What a difference twelve months can make in a driver’s career.
In January 2013, Jake Hughes visited the Autosport International Show as a karting graduate preparing for his first full season in car-racing.
One year later, the 19 year old went to the show earlier this year as the inaugural BRDC Formula 4 champion and a finalist for the prestigious McLaren Autosport BRDC Award, honours that meant he was one of the stars of the show.
“I remember coming with my Dad on the Thursday last year, to see the F4 car be unveiled for the first time. I was just walking around and no-one knew me or batted an eyelid at me,” Hughes told TheCheckeredFlag.co.uk at the show.
“This year, I’m walking around with the Autosport BRDC overalls, people know who I am, I’m up on the stage, driving in the arena show and backstage meeting very important people in motorsport, telling them I’m F4 champion. It’s amazing.”
Hughes’ transformation from karting champion to one of the brightest young racing talents in the UK has been a rapid one, thanks to a sensational maiden campaign in the new-for-2013 BRDC Formula 4 Championship with Lanan Racing.
The Birmingham-based racer had a relatively slow start to the year, with just one podium finish in the first eight races, but after he inherited a maiden victory in Round Nine at Snetterton, he never looked back.
That win was one of four for the season, with six other podium finishes and six pole positions taking him to the championship. Despite setting the pace in the pre-season media day testing, Hughes admits it took him a while to consider the title as a possibility.
“Through testing, we didn’t consider the title at all,” he explained. “When we left media day fastest, and then got pole at the first meeting, we started thinking that maybe we could win a few races and challenge for the top three, top five.
“The first time I allowed myself to think about the championship was after race three on the sixth weekend at Silverstone. I’d just won by about seven seconds in a twenty minute race, it was crazy, and that extended my lead in the points to the biggest margin of the year so far.
“I thought then that I was on a bit of a roll, race wins on back to back weekends with two poles, and that maybe I could do it. But even then, I knew there was still a lot more hard work to do.”
Work hard he did, and on a tense final weekend at Donington Park, a meeting five other drivers headed into with a mathematical chance of dethroning him, a controlled drive to victory in the opening race won him the title.
As well as earning him £25,000, a V12 Chronograph BRM watch and a prize Formula 3 test with Carlin, the title success has given Hughes the honour of going down in the history books as the first-ever BRDC Formula 4 champion.
“It’s history,” he enthused. “I imagine the F4 series will continue to go from strength to strength and become the biggest junior single-seater series in the UK for at least the next half a decade, so to be the first name on the trophy is fantastic. Whenever people look back at the history of the series, I’ll be the first champion and that’s a nice honour.”
Hughes’ success also earnt him a deserved place in the final six for the prestigious McLaren Autosport BRDC Award (MABA), in which he came up against fellow F4 front-runners Seb Morris and Charlie Robertson, and Formula Renault stars Chris Middlehurst, Jack Aitken and Matt Parry.
While Hughes was ultimately unsuccessful in his quest to win the award, and the £100,000 and McLaren F1 test that comes with it, he admits the experience has spurred him on to push ever harder this year.
“It was a massive experience,” he enthused. “Going from 180bhp to close to 600bhp in the McLaren, it was a massive eye-opener for me as a driver. My lack of experience meant I had a few rough edges to my game, and I think that’s what stopped me from winning, not a lack of ability or performance over the two days I don’t feel.
“The morning after the awards night, I’ve never felt worse in my life. I felt like I’d woken up from a nightmare, that I hadn’t won it. It’s definitely a massive incentive for 2014 to put it right, I see the year as a chance for me to put their decision in my favour next time around.”
Hughes will be aiming to impress this year when he steps up to the hugely-competitive Formula Renault 2.0 NEC with Mark Burdett Motorsport. The BRDC Rising Stars and MSA Academy member is looking forward to his first season in European racing and tackling the new challenges that will bring.
“NEC this year was massively competitive, and next year it looks like it will be even more,” he commented. “I’ve done a bit of winter testing on some of the European tracks and it’s a big difference from the UK, there’s less bumps and funny kerbs out there.
“While the tracks may be easier to drive, beating the competition is going to be so much harder. I’ve seen it already in testing, you need to be so much more detailed on the little things in your driving, which you probably don’t learn in F4. There’s definitely a steep learning curve to go through before you can be competitive in Renaults.”
Despite the learning curve he faces, Hughes heads into the season with his focus solely set on emulating the success of fellow Brits Jake Dennis and Matt Parry, who followed up UK championship wins with NEC titles and MABA award wins in 2012 and 2013 respectively.
“The championship is definitely the goal,” concluded Hughes. “If someone offered me a second or third place now I wouldn’t take it. All my focus is on winning the championship, and people may see that as me putting a lot of pressure on my shoulders in my first season in Europe, but Jake and Matt have done it, and I feel that I can do it as well.”
The 2014 Formula Renault 2.0 NEC season kicks off at Monza on 12/13 April, before making its sole UK visit at Silverstone on 24/25 May. Trips to Hockenheim, Spa, Assen and Most follow, before the season finishes at Nurburgring on 20/21 September.