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”