Tom Coronel has been a touring car mainstay since the early 2000s, and remains among the biggest fan favourites on the World Touring Car stage to this day. But prior to that, ‘Mr WTCC’ is a former Formula Ford and Touring Car champion in his native Holland, secured the Japanese Formula 3 and Formula Nippon titles during his time in Asia, and was even in contention for a Formula 1 seat towards the end of ’99. That he’s also a familiar face in both the 24H SERIES and on the Dakar Rally shouldn’t really come as that much of a surprise…
It’s unlikely you’ll find a touring car driver that loves his job more than Tom Coronel. The Dutchman is one of the most experienced World Touring Car Championships competitors in history as well as a two-time WTCC Independents Trophy winner. He’s competed in the revamped World Touring Car Cup since 2018, and has starts to his name in British, Dutch and European tin tops, as well as the short-lived TCR International. He even dabbled with FIA GT racing when his single seater aspirations dwindled at the end of 1999. Simply put, at 48 years old, Tom Coronel is as experienced with touring cars as any driver you’re likely to meet.
Why? Simple. He loves racing as the passion instilled into his YouTube videos ably demonstrates. It also helps that he grew up in a family that loved racing too, hence his middle name…
“My name is Tom ‘Romeo’ Coronel and my brother is Tim ‘Alfa’ Coronel. There are rumours that we were made on the back seat of an Alfa Romeo!
“My brothers were racecar drivers. My father [Nederlands Toerwagen Kampioenschap contender, Tom Coronel Snr.] was a race car driver. My grandfather [Bertus van Hamersveld] was a bike racer. Even my wife was a race car driver. As we speak, my boy is karting at the moment in Austria. At the dinner table, we’re not talking about tennis or soccer. It’s motorsport.
“We live in a motorsport world, so we travel a lot. I do the WTCR and European champiosiop long distance races, so nearly every day, I’m in a race car. But this is what I want. If you have passion for the sport, if you’re a real race car driver, you’ll race anything. Anything.”
Like twin brother Tim, Tom’s first dalliance with motorsport came in The Netherlands-based Citroën AX GTI Cup in 1990. Unlike Tim though, Tom’s debut was thanks largely to a scholarship deal with Citroën Netherlands, earned through an impressive performance at Resportschool Zandvoort. Even despite Tom’s relative inexperience, the racing school quickly noted the young Dutchman’s potential, so much so that they invited him back, with backing, for a full AX GTI Cup campaign in 1991. He paid them back in kind by winning both the Dutch and European titles that year.
In 1992, Tom made his debut in the Dutch Production Car Championship, winning the title in a BMW 320i-entered by his older brother Raymond (the latter was also Tom’s nearest championship rival). One year later, and having twinned Dutch touring cars with Formula Ford in ’92, Tom added the Dutch Formula Ford 1800 crown with Fresh Racing to his already expansive silverware collection. Moreover, he finished second in the Benelux Formula Ford series to Geoffroy Horion (the young Belgian, ironically, Tom had beaten to the Dutch crown that year), took five podium finishes in a truncated German Formula Ford series, and made his maiden start at the vaunted Formula Ford Festival at Brand’s Hatch.
1994 saw a step up to Opel Lotus Euroseries with Van Amersfoort Racing, and though the championship fell just out of reach – Tom finished a close second to erstwhile champion Marco Campos – Tom dominated the Euroseries’ blue ribbon ‘Nation’s Cup’ at Zandvoort with pole position, both race wins and the overall fastest lap. It was a performance that guaranteed funding for his next big step up the ladder for 1995: German Formula 3.
The juggernaut that was Tom’s racing career hitherto unfortunately took a hit in ‘95. Racing for Opel Team WTS under Franz Tost (yes, that Franz Tost), Tom took a podium finish and finished 7th in the standings but fell short of the three wins and vice-championship of his admittedly more experienced teammate, Ralf Schumacher (yes, that Ralf Schumacher!). Incensed at losing his German F3 seat to compatriot Marcel Tiemann for the following year, Tom gambled on relocating to Japan for 1996. Again, the results came quickly, Tom taking one win and 3rd in the standings with the Toyota-backed TOM’s team in ’96 before steamrolling his way to the title in 1997. Victory at the season-ending Masters of Formula 3 at Zandvoort was a cherry atop the cake, Tom beating a young up-and-comer from Australia called Mark Webber to do so.
Formula Nippon beckoned for 1998, Tom becoming the first non-Japanese driver to be signed by Piaa Nakajima Racing in the process. While his maiden campaign under the tutelage of former Formula 1 driver Satoru Nakajima didn’t go quite to plan, the Dutchman enjoyed considerably more success in the Japanese GT Championship, securing two wins and second in the standings aboard one of the most respected sports cars of all time: the Honda NSX.
“That was a beautiful car,” Tom continues. “It’s a unique car, really special. I raced that in Japan in the GT 500 championship, which was like Group C in those days, and that meant grippy tyres, heavy competition, long distance races. It was draining! When you got out of the car, you could put yourself in the garbage just because it sucked all the energy out of you! But that’s what I liked.”
Two more wins with the NSX followed in 1999, as did the Formula Nippon championship. Once the car had been tamed, of course…
“The [Nippon] cars were amazing. They were even faster through the corners than Formula 1 in ‘98 and ‘99, and we had more downforce. My qualifying time at Suzuka in the Formula Nippon would have put me P6 on the F1 grid!”
His Japanese performances put Tom on the radar of Arrows Grand Prix team owner Tom Walkinshaw, and in late 1999, Tom was invited to try Arrows’ 1999 contender, the A20, at an official test at the Circuit de Barcelona. Having pulled in sponsorship with the ‘Racing Dutchman B.V.’ crowd funding initiative, an F1 debut for 2000 looked assured. Sadly, on the eve of the 2000 Formula 1 season, Tom was informed that compatriot Jos Verstappen had landed the second Arrows seat alongside incumbent Pedro de la Rosa.
“I did two days in Barcelona and it went very well until the throttle pedal bent, so we couldn’t drive anymore. I think I was really close: the contract was there and we just had to find the full budget. We were halfway there and there was still one month to go. I was so close.
“At the time of course, that was my main goal, so it was disappointing. But I’m still happy and still racing. If I look around all my guys at that time – [Jarno] Trulli, [Giancarlo] Fisichella, Ralf Schumacher – they’re all sitting at home, and I’m still racing. Which is better?! No, I didn’t make it to F1, but there’s not much else I didn’t do.”
Tom may put a brave face on it today, but at the time, the F1 near-miss was a bitter blow for the young Dutchman. That, plus a controversial ending to his Formula Nippon ascension in 1999 (Tom and championship rival Satoshi Motoyama collided on the opening lap of the season finale, in Suzuka of all places) meant Tom’s infectious passion for motorsport, incredibly, began to wane. He took one win and a podium in two outings aboard the Carsport Holland Viper GTS-R in the 2000 FIA GT Championship, and even five wins in a truncated return to the DTCC with Carly Motors in 2001, plus two FIA GT wins with Lister Storm, didn’t appear to break the malaise.
Then came 2002, and Tom’s first full season in the European Touring Car Championship. Though he didn’t know it at the time, 2002, again with Carly Motors, was the first of what would become 19 consecutive seasons (and counting) in the ETCC, the WTCC and the WTCR.
“I quite often read on social media that I’m ‘Mr WTCC’, because I’ve been there for so long. No, I’ve never won a world championship. No, I’ve never been in a factory team. But I’ve always been there. I often make more noise than the winner too, so that means my sponsors are always happy!”
There’s an elephant in the room we need to address though. You see, Tom is officially credited with 247 starts in the WTCC, fewer only that 2012 WTCC champion Rob Huff and 2018 WTCR champion Gabriele Tarquini. These are not disappointing bedfellows!
Tom disagrees though, stating that his three years in the ETCC – affectively a precursor to the WTCC and in which neither Huff nor Tarquini completed more than two full seasons – puts him comfortably at the top as the most experienced driver in ETCC / WTCC / WTCR history. Something Tom gleefully states with an effervescent grin.
“Actually, I have the most race starts. You know how I know? Because the European championship grew into the WTCC, so if you count the ETCC, which I competed in for the first time at the end of 2001, I’m easily on top. And there’s nobody nobody, nobody who could beat that!”
Tom’s European / World touring car record speaks for itself: three Independent Trophy wins (including his ’04 European title), seven outright race wins thus far, and a tenured career with six different teams and six different brands. Hard to believe then that Tom has found time to compete anywhere else given his busy schedule, but, believe or not, Tom is also a tenured 24H SERIES competitor, having made his first start with CREVENTIC at the Hankook 24H BARCELONA back in 2011.
“Yes, my brother [Raymond], the Schothorst family [Bas and Pieter], and a very fast Renault Mégane Trophy. We finished on the podium [3rd overall, despite late-race driveshaft failure]. What I like with these kind of championships is that you get so much mileage, so every lap you do, you learn a little something. It might be 0.001%, but it’s always something. I’ve been in motorsport for 30 years already, and 2020 is my 30th season, But with every lap I do, I learn something, and that means I’m always improving.
“When I was driving in Barcelona the first time, I also liked the atmosphere, between the teams, between all the drivers, and also between the different cars. Everybody has their own strengths on-track – some are faster on the straights, others faster in the corners – and that means the competition is always high. There isn’t the same aggressiveness I’m used to in the WTCR but you still need to be on top of your game.”
Given his almost insanely busy schedule – alongside his WTCR career, Tom is also heavily involved with motoring content for RTL Autowereld – he has since competed in only four other races with CREVENTIC, though one of them led to victory at the inaugural TCR SPA 500 alongside Ivo and Rik Breukers, and WTCR cohort Pepe Oriola. Since our conversation with the affable Dutchman, he’s also added a 2nd in-class in Portimão with Comtoyou team Audi Sport and a win alongside brother Tim in Monza with MDM Motorsport this year. Unsurprisingly, things have come a long way in the 24H SERIES since 2011.
“Motorsport is constantly changing. There are more people involved, there’s a lot more experience, and a more professional approach. So there is a big difference, and that’s nice to see. I like it. I’ve always followed the series, the races – I did the 12H ZANDVOORT in 2015 with Ivo and Rik Breukers too – and I remember when talk about it started at the Nurburgring 24 Hours [in 2004]. Gerrie said, ‘we’re doing a race in Dubai, can you help us?’ And, eventually, that’s what I did!”
There are two endurance behemoths we have yet to discuss with Tom. The first is Le Mans, at which Tom competed for the first time with compatriots Jan Lammers and Peter Kox at Konrad Motorsport in 1999…
“11 times at Le Mans! Le Mans happens only once a year and it’s an historic event, like Wimbledon. It’s not the US Open, it’s not the Australian Open. It’s Wimbledon. The big one! But it’s also a completely different style of racing, and the historic feeling you get at Le Mans and with all the entertainemtn around it is incredible!”
The other is, of course, the Dakar Rally, and Tom almost bounces out of his seat when this topic is brought up. Take a look at his YouTube channel – be warned, you could easily get lost – and you’ll find videos of ‘big flip crashes’ (2018), ‘fires and tears’ (2016) and broken suspension in the ‘Beast 347’ (2019) among many, many others chronicling the Coronel family’s Dakar adventures. It’s a gruelling endeavour, both physically and mentally, and a challenge Tom has undertaken six times since 2009.
Why? Because he’s Tom Coronel. And he loves racing.
“2009 was tough, but the toughest one was 2014. That was the Dakar I did completely solo, and it got to the point that I was a full day behind everyone else. The organisers asked me to stop, and I said, ‘no, I have to finish’. If I’d listened to everyone around me, I would never have finished. But I made it. I showed everyone it was possible to reach the finish. Of course, after 15 days, I didn’t know what I was doing: I went from A-to-Z and I was completely exhausted. There was not even 0.0001% of battery left in my body. But this is ‘Rambo style’. You don’t give up. Never, Never!
“2017 was another special Dakar with my brother. We did the rally solo and that was the goal. Now we’ve started work on our next step. We’re working on a new car – ‘the Beast’ – which is a Robbie Gordon-style car, and we’re developing it every year from Beast 2.0 to Beast 3.0, etc.
“Another good thing about the Dakar is that, apart from [the Hankook 24H DUBAI], there is no other motorsport happening at that time. I get many requests to go and do Dubai, many opportunities, but the Dakar adventure is something completely different. I have to do it, and to do it together with Tim is also a very nice feeling. But if I don’t do Dakar, don’t worry I’ll be in Dubai!
“This is my style. This is how I live. This is just Tom Coronel.”