The tricolour flutters in very English Enstone this morning.
Brexit supporters would be traumatised by the effrontery. Just up the road there are the glories of Warwickshire and Worcestershire, so you can almost whiff Ambridge, while Elgar and the Bard of Avon dashed off their concertos and sonnets nearby.
The patriot, then, would be relieved to discover that the new Formula One driver, Jolyon Palmer, is exceedingly English. The son of another F1 man, Jonathan Palmer, he is Cranleigh School educated and lives in London while his rivals swank in Monaco. “I love living in England,” he says. “I don’t want to escape. Living in Oxford would be easier for the team but I enjoy being in Clapham, and I’ll be staying for the foreseeable future.” The French flag flies behind him because some Renault bigwigs were at Enstone’s Whiteways Technical Centre recently, following the painfully protracted takeover of the old Lotus team.
Palmer has replaced Romain Grosjean and last week, when the new set-up launched in Paris, it was confirmed that his team-mate would be Kevin Magnussen, the former McLaren driver having replaced the accident-prone Pastor Maldonado.
In a break from his preparations for the Formula One season, which starts with the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on 20 March, Palmer made a noble effort to defend “Crashtor” Maldonado’s driving, though a fleeting grin rather undermined his best intentions.
“He’s not a bad driver,” said Palmer. “He won GP2 and he won a grand prix, remember. Throughout last season he ran Romain Grosjean close a lot of the time. It was just that he made mistakes at important moments. That’s where Romain had the advantage. But I think Kevin will present a stronger, more consistent challenge. He and Jenson [Button] were very even at McLaren. He’s a known reference point for me.”
But it is not just Magnussen that Palmer has in his sights. “I’m looking forward to going toe-to-toe with the best drivers in the world,” he says. “My strength has always been going wheel-to-wheel, which is always my favourite piece of racing. That’s what I missed in the test driving last year. I can’t wait to get started because the winter has been long.”
By the standards of the sensational Max Verstappen, who made his F1 debut in Australia a year ago aged 17, Palmer is a rookie at 25. But he is already a respected performer, having won the GP2 title in 2014, while last year he was impressive as the then Lotus team’s third driver, appearing in most of the season’s Friday practice sessions.
“I’m an experienced rookie,” he says. “After my time in GP2 and testing I feel in good shape. I’ve got good experience.”
Palmer’s father and manager, Jonathan, now 59, was almost 27 when he made his first appearance in F1, for Williams at Brands Hatch. “Jolyon is coming in at a good time,” he says. “F1 is not just about being quick. It’s about being experienced, confident and mature, and making the right judgments. Jolyon’s a fearsome racer. His race craft is outstanding, in terms of overtaking. He rarely makes a mistake. But his great strength is his outstanding ability to read a race and think of the strategy. He’s strategically very strong.
“In GP2 he was forceful on contributing to and sometimes insisting on strategy, and he was normally right. In his GP2 commentary he showed that he could see what was going on in a race. And driving he has the peripheral awareness to know what’s happening around him. He has a good gut feeling. To be able to drive with seven tenths of mental capacity, so you have another three tenths over, is very important.”
There have been a number of father-son combinations in Formula One: think, for example, Verstappen, Rosberg, Piquet, Hill and Villeneuve. As the saying goes, there is nothing wrong with nepotism provided it’s kept in the family.
But the younger Palmer is right when he says that any suggestion that he’s where he is because of his father is “grossly unfair”.
“I know how hard it’s been to get here,” he says, with something in the neighbourhood of indignation. “Some drivers who have had more successful F1 racing dads than mine haven’t made it. And they’ve been trying. Formula One teams don’t just take you because of your name. In my career I’ve never thought of myself as the son of Jonathan. Other people thought that, of course.”
Certainly there was not the pram-to-kart transition we have seen with other drivers. “I started karting at 13,” he says. “Lewis [Hamilton] was eight and Kevin [Magnussen] about four.”
Palmer, a natural sportsman, played good tennis and county level football, “right-back or central midfield – Ipswich is my team”. But his passion was always motorsport. He cheered on any driver who took on Michael Schumacher, such as Damon Hill, and was a fan of Juan Pablo Montoya. “I liked his aggressive style. He was so gung-ho, great to watch and blisteringly quick as well. He also followed the Enstone-based Fernando Alonso. It’s nice to be where he was 10 years ago, when I was watching him closely on TV.”
Palmer progressed into T Cars (a saloon car competition for drivers aged between 14-17) and then moved to Formula Palmer Audi (2007-8). He then went into Formula Two, but his breakthrough season was his third in GP2 two years ago. He won the championship with three races to spare and scored a record number of points in the series.
Having shown his credentials to break into Formula One, it seemed likely it would happen with Force India, for whom he had one practice run when there were problems with the car.
“I got on very well with the team and I was close to doing business with them last year,” he says. “But it became very clear, with a lot of track time on offer, that Lotus was the way to go.”
But there was no seat until Grosjean, worried by the uncertainty surrounding Lotus, moved to Haas, a new team. Palmer was given the place in October but Renault’s takeover was not confirmed until mid-December, when an insolvency petition was finally dismissed at the high court in London. There had been two adjournments to the case, which involved tax debts of £2.7m.
“Last autumn was not good here. We were struggling to turn up at the track. A lot of stuff turned up late. We had a tyre issue in Budapest. But Japan was the worst. It was back to back with Singapore. So everyone got there early. But it was clear on Tuesday there would be issues and on Wednesday a lot of freight hadn’t turned up. It was really wet and we had no hospitality. But we always managed to get both cars out there.”
This will be a difficult season for Renault because they have had so little time – teams normally start preparing halfway through the previous year. “The big difference is the switch from a Mercedes to a Renault engine,” says Palmer. “We had the strongest engine last year, with Mercedes, and Renault was third, ahead of Honda.”
But, more optimistically, he added: “Mercedes no doubt have the best engine. Behind them there is Ferrari. But like them, the two stand-out teams, we will have a very close relationship between the engine people and the chassis side [at Enstone].
“I’m pleased Red Bull are sticking with the Renault engine because they’re pushing very hard to get the most out of it. You find out twice as much if you have two teams. This will be a rebuilding year, a grounding year. It’s the start of a long-term project.”
The worry for Palmer, who has signed a one-year contract, is that he does not have much time to make his mark. His father, a former doctor at the Royal Sussex County Hospital, says: “If you don’t make the best of the opportunity you’re going to get spat out very quickly. Jolyon’s got to make an impact this year. Getting results is the bottom line. It’s important he does justice to the car and furthers his reputation for future years. But he’s confident and relaxed, not cocky but not overawed either. And that’s because he won’t be walking into a new organisation at the last minute.”
But the father never tells the son how to drive. Jonathan, a businessman who owns five motor racing circuits, says: “There is very little I could constructively help him with. His world is very different from mine.”
The Whiteways Technical Centre, with the tricolour flying, feels a little different too. But after a worrying winter, with the threat of another F1 team going to the wall, no one was complaining about that.
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