Home Featured The story behind one of junior single-seaters’ greatest comebacks

The story behind one of junior single-seaters’ greatest comebacks

by Elliot Wood

Photo: LAT Images

On Tuesday, Williams named two Formula 2 talents for Formula 1’s official young driver test at Abu Dhabi. A decade ago it did the same, with a driver who was hit by tragedy after seriously impressing the team

From 2009 to 2012, the Williams F1 team was actively involved in Formula Two. Unlike the F1-supporting series today, which is undeniably the top rung of the junior single-seater ladder, this was a series that was centrally run like W Series and was organised by current BRDC British F3 promoter MotorSport Vision.

The cars, built by Williams and powered by Audi-sourced, Mountune-tuned engines capable of 425bhp, were quick and in its earlier years the series attracted drivers that would otherwise be looking to race in the level immediately below F1. One of its greatest attractions was the champion would receive a prize F1 test with Williams.

After an entertaining title battle with future Renault F1 driver Jolyon Palmer that included winning on the Marrakech street circuit now used by Formula E, at the Algarve circuit that recently hosted the Portuguese Grand Prix, and on Brands Hatch’s Grand Prix layout, it was 20-year-old Dean Stoneman who earned this prestigious honour in 2010.

His prize drive came in the Abu Dhabi young driver test on November 16, and he was fifth fastest on his day in the Williams FW32. Ahead of him was Daniel Ricciardo in the title-winning Red Bull RB6, future FE star Oliver Turvey in the race-winning McLaren MP4-25, 2019-20 FE champion Antonio Felix da Costa in Force India’s car, and Sauber’s reserve driver Esteban Gutierrez. All of the above were either in vastly quicker cars or were considerably more experienced, and senior personnel at Williams remarked on how impressed they were with Stoneman’s approach and performance.

“One of the main reasons for doing F2 was the F1 test at the end,” Stoneman tells Formula Scout 10 years later.

“But throughout that season, it was a correct choice in my career to go that route, to be seen by the right people. It was a Williams-built car at the time, a Williams F1 test, and that’s one of the main reasons I went that route. A great championship as well. Beating Jolyon Palmer to the title as well, which was another great achievement.

“I had been in single-seaters from 2007, Formula Renault previous to that, worked my way up to F2 and then on from there.”

Except there was no ‘on from there’ for Stoneman, as two months later he was diagnosed with a rare and deadly form of testicular cancer.

Throughout his title-winning F2 season he had been reporting worrying symptoms, but nothing that had merited note from doctors to be serious, especially as Stoneman was an athlete still in adolescence. But then in January 2011 he noticed a lump that, had it not been spotted, scanned and operated on that day, could have left him without legs or even life within a week. It turned out his body was riddled with tumours.

“I think after winning the championship in F2, testing for Williams in F1 [I was on a high], and that was in November 2010. Then January 2011, I got diagnosed with testicular cancer. The racing got put on stop. I had intense chemotherapy for six months, four operations. I don’t think anyone realised how bad, or how ill I was.

“People think I went in, had an operation and I was back out. But I wasn’t. I was in hospital for three-week cycles of chemotherapy and throughout the stages I had four operations to remove tumours, had tubes in my body, a lot of stuff that even until today I still have side-effects that I have to deal with from the drugs. But it’s one of the things you get on with in life.

“And that’s one of the reasons back after I finished my chemotherapy I went into powerboat racing in 2012. More just to get my feet back on the ground and enjoy just the normality of life really and to just try to feel a bit normal.”

Stoneman’s father Colin was a world champion in powerboat racing – hence his view of an outlandish sport as ‘normality’ – and while he too was a talent on the water, he decided to forge a path to F1 on asphalt instead.

After several years in karting, Stoneman had debuted in single-seaters in Formula Renault 2.0 in 2006. His first full season came in 2007, when he finished second in the United Kingdom’s club-level BARC championship, and he then came fourth twice in the country’s main FR2.0 series.

He wasn’t a title favourite when he stepped up to F2, but with all the cars being run by one operation it meant he wasn’t disadvantaged by being at a smaller team and was a winner by his third race. There were a further five wins, and after landing the title he then debuted in the high-downforce Formula Renault 3.5 series, where he signed up to race in 2011 alongside Red Bull junior Ricciardo at ISR Racing.

Instead he went through the horrifying experience of almost losing his life and intense chemotherapy, but his motorsport return via powerboats – which can be as physically demanding as single-seaters – a full year after that was a success.

Stoneman enjoyed his time back behind the wheel, going on an incredible winning run in an international series “but overall, it was [circuit] motorsport where I wanted to get back to”.

“In 2013, I did Porsche Carrera Cup GB. First two races back, I won. Qualified pole [for the first], and won. That was an up-and-down season in the Porsches. But at the end of that season I wanted to go back into single-seaters to see if I still had the ability to win.”

There were five victories for Stoneman that year, and he finished fifth in the points after being made to miss a round having quickly earned a reputation on the grid as one of the diciest for wheel-to-wheel action. Then, at the same venue as where he had been testing in F1 three years prior, Stoneman found a seat on the grid for the GP3 season finale.

Dean Stoneman

Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP3 Series Media Service

“I went back with Koiranen GP at the end of 2013, and came second in my second race. And then I knew that I needed to go back into single-seaters again. So my career was getting to the top, put on hold, down to the bottom again then coming back.”

Stoneman remained in GP3 for 2014, signing with the Marrusia F1-branded Manor Motorsport team. The squad struggled for pace at times, and then struggled for cash, but Stoneman made the most of the equipment he had. He won in the season-opening round, then kept team morale up with victories at Spa-Francorchamps and Monza before the team bowed out of the series for “commercial reasons” just as Marussia was pulling out of F1.

“2014 was a good year in GP3,” admits Stoneman. “We had some ups-and-downs with the team I was with, and then I had to do a team swap towards the end of the year. I had many wins throughout the season, come second in GP3, and then obviously from that I got picked up by Helmut Marko with Red Bull in 2015.”

For the final two GP3 rounds, Stoneman took the place of Carmen Jorda at Koiranen. The car had a best finish of 17th up to that point, but Stoneman was able to put it on pole on his first attempt in Sochi and then convert it into a win with fastest lap.

He jumped from eighth to third in the points in the process, then from eighth on the reversed grid he came just 0.368 seconds short of a double win in the sprint race. That, against the odds, made him the only driver capable of preventing Red Bull junior Alex Lynn from winning the title going into the Abu Dhabi season finale. No wonder Dr Marko was taking note.

Stoneman needed to take pole to keep the title race going into the penultimate race, and he missed out by one position on the grid. He made up for that by winning that race instead, and ended up a massively impressive second in the points.

As Lynn left Red Bull for Williams and a seat in GP2 for 2015, this opened up a window for Stoneman – who had been close to death four years prior – to land the most lucrative seat on the FR3.5 grid for 2015 and as Red Bull’s top junior.

Dean Stoneman

Photo: GEPA pictures/Dutch Photo Agency

“To be sponsored by Red Bull is a great achievement to have on your CV. It was another tough season in Formula Renault 3.5 in 2015. Amazing car, amazing team. But same again, we had a up-and-down year, it wasn’t what I wanted and in terms of points, eh… It was a one-year deal with Red Bull. So that’s where that season went.”

Four podiums and sixth in the points in FR3.5, and one point from five races at a struggling Carlin in GP2, wasn’t enough to retain Red Bull’s support for 2016. It was also a year that didn’t start on a great note as Stoneman had a monster shunt in pre-season testing. But the career comeback didn’t lose its momentum at the same time…

“And then I was off to America for 2016 with Andretti Autosport over there in Indy Lights,” continues Stoneman. “Winning the Freedom 100 on the [Indianapolis] oval was another great highlight of my career.

“I had side-effects of the drugs [for the cancer recovery], but I just drove around them. It was just finding the right deal, the right team, and making it all come together.”

In a talent-packed Indy Lights field, Stoneman adapted well to the demands of American racing and he claimed wins on the fabled Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course and oval. The latter, his Freedom 100 success, came by just 0.0024s in a thrilling finish where he outdragged Carlin’s Ed Jones to the chequered flag.

“You never stop learning. I’ve just turned 30 now. I started go-karting when I was eight or nine years old, I’ve been at it a long time now, but you never stop learning. With Andretti, that was another great step in my career. It was probably one of the best things I’ve done.

“I did learn a lot from back in 2016. I’d like to go back over to America. And after that, ever since Indy Lights, my career has sort of slowed down quite dramatically and now it’s more GT sportscars that I’ve been racing rather than single-seaters.”

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

McLaren actually signed Stoneman as a factory driver for its GT programmes in 2017, but his campaign in one of the marque’s cars in the Blancpain GT Series went so badly that he called time on it mid-season. Stoneman wasn’t seen again until last year, after a planned move into prototypes with Manor in 2018 was called off by commercial woe once more, as he returned to Blancpain (now GT World Challenge Europe) with Lamborghini customer team Ombra Racing.

That opened doors with the manufacturer that brought him into its Super Trofeo Europe series this year with Binaldi Motorsport, and a long overdue return to success.

In the hot Misano season opener he took an astonishing solo win (as most cars are crewed by two drivers) in race two, which he described as “one of the toughest races of my life”.

“It wasn’t physically tough, it was just so hot that the drain on your body over that time was unreal. From the first race to the second race I thought I was going to struggle more in the second race in the daytime, when it was 36-38°C outside temperature and in the car it’s probably the best part of 90°C.

“That second race was easier than the night race. I don’t know why. Maybe I just paced myself a bit better, and it was a really enjoyable race – and to be back on the podium. I was saying the other day, it feels like you’ve lost the ability to win. I know I can win, but it’s just when you don’t have a podium and you don’t win for a few years, you start doubting it in your mind.

“But when you’ve got a team behind you that delivers a good car and you know you can win – like at Misano – it just gives you that extra boost and drive.”

That motivational boost worked wonders, as he got his second victory in a row at the Nurburgring – this time with a team-mate – then made the top step again at Spa-Francorchamps and at Paul Ricard last weekend to win his first title in a decade.

It’s probably too late for a second heroic comeback to single-seater racing, so what’s next for the Briton?

“Endurance racing is where I want to be, the atmosphere is amazing. That’s where I want to be in a Lamborghini.”

Interview by Stephen Brunsdon

Further reading
The Yugoslavian who’s left his mark on motorsport history
The McLaren super-sub who answered a three-year long ‘what if?’
The junior driver spurned by Renault’s last F1 name change
The most surprising junior single-seater returns