“You dream your whole life about becoming a professional racing driver, so when that dream comes true, you’re left thinking what now? That’s the kind of feeling I had last year. There was a lot of self-development as a result of that and now I’ve got different goals that I can work towards both on and off the track which keep me motivated. It’s important to have a balanced lifestyle and to realise that racing isn’t everything. You have to lead a healthy life away from the racetrack to help you rebound better from the bad moments.”
You would hardly expect that such a perceptive clarity might escape the mouth of a racing driver aged only 19, but then Audi factory driver Kelvin van der Linde isn’t like most 19 year olds.
Born into a motorsport family – his father Shaun van der Linde was a BMW factory driver who contested the 1994 FIA Touring Car World Cup at Donington, while uncle Etienne beat Jenson Button in the 1999 Zandvoort F3 Masters – van der Linde was always likely to follow suit and following a fruitful karting career, made his car racing debut in a VW Polo aged just 14, going on to win the South African national championship in 2012.
But in order to further his career, van der Linde would have to start from scratch in Europe, knowing all the while that the family coffers would only be enough to see him through one year in the DTM-supporting VW Scirocco Cup. The pressure to perform was well and truly on.
“It definitely hasn’t been easy!” he laughs. “To keep your head above water in the world these days you have to mature quite young. It’s actually quite strange, looking back it still feels like yesterday when it all happened, the last few years have absolutely flown by. In the moment I wasn’t really conscious about it all, it’s only looking back on it now that I realise how everything played out so perfectly.
“I’ve always had a very strong mindset. When I came from South Africa that first year for Scirocco Cup I was adamant that I had to win it to keep my career alive, and it happened, which ticked off the first box! I got some prize money from that and then I got some support from Audi Sport to do GT Masters, although at that stage it wasn’t an official thing.”
Van der Linde was posted at C.Abt Racing alongside Rene Rast (“the best GT3 driver in the world at the moment” according to van der Linde) and despite having only two days of testing before the first weekend at Oschersleben, was immediately on the pace. The 17 year old pipped Christian Engelhart’s Porsche by 0.002 seconds to earn the first pole position of the year and went from strength to strength thereafter, scoring three wins – including a clean sweep of the Sachsenring – on his way to the title.
It didn’t go unnoticed over at Audi HQ either, and van der Linde was duly entered in the season-ending Baku World Challenge alongside Christopher Mies, only for a brake failure to rob them of a top-ten finish in the closing minutes.
“[Oschersleben] really opened Audis eyes and they took a special look at how I was getting on for the rest of the season,” he says. “Rene and I had a dynamite combination, it was a fantastic learning experience to have him as a team-mate in my first year of GT3. I’ve never had a team-mate that I’ve had so much respect and trust for and even now I still believe that he’s the benchmark for all of us.
“By the end of the year we’d won the championship and it was clear that I would be a factory driver for the following season. It was all a blur really because it happened so quickly – before I knew it, I was back here in Germany for 2015 with my own apartment and set up on my own. But I definitely didn’t have it all my own way – if I hadn’t won the Scirocco Cup then my career probably would be over.
“My parents made a lot of sacrifices to get me started in Europe, so to get the factory seat at the end was the icing on the cake.”
Having served his apprenticeship alongside Rast, Van der Linde would face the very different challenge of leading 20 year-old team-mate Stefan Wackerbauer in 2015. Hopes of defending his crown were swiftly dispensed with after a rough start to the year, but an upturn in form in the second half of the season produced another victory at the Sachsenring and two further podiums at the Nürburgring and Hockenheim, proving there is more to Van der Linde than one-lap pace.
“Those results gave me a lot of satisfaction to say yeah, I could achieve the same kind of results without Rene,” he admits. “I did get criticism in the beginning because it’s not often that people get promoted so quickly and have such a big responsibility on their shoulders, so last year was really a character-building year for me.
“Coming off the high of 2014, I wanted to show Audi that they’d made the right decision and get a good result in the championship – I was perhaps not as patient as I should have been at times, but I do definitely see years like that as ones that make you work harder and learn about yourself.
“I actually started doing triathlon races at the end of last season to help keep my mind away from the racing, which I think I need every now and then because you can start to go a bit crazy if you’re constantly thinking of negative weekends!”
With a little more polish, Audi could have a real gem on their hands in a few years, but so far Van der Linde is taking it all in his stride. His grounded approach is refreshing in a sport often driven by ego, and at such a tender age, he can only get better.
“You’ve just got to treat it as a job,” he says frankly. “I’m very lucky to be in a position that I get paid to do my passion, and it’s important to be reminded of that fact.”