The young
British racer

McLaren has a history of building great racing cars, but also of developing talented racing drivers. It handed Ayrton Senna the chance to become Formula 1 world champion, and helped Mika Hakkinen to become one too. Famously, it nurtured Lewis Hamilton all the way from karting to his first F1 glory. 

More recently, it has taken Stoffel Vandoorne from winning the Pirelli-supported GP2 crown to some impressive results alongside Fernando Alonso, and has snapped up the highly-rated Lando Norris, who already raised eyebrows in his debut F1 test earlier this year. But today, the McLaren group’s desire to develop young drivers is not confined to single-seaters.

The other side to McLaren’s modern racing activities is in GT racing, much of it taking place on Pirelli tyres in championships such as the Blancpain GT Series. Here too, it operates a young driver programme, called the McLaren GT Academy. One of the star names on the roster, just like Hamilton, is a home-grown prospect for the British marque: Ben Barnicoat.

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Like many racing drivers, Barnicoat, who will only turn 21 in December, built his reputation as a successful karter, where he was a strong rival on track of Red Bull F1 star Max Verstappen and the new Formula 2 champion Charles Leclerc. He too had dreams of making it to F1, and stepped up to single-seaters where he became a Formula Renault champion.

During 2016, in the middle of a race-winning campaign in European Formula 3, Barnicoat had the chance to try something new after a successful test, and made his Blancpain GT debut with the WRT Audi team at the Nurburgring. At the end of the year the decision was made, in partnership with his sponsor the Racing Steps Foundation, to make a full-time move into GT racing.

“I’ve been very fortunate to be supported by the Racing Steps Foundation throughout my single-seater career, which is why I had such a promising one really,” says the driver from Chesterfield in the English Midlands. “I was always very well-funded and supported and able to race with good teams and achieve good things. Then it became apparent at the end of 2016 that they were planning on stopping their programme, but I have had this season half-supported by them to help me on my way. That was when we thought that the time was right to move to GTs, because without big backing it would have been very hard for me to get an opportunity in single-seaters. 

“When the opportunity arose with Audi we took it straight away. I had to do a test to earn the drive but did a good job there and then after that, McLaren were very keen for me to get involved with them. As soon as they showed interest it seemed like the right decision to join them and start my career at a young age, and then it gives me more time to prove myself and develop and hopefully become one of the top professionals in sportscars.”

Barnicoat’s association with McLaren began when he was still in karting, and was signed to its F1 junior programme, which he remained a part of until the end of 2015. “It definitely helped,” he says, “because although McLaren GT and McLaren F1 are completely separate companies, the people at the top still talk, so when I was first going through my stages at McLaren GT they were in contact with McLaren just to get a bit of background on me. It was nice to know that I’d done a good job while I was on the F1 side that helped me in my transition to the GT side of the company.”

He reckons McLaren is “one of the best British brands there is. Everyone knows who McLaren is and knows what they do, so to be able to join that as a young British driver was amazing and I hope to be here for many years. 

“When you’re young and you have dreams of becoming a Formula 1 driver, it was always for me to be at McLaren. As you get further and further up the ladder you realise that it gets harder to become a Formula 1 driver, but to be able to do their sportscar programme with them is still amazing and I’m really looking forward to hopefully having a long time here.”

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Since making his debut in McLaren’s Pirelli-equipped 650S GT3 racer at the Bathurst 12 Hours in Australia in February, Barnicoat has had a busy season. He has contested the full Blancpain GT Series in Europe for Strakka Racing, taking in the five Sprint Cup events and five Endurance Cup events. 

“We showed some good promise at the start of the year,” he says. “We had some very good pace at Misano and Monza, as well as Brands Hatch, which was nice at home. But then from then onwards we went through a bit of a tough time. Even at Misano and Monza, the speed was there, but we had bad luck. And then through the middle of the season we started struggling quite a bit for pace. The guys at Strakka and McLaren were working very hard but for whatever reason we just couldn’t get it to happen. So that was a tough period to go through really.”

Barnicoat was also competing however in the Pirelli World Challenge, the premier GT series in North America, in a 650S for K-PAX Racing. Joining up with his Blancpain GT Sprint colleague and experienced McLaren factory driver Alvaro Parente for the championship’s SprintX events, he claimed three podium finishes.

“That had been going really well, which kept my hopes up,” he explains. “It was a good thing for me to keep going and do well over there with Alvaro. It was my first time racing in the States. The Pirelli World Challenge is a great series and I’ve really enjoyed it.”

How different has he found GT racing to what he’s done before? “When I did the one race last year with WRT, that one at first didn’t seem like too much of a big change. But when you’re fully involved like I have been this season in the McLaren programme, I got a lot better understanding of it, and it is a lot different. 

“For starters you’re sharing a car and that’s something that I’d never had before. So when you’re trying to develop a car like we have been doing, it really took all three of us in the Endurance series, and me and Alvaro in Sprint, to really work hard together to get a balance that was right for all of us and get it working. It was challenging at times but it was good for me as a driver to learn at a young age what it’s all about and it’s definitely made me a stronger driver for the future.”

Progress was clear to see in the final events of the Blancpain season: “At the Nurburgring we seemed to get our speed back; we just kept on working and it finally came back to us. We were very fast but we had a few missed opportunities with incidents and stuff.” 

Then, for the Endurance Cup finale at Barcelona, Barnicoat switched cars within the Strakka camp, teaming up with two new team-mates in Sam Tordoff and Jonny Kane. Driving the middle stint in the three-hour race, Barnicoat took over the car in 29th place and carved his way up to ninth before handing over to Kane. In the process, he set the fastest lap of the race, nearly four tenths of a second faster than anybody else, after achieving the same at the Nurburgring. 

Two weeks later, he returned to America and claimed a podium finish in the inaugural California 8 Hours, part of the Intercontinental GT Challenge. His strong end to the season is a positive sign for whatever comes next.

“It’s been a mixed year,” he concludes, “but all in all I’ve enjoyed the whole experience, and it’s been great to get the races in America as well as here and learn some new tracks. I’m looking forward to the future.”

Barnicoat is one of the best professional British racing drivers but how well do you think you know him? Here is some info about this popular young driver:

  • He began his sporting career at 9 years old in a kart circuit in his home town in Great Britain, in Chesterfield;
  • He’s the winner of British Grand Prix championship and for that exciting victory, a national success, he had to untertake a very professional and exclusive training as the greatest drivers do;
  • During his debut in Formula Renault, in 2013, ran a superb race and won it;
  • He holds the record of pole positions in Protyre Formula Renault Autumn Cup 2013 with 3 poles in 3 races run
  • He run the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup three times and and gained one podium.
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