At only 23 years old, New Zealander Mitch Evans has a motorsport CV well beyond his years, and is currently driving in Formula E for the Panasonic Jaguar Racing team. Badger GP’s Sarah Merritt was lucky enough to be able to grab some time with Mitch to talk through his career and hear how motorsport was always in his DNA.
Sarah Merritt: Although I know that you are now driving in Formula E with Panasonic Jaguar Racing, and I knew that you had won the GP3 championship in 2012, I wanted to try and understand how you’d started off on the path towards a motorsport career. I was really impressed to see how many different racing series that you had competed in back home prior to the parts that I knew about, and the massive amount of experience that you have amassed for someone of your years. When did you first know that you had the motorsport bug? Was it due to your Dad’s own passion for motorsport?
Mitch Evans: “Yes, basically. It came actually from my grandfather originally, he was involved in rallying. When my Dad was young, he got into rallying, then into circuit racing when he was a bit older and qualified for Le Mans, and did a few pretty big things. He holds the Land Speed Record in New Zealand, although I wasn’t born when that happened! I got into racing after my brother did, he’s a bit older than me. I started driving when I was about 4 and started racing when I was around 6. I was born into one of these families where it was just a given that it was going to happen. I had the bug from an early age and I was at race circuits from when I was born. The motorsport scene was just part of our lives, and I didn’t really know any differently!”
SM: Who were your motorsport idols growing up? Which racers did you perhaps watch on television or racing and aspired to be like when you were older?
ME: “Obviously my Dad was a huge one as he got me into racing, but also he inspired me to push on, but from an international level, probably Lewis Hamilton and Mark Webber.”
ME: “I always looked up to Lewis, he was in GP2 and coming through when I was very young, so he inspired me quite a bit, and when he jumped to F1, having that huge impact that he did initially, was inspiring for many drivers. And Mark? Until Daniel Ricciardo came along, he was the only Australasian driver for many years to be in F1, when I was in go-karts, and since then, I’ve become a lot closer to him on a personal level.”
SM: So you started off in karting (and we’ve talked about your family’s love of racing), and you progressed through many racing series, some of which British fans may not know about before you then appeared on our radar in GP3. How did the transition to the MW Arden team under Mark (Webber) and Christian (Horner) come about – how did they find you?
ME: “That’s a good question, not many people know, to be honest. I was racing in New Zealand and Australia in Formula Ford, and I was getting good results. Mark got into contact with a good friend of mine, Greg Murphy, and Mark was looking at bringing either a Kiwi or an Australian over to Europe to take under his wing and put into his GP3 team under his management role. He knows how hard it is from our side of the world to try and make it over to Europe and make a career out of it. I raced in Formula Ford at the Australian Grand Prix in 2009, and I got the opportunity to meet Mark in the F1 paddock, and have a look at his car in the garage and have a chat with him. I got on really well with him, and then I had a great weekend, getting two podiums, and at 14 years old, I was the youngest to do so.”
ME: “Mark and his wife Ann got in touch with Greg and my family later that year and said that they wanted to do something a bit more seriously with me. That blossomed throughout 2010 whilst I was still racing in Australasia, and I came to Europe that year to test with MW Arden in GP3. I signed with him for 2011, and went on to win the championship the following year.”
ME: “I was 16 at that stage. I left school at the end of 2010 and came to England to live with Mark and his family. It was a big step, a lot of sacrifices to move away from New Zealand and obviously, it’s not that close, and to leave family and friends to take on the racing scene over in Europe. It’s crazy how fast it has gone since then!”
SM: So let’s touch on that 2012 season – that must have been a real blast for you, ending up as a GP3 champion at the age of 17. What was that year like? Was there one race that stood out above the others?
ME: “Go back one year to 2011, and my first year in the series – I had a great season. My first year in Europe was against the likes of Valtteri Bottas and James Calado, some really highly rated drivers. I went on to be one of the title favourites for the next year, and there was only one goal, that was pretty clear – to win the championship. When you’re doing that, it becomes a lot of pressure. The season started off well – a win in Barcelona, a win in Valencia, and another in Hockenheim, with many podiums in between. It was a great year for me, and still probably the highlight of my career in terms of a championship. It went down to the last race, and was a really intense season amongst four of us going for the championship. It was the last lap of the last race where I won it from Daniel Abt, by only a couple of points, after a rollercoaster of a season, and it was huge for me. It set me up well for the next few years.”
SM: GP3 would have been your first taste in person of some of the iconic F1 circuits like Monza and the Hungaroring. What was that like for you, as a motorsport enthusiast as well as a driver, and which one stood out to you?
ME: “It was quite surreal. I watched all these circuits over the years, watching the F1 at midnight or 1 am in New Zealand, and playing them on my PlayStation for years. Then to see them in real life and drive on them was honestly surreal. It’s a lot different seeing them on TV to when you see them in the car and actually drive the circuit, from a driver’s point of view. I just couldn’t believe it – I’d seen these circuits driven by guys I looked up to in F1, and racing in a support category to F1 was obviously amazing. I just had to try and take it in my stride, and it was a huge contrast to the support categories from where I was before. I love the European circuits. One of my favourites is Silverstone – I love it there. It requires a lot of bravery, it’s very high speed. The other iconic one I love is Monaco. I know a lot of drivers might say Spa, but my favourite permanent circuit is Silverstone.”
SM: It’s great to hear you say that, I know it will be a popular answer. We all love going there too, well, apart from the rain…
ME: “It’s all part of it over a British Grand Prix weekend!”
SM: So from there you made the move to GP2, firstly again with Arden, then two seasons with Russian Time, then Campos – some big name teams there that we are all familiar with. During that period, in 2015, you also drove at Le Mans and came second in the LMP2 category there. That must have been an amazing experience, and in my eyes, quite a different type of car and type of racing. Did it take much to adjust to the differences of jumping out of the GP2 car and into an LMP2 one?
ME: “It takes a couple of goes to get it right, but as drivers, we’re pretty good at adapting to different cars and pushing a car to the limit. As soon as you work out what the car requires to go fast, we can jump between cars pretty easily, but it’s the style of racing that is a little different. It’s a different mentality, coming from sprint racing in GP2 to endurance racing, and that was probably the biggest thing to me. Also, sharing a car with two other drivers wasn’t something that I was used to before, but once you realise that is just part of that type of racing, it’s pretty straightforward, it’s just the races go for a little bit longer and you’ve got to look at the bigger picture a lot more. It isn’t all about being the fastest, a lot of it comes down to reliability and an average lap time, not just an overall lap time.”
Doing Le Mans was one of the most amazing experiences that I have ever been involved with, and I would love to do it again. Obviously, being on the podium was a highlight, but that whole week at Le Mans is pretty special. I was racing with Oliver Turvey and Simon Dolan, and they were great to work with at Jota Sport. Definitely good memories!”
SM: Jumping right up to date, you are now with Panasonic Jaguar Racing in Formula E. I wondered if, before you joined Jaguar, had you watched much of the previous seasons of racing in Formula E and had thoughts on it? And then, after you had driven the car for the first time at that 2016 Donington test if it was as expected, or perhaps changed your mind on things that you might have had preconceptions about?
ME: “I did watch a few races from the season before, mainly because everyone was intrigued about the championship, what it would be like instead of having a combustion engine to have battery power, and how from an entertainment point of view, that was going to play out. Also, I had a lot of friends involved in it, lots of guys that I had raced against, so I was always going to support them.”
ME: “I didn’t really know what to think about it in the first season. I think everybody was a bit unsure and didn’t know how it would progress or what to expect. The next year, I was pushing my management a bit to sniff around and see if I could get an opportunity to get involved. If you were looking at the bigger picture of the championship, you could see where it could head and the potential that it could grow to. I got the call up from the Panasonic Jaguar Racing team to do an evaluation with them at Donington and I didn’t know what to expect, to be honest. I’d watched some onboard footage to try and do a bit of homework before I actually drove the car, and it was actually a lot more difficult than I had expected.
The speed is quite low but, that aside, there’s the braking technique, the car is relatively heavy, and there are a few other things that you don’t really get an appreciation for watching on TV. The demands, and the level that we are all driving at, which is pretty high – that caught me by surprise – with how on edge you have to drive the car to get the most out of it. The braking technique was the trickiest to get used to, with the regeneration of the battery through the rear axle – it’s quite sensitive and there’s a lot of things that you have to have in line for that to work the way you want. On the energy saving side, it’s not like we are just cruising around and counting down the laps, it’s really hard to hit your energy targets in a race with everyone else, and pass, defend, and keep out of the walls, and bring your lap times down. There’s a lot to think about, so mentally, it’s quite challenging. I’ve got a huge respect for everyone in the championship, and I think anyone that drives the cars finds a new level of appreciation for it.
Also, it’s very unpredictable in terms of the results, which I think is great. You will see one driver on one day be top five, and then the next, they are qualifying 16th. That shows how difficult it is to get it right on the day, but it’s sport, you want it to be unpredictable. Unlike Formula 1, where you might have one or two teams lead over a season or consistently be up the front, but in Formula E and some other categories, someone out of the blue could win on the day, and I think that’s great for the sport.”
SM: Jaguar is a great and historic name in motorsport, and in road cars. What is it like being part of the Panasonic Jaguar Racing team? Are they a nice bunch of people to work with?
ME: “I’ll be totally honest, they are! I’ve really fallen in love with the team, in terms of being part of the return of Jaguar to racing, which is quite special, but also this whole new era of technology in racing too. For me to be continuing their legacy in motorsport is quite amazing, and the whole team structure has been at a very high level – an F1 level in terms of operationally. I’m super happy to be part of the family and I hope we can spend many years together and keep driving as a team. I feel at home with them and it’s amazing to be racing for such an iconic team, not just in motorsport, but with their road car brand too, and to be representing them.”
SM: As we’ve touched upon already, you’re driving against some big names in Formula E, as well as drivers that you have previously raced against in other race series. What is that like? Is there a bit of banter?
ME: “Most of us are all good mates. The beauty of the Championship is that there is not really any bad air between any of the drivers. I’m really enjoying the atmosphere, there’s some friendly banter and with the guys that I have raced against previously, we have history so that’s great for us, travelling the world, driving these really cool cars in these amazing cities. I think that we are all just embracing the opportunity that Formula E is providing and we are all wanting it to work out. I’m loving it, and yes, there’s a bit of banter, but when we put the helmets on, it turns serious, but we all have a lot of respect for one another. You don’t see that in many championships, but I think it’s very healthy, and I hope we can stay that way.”
SM: Lastly on Formula E, I wanted to mention Fan Engagement. Formula E has been great at this ever since the championship started, with excellent social media content, and I saw this weekend that you gave away some passes to fans, which I think is a brilliant gesture. What are your thoughts on fan engagement and the way Formula E does things for the fans?
ME: “I think Formula E has set an example for the rest of the motorsport community in terms of engaging with the fans in the championship. Obviously, with FanBoost, we have a very unique way of promoting the championship, but also, that fans feel involved, and they feel like they’ve got an influence on it – not the result, but feel like they’re part of the race. I think that’s super important. The social media side is a new part of society and we are getting our heads around the way to get the most out of it and maximise that. Engagement has been great at the circuits – I think all the teams are doing a great job, especially Jaguar who are really getting behind social media and pushing out and engaging with everyone that is supporting us in the championship. Like most championships, we could probably do more, but Formula E had definitely set an example, so hopefully, we can keep evolving with that and get more people engaging with the championship and all us drivers and teams.”
SM: And just to wrap up, as a McLaren fan, it would be remiss of me not to mention another prominent New Zealander who features highly in my love of motorsport, Bruce McLaren. I saw you attended the McLaren movie premiere recently, and McLaren are big on their heritage, as you know, still carrying a Kiwi on the car at every race this year. I was thinking that perhaps, at some point in the future, having a Kiwi IN the car might be a better way to go! Do you think that might ever happen in the future for you?
ME: “It’s obviously very hard to know. It would be amazing for any Kiwi to be given an opportunity at McLaren, especially after that movie. I always knew a lot about our heritage in Formula 1 from a Kiwi point of view as there hasn’t been many of us, and obviously that has been my goal and dream since I was young. For any Kiwi, be that myself or anyone else, to get an opportunity at McLaren would be absolutely incredible. I hope it happens in the near future, but whether they think I’m good enough is up to them. There’s not many Kiwis involved in the team any more, but for that to happen would be so big for the country, and I hope it does, but the way that F1 is at the moment I highly doubt it. I’m very happy at the moment in Formula E, but there is obviously a huge legacy there with what Bruce has left behind.”