Written by Juan Arroyo, Edited by Sameena Khan
Motorsport in Germany has been on a steady decline for years. Gone are the days when Michael Schumacher dominated race after race, winning the hearts of his home country’s fans throughout his winning years. Even Sebastian Vettel, a four-time world champion in the 2010s, didn’t get the love Schumacher once had away from the track.
A country that once had seven drivers on the Formula 1 grid now has a single representative. The passion for racing in Germany has faded, and its youngest prospects are feeling the effects. The recent collapse of ADAC Formula 4 represents a clear example of German motorsport's current problems.
But amidst all the troubles, one Formula 4 driver shows potential: Valentin Kluss. Born in the small town of Bad Mergentheim, Kluss quickly made a name for himself within the local karting scene and climbed up the ranks to compete in nationals aged nine. But as the interest in motorsport has faded, so has the investment into the country’s prospects.
“In karting, [I] was good enough to be able to get the attention from the teams. It was not that hard for me in terms of performance, but more in terms of budget because we didn't really have a lot of money.”
A successful stint in karting — which brought four championships to Kluss’ name — was followed by a Formula 4 test in Aragon with Teo Martín Motorsports in 2021. Kluss progressed into single-seaters full-time the following year, competing in the German and Italian F4 championships with PHM Racing and Jenzer Motorsport, respectively.
Kluss is currently seventh in Formula 4 UAE, again competing with PHM Racing. The 15-year-old’s consistency has proven crucial in his bid to compete with the front-runners. Kluss has come close to standing on the podium, but it has slipped away each time. Despite not claiming a top-three finish so far, points finish in seven out of 10 races means Kluss is leading PHM’s scoring by a wide margin.
Kluss’ journey in motorsport started closer to home at his local track. His father, Kai, bought him a kart and took him to regional competitions. Kluss started to shine and went up to the ACV Kart Nationals, taking two championships that year. The German took three more — including the ADAC Kart Masters in 2021 — on his way to graduating from karts to single-seaters.
He progressed into cars full-time the following year, competing in the German and Italian F4 championships in 2022. “There are a lot of big differences,” he says. “In karts, you don't have seatbelts; you're free. In the Formula 4 car, you are very tight in the car, and the feeling is completely different. The car is a lot bigger, you have a lot bigger tires, and you can feel that the car is a lot heavier.”
Kluss joined the not-for-profit PHM Racing outfit in Germany while being loaned out to Jenzer Motorsport for the Italian championship. The 15-year-old found relative success in Germany, a podium at the Lausitzring a highlight of his season. Italy, on the other hand, was not so kind to the young driver, who managed single points finish in 17 races with Jenzer.
He says working with different sets of mechanics and engineers last year allowed him to grow as a driver: “If you only have one engineer all season, you only hear the opinions from one guy. And if you hear different views and different opinions, you learn how motorsport all works because everyone's view is a bit different.”
In terms of adjusting to the new machinery: “The car is a lot bigger, you have a lot bigger tires, and you can feel that the car is a lot heavier. It's a lot more difficult to keep it under control. I could say [in] a car, anyone can drive fast. But the Formula car is more of a challenge to be actually good and then be able to control it under every circumstance.
“You have a lot more downforce in cars. You are more like sliding around. And in the Formula car you have a lot more downforce. You can take a lot more speed into the corners. And, of course, you drive on some F1 tracks, which is quite an amazing experience.”
Kluss’ father has been instrumental in his career. Along with introducing the young German to motorsport, Kai also served as his mechanic and engineer during his years in karting. In Kluss’ own words: “He doesn't know how to drive a car, but in terms of sportsmanship and mindset, he teaches me a lot of stuff in that overall.”
The 15-year-old also mentions Piero Rodarte, who facilitated his first Formula 4 test, as a key figure in his journey. “He's the guy who texted me and allowed me to do my first test in Formula 4, and that's actually where it all started. He was my engineer last year, and he teaches me a lot of things this year, unfortunately not anymore.”
Rodarte, who previously served as Team Manager for Teo Martín Motorsport, currently works as a race engineer at Campos Racing. Kluss says the two are no longer working together but have remained in touch and often see each other on race days.
Relationships in the garage are an important, if not crucial, part of the 15-year-old’s day-to-day with the team: “I try to be a bit personal with everyone. I always say hello to everyone and try to try to have a good relationship with everyone in the team so that way you can also get help from them if necessary.
“The engineer is always the one you're closest with because after every session, every race, you're talking to them, analysing everything. So you try to keep everything positive. Also, if it's not going well, you try to be the best person you can be if they help you, so you help them too.”
Curious as to how his relationships within the team correlated with his results, I asked about the impact of the former on his performances: “I would not say if the relationship was bad, I was slower, but of course, it would make me seem like not like a nice guy. And I want to be a nice guy in the team, not on the track, but in the team. I want to be a nice guy. Everyone has to like me, and if not, they will not put the effort [into] making changes, trying to get me faster.”
I was slightly reminded at this point, not coincidentally, of Michael Schumacher’s approach to team-building. Michael was known for his close relationships with his engineers. While a comparison between the two is difficult to draw, building this habit from early will only benefit Kluss.
But in terms of influences, the 15-year-old says he looks up to Lewis Hamilton instead. “Lewis is the best idol you can have. He's super successful. He's, in my opinion, the best driver of existence, not only in how he's driving but also in how he's talking, his sportsmanship. He's always mostly been a fair guy. I can't remember anything unfair he does. He is always someone I look up to.”
One of Kluss’ standout performances came in ADAC Formula 4 last year. After a difficult weekend, the 15-year-old managed to grab a podium in the final race of the Lausitzring round. He was angered after failing to finish race one and, looking to make a comeback, worked his way up to fourth place in race two. The starting order was reversed in race three, and Kluss lined up fifth on the grid.
“I started P5, and then I had nothing to lose. I just wanted to go to the front. And I had a really good start with P3. I was on a good way to P1 [when] I made a big mistake, which cost a lot of time, lost a lot of places, locked up in turn one while trying to overtake someone. And then from there on, I was just really furious.”
Looking to make a move on the second place, Kluss was left right back where he started after a lock-up meant he overshot turn 1. “My goal was to get the podium. I also got told by the radio, yeah, you can do it. I was told that I was the fastest guy on the track, which I also was not in the end of the race, but at that time I was. So that was really pushing me, and I was really on the limit.”
Kluss had recovered to fourth by the final lap and, in a last-ditch effort to climb on the podium, overtook Rasmus Joutsimies in a usual spot for the final slot in the top three. “I took the last opportunity to make the move on the P3 guy, and it was a crazy overtake, actually, somewhere where he never overtaked, but I just took the opportunity, and then he actually came back with the slipstream. But I still managed to do it.”
Digging deeper into his emotions inside the car: “You have that feeling, and you don't care anymore. You don't care anymore if you die in the race.”
Fury is inevitable sometimes — but it doesn’t necessarily bring a loss of focus with it for Kluss. “If you're not focused, you make a lot of mistakes, and you probably spin or crash, so you are automatically focused.”
In motorsports, split-second decisions can mean the difference between first and last place. Mental preparation and focus help drivers make the right decisions and react quickly to changing conditions on the track. It's all about staying sharp, alert, and focused, no matter what challenges may arise.
“My engineer also pushes me during the race,” he says, recalling the Lausitzring podium. “He told me that I can do it, and then he always tells me the gaps to the car in front, and that kind of stuff pushes me. I was focusing before the races [as well]. We do mental preparation and reaction training. So you're actually 100% focused before you even get in the car.”
Mental preparation generally gets the best performance out of drivers. Kluss doesn’t have a pre-race ritual, but exercises such as visualisation aid him in getting into the right state of mind. The 15-year-old also describes himself as one of the calmer drivers around him, noting that reactions to on-track mistakes vary between drivers and his priority at that moment is to “get his focus back, forget it and just try to make the best of it.”
Like all drivers in junior categories, his goal is to drive in Formula 1. Kluss is comfortable with the reality young drivers face when aiming for the heights of F1 — obstacles such as seats available, funding and more very much present in junior categories today. The 15-year-old is set on going for it regardless, but it won’t be the be-all and end-all of his career.
“Of course, I want to be in F1, but it's a very big dream — and only if you can achieve it. After I achieve my main goal, even if not, I just try to live a good life. My biggest goal is just to be able to earn money from doing my sport. And if it's F1, it's the best way.”
PHM Racing’s not-for-profit model has helped Kluss kick-start his career, and the 15-year-old has managed to put himself in a position close to the front-runners in F4 UAE. This year will prove decisive for his future as he continues to race in the sport’s junior categories. More talent higher up in the sport will only positively affect Germany’s motorsport scene.
To conclude, I asked Valentin what he’d like people to know about him on a personal level. His response summed up our conversation best: “Calm, positive, and always making the best of the situation you have.”