James Pickford – the life of a professional racing driver
Racing has been in my life
Racing has been in my life for as long as I can remember. Growing up, my Dad ran successful bike racing teams, so initially it was two wheels, rather than four, that attracted me. However, parental ‘persuasion’ swiftly came into play, the suggestion being that if I was determined to embark on such a foolhardy adventure, the (relatively) safer option was cars. So, at eight years old, I headed off to a test in a kart, the first step on the motor racing ladder.
Karting was (and is) insanely competitive, and one of the purest forms of motorsport since, by and large, everyone has broadly the same equipment. Here you truly begin to learn your craft, and in competing at regional and National championship level, I began to win races and ultimately, championships. Many people choose to go no further than karting. However, by my mid teens, I was dead set on making a career in motorsport, so the switch to car racing, and a whole new learning curve, followed as soon as I was old enough.
Starting in Car racing
As those of you who may have watched the fantastic ‘Senna’ movie may have seen, no matter who you are in karting, when you arrive in car racing you’re starting again, from the beginning. Car racing is an entirely different vibe to karting, not necessarily more professional, as top level karting is extremely so, but it’s more like the feeling you get on the first day at secondary school.
1997 – Formula Honda Champion
For me, the school in question was the new for 1997 Formula Honda championship. My first car race was at Castle Combe. Result? Pole position, win, fastest lap. I ended the 1997 season as inaugural Formula Honda Champion, and looking forward to a new season in a new championship. I thought life couldn’t get any better and looking back, I wasn’t far wrong. However, as with stocks and shares, fortunes in motor racing can go up as well as down…
1998 – British Formula Ford and Jenson Button
1998 saw me compete in British Formula Ford, one of the most competitive championships you’ll find anywhere, as team-mate to a guy from Somerset called Jenson Button. Whatever happened to him? Anyway, I combined my season with the occasional outing in Formula Honda, winning all the races I entered there, but found ‘Ford’ a much tougher nut to crack. Looking back, even then I was starting to see just how much financial issues and budgetary constraints could affect what happened on the track. Nevertheless, I ended 98 as one of the six nominees for the prestigious McLaren Autosport ‘Young Driver of the Year’ award, alongside that Button fella, and another Formula One driver in waiting, Justin Wilson.
1999 – Formula Palmer Audi
Jenson eventually won that, and as we know, carved out a fantastic career for himself, jumping straight to Formula Three in ‘99, and Formula One the year after. For me, 1999 saw a new sponsor and a full season competing exclusively in another new series, Formula Palmer Audi, a championship where all the cars were centrally prepared, placing the emphasis on the driver, rather than the engineering expertise of individual teams. Apparently.
2000 – Formula Renault & Kimi Raikkonen
It wasn’t a fantastic year, nor was it a hugely successful one. Formula Renault Sport in 2000 wasn’t a great deal better either, and I was finding that the budgets to even remotely compete at the front were simply beyond us. Back then, teams in junior series such as these were testing every week, throwing new tyres and aerodynamic developments at cars, and operating on budgets that would make your eyes water. Plus, competing with the likes of Kimi Raikkonen amongst others (heard of him? He drives a truck in America these days…). Most of my competitors had considerably more single seater experience than I. All that was keeping me more than occupied on the track. So something had to give. As it turned out, at the end of the season our principal sponsor decided on a change of direction, so for 2001 I headed to GT racing.
2001 – GT Racing
GT’s are quite simply brilliant. I was racing on two fronts, one week in a fire breathing V12 Lister Storm, the next in a Honda Fireblade engined Radical, equipped with a paddle shift gearbox and masses of downforce, totally different cars, different tracks and a high level of competition amongst the drivers. I raced all over Europe, as well as the UK, and was really enjoying my racing. Winning again, too. And then…
2002 – Character building
Nothing. 2002 saw all the sponsors, money, drives and opportunities dry up completely. I’d had a pretty good run, all things considered, so a ’flat spot’ of sorts was inevitable, I suppose. Character building, I think they call it. Whatever, I needed a job, and some way of getting back into the sport as soon as I could. That came in the form of working for a road car tuning company in their sales and marketing department. For the first time, I was glad I’d kept up my studies whilst racing! A role that put me in front of car dealers, and importantly, car manufacturers on an almost daily basis.
Before long, I was asked to represent the company at a Volkswagen Group corporate karting event. As soon I learned who was going to be present and what they did, I thought I’d better get my finger out and give a good account of myself. Happily, I did just that and sure enough, the Brand Manager for SEAT, Volkswagen’s sporty Spanish brand, asked for a chat.
2003 – SEAT
They were to embark on a programme of brand-building, with motorsport at its core. As well as entering the British Touring Car Championship, they planned to create a ‘one make’ race series, based on their Leon Cupra model. To boost media interest, SEAT had created a concept called ‘racing rivals’ – a reality TV show that would follow the Cupra series, with the winner of the championship being ‘promoted’ to the Touring Car drive as a prize.
I was offered a drive in the Cupra series. I was back! Well, almost. There was still the ever-present issue of budget to overcome, but thankfully they were generous with me, and the figure was not as steep as the ‘rate card’ for other drivers joining the series. Not exactly fair, but as I had learnt to my cost, financially and otherwise, motorsport rarely is. But I was back in a car, and that was all that mattered.
2004 – I win SEAT Cupra series
We ended 2003 with several wins, and a real momentum going into 2004. I was starting to feel at home in the car, and also with the championship and the SEAT brand themselves. In 2004 I won the Cupra Championship, and with it the chance to race professionally for SEAT in the British Touring Car Championship in 2005. To cap it all, readers of the motorsport bible, ‘Autosport’ magazine, voted me their ‘Club driver of the year’, a crown I inherited from a chap called Lewis Hamilton, another driver you never hear of these days…
2005 – SEAT and British Touring Car Championship
My one and only season (to date) in the British Touring Car Championship was a bittersweet experience. The BTCC, as it’s known, is the premier domestic racing series in the UK, with lots of action, live TV and high profile drivers. It was amazing to compete there with a proper ‘works’ team, with all the benefits that brings, and I was (and am) hugely grateful to SEAT for the opportunity.
My season was the last for the ‘Toledo’ model we were racing, before the new shape ‘Leon’ was introduced for 2006. SEAT were concentrating on developing the new car, so we rarely tested the current race car outside of the race weekends. From a rational (and marketing) point of view, of course that makes complete sense, but for me, getting to grips with a very competitive championship and competing against some hugely talented drivers, it wasn’t ideal. That said, I ended the season top ‘rookie’ with seven podium finishes and almost won my last race at Brands Hatch, falling foul to the ‘robust’ nature of Touring Car racing. I gave as good as I got, though…
Porsche Carrera Cup GB Series and clinching GT3 Cup Championship
Since my time with SEAT came to an end, I’ve raced for Porsche in their Carrera Cup GB series (supporting the BTCC) and also internationally, clinching the GT3 Cup Championship with a win on a soaking wet street circuit in Bucharest. I’ve raced a Lamborghini Gallardo in the UK and Europe, and like many racing drivers, have spent countless hours instructing on track days and ‘experience’ events, a job that largely consists of novice drivers doing their level best to terrify me and themselves, with varying degrees of success. Most enjoyably, however, I’ve been doing lots of corporate work for Stratstone Manchester, helping their clients improve their driving skills both on and off the track.
So what of the future? Well, GT racing is definitely where I want to be. Just as I enjoyed racing the Lister ten years ago, the opportunity to drive a large, powerful, noisy GT car is always something to savour. I have a drive lined up in The British GT Championship in October, with a view to putting together a programme to drive ‘full time’ in 2012.
The British GT Championship is most definitely in the ascendancy just now, with a great mix of cars and marques competing in it. Importantly, stability in the regulations allows teams to compete in the British and European Championships with the same cars, so from a marketing perspective there is a genuine cost effectiveness for potential sponsors, as they can use either as a platform to promote themselves to significant audiences both at the circuits and via the strong television packages each championship can boast.
For now though, it’s two days off, then back to ‘corporate’ duty at the Thruxton circuit in Hampshire, before preparing for Silverstone next month. And then, who knows, but whatever happens, you’ll be able to read about it here.