Over the past ten seasons, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button have stood on the podium no less than 134 times and shared a staggering 63 Grand Prix wins between them. You could say we’ve been spoiled, but British F1 fans have become accustomed to success and are hungry for more.
With Jenson Button’s Formula One career approaching an end, it’s natural to wonder where the next British racing star might come from, but anyone who follows F1’s main feeder series will know, the future is in safe hands.
Jake Dennis is a 21-year-old driver from Nuneaton, Warwickshire, and currently sits in fourth place in the highly competitive GP3 championship. A multiple race winner this year, Jake has his sights set on a career in top-level motorsport and explains how the Racing Steps Foundation helped him to get started.
“I was lucky enough to get sponsored at the age of twelve, just at the point where I moved into junior karting. [Racing Steps] were a source of funding and provided management at that time, and still are now. At that age, I didn’t really know what to expect, and I didn’t expect to still be with them almost nine years down the line now racing in GP3.
“They fully fund all my racing, but not only that, they also manage me and guide me in the right direction, in terms of what teams and what classes to move into. They also help with my fitness and the social media side – we do sessions on that as well. It’s a really well-run programme and there are eight or nine of us on the programme now.”
The Racing Steps Foundation
For many drivers, getting a sponsor is crucial to their hopes of climbing the motorsport ladder. Jake explains how the link with Racing Steps first came about.
“When I finished cadets – which is the lowest category in karting, just because of my age, Martin Hines approached me and said ‘we’d like to have you in our junior karting team, free of charge’ so I moved into that as it was the top junior level, and then literally three months later the Racing Steps Foundation came along and it was a case of being in the right place at the right time. So that’s one of getting on to it, another way is by simply being good and getting spotted!”
Winning the coveted McLaren Autosport award…
Being good might be enough to get you spotted, but to keep progressing you have to be exceptional. Jake’s big break came back in 2012 when he won the prestigious McLaren Autosport BRDC Award – a springboard to greater things for many of its former winners
“We’d just finished a great season with Fortec Motorsport in Formula Renault NEC, which we managed to win. I was feeling pretty confident after a great year, and I managed to get selected into the final six to go into the McLaren Autosport award and I won it. It was a relief more than anything as there is so much pressure involved; it didn’t help that Oliver [Rowland] had won it before the year before (also part of the Racing Steps Foundation), so there was pressure on me to replicate that.
“Winning the award and getting the McLaren F1 test was the biggest thing for me. To get my name out there, to say I’ve driven a Formula One car and to have that title on my CV is just incredible really. If you look at the names who’ve won it in the past, like Paul di Resta, Jenson Button, David Coulthard – if you’re going to win an award, that’s really the one you want.”
Testing the McLaren MP4-26 at Silverstone
Jake has fond memories of the McLaren test but admits he was surprised by how big a step up it was from the cars he had been racing.
“I’d come from Formula Renault 2.0 which hasn’t got a great deal of horsepower – it’s basically a road engine but a bit quicker as you haven’t got the weight as well – then a month later, I was driving a Formula One car around Silverstone, it was one hell of a step! You only get about 20 laps, so you’re really thrown in at the deep end. They talk you through all the procedures and you get given a booklet which talks you through how to work the car and how it runs, so you have to study that beforehand.
“The speed was phenomenal, especially down the straights – and the grip was sensational. It was such a big step in every way to what I’d driven in the past and it was better than what I imagined Formula One would ever be.”
The benefits of racing in front of the F1 paddock
After the McLaren test, Jake progressed to the European F3 championship where he raced alongside the likes of Lance Stroll and Max Verstappen. After finishing third in the 2015 championship, the logical next step was a move to GP3 and a chance to shine in front of the watching F1 paddock.
“It helps a bit [sharing a race calendar with Formula One], but they’re pretty busy with their own schedules. I do some work for an F1 team in the simulator, and when you walk in on a Monday, they know your result and they give you congratulations. When I won in Monza it was an Arden 1-2 and Christian Horner was down there celebrating with us so you wouldn’t get if you weren’t at their races.”
The challenge of reaching the F1 grid
Despite the recent trend for drivers jump straight from GP3 to F1, Jake remains philosophical about his own chances of reaching F1 and doesn’t expect his backers to buy their way in.
“I think the way Formula One is right now, you need a hell of a lot of money to get in there. The racing steps foundation are amazing in the way they fund you up to GP2 or LMP2, but they wouldn’t, and rightly so, pay £20-30m to get you into an F1 seat – and not even a Mercedes seat, it would be more like a Haas or a Manor.
“The only other way to get in now is through a driver programme, like Toro Rosso / Red Bull or Ferrari. That’s just the way it is now; teams need a lot of funding. I’ve raced against Charles Leclerc this year, and against Lance Stroll last year; they’re both very good drivers and obviously Charles has the Ferrari backing and Lance is quite wealthy but he is also very fast.”
Keeping his options open
With F1 options limited, Jake’s taken the opportunity to further his skills by competing in LMP2 this year with Jota Sport, and the experience has made him think twice about his future career path.
“It’s definitely changed over this year and last year. I was so fixated on Formula One because I was a bit oblivious to how everything would work. After doing some WEC this year, I feel I’m a bit more mature and know a lot more about the sport in general. My eyesight has definitely shifted towards becoming a professional racing driver – whether that’s WEC, F1, GTs, DTM.
“For sure, I’d love to make it to Formula One, and if someone said ‘you can pick what you want to do’, it would be Formula One any day. My aim now is to become a professional driver, what that will be in we’ll have to wait and see.”
Thanks to Jake for his time and cooperation.