MOTOR RACING IS a complex sport, where the ladder to the pinnacle – Formula 1 (F1) – is slippery at best, and near impossible for most to climb. In the UK alone, there are 35,000 racing-licence holders, with a plethora of series at national and international levels through which a driver can progress. The number of seats on an F1 grid in 2015? Just 20.
There's a saying that racing began five minutes after the second motor car was invented. In those days, of course, it was something only the wealthy could enjoy, and even now the costs of buying and then servicing a car, entering an event, paying for crash damage and suchlike are so punitive that the average Joe has a huge hurdle to overcome just to get out there and compete.
During the 20th century motor racing grew massively in Europe, with F1's rise to total hegemony of the motorsport scene being propelled primarily by a single man, Bernie Ecclestone. As the sport became ever more popular, TV rights, advertising and sponsorship revenues grew exponentially, yet this also enabled drivers with natural talent rather than deep wallets – people such as John Surtees, Graham Hill, and René Arnoux – to rise to the top and win. More recently still, there's Lewis Hamilton, who was spotted by McLaren at the age of 13, Sebastian Vettel, whose early career was backed by BMW and Red Bull, and Jenson Button, who struggled through an underfunded season of Formula 3 before being picked up by the Williams F1 team in the early 2000s. That, however, was a time when sponsorship revenue was high – tobacco advertising was still permitted, the credit crunch was several years away, and companies could happily be seen to be spending money.
Today's F1 teams are under greater pressure. Tobacco sponsorship is now a distant memory, while alcohol advertising – which in any case represents a fraction of what the cigarette companies invested in the sport – is under threat too. This combination of circumstances has seen the rise of the “pay driver”, a term once derogatively used to infer that he's there for the money he brings to the team and not for his talents at the wheel. Yet on the current F1 grid, roughly eight drivers receive salaries from the team, while 11 bring sponsorship from which they get a cut (there's also one who's just hanging in, neither being paid nor bringing in any money). The latter category includes talented drivers such as Felipe Nasr, whose backing from Banco do Brasil has aided his arrival to the Sauber F1 team, while the somewhat more questionable Pastor Maldonado occupies a seat at Lotus through the money he brings from Venezuelan oil giant PDVSA.
In 2009, at 18 years old, I was stacking shelves at a Waitrose supermarket while studying politics and economics at college. It's probably fair to say the likelihood of me becoming a racing driver was pretty low – but after watching the 2009 European Grand Prix, I made the decision that this was what I wanted to do. Three months of pestering my father led to him eventually knocking on my bedroom door at 4 o'clock one morning, and asking me to talk with him downstairs. He told me that there comes a time in life when, once you find your passion, your dream, you have to follow it – but only if you're willing to give it your best and risk everything in order to make it come true. I told him I was.
The following week I was testing a 120km/h racing kart for the first time, and a few weeks later entered my first ever race. After starting 24th and last (rookies must start at the back), I worked my way up to eighth position, setting the fastest lap of the race, which has never before been done in a field of 23 experienced racers, many of whom had been karting for the best part of 10 years.
The following year, I was entered into a Formula Ford Championship in the UK, winning five class races and coming to the attention of the Racing Steps Foundation, which backs selected British drivers. A gruelling six-week evaluation process concluded with myself and McLaren F1-backed driver Oliver Rowland getting the support to graduate to Formula Renault UK.
By the end of 2011, I'd finished second in the Finals Series, beating current Red Bull F1 driver Daniil Kvyat in a 30-car field. And though no opportunities to continue my racing career came up, I knew I wasn't going to give up. This is when the opportunity arose to race for an ambitious Chinese race team, KCMG, and I moved to Hong Kong to pursue my racing vision.
I've now won races not only in Formula Ford, but also Formula Pilota China and the Formula Masters China Series as well as Formula Renault.
As I write, I've just returned from the Sepang Circuit in Malaysia, where in the second round of the Asian Formula Renault Challenge and in 42-degree heat, I took pole position, fastest lap, and two wins (with margins of 17 and 11 seconds). It was then that my partnership with Prestige – whose logo you'll see on my car and helmet this year – officially began. By the time this is published, I'll have attended the Monaco Grand Prix, where I was hoping to speak with potential backers who can support my climb to the top. Later this month I'll be racing in Zhuhai, China.
I'd like to thank Prestige and my other partners – BlackArts Racing, CTPS, Start JG, Pinnacle Performance and XYZ – for their support this season. Over the months ahead I'm looking forward to bringing you more insights to the world of motorsport, so watch this space!