Jack Aitken is aiming for his F1 breakthrough in 2020
Formula One have, for once, played a masterstroke. Wednesday’s announcement that the future of the British Grand Prix is safe for another five years at Silverstone comes on the eve of this year’s event, with Lewis Hamilton romping towards a sixth world championship and rising star Lando Norris celebrating a new McLaren contract on top of his best weekend performance of his fledgling career.
F1 fever is alive and well in the UK, and this weekend 340,000 fans will descend on the home of motorsport to watch the best of British in Hamilton, Norris and George Russell, the reigning F2 champion who despite Williams’ struggles is still catching the eye this season, while Thai-Briton Alexander Albon will not go without his own home support.
But lurking just beneath the surface is Britain’s next bright young thing - well, not as young as Norris and Russell but by all accounts one to watch over the next eight months. This is the most important time in Jack Aitken’s career, as the remainder of the Formula Two season will determine whether he lands an F1 seat next season or not.
“I want to be in a race seat, it’s as simple as that,” Aitken tells The Independentas he prepares for his home races this weekend. “That’s very difficult for anybody to achieve. The chances are always against you but being with Renault and part of their programme and having done the testing role for a couple of years now, I feel like I’m ready.”
Aitken has very much taken the long road to F1. He elected to finish his education at school as others put all their eggs in their four-wheeled basket to pursue the ultimate motorsport dream, and he even pondered university until he realised he could not balance student life with that of an elite racing driver - the two are about as polar opposite as you can get these days though that wasn't always the case.
The same can be said of Aitken’s career when compared to Norris’s. The latter graduated from the Ginetta Junior Championship to Formula Four, Formula Renault and Formula Three before joining the F1 circus, gaining promotion each year though the support series to reach F1 five years after starting out. Aitken, on the other hand, has taken a holistic approach of getting everything right before taking the next step, resulting in a three-year stay in Formula Renault, two years in GP3 and this, his second year in F2 where he is currently fifth in the championship.
Last season was a tricky one for Aitken, not least due to the fact he simply did not fit with ART despite their heavyweight status in F2, leading to the big decision to move to Campos Racing where the British-Korean driver is much more at home. But it was also difficult in that those drivers who he spent 2018 battling with in Russell, Norris and Albon all graduated where he did not.
“The team change has definitely helped,” he explains. “We were in a difficult position at the end of last year where we were stepping away from a championship-winning team, it’s never going to look very logical but I felt it was the right decision. I still think that’s the right decision.
“It was difficult halfway through last year when it became clear that I was going to have to do another year (in F2) to get this right. You always want to be moving on as quickly as possible but at the same time I wasn’t ready. There were things I didn’t understand about how I was performing in the F2 car that I had to get a hold of, and Renault were clear on that as well because that’s part of my development as a driver. It was frustrating but it was definitely the right decision.”
That support from Renault is a big factor in why Aitken may just reach his dream and find a home in F1. Now in his fourth year with Renault, the French manufacturer have been impressed with Aitken’s performances in his role as official test driver, which gives him a full comparison to how current drivers Nico Hulkenberg and Daniel Ricciardo are performing.
“I see how I compare to the drivers as much as we can on those days and I like that comparison, but I do need to get the results in Formula Two so quality is quite a big part of that,” Aitken says of his role with Renault.
Aitken is in his fourth year with Renault's development programme (Getty)
What helps his cause is that there may just be a seat open at Renault next season. Ricciardo may be contracted through to the end of 2020, but Hulkenberg’s contract is up at the end of the year and while the idea of him leaving the team appears unlikely right now, both parties have said publicly that their options are open. If not, Aitken will need to force something at the likes of Williams, Alfa Romeo, Toro Rosso or Haas, which appears a much harder task.
There is also Renault’s presence in Formula E, which remains with the Nissan e.dams outfit that currently homes Sebastien Buemi and Oliver Rowland - a previous Renault development driver himself. But that is simply not an option for Aitken, not for now at least, as his path only leads to one destination.
“My approach has always been the biggest best thing you can do in motorsport is F1,” he says. “I’m going to aim for that, and always aim for that until it’s ripped away from me basically. At that point you will then hopefully be high enough up that ladder if you like that you will have enough options to fall somewhere decent, so I don’t think about that too much if I’m honest. I just hope that if I’m ever in that situation I hope I’ll be alright. There’ll be an offer on the table somewhere but I’ll figure it out.
Ricciardo could be paired with Aitken at Renault next season
“Age is a tricky one because I’m probably older than the average nowadays but I don’t see that as a bad thing. I don’t see why that should be. I started later than a lot of people and I finished school which a lot of people didn’t as well so that will push me a bit later, but it means that I get on with the engineers quite well and understand things that maybe I wouldn’t if I didn’t have that extra few years at school, and I don’t think there will ever be a time limit where if I’m at this point I’ll stop. I’ll stop when it’s clear that I’m not going to make it.”
Aitken has also recently broadened his horizons, joining Will Buxton on Twitter show ‘F1 Live’ and hosting his own YouTube broadcasts from race events, but that doesn’t mean he’s priming himself for life after motorsport just yet as he stresses “I don’t see a world post-racing to be honest”.
It is a symbol of his determination to make his F1 dream work. That continues on Saturday, with the F2 feature race in front of his home fans, before Sunday morning’s sprint race, and whether Aitken makes it to the premier class next year or remains in F2, he knows that the delights of competing in front of a full house at Silverstone will not disappear next season.
Aitken took his first F2 win of the season in Baku (FIA)
Aitken is a self-confessed street-circuit fan, evidenced as much from his victory in Baku earlier this year, so it is unsurprising to hear he is torn on the option of a true ‘home’ Grand Prix in London, or maintaining the British GP in its traditional format.
“I’m very conflicted,” he says. “I would love to see a race in London because I was born and raised in London and I think that is every driver’s dream to race on a street track of the city they’re living in, but Silverstone is the home of British motorsport, it’s where it all started with F1 and the British Racing Drivers’ Club is based there.
“I drove there in junior formulas so it wouldn’t really feel right if it wasn’t on the calendar in a lot of ways, in the same way without Spa, Monza and Monaco, you could never imagine F1 being a calendar without those tracks. But F1 is changing, so maybe ... I would love to see a London F1 circuit but it would be strange missing Silverstone.”
Liberty Media have made no secret of their desire to stage a London Grand Prix, while current mayor Sadiq Khan has opened the door to the prospect. But given what Britain offers F1 in homing six of the 10 teams (seven if you count Haas’ secondary base in Banbury) and a quarter of the grid if Aitken gains promotion next season, should British fans be treated to two races per season? Spain was the most recent nation to do so while Germany and has done so in the past, and the current French Grand Prix is held just 180km from Monaco. But Aitken is not expecting that to become a reality in Britain any time soon, no matter how good it would be.
“I’m biased in the sense that two British races would make a lot of sense to me, considering the F1 teams are based here,” he says. “The UK is the home of motorsport, but I think from a commercial point of view that would be very difficult. You just can’t see it making financial sense unfortunately without government backing and I don’t see that happening.”
Luckily for him, Aitken does not need to worry about making such decisions. What he does need to worry about is the remaining six rounds of the F2 championship, starting with Silverstone and ending in Abu Dhabi in December. They will decide where his future lies next season, and he knows that in the world of F1, results mean prizes. If he can add to his sole victory this season, he may just go on to achieve his dream in 2020.