On a bitterly cold December day at Knockhill, a young rising star of Scottish Motorsport continued preparations for the 2020 season. Ronan Pearson will step into the limelight in 2020, entering the JCW MINI CHALLENGE. After triumphing as champion in the Michelin Renault Clio Cup series in 2019, the 18-year-old has earned the opportunity to step up to the next level. JCW MINI CHALLENGE cars provide a perfect proving ground for an aspiring touring car driver. With nearly 300 horse power, slick tyres and sequential gearboxes, they’re a touring car, in miniature.
Peter MacKay sat down to catch up with Ronan after a successful test.
PM: You have just completed a very chilly winter test in your new JCW MINI CHALLENGE car. How did it go?
RP: It’s been really productive. I’m now at a point that I didn’t expect to be at so soon with me and the cars relationship, we’ve connected quite well in terms of my commitment in the car. It’s a lot further forward than I thought we might be. I’m taking the bull by the horns and I have tamed the beast because this car completely goes against the grain of anything I have done for four years now. I relish the challenge, I thrive off the learning opportunity with the car and it’s a long term project for me. Right now, I’m really happy.”
PM: Where did it all start for you with racing and when was the point when you said, I’m going to be a racing driver?
RP: Well, I started karting at the age of 6. I karted until I was 13 but I can’t really pinpoint a time when I thought I do want to definitely do this. I thought I’ll dip my toe into the water at some point. After that, I moved into the junior saloon car championship for fourteen to seventeen year olds. I was a young pup! I passed my ARDS test the week before the first race weekend. I’m incredibly lucky to be sat where I am now with the opportunity that I’ve got. To think that I’m going into my fifth full season of car racing is such a privilege. Just the other day, my Dad and I were doing the vinyl wrap on the car in the garage for the winter livery. We both said we never thought we’d get to a point where we had a JCW MINI CHALLENGE car in our garage. Also, to be on the BTCC TOCA package, it’s phenomenal. I’m really lucky.
PM: Next year you are going to be in the British touring car paddock and you’re going to be on ‘Free to Air’ television via ITV4. What’s your ultimate ambition in racing and what path do you take to get there?
RP: Well, to be honest, I’ve always had the same goal and I think that’s quite important. I’ve never changed from where I want to get to and that’s to become an established touring car driver. So, to be in this position now in the JCW, that’s the last step to the BTCC, so this is a massive stepping stone for me. The car’s basically a touring car. It isn’t quite as quick in a straight line but everything else that comes with it, is exactly like a touring car.
PM: So the car has a sequential gearbox and no ABS, is there any traction control?
RP: No, nothing like that.
PM: How has it been today at Knockhill when its one or two degrees outside?
RP: It was sketchy, as us racing drivers say! I have had three days in the wet and that was fantastic. I really got to grips with it and I’m quite confident in the wet. Today was my first time in the dry on slicks. It was like driving a different car. You go from one animal to a different animal. It was really important to have a dry day this side of new year. I don’t put pressure on myself but I’ve come away from today further ahead of the benchmark that I set myself. Going into pre-season testing in January, that’ll be key.
PM: Will you got some other tracks to test?
RP: Yes. We want to go to most tracks but it just depends on what the budget allows. We have had two days at Knockhill and we will probably do a couple more. I expect to be quite comfortable with coming to Knockhill in the latter stage of the season in September.
PM: I believe the JCW MINI CHALLENGE has a completely sold out grid?
RP: Yes. To come from what I’ve been used to in the Michelin Clio Cup series to go to a grid full of thirty-four cars. I’m already excited by the thought of the first green flag lap at Donington park in April. Never mind the 30,000 fans that will be there and the fact that I’ll be on the TV. But, to be on the grid, nose to tail with thirty-three other cars, will be quite something.
PM: In 2019, you won the Michelin Clio Cup championship. How competitive is that championship compared to the JCW MINI CHALLENGE? How big a jump is it?
RP: We did the Michelin Clio Cup series for two years. It would’ve been a much tougher jump into the MINI JCW if I hadn’t done the Clio Cup. The car, is quite a change. Never mind the fact its more powerful, everything I have been learning for four years in cars, it goes against the grain. That’s what I have been feeling recently, the MINI JCW goes against the grain in terms of everything that I’ve learnt in terms of set up with the car. I’ve learnt a massive amount with the three test days that I’ve done. I’ve increased my knowledge, going into the MINI JCWs my knowledge from the Clio Cup campaign and my feedback to the team was really good but it’s a whole new level jumping into the MINI JCW.
PM: Have you made many changes to the car across the tests so far?
RP: We have. Donington Park was the same conditions as the first day at Knockhill. So, I slotted straight into that. I went out, got a feel for the car and came straight back in and pinpointed things that I needed changed. We made the changes, I went out and could instantly feel an improvement. I would then come straight back in and feedback on that. To be honest, I get a buzz from being able to feedback and improve things. Not only for me, but for the team. My engineer Andrew and I, we work really well together. He has been with me for three years now and we operate really well. There’s so much that goes on behind the scenes that people don’t take into account and don’t appreciate. To have him with me again for the next season will be fantastic.
PM: So, Andrew’s been with you from the Saxo, to the Clio and now to the MINI, so three different cars together?
RP: Yes. He’s watched me develop as a driver. We’ve won a championship together; we’ve had a lot of success. We’ve already hit the ground running with the MINI JCW. We’ve changed the car massively in the wet compared to a base set up. The two run outs we had today in the dry were just about me getting a feel for things. I think if we had another day at Knockhill in the dry it’d be all about set up changes and extracting those half tenths, here and there at individual corners. But, at the moment, I’m finding two tenths in myself. So, I don’t want to make massive changes with the car until I know I’m as good as I can be.
PM: Here at Knockhill, you have the ideal situation. Working here during the week and racing at the weekend. Today at the test, you had Independent British touring car champion, Rory Butcher, working together with you. Tell us about your relationship with Rory and how you both help each other?
RP: Rory’s been instrumental in my 2019 success. We’ve been working together for a season now. My first run out for my ARDS test before my first race weekend, Rory was the very first person to sit beside me in a race car. Our relationships gone a long way back. Never mind the fact that we share the same sponsor, William Waugh. Moving forward, Rory’s going to be a mentor for me and driver coach. We do a lot away from the track and I appreciate that so much. He’s such a busy guy but I am so lucky to get to work with Rory, he’s got so much time for me. He’s a role model for me and we are working together really well. One of the biggest things is he changed my mind set a lot through the 2019 season, without focusing on it too much. There were times when it was backs to the wall and I thought everything was going against me and I turned it around. Rory was a big part of that. With the MINI JCW, the driving style that’s needed to be at the sharp end of the grid is exactly how Rory’s style is with the Civic, or any touring car. We have got the turbo in the MINI JCW, so even the power delivery, he is used to it. It’s all the small things that he’ll be helping me with that’ll really help me get to where I need to be. Whether it’s from a coffee catch up, going through data or at the track on a Friday, it all adds up.
PM: Alan Waugh, owner of William Waugh ltd, has worked together with you for a while now. How did you start working together?
RP: Well, it spans quite a long way back actually. My Dad and Alan raced in the Scottish MINI Cooper Cup together. That’s how that relationship’s come about, they have been friends since 2008. I was seven then, so I was really small and had just started karting. When I was in the Saxo, Alan sponsored me. From there things have spiralled, he was my title sponsor last season. For 2020, he is doing an incredible amount for me for this opportunity in the MINI JCW and again will be the title sponsor.
PM: I have noticed that Alan is not only a sponsor but a number one fan of both you and Rory.
RP: He really is. He’s a racing father, always watching over things. I like that. Alan and I’s relationship in the last year has really grown. There was a point where I was the 14-year-old racing the car but he had the relationship with my Dad already. Now, he just picks the phone up to me and we have our weekly catch ups. I really enjoy having such incredible support from a main sponsor. It’s something that a driver only dreams of.
PM: In the 2019 Michelin Clio Cup, you travelled to Zandvoort to race there. How did you find that?
RP: It was a good experience. We didn’t get the results we wanted due to unforeseen circumstances. I really want to go and watch the Formula 1 there because it’s a fantastic track. I did some simulator training in preparation for the weekend and did some stuff with Rory as well. I was on the ferry feeling really prepared but the walk around the track on Thursday night made me feel less prepared.
PM: It’s quite an old fashioned circuit isn’t it?
RP: Yes, it’s really tight and built up. You have a hairpin with a wall around it, there’s no room for error. Parts of Zandvoort are like a street circuit, I would say. But, it was a really good experience for me, as a 17-year-old at the time, to be able to go and race in The Netherlands at what will now be an F1 track.
PM: How did you find the Dutch racing community? Did you get a nice welcome?
RP: It was a little bit mixed, I would say. We were part of the British race festival, so we were there with the Ginetta GT5 Challenge so it felt like we were at Brands Hatch.
PM: Motor racing is such an expensive sport. How much of a challenge is it for you and your Dad to put together a package? A JCW MINI CHALLENGE car is a sophisticated piece of kit. How do you put the package together and how much work does it take?
RP: It’s like a full time job. My Dad is the biggest driver of it all and my biggest fan. Without him, I wouldn’t be sat here now. He works so hard behind the scenes. Now I’m at the point where I am working so hard as well. It’s a huge commitment but to get to where we want to be, we have to put in the hours. I am so grateful for the sacrifices that my family make. But, all the successful times make it all the sweeter.
PM: How do you find working here at Knockhill as an instructor? Does that help to put that racing package together?
RP: It does to a point. Being at a race track most days for work is really good. I really enjoy it. I have been working for Knockhill for six months now and it’s really brought me on as a person. I am pursuing my coaching licenses to get to a point where I can be travelling around the UK instructing.
RP: In 2019, I was in a championship that was completely off the radar, there wasn’t a massive outreach to people from the championship. I think with the move to the MINI JCW, I will be in the public domain a lot. TV will get my name out there more and gets the sponsors out there more too. That’s the package that we can offer now is live TV, hospitality and massive crowds. That’s what brings it all together.
PM: Are you looking forward to getting in front of the TV cameras and the atmosphere of the BTCC paddock?
RP: Yes. The atmosphere is incredible. Having supported Rory (Butcher) so closely over the last two years and to be a part of it now as an 18-year-old, is something you can only dream of. We went to the Brands Hatch finale and I turned to my Mum and Dad and said it’s surreal that this is the last time that I can stand at the touring cars and not have any pressure. Now, I’m going to be racing there, which is incredible. It’s so cool.
PM: That’s pretty cool that you are going to be walking through the paddock with Plato, Neal, Rory and all these drivers?
RP: Yes. To get in front of the camera requires finishing in the top three for post-race interviews. But, that is something that I’m working really hard to make possible, as soon as possible, to be right at the sharp end.
PM: What do you think the best chance of a top three will be. A wet Knockhill? Or is there a particular circuit where you think you will be strongest?
RP: It’s a tough one. A wet or dry Knockhill, given the testing that we’ll have and the amount of laps I will have under my belt. With the team, we’ll have developed a lot between now and then. I was at that point with the Clio that anywhere I went, I was so confident. I hold four lap records in the Clio. Fridays became more relaxed because the pace was there. I was always looking to improve but I wasn’t finding time because I was always at the front. Whereas with the MINI JCW, I’ve not been to all of these tracks yet. I don’t know the limits in this new car so apart from Knockhill I can’t say that I’ve got that confidence anywhere yet. But, that will come.
PM: I wish you all the very best of luck, I’ll be watching on the TV and hopefully you’ll get on the podium. Thanks very much for having a chat.
RP: Thank you very much.
Ronan has a refreshingly level head on his shoulders and a fantastic support network around him. For such a young man, his maturity, humility and gratitude is obvious for all to see. Ronan will be one to watch on ITV4 this year in the JCW MINI CHALLENGE. For more information on Ronan, visit www.ronanpearsonracing.com