Home Featured Why Renault’s top student can continue his momentum in F2

Why Renault’s top student can continue his momentum in F2

by Peter Allen

Photo: Malcolm Griffiths/FIA Formula 2

Formula 2 newcomer Jack Aitken hasn’t made as many headlines as some of his contemporaries, but that is beginning to change as his career gains more and more momentum from fairly modest beginnings.

His recent appointment as the Renault Formula 1 team?s reserve driver ? effectively making him first in line behind its highly-rated race drivers Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz ? is the latest evidence of his growing status as a talented and impressive driver.

At 22, Aitken is slightly older than some of the drivers in a similar position just a small step away from F1. As a result, it would be easy to underestimate the Londoner, but that would be to neglect the different circumstances in which he began his climb up the ladder.

The increasing trend is for budding F1 drivers to prioritise track time at the expense of desk time, and focus entirely on their racing career at the cost of a traditional education. For Aitken, studies at Westminster School had to remain a priority until the age of 18. ?My parents were quite clear that I should finish my education, and I didn?t hugely disagree with them to be honest,? he says, after going on to achieve four A levels and 10 GCSEs, all at A-star grades.

Although he doesn?t regret the approach, it did affect his early results. ?It held me back, because I just didn?t get the same testing opportunities,? he explains. ?If you look at the kids who do it properly, they?re doing a lot of testing and a lot of days in a kart, getting prepared for a professional style of racing, whereas I was still the guy who turned up at the weekend and then went back to school on Monday and that carried on for quite a long time, right into my third year of single-seaters even.?

Aitken had started out in the InterSteps series in the UK for old Formula BMW cars, where he finished as the top single-seater rookie in third overall, before taking second in Formula Renault Northern European Cup. The more competitive Eurocup was next up, and it coincided with the conclusion of his education.


Photo: Malcolm Griffiths/FIA Formula 2

?It was pretty stark,? he says. ?The first half of the year while I was still at school was pretty horrific. I was getting worse results than what I?d had as a wildcard the previous year, and struggling to break into the top 10. Then just before the summer break I got my first podium at the Nurburgring and then finished school, went away for a bit, came back and we got a win in Hungary and another couple of podiums at the end of the year.? In the second half of the season, Aitken scored just one point less than the eventual champion Nyck de Vries.

With the chance to finally get a proper winter testing programme under his belt at the end that year, Aitken returned for another season in the Eurocup and won the title.

?It made a huge difference, and I think even as a family we had no idea [it would],? he explains. ?When you free up that amount of time, it?s not just for things like testing, you?ve got a whole part of your brain that?s occupied by books and education and exams which is now free to talk about, think about and get ready for racing.

?Now I am practically working a five-day job, mainly because I?m on an F1 programme, and there?s absolutely no way I would have time to do both. It was probably the right decision in terms of keeping a good life perspective but it definitely held me back.?

Joining the team with which de Vries had cruised to two titles in his third year of Formula Renault the season before, the pressure was on Aitken going into 2015. He had the confidence to match, but he was playing catch-up after a less-than-ideal start to the season with setup issues and on-track incidents, as rival Louis Deletraz began quickly.

?My season kicked off in Hungary,? he says. ?It wasn?t a pace thing which was holding us back, it was more that once we got the first win, we fell into a bit more of a rhythm, and everyone was a bit more calm and a bit more confident. We didn?t make any mistakes after that.


?It went from being ?we?d really like to win and we think we should win? to ?we are going to win if nothing unlucky happens? and it?s a very different mindset. Deletraz and [Kevin] Jorg kept making mistakes and they kind of let me catch them up.?

While his rivals did open the door for him, the way Aitken won both the Eurocup and Alps titles from behind at the final rounds displayed significant mental strength from a driver at that level on the ladder.

?I always took quite a simple view, which is whatever?s happening, you just go session by session,? he states. ?There is a time and a place to think about the bigger picture but when I was 60 points behind, that wasn?t the time. You just have to go into every session, do the best job you can, think about the next session. You keep going like that and it stops you from being distracted. The less you?re thinking about that stuff the better you can drive, most of the time. It was quite simple for me.?

For 2016, Aitken stepped up to GP3, and another season of two halves would follow as he adapted to the different demands of the series ? one which is normally full of Formula 3 converts rather than direct Formula Renault graduates.

?I remember thinking ?that?s strange, not a lot of Eurocup guys have gone to GP3?,? he says. ?Then we did all the testing and thought ?actually, this is quite different?.?

In particular, it was the nature of the Pirelli tyres and their deliberate degradation that took some getting used to in the races, but Aitken and team-mate Jake Dennis worked hard with their Arden team to adapt their driving accordingly. It worked wonders: having not made the podium at all in the first nine races, Aitken did so seven times over the following nine, outscoring even champion Charles Leclerc over the second half of the year.


Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP3 Series Media Service

?Arden did a really good job of educating not just me but Jake a little bit too. I think Hockenheim was the first race where there was proper degradation, and I was just flying past people and not even driving at 100 per cent and thinking ?this is just weird, weird racing, but it?s great, I love it!?. That was when things started to click.

?Suddenly in the second half of the year we were really, really on top of things. And now that I have seen ART from the inside and how strong they are, I?m even more happy about what we did at the end of that year.?

Given that form, it was no surprise that Aitken considered stepping up to GP2 (as it was still known then) for the 2017 season before the decision was taken to do a second year in GP3.

?I was still relatively inexperienced, which is a ridiculous thing to say for a 21-year-old, but I just haven?t had the track time,? he says. ?I was happy to do another year in GP3, because I knew that there were things that I had to get refined and get better at, and that?s something that?s continuing all the time.

?Now, for this year, I know I?m going to be going into it as a better driver than if I had gone last year, and that was exactly the intention.?

Moving to ART, Aitken finished second in the GP3 standings, having consistently taken the fight to Mercedes protege George Russell. That was no mean feat, but Aitken expressed his disappointment with the result, demonstrating his fierce ambition.


Photo: Zak Mauger/GP3 Series Media Service

?It was a bit of a difficult season,? he says. ?It took a bit of time to get used to the philosophy of setup that ART like, and a bit of time for them to understand what I like as well. The positive from that is that I?ve learned quite a bit about how to adapt and to change my style a bit. My aim was always to win the title, but I?ve learnt plenty which is the next best thing you can do in these situations.?

Aitken was a founding member of the Renault Sport Academy, off the back of his double Formula Renault success in 2015. Renault?s F1 chief Cyril Abiteboul says the team has been ?strongly impressed? by him since.

?That?s why he?s still with us for a third year,? Abiteboul tells Formula Scout. ?It?s an academy and a programme that is purely based on merit and we are not shy in taking the responsibility of having to stop when we don?t feel that it?s going in the right direction. If that had been the case with Jack, we would not have hesitated because we don?t think it brings anything to anyone to continue if there is not a genuine chance that he is going to make it to Formula 1.

?I believe he could have done even better in GP3. I believe he could have won the title, that?s the target that we had set ourselves. But we are not robots, we are human. We are also looking at circumstance and we believe that the circumstances were such that it was justified for us to continue the journey together for this season in F2, which will be tough for him because it is always a competitive environment. He will be a rookie in that environment and it will be interesting to see what he can do.?

Abiteboul has already seen enough from Aitken to make him the team?s third and reserve driver for 2018, which could lead to time behind the wheel of this year?s car. The team gave him his first taste of F1 machinery at Jerez last autumn in a 2012-spec car as a reward for meeting Renault?s targets at the halfway point of the season.


Photo: Renault Sport F1

Then-Renault reserve (and now Williams race driver) Sergey Sirotkin was also on track as part of his own testing programme, providing Aitken with a more experienced reference. ?They made it really easy for me and welcomed me, and despite not having as many members, they try and run it like a race team,? he says. ?They?re very professional about it and try and make it as realistic as possible.

?I felt really comfortable in the car quite quickly. After a couple of runs I was getting comparable to Sergey and able to push on a bit more, and I think they were happy with what I did.?

Before taking on his new role, Aitken had already been regularly assisting the race team on the simulator, helping with the development of the latest cars. He explains that simply being around the factory provides benefits, though: ?Of course there?s support financially that they provide, but I think it?s just being so close to an F1 team. I?m at Enstone three or four times a week, just because I can go there, and why wouldn?t you? It?s an F1 factory. I can wander in to the various places and have a chat with the guys.

?It?s amazing the difference it makes when you step into the world of F1 and you see what?s going on under the surface. That isn?t necessarily helping me in F2, but if I?m lucky enough to make it to F1, I?ll be so much more prepared because I?ll have seen a good number of the processes that are going on. They actively try and prepare me for things like that.?

For his move to F2, Aitken has remained with ART ? once the dominant team in the category. Russell will be his team-mate once more, with the French squad banking on a pair of talented British rookies to take it back to winning ways.


Photo: Malcolm Griffiths/FIA Formula 2

?They didn?t have the best year last year but I think the new car will give a reset,? Aitken says of ART. ?They?ve got a lot of resource available and do a good job. I?ll have a strong team-mate and we?ll be right at the front, I think. There?s no reason why we can?t challenge as rookies.?

Being team-mates with Russell will make comparisons between the two easy once again, but Aitken fancies his chances of being the lead driver this time around, with the belief that he can raise his own performance level as he makes the step up in machinery. ?I think the [F2] car will suit me a little bit better than GP3 did,? he reckons. ?Generally through my career whenever I?ve stepped up it?s gone better, and a bit more power tends to help me.?

However well Aitken?s F2 season goes, it?s hard to foresee him forcing either Hulkenberg or Sainz out of a Renault race seat for 2019. The same could be said for anybody in F2, so well-considered are the two incumbents.

But consider that Sainz is only currently on loan from Red Bull, and the prospect of a recall should Daniel Ricciardo leave for either Mercedes or Ferrari next winter, and Renault could well be looking to F2 to fill a vacancy in just a few months? time.

With a strong season, Aitken could put himself in a very good position for such an opening, and complete his increasingly impressive rise through the ranks.


Photo: Malcolm Griffiths/FIA Formula 2