School's out forever
Being 16 used to mean having to cram for your exams. Nowadays, there is a potential sideline for scholars. We talk to Justin Wilson and Richard Tarling, the youngest two drivers ever to win car races in the UK.
Imight be getting older, but it's not just my own age that makes me feel like a teacher at a school disco whenever I walk through the Formula Vauxhall Junior paddock.
That's because the drivers are getting younger. Since the RACMSA decided that, yes, 16-year-olds would be allowed full race licences from the beginning of 1994, Britain's first rung on the car racing ladder has been filled with baby-faced hopefuls combining their motorsports careers with last minute GCSE cramming.
It's vindication for Vauxhall Sport's Mike Nicholson, the man who lobbied the UK's motorsporting government for a reduction in the minimum age limit.
But Britain is hardly a trailblazer in this field. In fact, our country is distinctly sluggish. The first child prodigies to burst onto the scene were the Mexican Rodriguez brothers – Pedro and Ricardo – back in the 1950s. More recently we have seen Tarso Marques win half of the races in the 1992 Brazilian Formula Chevrolet Championship (at the age of 16), Jérémie Dufour take French F3 Class B victories (aged 16), and Iván Arias the 1993 British Formula Renault title winner competing in Spanish saloon car racing in 1988 as a 15 year-old.
In New Zealand, a driver can earn a full car racing competition licence on his 12th birthday!
Karting youngsters were slow to take the British initiative last season. There were only four 16-year-olds in Formula Vauxhall Junior (with a small handful in other categories), none of whom made much of an impression until Darren Malkin won on the Silverstone GP circuit. But by then he was 17…
Then came the Winter Series at Pembrey. Aged just 16 years and two months, Rotherham's Justin Wilson won the first heat for Team JLR by showing masterful, fingertip car control in foul conditions. This year he was tipped as a favourite for the FVJ title, and was to be partnered in the Batley (South Yorkshire)-based team by the even younger Richard Tarling.
The veteran of just one karting season, Tarling took third place in the first race at Donington, before winning the opening round of the British Formula Ford 1600 Championship (contested mainly by amateurs) at Snetterton in a Marque Cars Racing Van Diemen. The Henley-on-Thames lad failed by just one month to beat Wilson's 'youngest ever winner' record.
Wilson has won races again during the 1995 Vauxhall Junior season and held an outside chance of taking the championship all through the year, despite missing the opening round while recovering from leg injuries sustained when a racing school car's brakes failed on him. Nevertheless, he still won the Junior Challenge Cup division (for the 16 year-olds) from team-mate Tarling.
But why give up a successful karting career to move into cars at such an early age? Surely it's more expensive...
Not according to Wilson's father Keith, who reckons that a season combining the British Super One series with an attack on the European and World titles would cost a whopping £65,000. Similar, in fact, to a Formula Vauxhall Junior campaign in which most of the races are watched by 30,000 people. A bit better than Three Sisters, three men and a dog!
"It's the next step really," Wilson Jnr reckons. "You can do karting for another couple of years, but you're not going to learn much. You get more experience and competitive racing, but you're not learning about cars."
Robert Lee – JLR manager and son of team founder Jim Lee – concurs: "I feel as if karting's a bit like the education system. You get to 16 and by then the biggest part of the learning is over the rest is to try and win the European championships and World championships. It's just a piece of silverware, the same as A-levels are just certificates."
Going into 1995, JLR had won the FVJ title twice running, with Ralph Firman Jnr in '93 and Peter Dumbreck in '94. Wilson and Tarling, though, provided the team's first experience of 16-year-olds. Do they pose any extra demands?
"It's not more difficult – it's just slightly different," Lee reflects. "One of the biggest problems they have is that, because they're 16, they can't hold a road licence They have to be fetched and carried, invariably by their parents, so we get the parents seeing what's happening and that's an added degree of pressure on a lad – they're concerned about doing well in front of their parents.
"It's an added pressure you don't get with 19-year-olds because they hold their own licences and come and go as they please.
"But because they are only 16 and they've only done karting I find they're more responsive. The advice that you give them goes in easier with the fewer preconceived ideas they have."
Lee finds it fascinating on test days to see how the two youngsters learn from each other and use the knowledge gained to progress together. They are helped in this by enormously different driving styles: Wilson's immense natural ability means that he is virtually without peer in fast corners, where his feel developed over a substantial karting career pays off handsomely; Taring, with considerably less experience, has the edge on slower, technical stuff.
With JLR's PI (intelligent instrumentation) system on board and versatile racer Richard Dean on hand to translate the graphs and figures, both drivers can see where each other is gaining and adjust their styles to suit.
"Where we've scored with Richard is that he spent two years in Japan and he was bored out of his tree most of the time," Lee says. "There's three weeks between races and they don't do a lot of testing because it's so expensive – you're looking at £3000 to hire a circuit for an hour.
"He had a lot of free time which he spent largely with the PI, downloading it and deciphering what it was telling him. Now he's helping us enormously with the team and, because we've got two drivers with such different styles and techniques, they can learn quite a lot from each other."
"They even have PI or data logging in karting now," Dean adds. "It's not just drivers that have to keep up with the latest technology – the teams have to as well. We've got collective data – data from Ralph Firman's year and Dumbreck's year – so you can always compare drivers from different Years.
"For young drivers who are not even driving road cars it's even more important. They're not used to using gears and they don't look at the rev counter at exactly the right point, so we can do a fair bit with this that they haven't gained yet with their own experience.
"Justin and Richard are dragging each other along. They're really eager and it keeps me on my toes because they both want to know. If one's quicker than the other, then the slower one wants to know why."
"We're even going to get a modem so we can send information down the wire and have engineers decipher it for us back at base," Lee predicts. "We're constantly trying to move the thing forward you can't sit on your laurels. Irrespective of what happens to these lads, you cannot measure the grounding it has given them for the rest of their careers. They'll call 'Upon the experience they've had this year for the rest of their time in motor racing."
But it's not just a question of racing for these young men. There's school too, at least for most of them...
"I'm quite lucky," Wilson gloats. "I did my GCSEs early, when I was 15, so this year is just racing. That's all I do really. I didn't continue to do A-levels, so I don't have to worry about homework or getting up for school."
So he's OK, but poor Tarling has the prospect of further schooling hanging over him like the sword of Damocles: "Hopefully not!" he winces. "This year I've had to do the GCSEs while I'm racing. In some cases I've had to do mock exams in the morning and then go to the racetrack to test in the afternoon.
"It's quite straining, not necessarily from the mental point of view but more from the fact that you're staying up the night before to revise for the next day. Then you don't get a proper sleep because you're worried about the exams.
"You have to juggle school commitments between racing, test days and promotional things. It can get quite difficult."
Is there a sense that 16 is the best time for a driver to try and forge a career in the sport? After all, you can always go back and resume education if it doesn't work out.
"I want it to work out as much as possible!" Tarling asserts. "I'm not sure where the A-level route would lead me, because this is all I like! It's good fun as well – we all enjoy it."
There's enjoyment in breaking records too – Wilson already holds the title of youngest ever race winner and most junior victor in a British championship race (which he attained at Knockhill in July). Tarling, meanwhile, is planning to attack the FF1600 Winter Series and become Britain's first 16-year-old champion.
But records aren't everything: "It's nice to get them, but all I want to do is do well and continue racing," Wilson stresses. "I don't want to move too far ahead and mess everything up. I'm still learning."
Learning to race, and learning to drive...
How do these lads feel when they're sitting in the passenger seat and witness the average British road abuser?
"I just think, 'I've been able to drive since I was 14,’” Richard reflects. "I did an Earlydrive course at Silverstone and they said I could pass my test then. So it's a bit frustrating."
"It's a lot different driving on the road – you've got people coming the other way for a start," perceives Justin who, by the time you read this, should have taken his test.
It's a subject which causes much amusement at Team JLR: "They'll do you for hanging onto the gears too long keep it off the limiter!" one suggests. "Don't carry too much speed into the corners," another adds.
"How are you going to feel if you fail?" Dean asks Wilson.
"I won't tell you!" he replies…