I had two big heroes in motorsport as I grew up. Gilles Villeneuve and Ayrton Senna. When I started out in motorsport, I didn’t do the usual route of karting, I just drew knowledge from researching, watching TV footage and reading books. I maybe picked the wrong driver to study in Villeneuve as he was practically sideways the whole time and I quickly discovered that in the modern single seaters, sideways just means backwards very quickly! But Gilles Villeneuve had this fantastic car control and I loved watching the archive footage of him, particularly watching him getting off the start line, he was superb at it and I tried to model myself on him. He’d make these electric starts and be really brave on the first lap, he used to make up a ridiculous amount of places in a race with fantastic overtaking manouveres. The peak of all of this being his race at Dijon in 1979 where he was racing alongside Rene Arnoux, which for me is the single greatest lap in Formula 1 history. Those cars were such a beast to man handle, they were locking wheels, nudging each other off the track, but not in a malicious way, it was just an amazing spectacle to watch.
My Dad bought me a Silverstone track experience for my eighteenth birthday. I managed to get the school record so that was that, I had to go racing! It was a really life changing moment. Up to that point, I was a perfectly normal human being, but after that experience, all I wanted to do was go race. It was all I thought about, all I talked about, until I finally got into a racing car and started my career.
I started in Formula First, which was not the most beautiful looking car it has to be said, resembling a door wedge. It had little pokey out wheels and all my mates used to laugh at me when they saw it. I did try to explain to them that it was quicker round a lap than the top road going Ferrari at the time. I loved it, I managed to win my first race that season and learned a heck of a lot that year. I wrote three cars off. But I matured and rose through the ranks, eventually driving in Formula Three, World Sports Cars and the Le Mans 24 hours.
Le Mans remains the greatest experience I’ve had in racing. I’ve competed in it three times. My first time was in 2001 when I drove an LMP1 Ascari and it rained for 17 hours. I got to drive one stint which was four hours long and I managed to be quickest on the circuit for those four hours. It was midnight and absolutely hammering with rain. There were huge puddles on the Mulsanne Straight and the straight leading to Indianapolis. It was a huge challenge, the wheels were spinning in second gear, you’d change up and they would still be skipping. The first lap I hit a huge puddle at around 150 miles per hour and immediately went sideways, but managed to catch it and gradually started to work out where the puddles were amid the dark track. Aquaplaning at 175 miles per hour down the Mulsanne Straight is certainly something I will always remember and weirdly cherish! I didn’t know it at the time, but I remember going past Mark Blundell, thinking blimey, I used to watch him on TV! I managed to get past the Audi and un-lap myself, having started my stint a lap down and I took the car up from seventeenth to fourth place, none of which I knew at the time, I was just driving my socks off in really bad rain. I was probably taking some big risks without realising it but it was incredible.
It was a great experience, right up until the car broke, which was also the saddest experience. Le Mans lodged itself in my heart after that race. It’s the one thing I really do want to keep racing in. I finished Le Mans for the first time in 2011 with Team RML. I had the honour of being in the car to take it to the finish and was really hit by the emotion of it all on the last lap. I suddenly became quite misty eyed as I knew I was finally going to finish the race. It hit me the enormity of what it means to finish, but then I had to bring myself together, get real and concentrate on finishing! The reception from the huge crowd and the marshals was incredible, the final lap, with all the marshals (I think it’s something like 1500 in total) who volunteer for the 24 hours, out on the circuit waving their flags, It is an amazing moment and feeling to finish the race, Le Mans is truly unique. It’s probably the one time the French and English really get on, it’s one big party!
aka The Stig
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Memory added on January 23, 2013
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