From a 1989 VW Golf to an electric F4: Who is Cameron Hawes, the first ERA Championship race winner?

History was made last weekend at Circuit Zolder in Belgium. For the first time in feeder series, an all-electric F4 race took place in the form of the opening round of the brand-new ERA Championship. The support series of the eTouring Car World Cup (ETCR), ERA crowned its first race winner with Cameron Hawes beating Milan de Laet by 55 thousandths of a second. The Irishman racing under a French license had a chat with F1 Feeder Series about his atypical pathway, the importance of this victory and his hopes for the future.

By Perceval Wolff

Thursday, 7 July, 10:00 p.m. Seventeen-year-old Hawes is enjoying a normal evening when he receives an unexpected call from his manager and sponsor.

“Ever since I started racing, I have been supported by Franck Marie and PAFClassic. That night, he called to ask me if I was available to race next weekend at Zolder for ERA. I had never seen the car before, I had never done any single-seater or electric racing before, but I accepted. One hour later, I was in my truck with my father, and we began a nine-hour road trip through France to arrive in Zolder at 8:30 a.m.,” he explains.

Historic car racing success

Hawes is not your ordinary racing driver. While many drivers spent their whole childhood on karting tracks, the Irishman started his career with historic car racing.

“That was the cheapest competition possible! We have very little budget compared to most of the drivers in feeder series. It’s still very expensive for ‘normal people’, as it is around €15,000 per year.

“I also did some sim racing for five years, which helped me a lot when I first drove my 1989 Volkswagen Golf GTI. Even though I had never driven a car before, I knew how to drive, how to negotiate the turns, et cetera. It was some fun years, but now, I would like to race at a higher level and do some races against real drivers and not only guys that are here just for fun.

“On all the races I’ve done with the Golf, I’ve finished on the podium every single time except once. And this year, I won every race so far, so I hope I will continue like that.”

I would like to race at a higher level and do some races against real drivers and not only guys that are here just for fun

Cameron Hawes

ERA: A championship in development

After arriving at Zolder, Hawes had only a couple days to discover single-seaters and electric racing in order to be ready for the race on Sunday. Despite several delays to the start of the ERA Championship, Hawes remains confident that the nascent championship is at the beginning of a great future.

“This year, it’s pretty clear ERA is a championship that is in a development phase. These cars are totally new, they bring a lot of new technologies, and there are a lot of developments to do. I think ERA will take off, surely next year. This year is really a year to get ready for bigger projects.”

For example, the regenerative braking system – which, as in Formula E, regenerates some energy when drivers release the throttle pedal – was unavailable for this weekend. “We were all rookie drivers, discovering the car,” Hawes explains. “They decided to remove regen at Zolder to avoid more mistakes from the drivers. But they are planning to use it in a close future.

“The two things every driver had to master were the battery level, of course, and the heat of the engine. If the engine was overheating, it was finished. You nearly had to stop the car to cool it down. I knew if I could master all that, I would finish on the podium.”

Indeed, managing the battery level was maybe the trickiest thing in ERA this weekend as drivers didn’t have live information. “They could have put something to show me the level of my car’s battery. That would have been a great help, but they couldn’t do it for all the cars on time so it would have been pretty unfair! Normally, at Vallelunga next weekend, there won’t be this problem anymore, and drivers will know their battery level. But this weekend, it was only instinct!” Hawes reveals.

The first electric feeder series race winner

Hawes did not set his sights on victory when he arrived at Zolder. “When I entered the weekend, my goal was to enjoy and to show that I could give great feedback to the mechanics and to the engineers. And that’s what I did. They really listened to me and I got a wonderful car. My manager told me just before the race, ‘Enjoy. The goal is not to win, the goal is not to lose, just don’t spin and do an intelligent race’,” Hawes says.

My manager told me just before the race, ‘Enjoy. The goal is not to win, the goal is not to lose, just don’t spin and do an intelligent race’

Cameron Hawes

Hawes set the second-fastest time in Qualifying on Sunday morning, 1.244 seconds off pole-sitter Ellis Spiezia. “I was starting from P2 on the grid. The strategy from my engineer and my mechanic was to stay behind Ellis and to overtake him at the end. But I got a really great start, and I controlled the race in front. I managed to force Ellis to attack and to overuse his battery. At the end of the race, he didn’t have any battery left.”

After two years in historic cars, Hawes realised the importance of his performance in his victory lap: “When I crossed the line … I wasn’t ready to win. I thought Ellis would easily win given his experience with the car. But this weekend, I showed what I was capable of, I showed to all my family, my sponsor, ERA … that they could trust me and that they called the right guy three days earlier.”

Records will show that Cameron Hawes got his first win with a French license. Born on the Isle of Man, where he lived for 11 years, Hawes went to France with his family to pursue his education, but Ireland remains his real homeland.

“I am Irish, my mother was Irish, and I took the nationality after Brexit to avoid potential traveling problems,” he explains. “I lived on the Isle of Man for several years and many people there helped me, but I feel myself Irish. I live in France, and I really like this country too. I have a French license because the Irish license is much more expensive to acquire and you need to do some tests there to get it. The FIA rules say that if you have a French license, then you are considered as French.”

But whatever his nationality, Hawes knows that this win comes at a crucial moment in his young career. “Because of budget, I know I’m in my final year of historical cars. And this weekend was the best opportunity to show to everyone that I knew how to drive. I proved it. In the lap after the chequered flag, I had so many ideas in my head, like, ‘Maybe this is the beginning of an incredible story’. … The most important is that I made everybody that trusts me proud,” a delighted Hawes explains.

What is next?

Despite this historic win, Hawes’s future in the series remains unclear. “I don’t know if I will be at Vallelunga for the second round next weekend. I really hope so because I received positive feedback from all the team. Then there is Istanbul in November, but it will be more complicated because it’s very far. … I just have to continue my job from my side. We will see what happens!”

For 2023, Hawes is already sure of one thing: he won’t join the standard FIA Global Pathway, which includes F4, Formula Regional, F3 and F2. “I’m not really looking at all that. All the drivers come from these categories, but I don’t want to do single-seaters for five to ten years. I may be the first driver to tell you that, but I don’t want to go to Formula 1. That’s not my goal!” he admitted with a laugh.

“I totally concede the fact that single-seater racing is truly exciting with very close battles, et cetera. I’m more aiming for touring cars or GT4 … a bit more touring cars with ETCR as it is electric. It’s really the future. I prefer to plan my career five years ahead of time than to change all my plans at the last minute.

“Since I was a child, I always wanted to become a professional driver. I would love to do the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It is my dream race. They are going in the right direction with hybrid engines, biofuel … but I really think it’s important to switch to all-electric. That’s why for the future, I’m thinking more about ERA for the beginning and maybe ETCR or even Formula E later.”

The politics and technology of electric racing

Hawes has firm views about where motorsport should go in the future. “Motorsport will have to become all-electric – it’s inevitable. Our world is changing and is constantly evolving with the threat of climate change. Either motorsport evolves and becomes sustainable with electric cars such as ETCR – without any diesel, without any emission – [or] motorsport vanishes. I think a lot of championships could disappear in the coming years. But we have to commit to this change if we want to continue our wonderful sport.”

Either motorsport evolves and becomes sustainable with electric cars such as ETCR – without any diesel, without any emission – [or] motorsport vanishes

Cameron Hawes

As one of the first electric feeder series drivers, does Hawes see himself in a political engagement for ecology?

“No, not really. And I have to be honest, I’ve driven a gas-powered Golf II for several years. I don’t see this as a political fight but just the normal evolution of racing. I think it’s good for everybody to change, to race with different technologies. And I’m quite proud to show that electric racing can be exciting, with even more strategy than in thermic-powered car racing.”

The ERA Championship will continue its opening season next weekend from 22–24 July at Vallelunga in Italy, supporting ETCR, and there will be one or two races. Championship leader Hawes has not yet been confirmed for the round.

Header photo credit: Media by Amber

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