Bathed in glorious spring sunshine, Silverstone Circuit in Northamptonshire looked a picture as it hosted its annual Media Day for the British Touring Car Championships on Monday.
With over 300 journalists and photographers present it left no doubt as to just how important the championships are in the motor racing calendar, continuing to pull in millions of viewers in terms of both television audiences and the vast numbers who turn out for each of the ten weekends on the schedule.
My reason for an early morning jaunt down the M1 to the home of British motorsport was to meet a young man by the name of Chris Swanwick, who has featured on these pages for several years as he has quickly risen from a young schoolboy hurtling around on a go-kart to one of the brightest prospects in the top level of saloon car racing.
And although difficulties in finding the huge amount of funding required means he may have to bide his time a little before getting a permanent drive, having made his debut at the end of 2011 Swanwick is hoping to continue his progress this year.
But how did this laid back teenager, a pupil at Eastwood Comprehensive School until only last year, achieve such a meteoric rise?
“I’ve always been one of the youngest at everything I’ve done,” said the 18-year-old from Greasley as we sat in the Rob Austin Racing team garage before Monday afternoon’s testing session.
“But in some ways that’s good because it’s taken the pressure off me and helped get me to where I am at the moment.”
It was only around ten years ago that an eight-year-old Swanwick decided he wanted a hobby.
“We had quite a big garden and I wanted a motorbike,” said the spiky-haired teenager, nicknamed ‘Sonic Swanwick’ thanks to the style of his blonde locks resembling that of computer game character Sonic the Hedgehog.
“But my dad said two wheels was far too dangerous and instead decided to buy me an off-road go-kart.
“I started racing that around the fields and the garden and took to it quite well, although I needed blocks on the pedals initially as I couldn’t reach them!
“And it just went from there. There was a guy my dad worked with who raced motorbikes in Newark who said I should go over there and put the kart on the track.
“We did that, had a few practice sessions and after about six months my dad then got me a kart that could be raced on tarmac, which for the next year or so I also enjoyed flying around the track on.
“Then Dad suddenly said one day, ‘right, I think you’re ready for racing now’, and before long I’d got a racing licence and started competing.”
Despite karting events being divided into age categories it didn’t take long for Swanwick to work his way up from cadets to juniors and then onto seniors, winning plenty of races along the way.
He added: “In cadets I did quite well but by the time I was in juniors I was growing pretty fast and struggled a bit because I was so tall and therefore had to lose quite a lot of weight to fit the criteria, so ended up looking quite unhealthy and all skin and bones, so with karts being quite physical, especially if you crash, it wasn’t easy.
“But I got into the seniors and did alright again once I put the weight back on, before somebody suggested to me I should try racing cars.
“I thought I’d have to wait as to do that you usually have to be 16-years-old, but a few junior series are taking on kids of around 14 now and it was recommended I give one of those a go.”
Initially, Swanwick wasn’t too keen, with the quality of the racing for those so young not as good and the temptation to remain in karting quite strong.
But with further words of encouragement from his father, Dave, he opted to give the relatively low budget option a go. He never looked back.
A place in the Junior Ginetta Championship soon followed, which forms one of the support events to the BTCC and therefore national exposure given its excellent coverage on national television.
“I’d raced with a very successful kart team which helped to get my name about, and once I started the Ginettas I just kept progressing over the two years and really enjoyed it, winning the ‘Hard Charger’ award for up-and-coming drivers in my first year,” he said.
“The second year was tough in the newer Ginettas and after a reasonable start I had a few prangs and ended up being banned from that championship as the points on my license had crept up.
“But I still had one point left on it so I could race, and we therefore opted to stop competing in the Ginettas.
“Being among the support races helped because quite a lot of the teams from other events would be watching us and spotting the young talent, which was what helped me get my next step up.”
That was into the Clio Cup, which as the name suggests saw Swanwick behind the wheel of the modified Renault Clio and again competing in front of thousands at official BTCC events.
“I was testing them initially and then eventually we went for a first full season,” added Swanwick.
“People were warning me off it a bit with them being front-wheel drive but I learned quite a lot from it as I think you have to do front-wheel drive at some point in your career and that’s when I did it.”
Once again, with the big guns scouting the plentiful breeding ground of young drivers from the paddock and taking note of some promising performances, it wasn’t long before the best opportunity of all came knocking.
“As a kid, like so many I wanted to be in Formula One, but as I got older I got more realistic and always watched the Touring Cars when taking part in the other classes,” added Swanwick.
“But at times I was struggling and it seemed a pipe dream, particularly with the budgets involved.
“Contacts can play a big part in this sport and we knew the engineer from Rob Austin Racing as I’d worked with him in Junior Ginettas and he’d seen I’d got banned and that I’d got a bit worked up about things and struggled in some of the classes.
“He didn’t think front-wheel drive was right for me and I guess I didn’t either, perhaps some of that being a mental thing too.
“So I had the chance to have a go in the Audi A4 and ended up doing quite well in it, impressing the team and surprising myself in some ways.
“RAR are based in Gloucester so I don’t get the chance to go down there as much, but Rob himself is the same weight as me so they can do a lot without me initially, especially while I don’t have a permanent drive.
“But I got the chance to compete in a couple of meetings at the end of last season which was a fantastic experience and I managed to do well enough for RAR to offer me 50 per cent sponsorship to race this season.”
And that’s where Swanwick’s current problems lie. He has had to find the £300k necessary to make up the deficit in order to get a permanent drive, but having so far only found around a third of that he may be limited to occasional appearances – for the time being at least.
He added: “I can still compete at the other levels but as it stands I won’t get a full drive in the Touring Cars.
“I’m not signed to a team and therefore with three or four spots still empty I may get offers from other teams, but RAR are the first choice and if we had the money now I’d sign for them.
“But it’s hard work. Other teams may be a bit cheaper but it leaves you wondering why that’s the case and I’d rather get the funding to race for these guys.
“I just want to get time in the seat though and if I do well then hopefully things will start to happen, but obviously I’m very young so there’s plenty of time.”
Youth is indeed on Swanwick’s side. The next youngest on the BTCC roster is 22-years-old and there are even drivers competing into their 50s, so he knows there’s no immediate rush, particularly as he feels the pinnacle of his genre is the BTCC .
“There’s the BTCC and the World Touring Cars but I see this as being the best,” he added.
“I could be in it for years if we sort the budget out, and that would be a fantastic experience.”
As for the day itself, Swanwick enjoyed several laps and recorded some promising times in the company of the sport’s top drivers as they showed off their shiny new cars to the media and a few hundred spectators too, leaving me in little doubt there is a great future ahead for one of motor racing’s brightest prospects.
You can follow Chris’s progress online at www.chrisswanwickracing.com
by Mark Duffy