When Max Coates made his Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship debut at Croft late last month with Support Our Paras Racing, it marked the start of the next chapter in a rollercoaster career for the 21 year old.
To say it’s been a difficult rise to the top for the Yorkshireman would be an understatement, with Coates’ last full race season coming back in 2011 and just eight race weekends following in the last three years.
Despite that though, Coates has never given up on his motorsport dream and as he told TheCheckeredFlag.co.uk as we sat down with him on the Saturday evening at Croft after his first day of BTCC action, this is the biggest moment of his career so far.
“It’s starting to sink in. It’s incredible. It’s everything I’ve wanted for the last five and a half years and finally it’s real,” Coates enthused. “It’s been surreal heading into the weekend that’s for sure, but now I’ve done a day in the car I feel a lot more comfortable than I thought I was going to.
“It’s on edge, even though I’ve quite a lot of time to find, but we just keep improving every time we go out and to be honest, that’s the way it’s going to be. I found over two seconds today alone, it just keeps getting better and hopefully that will carry on that progress in the next few meetings.
“It’s all starting to come together now and hopefully with more time in the car I’ll be able to become the driver I’ve wanted to be in my career so far.”
There were humble beginnings to that career, as Coates tackled the Ginetta Junior Championship for two years in the smallest of family run outfits. Progressing throughout his time in the series, Coates secured three outright podium finishes in his second season to cap off a time he looks back on fondly as his real grounding in the sport.
“Me, my Dad, my brother Greg, my best mate Rich and my Mum. That was the team,” he explained.
“We turned up at Round One at Thruxton in 2010, it was a ten hour drive with a Ginetta Junior on the back of an open trailer and all the tools in the boot of a Peugeot 406. We ran the car out of somebody else’s awning, learned how a race weekend worked and what you had to do, then went on our own.
“We ripped the inside of a caravan out to build our race truck and bolted the awning to the side. It was so small you had to open the side to get the car door open. We just grew as we went along in our two years of Ginetta Juniors and had a fantastic time.”
Coates stepped up the Ginetta ladder to the G50 class of the GT Supercup for 2012, and went on to enjoy huge success at the start of the season, piloting his Redbrick Racing-prepared car to four class wins in the first nine races.
After an outing at his home circuit of Croft during which he chalked up his fifth win of the campaign, there was heartbreak for Coates as his funds ran dry, and he admits that at the time he thought that could be the end of his racing.
“The hardest meeting for me was Snetterton in 2012. After Croft, when I genuinely didn’t know if I would get back in a race car again, that was really hard,” Coates reflected.
“When we didn’t do the Oulton Park meeting, I had a bit in me that knew that we’d make it back for Croft, but when I went to Snetterton and watched from the sidelines, I didn’t think I’d be in a race car again.
“That was tough, that was some teary Saturday night phone calls ….. but it’s come full circle and it was some teary phone calls to say ‘Dad, I’m a touring car driver.’ That was a special moment.”
A first outing in the main G55 class of the Supercup at the Brands Hatch season finale would be Coates’ only other race action that season, and since then a constant battle for sponsorship has restricted the Yorkshireman to just three one-off race outings.
2013 produced just one race weekend, a return to the Supercup field at Croft, but Coates seized the opportunity with a superb top six hat-trick which included a maiden outright podium finish. Twelve months later he was back for another crack at the Supercup, with a best finish of sixth as a privateer.
Prior to that, Coates had made a debut appearance in the Porsche Carrera Cup GB after being handed the reigns of the guest car at Donington Park, with a superb outing seeing him secure a pair of top six race finishes.
While his track time has been limited, Coates says he is proud of his results: “What we’ve achieved in our limited opportunities in the last couple of years has been awesome to be honest,” he said.
“Every driver has their excuses and I have mine for why I haven’t done better in the racing I’ve done, but to come in, having done no testing, and get a podium in the Supercup in 2013 was pretty special – that was a hell of a celebration.
“Racing the Porsche was unbelievable. The Parr Motorsport team were spot on, they had everything perfect with the car and their operation. What was nice about that weekend was that I had everything I could ever want, I had an engineer, a driver coach and all the new tyres for testing and qualifying.
“I genuinely think that if it wasn’t for a mistake at Coppice I’d have been challenging Michael [Meadows] for pole position. We were really quick and that weekend gave me a lot of confidence that I could jump into a car I hadn’t driven before and be quick – which certainly helped me heading into this BTCC weekend.”
Coates’ BTCC opportunity has come with the Support Our Paras Racing team, which hasn’t had the easiest start to life in the TOCA paddock after initial manufacturer backing from Infiniti was withdrawn on the run-up to the Oulton Park meeting.
With both team and driver very much at the start of their BTCC careers, Coates feels they are a perfect fit for each other, but accepts that it will be a tough few meetings ahead as they try to make progress up the competitive touring car grid.
“This team is quite simply amazing. It’s unique in the fact that it’s got the military connection, and the difference is that the cars are actually built, prepared and run by Para’s, who are serving, have served, are injured or whatever.
“The team are still learning. I’m not jumping into a car that has won races. I know that, the team know that, and we’re just looking to work together to move the car forwards.
“The nice thing here is that the team want to grow and I want to grow, so we all have common goals. I want to be in the British Touring Cars for the long term and so do they. We’re both at the start of that journey so it makes sense that we do it together.”
Coates’ BTCC debut had added poignancy with it coming at his home circuit of Croft, the scene of many of his recent racing outings and the circuit he currently works at as a race instructor.
While Coates has received plenty of support during his time in the support paddock, he admits he’s been taken aback by the level of backing his BTCC move has received: “The local support has always been fantastic, but the step up to the BTCC, the attention it gets really is amazing.
“I don’t think I ever realised how big the touring cars is until Wednesday, when we announced the deal, and then today. My phone has not stopped vibrating since and it’s fantastic, I’m so grateful for the support and I’m just so happy to be here.”
Coates’ focus now is on maximising his opportunity in the BTCC, and he hopes his graduation into the series can be motivation for other drivers competing in the support paddock, who might see the BTCC as out of their reach.
“I’m now looking forward to having the biggest amount of stability in my racing that I’ve had since about 2011, and that will be a big difference in the way that I drive and approach race weekends,” he concluded.
“I want to get into it slowly though, I know where we are at the moment and I know where we want to be, and if me and the team keep working like we are then we’ll keep making strides forward.
“We started a wave in 2010 as a real privateer entry with a small family team. We were the first to really do that and show you could do well with it, and now there’s these outfits dotted all around the paddock.
“Hopefully now we can show every driver in the support series that you can get reach the BTCC with sheer hard work and determination.”