Re­nault re­turn, and new Brit on the grid Jolyon Palmer will be mov­ing into a full-time race seat

Af­ter a sea­son spent wait­ing on the side­lines, while gath­er­ing valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence in Fri­day prac­tice ses­sions for Lo­tus, 2014 GP2 cham­pion Jolyon Palmer will make his F1 race

We de­but in March 2016. caught up with him just af­ter the an­nounce­ment

It’s an over­cast af­ter­noon in Mex­ico City and Jolyon Palmer sud­denly finds he has a lit­tle time to him­self to take a stroll around the Mag­dalena Mix­huca Sports City, which houses the newly re­vised Autó­dromo Her­manos Ro­dríguez.

Op­por­tu­ni­ties to walk a track in rel­a­tive peace come more fre­quently to test driv­ers, but since Palmer was con­firmed as a Lo­tus race driver for 2016, his time is com­ing un­der in­creas­ing de­mand from engi­neers, spon­sors and the me­dia. F1 Rac­ing has man­aged to get a slot this af­ter­noon to ac­com­pany Palmer on an an­ti­clock­wise walk around the newly laid start/fin­ish straight and into the sta­dium sec­tion of the new Mex­i­can GP track.

But be­fore we head off, Lo­tus’s PR chief Andy Sto­bart is­sues a stern warn­ing: “He must be back in the pad­dock for 4.15pm for a live in­ter­view with the BBC.” Jolyon him­self is no stranger to the

mi­cro­phone, hav­ing played a role in GP2 comms through­out 2015, while his fa­ther, Jonathan, fol­lowed a decade-long ca­reer rac­ing in F1 with a stint as Mur­ray Walker’s side­kick at the BBC af­ter the death of James Hunt in 1993.

We pause so Jolyon can be pho­tographed on pole po­si­tion. When he makes his de­but next March, he will be hop­ing he is closer to the front of the grid than his fa­ther was when he last started a grand prix. The records show that JP Se­nior lined up 26th and last for Tyrrell at the 1989 Ja­panese Grand Prix.

Jolyon spent 2015 as a re­serve driver for Lo­tus, but a race seat be­came avail­able fol­low­ing Romain Gros­jean’s de­par­ture to the fledg­ling Haas F1 team. Jolyon’s re­laxed de­meanour should pro­vide a calm­ing coun­ter­bal­ance to the ex­u­ber­ance of team-mate Pas­tor Mal­don­ado in the Lo­tus garage for 2016.

For now, Palmer is in Mex­ico and poised to make his 11th Fri­day morn­ing prac­tice run of the year. From the out­side, FP1 might seem rou­tine, but for a rookie these ses­sions are in­valu­able in terms of learn­ing the com­plex pro­ce­dures that are a part of mod­ern F1.

“There is no sub­sti­tute for driv­ing an F1 car,” says Palmer as we look down the long straight to­wards Turn 1. “To be out in FP1 gives me a chance to prove what I can do. I’m not try­ing to set a new lap record, but equally I’m not hang­ing about. It fo­cuses me to prove my­self as it’s my only ses­sion of the week­end.”

In the lat­ter half of 2015, Palmer’s seat time in a cou­ple of the 90-minute ses­sions on Fri­day morn­ing has been cur­tailed for rea­sons be­yond his con­trol. FP1 in Hun­gary was thwarted by the team’s fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties and the re­lated late de­liv­ery of their tyre al­lo­ca­tion. Then heavy rain struck in both Suzuka and Austin. But in Mex­ico the ap­pren­tice­ship to his full-time drive will con­tinue with­out hic­cup.

Prior to F1, 24-year-old Palmer spent four years in GP2, cul­mi­nat­ing in cham­pi­onship suc­cess. Be­fore that, he raced in cham­pi­onships run by his fa­ther: T Cars, For­mula Palmer Audi and For­mula 2. As with GP2, the longer he’s spent in a cat­e­gory, the more pro­fi­cient he has be­come in that se­ries, which in­evitably left some of mo­tor rac­ing’s cyn­ics opin­ing that he was ben­e­fit­ing thanks to his fam­ily con­nec­tions.

“In F2, I had a tough first year; it was a big step up from FPA,” says Palmer. “The sec­ond year I did a lot of home­work and re­ally worked on it. I had five wins and another five podi­ums. So it might have seemed strange that a guy strug­gling the year be­fore was sud­denly do­ing well. But peo­ple in the know knew it was the same story with FPA – there’s no way my dad would favour me be­cause that would be sui­cide for the whole cham­pi­onship. Could you imag­ine if word got out that I had pref­er­en­tial treat­ment? But I was beat­ing peo­ple, and peo­ple don’t like to be beaten so they were find­ing ex­cuses.”

Jolyon was less than a year old when his fa­ther com­peted in his fi­nal sea­son of rac­ing – in the 1991 Bri­tish Tour­ing Car cham­pi­onship – two years af­ter he’d re­tired from F1. Palmer Sr then bought his son a kart to drive around the gar­den of their fam­ily home just south of Hor­sham in West Sus­sex. But it wasn’t un­til ten years later that the rac­ing bug fi­nally bit. By other driv­ers’ stan­dards it was a late start, but Palmer Jr’s de­ter­mi­na­tion and hard work have en­abled him to progress through the mo­tor rac­ing ranks to reach For­mula 1.

And he came very close to not get­ting this far: in fact, is lucky even to be alive.

When Jolyon was 16, he was rac­ing quad bikes with friends through the fam­ily es­tate. At full-chat, he looked back over his shoul­der, lost his bal­ance, the quad top­pled and he hit a tree. The han­dle­bar of the bike ripped into Jolyon’s body, caus­ing ma­jor in­ter­nal in­juries. One of his kid­neys was split in two, he broke a num­ber of ribs, dam­aged his liver, punc­tured his lung and chipped his spine. He was air­lifted to hos­pi­tal and spent a week in in­ten­sive care.

“I was con­scious in the af­ter­math of the ac­ci­dent, but I couldn’t stand up and knew I was in big trou­ble,” says Palmer to­day. “At the time I was think­ing this wouldn’t be good for the rest of my sea­son [in For­mula Palmer Audi], but it soon be­came clear it was a lot more se­ri­ous. Af­ter a month in hos­pi­tal I had lost of lot of weight and was re­ally weak. I was so lucky, be­cause things could have been dif­fer­ent and I could have died.

“I’ve made a full re­cov­ery [as he speaks, he shows us the scars on his torso] and was lucky to sur­vive. It hasn’t mo­ti­vated me more, be­cause I’ve al­ways been am­bi­tious – but it was a life ex­pe­ri­ence that most peo­ple don’t have. I’m cer­tainly more care­ful on a quad bike now…”

Re­mark­ably, Jolyon lost none of his ap­petite for speed and was back rac­ing the fol­low­ing spring. That de­ter­mi­na­tion was once again ev­i­dent when he was com­pet­ing in GP2.

Af­ter rac­ing in glam­orous lo­ca­tions such as Monaco or Barcelona on a Sun­day, he would then make his way back to the UK to sit a univer­sity exam on a cold Monday morn­ing in Not­ting­ham, later grad­u­at­ing with a de­gree in busi­ness man­age­ment.

In GP2, he gained a rep­u­ta­tion as a lev­el­headed racer, who ben­e­fits from ex­pe­ri­ence and uses his amassed knowl­edge to great ef­fect. Com­bined with his in­stinc­tive abil­ity to over­take, this has of­ten en­abled him to sur­prise his ri­vals on track. He mem­o­rably over­took Felipe Nasr twice in one week­end in Hun­gary last year, in­vok­ing the Brazil­ian’s ire on the podium.

“We were team-mates at Car­lin the year be­fore and didn’t end on great terms,” Palmer re­counts. “He crashed into me at Spa and I beat him in a straight fight in Sin­ga­pore. The next year we were ti­tle ri­vals and I knew I had to beat him in Hun­gary. I came from a long way back and lobbed it up the in­side and we nearly crashed. He wasn’t happy; we had words af­ter­wards.”

With his former GP2 team-mates Marcus Eric­s­son and Nasr hav­ing es­tab­lished them­selves at Sauber in F1 in 2015, Palmer is also rel­ish­ing his chance to prove what he can do. While he had some fi­nan­cial help from his fa­ther in GP2, he’s been able to raise funds for F1 from other per­sonal spon­sors, in­clud­ing Comma, an oil com­pany based in Kent. But aside from short­term help (which is much needed in En­stone), there is greater long-term sta­bil­ity com­ing, as Re­nault con­tinue (at the time of F1 Rac­ing go­ing to press) their takeover of the squad.

“Re­nault com­ing in is huge, be­cause this team would be in­se­cure with­out them,” says Palmer. “It’s been tough go­ing, but the share­hold­ers have been work­ing through things. Re­nault com­ing in is good for the sport and ex­cit­ing for me next sea­son. I don’t think there’ll be fire­works straight away, but they’ll se­cure the team fi­nan­cially and will be fully mo­ti­vated to do a good job.”

As he pre­pares for his first sea­son as an F1 racer, Palmer is look­ing to cut his com­mute by mov­ing from Sus­sex to Ox­ford­shire “be­cause the M25 is hell”. It seems sen­si­ble: we make it back from our stroll at the ap­pointed hour, but as he strides off to speak to the Beeb, it’s clear that, in­creas­ingly, his time is much in de­mand.

for driv­ing an “There is no sub­sti­tute

gives me a F1 car. To be out in FP1

I can do. I’m chance to prove what

lap record, not try­ing to set a new

about” but equally I’m not hang­ing

“Re­nault com­ing in is huge. It’s good for the sport and ex­cit­ing for me next sea­son”

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