Once considered a wayward talent, this young Yorkshireman is now Formula Renault 3.5 champion. Simon Arron met him
His grandfather rallied, his uncle and father dabbled with karts. It was somehow inevitable that Oliver Rowland would be cast into the world of internal combustion from an early age, but few drivers start quite so young.
“My dad bought me a quad bike when I was two,” Rowland says, “and by the time I was four I could ride on two wheels and do pretty much anything with it, so it was time to upgrade. Mum vetoed a motorbike, but agreed to a kart and I was given one just before my fifth birthday.
“We went down to Zip and [company boss] Martin Hines came out of his office. He would later play a huge supporting role in my career, but at that stage he said I was too small, that we should come back in a couple of years. So we went to Deavinson at Rye House and bought one there instead. They fitted it with special pedals. I was too young to compete, but practised regularly for the next couple of years.”
In 2002 he began racing, finishing second in the UK Cadet series before going on to win it for two straight seasons.
“When I was four I wanted to be Joey Dunlop,” he says, “but once I started karting I realised that probably wasn’t going to happen. By the time I was eight I already knew I wanted to race – and win – in F1. My next-door neighbour was a bit older and used to take the mickey, telling me that karting was easy. So I said I’d buy him a Porsche when I got to F1 – I still see him occasionally and he hasn’t forgotten! If I make it, I guess that’s one of the first things I’ll have to do…”
Rowland’s form brought him to the attention of Hines, then McLaren stepped in to offer support – for a while. “I don’t think McLaren was unhappy with my results,” he says, “but I was a bit disorganised and not as fit as I should have been. They tried to get through to me for a year or two and it wasn’t happening.”
The Racing Steps Foundation then backed his transition to cars, but required more than just results. “In 2012 I finished third in my first Formula Renault Eurocup season,” he says. “That wasn’t too bad, but my off-track activities were perceived as inappropriate and RSF said it was dropping me unless I could sort myself out. That was a turning point. Derek Warwick gave me lots of help. I came back fitter, told RSF I was ready and was taken on again. I haven’t looked back since.”
During that time Rowland was supposed to call Warwick every day, so RSF knew where he was. A bit like having an electronic tag? “Worse,” he says. “One day I failed to call and the next morning Derek didn’t want to speak to me. All I could hear were swear words. In truth I probably reacted best to such treatment, because my dad had been like that with me when I was younger. He died late in 2010, sadly, so there was no longer anybody barking at me. After that I’d felt I could do more or less what I wanted – and did.”
The message having percolated, RSF supported him for another season in the Eurocup – in which he finished second – and sponsored his graduation to Formula Renault 3.5. He was fourth in his first year and took eight wins on his way to winning the title in his second. He also did some GP2 races in 2015 and conducted simulator work for F1 world champion Mercedes.
“I’d like to do a full year of GP2 in 2016,” he says, “but my mind is open. As you get higher up the ladder you start to appreciate how difficult it is to reach F1, but there’s nothing I can do about that. My aim is to get to F1, but in the long term I simply want to be a racing driver.”
Career in brief
Born: 10/8/92, Barnsley, England
2002-2009 karting, many race wins & three championship titles
2010 FIA Super KF World Cup winner; Formula Renault UK 2.0 Winter Series
2011 FR UK 2.0, 2nd; UK Winter Series champion
2012 FR 2.0 Eurocup, 3rd
2013 FR 2.0 Eurocup, 2nd
2014 Formula Renault 3.5, 4th
2015 FR 3.5, champion with 8 wins (new record); limited GP2 programme