In the current economic climate, it is becoming increasingly difficult for talented young racing drivers to emerge as anything more than just an entrant in a series.
Money has always had a say, but that voice is growing progressively louder, and it poses a concerning question – are we looking at the best of the best, or simply the best of those who could afford to be there?
From the grey areas, of course, come those who are universally recognised as racing drivers with genuine potential. They slowly appear on people’s radars, working their way through junior formulae, and the pretenders are sorted from the potential champions. Great for the latter, you may think. One foot in the door. Not quite.
Kieran Vernon has been around the motorsport block, so to speak, long enough to realise that people simply knowing you are a good driver is not enough. If you’re not part of a financially supportive driver programme, and cannot offer serious personal funding, you can never progress – money presents an opportunity, and talent makes the most of it.
If you’re fast, you will stick around. If not, you find yourself indulging in an expensive hobby. Unfortunately for the majority, the latter is a guillotine ready to come down on your time in the sport.
Vernon is an example of a driver whose talent has justified putting a shoestring budget on the line. A British Racing Driver’s Club Rising Star, the 22-year-old has ticked plenty of boxes: a champion in Ginettas (both junior and senior), Scholarship class runner-up in Formula Ford, and fourth overall with three wins in his first season in Formula Palmer Audi. In late 2010, it seemed to all come together, as he was awarded the prestigious, £50,000 Porsche Carrera Cup GB Scholarship.
Then, six months later, he was out of a drive. Try as he might, Vernon could not raise enough extra funding to compete, and his chance, a rarity in modern times, was gone.
“Trying to find sponsorship is a full time job,” says Vernon. “I worked hard at it with my father since winning the Porsche Carrera Cup scholarship in October 2010, right through to March 2011.
“We raised a huge amount, and thank everybody – especially West Chiltington Golf club – for their support. However it was still not enough, so we had to step away from the deal. Talking about financial positions is always a very delicate subject but at this current time in the world, we all need help.”
The Guildford racer is now competing in the Formula Renault BARC Championship, one of the leading junior single-seater series. He missed the first three races of the season at Snetterton, but is sixth in the standings, and yet to finish outside the top five in the six events he’s competed in.
It’s not quite as glamorous as his seat for the second-half of 2011, when Tim Harvey stepped aside and offered his Motorbase Porsche drive to Vernon, at first for round four of the Porsche Carrera Cup GB, and then rounds six through ten. Despite his inexperience, he impressed many within the championship, finishing a credible 13th despite only competing in two-thirds of the campaign.
After sampling the higher rungs of the motorsport ladder, Vernon is now itching to move up permanently. Finances are still tight though, even in the budget BARC class, so he has taken matters into his own hands.
He is turning his Hillspeed car into a moving advertising board for the season finale at Silverstone, allowing members of the public and businesses alike to get their name on it in return for a small donation. For each £11 contribution made, that person’s name will feature on the car, or for £55, a company logo, but the scheme is about more than just fulfilling his driving ambitions.
“Our aim is not only to raise money for ourselves,” he explained, “but to help a good cause. The Mary How Trust, a cancer screening clinic in Pulborough, is very local to my home town, and the aim of our scheme is to offer something which is affordable to most people that can still make a huge different not only for ourselves, but our nominated charity.
“We are trying to work with the spectators who donate to give them a rare opportunity to meet the team and drivers. Even on weekends such as BTCC meetings that does not happen often, and it’s very rare to be invited into the team to see all the operations. So we are inviting everyone who attends the meeting at Silverstone on 5-7 October to do just that.”
Anyone doubting Vernon’s credentials need only look as far as his options for next season, where attention has already shifted.
“We have been thinking very much about 2013,” he added, “and we have many offers and opportunities on the table, including Porsche Carrera Cup GB, SPEED EuroSeries, Ginetta G55, British GT, Formula 2 and GP3.
“However, it all comes at a price at this level and this is why we are doing our best to raise money, whilst giving something back to the public, and to charity. The scheme does need to work, otherwise there is no point in setting it up, but we will be at Silverstone. I cannot put such a scheme out there without guaranteeing everybody who donates that the car will be on track. I do not like to break my promises.”
What is evident about Vernon is an infectious enthusiasm for the sport, which continues to drive him on in the face of adversity. Losing the Porsche scholarship, after working so hard, would be enough to demoralise even the hardiest of souls. But for Vernon, it was a reality check, something which made him realise he was still in a position many, many budding racers lose hope of being in every year.
“It was hard to give up the Scholarship,” he reflects, “but I have to respect that what I have the opportunity to do is one that many would dream of.
“To be still racing after 10 years from starting out karting in the Formula 6 championship with Roger Sheffield and Trevor Taylor back in 2003 is down to all of the hard work we have put in.
“I love motor racing and I appreciate how lucky I have been, and how lucky I am to still talk about my career to date. We had a great year with Tim Harvey and Motorbase in the Porsche Carrera Cup [in 2011], again, how fortunate to be part of such an amazing story! What we achieved in such a small space of time was fantastic and as the commentators stated, what could have been if we could have made the start of the season?”
The 2012 season is entering its climax, and he is an outside shot for the BARC title after losing significant ground with his early absence. Even if the year ends as another ‘what could have been’, Vernon is determined not to let the same be said about his career.