Foot on the pedal, an eye on the prize
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The next young Kiwi with one foot on the throttle and the other stepping on to the European motor racing ladder is 16-year-old Liam Lawson.
The 2016-17 New Zealand Formula Ford champ, who grew up in Clarks Beach and Pukekohe, is proving a race winner and title contender in Germany’s ADAC Formula 4 Championship.
After a frustrating first round when rain interrupted his qualifying efforts and left him down the grid, Lawson has become a front runner with the Netherlands-based Van Amersfoort Racing squad.
His scorecard shows seven podiums — including three wins — from the last three rounds.
Lawson is now home briefly to catch up with his family and financial backers while the German series takes a summer break. It resumes with the fifth of seven rounds on the July 21-22 German F1 Grand Prix support programme at Hockenheim.
It’s been a rapid progression for the middle child of five in a family with no motorsport background until Liam and his father Jared spent time watching racing together.
“I’ve got no idea where my passion came from,” says Lawson.
“My Dad watched some racing but I think I’m the main part of getting him into it.
“My best mate through primary school started karting and I’d go along and watch him. I can remember thinking ‘I’ve got to get into this’.
“I started racing when I was nearly 8 and did karts till I was 12.’’
Lawson was aware of the progress of young Kiwi drivers including Shane van Gisbergen, Richie Stanaway and Nick Cassidy — three graduates of the SpeedSport Scholarship programme.
His karting career was topped by a 2014 national junior restricted title and success at the National Schools Champs and he entered the scholarship when he turned 13, winning the shoot-out and securing a fully paid 2015-16 season of Formula First racing.
He stepped up to Formula Ford the following summer, dominating the series with 14 wins from 15 starts. During 2017 Lawson raced in Australian Formula 4 and was runner-up in the title.
Europe was the next move and racing in Germany with the Van Amersfoort squad is a proven route for Kiwi drivers.
“They do F4 and F3 and they had Richie [Stanaway] when he won German F3. Apart from [Max] Verstappen he’s been one of their most successful drivers.
“I was pretty nervous before I went over. I knew it was going to be a big task and I was a bit nervous about living over there.
“But with Van Amersfoort, it’s like having a second home. The team has staff houses which is where I live with some of the mechanics and my team-mate. It’s been a lot easier in that sense than I thought.
“The last four months have just been non-stop with testing at different tracks, training, simulator work and racing.
“When I’ve had some time off I have learned how to juggle and played some tennis with my team-mate.”
Lawson went to Europe with a blend of high hopes and realistic expectations.
“The goal was always to go over and try to win the series. I knew that would be very difficult and the first round was a struggle when it rained before I could set a time in qualifying.
“We were a bit far back after that but ever since we’ve been catching up and hopefully we can carry this on because we’re not far off the lead now.
“The competition level is really high. Australia was competitive but there weren’t as many cars and this is on another level. I’ve learnt so much with this team and the way they race. It’s been a big step up.”
With three rounds (nine races) remaining, Lawson trails Lirim Zendeli (Germany) by 24 points and is 37 clear of third-placed Enzo Fittipaldi (Brazil), the grandson of double world champion and Indy 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi.
Lawson’s car carries support from Turners Car Auctions and the Giltrap Group.
“And there’s a massive group of supporters putting in big amounts and small amounts. The support group around us is cool.
“It’s a lot of the same people who have been involved with Scott Dixon, Brendon Hartley and other Kiwi drivers,” says Lawson.
“In terms of mentoring I have Enzo Mucci, who is rated the world’s best driver coach.
“He’s really good to work with. I’d been watching his videos for a few years so it was bit weird when I met him and we started working together.
“And since I jumped out of karts into Formula First, Kenny Smith always has been there and I speak to him a lot.”
Though young Kiwi racing drivers face the additional challenges of living and racing on the other side of the world to break into top-level racing, Lawson believes they hold one advantage.
“We get to race cars at a younger age than most of the guys over there and they seem to encourage drivers to go from karts straight into Formula 4.
“Formula Ford for me was the most valuable learning experience. It taught me so much about driving and set-up.
“A Formula Ford has no grip and no aero and it dances around on top of the road. It teaches you so much about driving on the limit and wheel-to-wheel racing. The Europeans might do heaps of testing and can be quick but they don’t have the race craft you can learn in a Formula Ford.”
While the German title is Lawson’s focus through till the final round in September, plans are coming together for the future.
“I’m hoping to come home and do the Toyota Racing Series over the summer. There’s no real plan for next year yet — maybe FIA European Formula 3 if I’m ready for that.”
Lawson says his long-term goal is to race in F1.
“When people asked me a few years ago, I was a little bit unsure what to say because they would say it’s not possible.
“But I believe it’s possible if I focus on taking it race by race, and driving at the best of my ability.”