As the nights draw in and the ‘traditional’ motorsport season comes to a close, we welcome one of the industry’s most renowned nights, the Autosport Awards. It’s a major celebration of driver, team and machinery achievements, with the highlight of the evening being the recognition of new upcoming talent in the Aston Martin Autosport BRDC Young Driver of the Year Award (AMABA).
The award has been going for 30 years with the first winner being an 18-year-old David Coulthard. Dario Franchitti, Jenson Button, Gary Paffett, George Russell and Lando Norris are amongst the winners throughout the years. I was honoured to be a finalist and then win the award in 2008, and now I’m in the privileged position of being a judge on the panel.
I was hugely thankful for the opportunity when I was 20 years old, and having seen it from the other side I have even more appreciation for it. The award relies on the goodwill of many different organisations who pool their efforts and resources to make it happen. It takes a lot of organisation and commitment from all the partners. Motorsport is a cut-throat business and often companies prioritise their own interests. It’s understandable but at an event like AMABA all the partners are there giving their time and expertise to help young drivers and it really makes the atmosphere special. No one is there to make money. Everyone wants to make it the best it can possibly be, and I’m very proud to be a part of that and to see what it achieves.
However, what I now appreciate the most is that it’s an open and honest process: the best and fastest driver wins. A lot of politics can come into play in motorsport, but one of the best things about the AMABA is how pure the judging process is. It’s never a case of considering who deserves it most, or whether they had a ‘difficult season’, it’s purely who is quickest during the driving assessment process. If it’s a close call between two or three drivers then we might look at other aspects, such as the simulator or fitness tests, but ultimately it’s about ability behind the wheel on the day.
The format of the assessment is incredible. The Silverstone Grand Prix circuit is used exclusively for two days of track activity and we have full control to run the cars and sessions how and when we want. For many, it will be the most professional situation they have faced to date and can be quite a culture shock. It certainly was for me back in 2008. We had to hand in our phones so we couldn’t contact anyone over the test days. At the time, I knew that speed was the overriding factor, but my presentation and demeanour was also important. I even washed my car on the way to Snetterton (where it was held back then) to make sure it looked as presentable as possible!
On track, it’s a huge step up in machinery for the finalists. It’s important to see them in challenging new environments to assess how they adapt their driving and push the new-found limits. Often the drivers have only done a couple of years in single seaters and nothing in closed cockpit cars, so the range of machinery is important. The selection of cars has changed over the years depending on what classes are a relevant challenge for the drivers, so this year we had a Garage 59-run Aston Martin Vantage GT3, a Ligier LMP3 and MotorSport Vision Formula 2 cars.
I set the benchmark lap for the LMP3 car, and I find that almost more nerve-wracking than when I was a finalist myself! I insist that I’m given the same or less time to prepare than the finalists for a true comparison, which helps all the judges recognise the impressive performance level at which the finalists are operating. In a car and on a tyre that I’m not familiar with, the pressure of doing a representative lap whilst not risking the car is an amazing balance of pressure from within and I thoroughly enjoy it!
In 2008 we had F3 and DTM cars along with GT4 Aston Martins. It was a real mix of capabilities as the GT4 was very much a road-car system, whilst the F3 was a step up from Formula Renault. However, the DTM car was another level of crazy with its carbon brakes, tyre warmers and closed cockpit, where you almost sat in the back seat! I vividly remember asking the DTM head engineer about the gear usage and he just replied with, “You tell me after the session”. That was an incredible moment and I remember feeling a rush of responsibility.
It’s great to see these young drivers take on the amazing challenge of getting to grips with a completely new car in a pressurised environment over 20 laps – ten on old tyres, ten on new rubber. All the time they know that just one little mistake in the wrong place can put them out of the running. The rule is: if you crash, you’re out. I remember this bringing such intensity to my focus over those two days.
The shootout takes place in late October, where the judges gather all the information to make a decision. Then it’s a long and agonising wait for the finalists until the winner is announced at the Autosport Awards on the 8 December, so there’s just a few more days of anticipation. We’ve had a brilliant group of finalists in Enaam Ahmed, Jamie Chadwick, Johnathan Hoggard and Ayrton Simmons – I’m sure they’ll all go on to do great things, whoever wins.
It’s lovely to be able to enjoy the event without the stress of trying to win it, and to spend time with the other judges who have a wealth of motorsport experience in their respective fields. There’s a huge feeling of responsibility when you’re analysing the data over the course of the driving assessment and helping make the decision on the winner. But the biggest pressure now is trying not to look silly when I set my benchmark lap – I can only imagine the ribbing I’d get from the judges if I set the slowest time!