Some young drivers have an open cheque book, others an open mind. Simon Arron speaks to one of the latter
You wait decades for a promising young driver to come along, and then… More than 40 years since New Zealand’s golden age, when Chris Amon, Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme raced with distinction on the world stage, precious few Kiwis have made the grade.
Right now, though, the country has two promising youngsters within potential touching distance of F1: one is GP2 race winner Mitch Evans, who featured in this column some months ago, and the other Richie Stanaway, a front-runner this year in the GP3 Series (which has so far catapulted three of its four champions into F1, Evans ironically being the only exception). In logistical terms, Antipodean drivers already face greater obstacles than European counterparts. Does it make things more difficult, having two drivers chasing whatever backing they can find from the same small pot? “Not really,” Stanaway says, “because in F1 terms there is only very limited funding available at home.”
That hasn’t prevented Stanaway getting himself noticed. The son of a speedway rider, he began his competition career on two wheels before switching to karts at 14. “Everything,” he says, “has snowballed from that. I was fortunate to create enough of a wave in New Zealand [he won the national Formula Ford title in 2008-09] to raise some backing. My manager at the time had a few VW contacts and they recommended ADAC Formula Masters, which is relatively cheap. I did the second half of ’09, then won the title in 2010. That led to a bit of F3 with VW support – and in 2011 I won the German title, which opened the door to Formula Renault 3.5.”
A heavy accident at Spa terminated his 2012 season – he fractured several vertebrae – and when he returned to fitness he didn’t have the wherewithal to resume at that level. As part of Gravity Sport Management’s young driver stable, he was placed in the Porsche Supercup and recruited by Aston Martin Racing for selected sports car events.
“At the time,” he says, “I felt disappointed to have fallen from the junior formula ladder, but I loved GT racing in a way I hadn’t expected. The drivers I’ve met in the World Endurance Championship have really opened my eyes. When you first look at it, you assume they can’t be any good because they’re not in F1, but they’re at an amazing level – quick and very good at development, which you don’t see so much in junior single-seaters because everybody is still young. It’s amazing what you can learn. Doing WEC with Aston Martin was probably the most valuable thing I could have done in terms of my racing education. And there are also opportunities to get paid – which tends not to happen in the single-seater categories below F1!”
This year he is mixing occasional sports car outings with a full GP3 season, as part of Status GP’s line-up, and soon established himself as a title contender.
“I wasn’t super-confident to begin with,” he says, “because I’d been away from single-seaters for 18 months and had lots to do to get back to a high level. I felt it was only natural that I’d get better as the season went on.
“The closer you get to F1, though, the better you understand how this sport works – it’s almost like chasing a rainbow. Looking at the way people have graduated to F1 recently, it’s pretty obvious how it all happens – and being from New Zealand doesn’t give you any political or financial advantages.”
At the time of writing he had no fixed plans for 2015. “In the long term,” he says, “I’ll be happy if I can carve a career in motor sport. In terms of F1, things are a little beyond my control – although winning races in GP3 will improve my chances, however small those might be.”
Career in brief
Born: 24/11/1991, Tauranga, New Zealand
2007-08: NZ Formula First, 3rd
2008-09: NZ Formula Ford champion
2010: ADAC Formula Masters champion
2011: German F3 champion
2012: part-season in FR3.5
2013: Porsche Supercup; WEC with Aston Martin
2014: GP3 with Status GP; selected WEC events