castellón de la Plana native is in a position to use his racing knowledge to help shape the direction of the team.
Yet, pre-season preparation was still not what Merhi would call ideal, especially when one considers the number of circuits on the calendar with reasonably mid-to-high downforce corners. ‘At Motorland [during the pre-season test], it was difficult to find the limit, because there are not many fast corners, so we don’t really know the limit of the downforce in the fast corners.’
In reality, Merhi emerged from his DTM experience a wiser, if slightly damaged figure and for the Spaniard – who later signed with the Zeta Corse squad – the FR3.5 Series may just be what he needs to rebuild his reputation.
Let’s not forget that Merhi was, in 2011, the Formula 3 Euro Series champion. Such titles are not won with ease, but even still, it is a step up, as Merhi freely admits. ‘The big cars are a bit different, because in the race you need to be more [consistent] and save more of the rear tyres.’
But when Zeta Corse is referred to as a “new team”, one must look beyond the fact that they only entered FR3.5 at the beginning of the 2013 season. After securing some solid results in their début year, there has been something of an overhaul in the engineering department and very few of the original contingent remain, as the 23-year-old explains: ‘We […] have new people in the team; they have changed everybody in the team – there’s just one engineer who stayed, so we are learning, which is normal. At the moment, because of me and the team, we are a bit behind. At the moment, we are trying to find the limit of the car.’
Upon the opener, Merhi scored a podium – 2nd only to title contender Will Stevens – before taking a 9th place finish on Sunday. Not bad for a so-called first timer, but one can’t help but think there is more to come from Zeta Corse’s new star. Indeed the Spaniard is well aware of the need to improve in various areas. ‘There were a few mistakes and I need to work on that and there is so much more grip in the corners than the DTM, so you use a lot of downforce. In the end, the balance of the car was good, not perfect, but the best we have had, so I could push a bit harder.’
If anything, when he gets into his groove, this more determined Roberto Merhi may be an incredibly potent force. Whether the all-new Zeta Corse team can maintain the pace over the course of the season is unanswered.