If you want to grow up to be world driving champion, they say, you have to start young.
Two-time champ Fernando Alonso started driving a go-kart at age 3; four-time top gun Sebastian Vettel was 3-1/2. One-time Lewis Hamilton was 6 when he got his first kart.
By comparison, Luke Chudleigh of Milton — yes, of the apple-growing family that produces pies year-round at their 82,000-square-foot bakery (love those Apple Blossoms!) and opens the doors of their entertainment farm for four months every year starting July 1 — was an 11-going-on-12-year-old senior citizen before he caught the racing bug.
Now 19 and living in Toulouse, France, he’s starting his second season in the Formula Renault 2.0 ALPS series with the French Tech1 Racing team.
And he’s also going to be racing full-time in the Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup Series. To say he’s going to have an extremely busy spring and summer would be the proverbial understatement.
So how did he get so far, so fast?
“I started late, compared to others,” Chudleigh said during a conversation we had a few months ago. “I don’t come from a racing family. My dad had never been to the races and I had no idea what NASCAR or Formula One was. I had a PlayStation and I really enjoyed a racing game I had. I said to my dad, ‘This has got to exist somewhere; I have to be able to drive somewhere.’ ”
So off they went to a kart track in Hamilton and the rest, as they say, is history.
“I’d started to develop some skills by age 12,” he continued. “The manager of the facility, Trevor Wickens (brother of Canadian DTM star Robert Wickens, who drives for Mercedes in the German touring car series), must have noticed some potential. He said, ‘Do you want to make a career?’ and I started to think, ‘Holy cow, I could really do this,” and I’ve been under his supervision and guidance ever since.”
Chudleigh didn’t take any prisoners on his way up the karting ranks. By the time he was 15, he was racing internationally in the Rotax Senior class. And although he’s Canadian and his manager and mentor are also Canadians, the decision was made to go directly to Europe and not make the switch to single-seat formula cars in his home country.
“We didn’t think there was a good transition series in Canada to go from karts to professional international racing,” he said. “There isn’t a series where there are diffusers on the cars (which help with ground effects) and the highest levels of junior racing in Europe all have them.
“Robbie said you can develop bad habits in cars without diffusers, so I decided to develop in the right way.”
Almost from the time he arrived at the team’s headquarters in Toulouse in early 2013, Chudleigh has been hard at work practicing on, and helping develop, one of the racing world’s more advanced simulators.
Unique in France, the simulator is geared for drivers seeking to improve their skills, as well as for teams to try out new technology and double-check their engineering.
“Racing is my job,” Chudleigh told me. “I don’t do anything else. When I’m not in a racing car, I’m in the simulator. And it’s not like a video game; it’s an incredibly rare machine and very expensive. The team has put a ton of money into it.
“I am very focused on the physics of driving. Data analysis is one of my strong points, and has been since I started karting. All of that is important, so far as the ongoing development of the simulator is concerned. I’m so lucky to be a part of it. It’s been a great experience.”
When he’s not in a racing car or the simulator, he’s working out.
“I live by myself in Toulouse,” he said. “I’m walking-distance away from team headquarters. I train from two to three hours every day — I do high-intensity cardio with some weight training — in order to keep my weight under control.
“I’m 5-foot-8 and 140 pounds. I’m a pretty small person — a racing car engineer’s dream. As a matter of fact, when you see your teammates, you sometimes mention that you think they’ve grown . . . It’s a psychological thing.”
Chudleigh had some success with Tech1 Racing his first season in 2013, coming on toward the end of the season. Qualifying third for the race at Monza last October was his personal highlight.
“It was a gigantic moment for me,” he said. “I’m alone in the cockpit and I saw the results on the steering wheel, and it was incredible. There were a lot of fist pumps, I’ll tell you. I was cheering.”
Tech1 Racing has high hopes for him this year and, has introduced the Canadian as the team leader on its website. “Luke Chudleigh will spearhead the French team’s attack,” it says, going on to call him “Robert Wickens’ protégé.”
In future, Chudleigh hopes to stay with Tech1 and advance to the Renault Formula 3.5 Series, which Wickens won two years ago. But he has an open mind so far as where his career will eventually head.
“In an ideal world, I would stay with Renault because of their connections in Formula One,” he said. “But I’m definitely not limiting myself; a lot of doors have been opened for me.”
The first two races of the 2014 season didn’t go exactly like the Milton teenager had hoped. While racing at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, near Imola, Italy, last Saturday, he was involved in an opening-lap collision that ended his day. Sunday, he was having a good race until mechanical difficulties forced him out.
“Well, it certainly wasn’t the weekend we were hoping for,” he said afterward. “After an event like this, I can only focus on the positives.
“Primarily, those were my race starts, both of which saw me make up positions. And when comparing my lap times to Antoine’s (teammate Antoine Hubert), I was matching him, so that’s definitely something I can take heart from, given that he collected a top-10 finish.”
Up next for the Canadian is a Eurocup race at the Motorland Aragon circuit in Spain the weekend of April 25-26. He’s just not hopeful he’ll do well there. He’s determined to do better.
The Toronto Star for Wheels.ca