Motor racing is a way of life. It envelops and consumes those who catch the bug, from engineers, designers and press officers right through to the drivers themselves. Everyone chases the same goal – to succeed in the relentless pursuit of speed.
Never has that phrase been more poignant than with young drivers; motorsport’s brightest stars vying to reach the upper echelons of the sport. For these kids, some as young as fourteen years old, real life often takes a back seat.
They have to be an old head on young shoulders. Whilst all around them is the jovial and juvenile world of growing up, they have to demonstrate a level of maturity often reserved for people three times their age. Not only do they have to develop as people, they have to develop as drivers, salespeople, accountants and mechanics too.
The pressures of motor racing are well-documented. As with any sport, those who compete have to be in peak condition both physically and mentally. That can be difficult when you live two lives; racing driver and teenager.
Those teenage years are difficult at the best of times. It’s the period of life that defines a person and who they are and who they might become. It’s a period full of growth, laughter, anger and reflection. Amidst a sea of learning and exams, it can often be overwhelming.
That’s without the second life of racing.
Luke Browning, a 17-year-old racer from Cheshire, knows all too well of the challenges of trying to achieve his dream.
“I went to two schools when I was younger,” explains Browning. “The first was a high school but they didn’t support my racing too much; they didn’t give me the time off that I needed and therefore I couldn’t stay there.”
Whilst events take place at the weekend, drivers often have to arrive at circuits on the Wednesday or Thursday before to set themselves up. Sacrifices have to be made, and it’s often their time at school that gets the axe.
“I moved out of there in year nine, which was when things started to get a little more serious and I thought I want to pursue a career in racing,” Browning continued.
“I never really told anyone in my first school about my racing because it was never really that serious but at the second school it started to kick off and people began to watch my racing, especially when it’s something as big as the TOCA package.”
Browning has become one of the most promising young talents in British motorsport and races amongst the TOCA package, which consists of the British Touring Car Championship and its support series; the Ginetta Juniors, Ginetta GT4 SuperCup, Porsche Carrera Cup and the British F4 Championship.
Like most teenagers, Browning’s first foray into car racing was through the Ginetta Junior series before moving to British F4 in 2019, where he won in his debut race. But his rise through the ranks didn’t come easy.
“School was always the most difficult because people in education don’t really see racing as a viable option for a career,” he mused. “It’s always a difficult task persuading the school to give you the time off as, at the end of the day, all they want is results out you.
“In the end I’ve started to make a career out of it and actually it’s all worked out.”
Some drivers prefer or are, perhaps, forced into a different approach. Chris Lulham, the 2016 Junior X30 karting champion, made the bold decision to quit racing for a year to focus on school and his GCSEs.
“You have to prioritise your education or your racing,” Lulham said. “I had to stop; I didn’t do anything in 2019 other than a couple of test days.
“My last full season was 2018 and it’s a difficult thing. You have to go all the way with one or the other and it’s hard to prioritise one thing over something you love.”
It takes a lot for anyone to sacrifice what they hold dear, with no guarantee that they’ll ever pick up where they left off. For Lulham, that remains a distinct possibility as he fights for a spot on the Formula 4 grid in 2020.
He’s not the only one tussling for a seat next year. It’s no stretch to say that Horatio Fitz-Simon moved heaven and earth as he gave chase to his aspirations.
Born in Towcester, just a stone’s throw from Silverstone, Fitz-Simon moved to America at three-years-old and he’s been itching for a way back ever since.
“I started kart racing when I was 12 and stopped at 14,” explained Fitz-Simon. “But there was no real way forward, however over the past few years the F4 series has developed.
“When I finished at school, the only thing I wanted to do was go motor racing. I booked a one-way ticket back here to pursue single-seaters.
“I’ve been by myself, renting an attic with a mattress in Leamington Spa.”
The British F4 championship is highly regarded as the most competitive junior racing series in the world and is the destination of choice for young hopefuls looking to make their mark in the racing scene.
It already lists a Formula One driver amongst its alumni; McLaren’s Lando Norris won the inaugural championship in 2015 and has just wrapped up his rookie campaign in the pinnacle of motorsport.
The man at the helm of the series, Sam Roach, a former driver himself, takes great pleasure in Norris’ story, and says it demonstrates that the series is truly world-class.
“It’s really exciting,” Roach says. “In some ways, I think that’s why we all do this and love this championship so much.”
The championship is also a class leader in how it helps drivers in their development, both on and off-track.
“We put in a lot of effort at this level to school the drivers and prepare them,” Roach explains.
“We do a lot with the media, we work with Motorsport UK on data coaching to help further their development out of the cockpit so they can learn from experts on where they can improve their driving performance.
“All of these things are done to give them the best possible start that we can give to launch them into the wider world.”
Sponsorship forms a huge part of a racing driver’s budget. A drive in F4 can cost a driver at least £150,000 all in, with that cost almost doubling the further up the grid you go.
It’s a heavy burden to carry, especially when sponsors pull out last-minute or the money promised simply never appears. It can be a nerve-wracking time for all involved.
“Nothing’s ever secure in racing,” Browning says. “The past couple of seasons have been especially difficult because when you’re putting up that sort of money to go and race, there’s lots of times where you think that if something fell through now then we, as a family, simply cannot afford it.”
To try and tackle that issue, Browning has launched his own sponsorship scheme, in which fans can pay for a section of his car – £50 will get your name and £100 will allow you place a photo of your face on the car.
“You’ve got to approach these things from a different way. The reception has been brilliant.
“It certainly won’t fund a whole season and it’s not necessarily an efficient way of doing it but it’s great for those last little spots on the car that you haven’t quite filled.”
When budgeting for a season, only the bare minimum is accounted for. Any unforeseen issues, such as crashes or breakdowns, are an extra cost on top.
“I remember my first season of Ginetta Juniors,” Browning recalls. “I had my first crash and I knew full well that we wouldn’t have the money to repair it.
“It was at Donington and I was absolutely bawling my eyes out, not knowing if I was going to be able to carry on.”
Fortunately for Browning, he was able to see the season out – where he took eight wins on his way to third in the championship.
That’s thanks in part to the unbroken family bond – an integral part of anyone’s life but none more so than in a racing driver’s early days.
“They’ve been absolutely huge,” Browning recalls of his parents. “I couldn’t have done any of this without them.
“It just really helps having a good network around you, I cannot stress that enough. To have people supporting you, whether it’s your manager or your family, just as long as you’ve got that support and you can speak to people about what’s going on then it usually works quite well.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by Fitz-Simon and his family.
“We have a really special dynamic,” says Fitz-Simon’s father, Ian. “Me and my wife are blessed to have a son like Horatio. He’s an extremely talented racer and we’re immensely proud of him.”
Travelling from California to Silverstone to watch his son participate in British F4’s inaugural scholarship programme, Fitz-Simon acknowledges his son’s commitment to chasing his dream.
“He came over here on his own and put all this together. Tests at Donington and Snetterton and finishing third in the Walter Hayes Trophy after having never driven a Formula Ford car, it’s just amazing.”
Scholarship programmes are becoming all the more common, with initiatives in place at Ginetta, British F4 and the Porsche Carrera Cup.
The aim is to provide drivers with an equal chance of breaking into motorsport, to relieve some of the mental and financial pressures drivers and their families face and to nurture the next generation of racers.
British F4’s scholarship programme offered up a £35,000 prize fund for one driver, paying their costs of a full championship season for the following year.
Drivers were assessed on their skills behind the wheel, how well they interact with the media and their technical understanding of a racing car.
Casper Stevenson, the victor of the 2019 award, stresses how important the scheme is in allowing drivers to reach their full potential.
“My family really feels the financial pressures of racing,” Stevenson said. “We could only do a limited programme. Now we can do a good amount of testing and really have no excuses.”
As the next generation begin to take their place on the world stage, courtesy of hotshots like Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc and Norris, there’s a lot to vie for as a young driver rising through the ranks.
Some make it, some don’t. Skill and talent can only take a driver so far, there’s still a vast amount of luck required to reach the top.
For the drivers that do, it’s certainly a life well-lived.