In 2017, Formula Scout asked what might have been on Ben Barnicoat’s then-recently ended junior single-seater career. As it turned out, after making his name with McLaren in sportscars, we got the answer in 2020
Name a British talent whose teenaged years ended with a McLaren race seat and most would look to Formula 1’s Lando Norris. But there was another junior single-seater racer just a few years prior who was handed the same opportunity with the brand. Like Norris he picked up at least one title a year in his first three years in cars, and had also impressed in the assessments for the then-McLaren-backed Autosport BRDC Award (MABA) for young drivers.
The difference here is that while Norris became a McLaren junior as the F1 team’s new management started to solidify its hold, a 19-year-old Ben Barnicoat left it as its relationship with Honda changed how the team – and its junior ranks – operated.
Barnicoat’s McLaren story didn’t end there though, as within a year he had been signed once again by the brand and given a lucrative race seat in its expanding sportscar arm. His single-seater story didn’t end there either, as earlier this year he made two appearances in the F1-supporting FIA Formula 3 Championship with Carlin.
He was then called in by the team again for a Euroformula cameo earlier this month, and ended up taking a pole and a win. The ‘what might have been?’ that Formula Scout asked when Barnicoat made his sportscar move was firmly answered.
While the McLaren relationship continues to this day, it was the support of another prominent supporter of young talent in British motorsport that actually launched Barnicoat’s career. The now-23-year-old explains:
“I was very lucky at the end of 2010 was when I got my big break I would say. That year I raced in the British Karting Championship with Mick Barrett Racing, and I was up against Jake Dennis, who was part of the Racing Steps Foundation (RSF). I really took it to him that year in the title fight, and that caught the eyes of both McLaren’s junior team and RSF.
“McLaren was the first one that I signed to, and RSF shortly afterwards. Initially McLaren had taken me on and they were going to fund and guide my career, but then RSF also showed a lot of interest and I think McLaren knew that RSF would be able to do a very good job for me, which they did. They put me all through my international karting career, with ART Grand Prix, and into Formula Renault with Fortec Motorsports.”
Barnicoat’s single-seater debut with Fortec came at the very end of 2013 in the three-race FR2.0 BARC Autumn Cup at Rockingham, and occurred in part because of one bad karting result. That year the CIK-FIA World Karting Championship took place over two rounds rather than one, and a retirement from the final in round one at PFI (a track his family now manages) meant his title hopes were all but over. That led to a switch in focus to preparing to step up to single-seaters for 2014 in, all likeliness, the club-level FR BARC.
Barnicoat’s triple pole and two wins at Rockingham impressed McLaren, who switched his focus instead to a campaign in a newer car in the higher-level FR Northern European Cup for 2014. It was a title he also won at his first attempt.
“So I guess a lot of McLaren’s work was done by RSF, to be honest, it’s more those guys at RSF that I have to thank for my single-seater career and bringing me up to be a professional racing driver at McLaren. And because the way it works like that, although I was always associated as a McLaren young driver and I had their support in terms of fitness and guidance, there was never such a strong connection there in terms of doing sim work and stuff like that.
“Then when the Honda [F1 engine supply] came about, the McLaren young driver programme sort of merged into a Honda young driver programme and that was kind of the end of the road for me. Which at the time at a young age, I was very upset about, F1 was always my dream.
“But when the RSF was then coming to an end at the end of 2016, I was looking towards GTs, and McLaren were the first people to offer me an opportunity, and I saw a future there to become a professional, and I took it. That’s why I am where I am today. Even though I was upset about losing the F1 young driver programme, it always just proves to never burn your bridges because, no matter what, you can always call upon old people to open new doors further down the line.”
Between his two spells at McLaren, Barnicoat’s 2016 was spent primarily in the FIA F3 European Championship. Pre-season he had signed with the often-dominant Prema outfit, but instead he lined up for his rookie season with the inexperienced Hitech GP. He ended up seventh in the points with two wins, including one on the streets of Pau, but Prema drivers won 20 of the 28 other races on the calendar. Had he been at Prema, perhaps there wouldn’t have been a ‘what if’ of his single-seater career going further.
“The RSF managed all kind of contractual situations between teams and I just had my contract with RSF,” Barnicoat explains.
“It was very set in stone that I was going to Prema on the back of a strong FR2.0 Eurocup campaign. I’d already done a first few tests and done a very good job with the team, and obviously I was super excited to go to the best team there was. Then I just remember it all going quiet, missing a lot of winter testing, and then next thing I knew I wasn’t part of Prema anymore and we had to find somewhere else to go.”
Some have suggested that Prema investor Lawrence Stroll, whose son Lance was racing for the team at the time, was involved in Barnicoat’s departure from the Italian team’s line-up. Barnicoat has no idea if that was the case.
“I can’t, hand on my heart, answer the question as to what happened there. That would be a question for the likes of Derek Walters and Graham Sharp, who were the main men at RSF.
“We didn’t really have a lot of time left to choose a team, a lot of the seats were already gone, and Hitech was one of the only available places. At the time it looked like a great place to be, so we decided to go there and the start of the year worked out very well, but we sort of had a few issues along the way. Norisring we were having a really tough time of it and I had a bad crash and badly damaged my car.
“I used the team’s spare car from that race onwards and just never really seemed to have a good run-in from there on in. That was probably the darkest days of my junior single-seater career, and unfortunately it came to an end after that.”
A move into Indy Lights was eyed up for 2017, but without the financial support of RSF it proved impossible, and it was a combination of his impressive GT car performances in MABA assessments in 2014 and ’15, and meeting some of McLaren’s GT personnel during a GT World Challenge Europe cameo with crack Audi squad W Racing Team (earned in a shootout test between RSF drivers) that led to his motorsport future being secured with McLaren at the end of that year instead.
“I didn’t really feel like I ended my first single-seater career on a great note, which is another reason why it’s been so good to get back in one and kind of prove I can do it even after such a long time away.”
So how did Barnicoat’s race-winning return to F3-level competition come about two weeks ago?
“It was a last-minute call again [to do Euroformula at Mugello]. I drove for Carlin in the European and Asian Le Mans Series in 2019 and early part of 2020, and Carlin has been a team that I’ve always been kind of quite close to but haven’t actually driven for up until last season. I just did a very good job there, and they were very happy with me, but I still didn’t really expect it to bring back any single-seater opportunities.
“But earlier this year when they had the issue [with Enaam Ahmed leaving his FIA F3 seat] I jumped in there, I did a good job, I helped the team and I guess although the result wasn’t great at Silverstone, it was looking like we were on for a good one in the final race. And then, you know, I’d kind of proved that I could still do it.”
Before a mechanical issue struck, Barnicoat was on course for a podium in the last of his four FIA F3 starts, having started the race from reversed-grid pole and defended hard against drivers with faster equipment.
“They’ve been having not the smoothest time in Euroformula, they’ve got two guys who definitely have talent but lack experience, and I think they just need someone with experience to go and kind steer the ship a bit and see where they were at. I was able to do a great job, my first pole since 2015 and first win since 2016 in a single-seater, so it was great to be able to achieve that with them.”
Barnicoat was second fastest in dry free practice, in his first day in the series’ Dallara 320 car, then a “disappointed” sixth in the wet qualifying session that set the grid for the first race.
“In some ways it was Carlin putting that work in off-track between Monza [the previous weekend’s round] and Mugello that kind of made me look very good, really. Because I was able to turn up and have great pace from the word go.”
Barnicoat’s experience showed though, especially in the races, and he rose up to finish on the podium in race one. In similarly wet conditions the next day, he took Carlin’s first pole and win of the year while his rookie team-mates struggled.
“Zane [Maloney] had a fifth, Ido [Cohen] qualified fifth for race one, so we all showed potential throughout the weekend and I guess my experience was what allowed me to hook it up and get the win.
“It didn’t quite work out that well for the other guys, but I guess that’s why they need someone like me there just to help them and guide them and kind of leave the development of the car to me. And they concentrate on improving their driving.
“I’ve already been through that stage of having to learn the new techniques and stuff throughout my junior career, and also in sportscars, and that allows me to be able to focus more on the car and everything else comes a little bit more naturally.”
The mix of conditions at Mugello helped Carlin “get information across all boards” for car development, and would have helped Cohen and Maloney in being able to observe new team-mate Barnicoat’s wet-weather workings; his two F3 wins from his first junior single-seater career both came in the damp.
Barnicoat admits the process went the other way too, saying: “When we were debriefing I’m listening to what they’re saying about the car and what they’re saying they’re trying because I’m very down to earth in the sense that I know I can always be better and I can always learn. So even one or two small things that those guys might say, I know will help me go better.”
While that benefit will mostly be felt in GT racing, with the McLaren commitments always coming first, the door is open for Barnicoat to race more with Carlin “if they want me to be back and feel I can bring more again to the table”, and his Euroformula cameo in particular was drawn from the team’s need to speed up its set-up knowledge on the new-for-2020 car when rival outfits are regularly running at least three or four drivers to Carlin’s usual two.
Any improvements to his own driving would also be beneficial for his karting, as Barnicoat still competes at a world championship level in the discipline and is becoming one of Britain’s most accomplished karters of all time. For more on Barnicoat’s continued karting career, and his take on the headline-grabbing violence between Luca Corberi (and his father) and Paolo Ippolito, check out the latest episode of the Formula Scout Podcast (see bottom of article).
From Mugello, Barnicoat flew to Barcelona for FIA F3 post-season testing to fulfil the same duty for Carlin, whose best result in that series is two podiums in two seasons (disregarding the non-championship Macau Grand Prix).
It’s not the first time Barnicoat has been living job-to-job this year without going home, as his start to 2020 was as busy as a driver’s can get.
“This season I was due to have 24 race weekends, before COVID-19. I had an extremely busy start to the year,” he explains.
“I left the country on December 29, 2019, and was away – I had the first round of Asian Le Mans in Australia the second week of January, and I stayed in Australia until the Bathurst 12 Hours, and had a couple of test days at Philip Island in between there. I went straight from Bathurst to Malaysia, where I did the third round of Asian Le Mans and then on to Thailand for the fourth and final round at Buriram. I came home from there, went immediately to a McLaren fitness camp in Madrid, and then from that fitness camp I went straight to America to do two weeks testing with Compass in the McLaren GT3.
“I flew back from America the day they announced they were locking the American borders – I came back and I did one two-day test at Snetterton with 2 Seas Motorsport, a team I was supposed to be doing GT World Challenge Sprint series with, and very shortly after we went into lockdown.
“Right up until the point that COVID hit us well and truly, I think I’d probably spent four or five nights in my own bed in England. I’d been super busy and that was kind of the year I had in front of me.
“I had ELMS as well, Le Mans 24 Hours, and all the Intercontinental GT Challenge races, GTWC Endurance and Sprint. I wouldn’t have really had any time for karting. And they’re just all the race events. That’s not including the tests we do before the race, or the development work. It would have been extremely busy, which is what we want to be doing as factory drivers at the top end of our game.
“We just want to be racing every week and doing what we do best and fighting for wins. As well as constantly improving the products, for our customers, and giving them the best car on the grid and helping them win what they want to achieve, and attracting new customers to the brand. There’s a lot to it, and it is something I very much enjoy doing, and I want to be doing for as long as I can.”
While recent performances suggest Barnicoat would be a success if he made a full-time return to single-seaters, it’s clear his ambitions lie with wherever McLaren Customer Racing goes next. And while there isn’t yet talk of McLaren designing its own prototype sportscar for the Le Mans 24 Hours’ upcoming LMDh class, Barnicoat knows staying fit enough to race single-seaters will put him at the front of the queue if the brand does commit to such a project.
“It’s always keeping my skills very much in check for those kind of opportunities that may come in the future.”
You can listen to the extended interview below (through Anchor) as the latest episode of the Formula Scout Podcast, or find it on Breaker, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic, Castbox, Apple Podcasts and Spotify.