The personal and mental struggles of a racing driver are often overshadowed by the demanding role they must perform, but these hardships have a much larger effect on a driver’s performance than many realise. One such example is Ferrari Driver Academy member and Prema F4 driver James Wharton, who has had to adapt to living on the other side of the world at the age of 15. He not only talks about his career to F1 Feeder Series, but also about the difficulties that he experienced in Europe.
by Alexander Studenkov
Having joined his father’s karting team at the age of eight in his native Australia, it didn’t take Wharton long to show his potential in national competitions. After driving in Mini and Cadet karts for three years the Bundoora-born youngster made his mark by winning the Australian Karting Championship in 2017, which proved to be the catalyst for his early move to European racing.
“In my 2017 season in Australia there were ten races, of which I won eight in two categories: Rotax and Cadets. It was the thing that really kickstarted my career because there was basically nothing more to do in Australia. We had to find a way to keep building up myself, which was to come to Europe.
“I came to just a couple of races when I was eleven, but I was going back and forth between Australia and here. Then I moved full-time with my dad in 2019 when I was 13 and I’ve stayed here ever since.”
While moving to a place about 15,000 kilometres away from home is difficult in itself, matters were compounded by his mother and sister staying in Australia, which, during his formative years as a teenager, had a profound effect on Wharton.
“I think for the first year it was very difficult. There was a lot of ‘do I really want to do this when I’m so far away?’, but then after a year and after understanding that this is what I want to do and also having a lot of people around me at the end of the 2020 season I had my career on the right path, so I knew what I needed to do and that made everything a lot easier.”
Wharton ended up being a loyal member of the Parolin team in his European karting career, starting to race with the Italian powerhouse in 2017 and staying there for the following five years – with only one interruption.
“I switched teams in 2019 to go to Ricky Flynn, but I was only there for eight months. I basically spent my entire racing career with Parolin in Europe, had a couple of months with Ricky Flynn helped me a lot to improve, but then I was more comfortable with Parolin so I came back. We ended up having good results and I really helped the team to get to where they are today.”
When asked about the skills he had learned as part of Ricky Flynn, Wharton presented a percipient answer.
“Just the English driving style, to be a bit more aggressive, to be smarter in a racing situation. In Australia we don’t really have the same amount of racecraft as what they have in the UK. Having my engineers and Ricky talk to me about how they race really helped me when I went back.”
The Ferrari opportunity
After honing his race craft on the grids of the European Championship and various WSK competitions for three seasons, Wharton was selected by Motorsport Australia, the country’s motorsport association, to join the FDA 2020 Scouting World Finals for a spot in Ferrari’s coveted F1 young driver academy. The academy included top drivers from all over the world, namely Santiago Ramos, Viktor Gustafsson, countryman Marcos Flack and current-day F4 rivals Charlie Wurz and Nikita Bedrin.
“We first did a scouting camp in Australia in which they chose me and [Flack]. We went and did a two-day test at Fiorano, which was my third ever test in Formula 4, as well as physical and mental training. It was a very hard week first of all, it was the hardest thing I’ve done, for sure.
I didn’t think it was going to be my year considering how young I wasJames Wharton (Prema)
Wharton ended up winning the first ever iteration of the shootout, becoming a fully-fledged Ferrari driver at the start of 2021.
“To have the reward in the end really helped, but I thought it would be very difficult because there were so many good drivers, I didn’t think it was going to be my year considering how young I was. I knew that it was hard to get but when I got the phone call, I was happy because I knew how much effort I’d put in.”
Maturing in a tough environment
The Ferrari academy membership came with a massive increase of attention from people in and out of the paddock. Moving to Maranello to live closer to the team’s factory, the Australian describes how this move has a big effect on his maturity.
“Last year I had a lot to learn, because I was living alone, living with other drivers like Dino [Beganovic] and Maya [Weug]. It was very hard to be the young person without being walked over, if that’s how you say it. I was the youngest one by a mile so I really had to try and make myself be older, but then I realised that being myself helps everything because you don’t have to prove anything to anyone.”
His academy status also brings more pressure, which Wharton reflects on thoughtfully.
“Every day we’re in Ferrari facilities. Every day we’re around the F1 team, around the F1 drivers; my boss is basically the F1 boss as well. When you’re at Ferrari there’s always pressure, but it’s not about making that a bad thing, because the more pressure you put [on yourself] the worse it’s gonna be. If you just have confidence in yourself, everything else will be easy.”
When you’re at Ferrari there’s always pressureJames Wharton (Prema)
Whilst he wasn’t able to progress up to single-seaters in 2021 thanks to his young age and thus had to spend one more year in karting, Wharton was able to embed himself within his current team Prema and learn the ropes of Formula 4.
“Last year I did OK Senior at the start of the year, then KZ2 and I did no F4 testing until November, where I did two tests at Spa and the Red Bull Ring. There are people that say I’ve done a lot more, but I wish I was testing F4, because my competitors have had a lot more testing than I’ve had. I was more focused on my karting career.
“Understanding the car paddock compared to the karting paddock was the main thing. It’s a big step, so understanding how the team work made it easy to fit in in 2022.”
A chance to prove himself
The 15-year-old competed in four rounds of the F4 UAE Championship as a precursor to his European campaign, garnering his first experience in car racing. There, he was able to shake off a hard final season of karting and took four race wins, finishing fifth in the standings.
“I knew going into the 2022 season that I was fast; I’ve always known that. I had a hard end to my karting career because it was very hard to be fast compared to the people around me who were much shorter, which was helping them a lot. But then in Abu Dhabi I came third in my first ever car race after four days of testing.
“It was a new car for me, so I knew straight away from there that I had confidence again. I’ve won many races in my life, just not in 2021, so I just had to do my thing and winning four races in the UAE was a big kick-starter for my Italian F4 season.”
The amount of testing they’ve done compared to me is ridiculous, but I’m already starting to come back to them after five, six racesJames Wharton (Prema)
As confident as Wharton was going into his first year of F4 in Europe, he has yet to taste the joy of victory, sitting fourth in Italian F4 with a podium finish at each round. Meanwhile, his teammate and academy stablemate Rafael Câmara is in the lead of the standings at this moment, 68 points ahead of Wharton. The Aussie explains his comparatively slow start to the season.
“I think you can just go back to 2021 for that: he’d done more testing than me because he was not a Ferrari junior yet. Him and Kimi [Antonelli] were testing much more than me so I had to start the season on the back foot already. The amount of testing they’ve done compared to me is ridiculous, but I’m already starting to come back to them after five, six races.
When we’re not only in the same team but also in the same academy there’s always gonna be a rivalryJames Wharton (Prema)
“Even this weekend at Spa I’ve outqualified Rafa, which was the first time this year, so obviously that’s a step in the right direction. I’m always going to improve because I’ve only just started. I’ve still got a long way to go.
“When we’re not only in the same team but also in the same academy there’s always gonna be a rivalry, but that can help because we can push ourselves to get better and I think we’ve already done that when we’re easily on the podium. We’re doing a really good job so far.”
Finally, when questioned about his aim for the rest of 2022, Wharton expressed a positive outlook.
“No, there’s no clear target, I’m just trying to do the best I can do. Normally, the best I can do is good enough. Although I don’t want to say that it’s just a learning year because I really want to win this year, but of course it’s gonna be hard with how little experience I’ve had.
“I need to be realistic, and honestly, the best I can is being top three in the championship or even win the championship if I have a really good end to the season. So, I need to keep my hopes up and keep pushing.”
Header photo credit: Prema Racing
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