BRSCC CHATS WITH… DECLAN LEE
Here’s our fourth instalment of the BRSCC Chats With… series, where we take a deep dive into some of the personalities that make up our race weekend paddocks, be they drivers, team bosses, marshals, photographers, volunteers, officials and more! This time, we speak to karting graduate turned Mazda MX-5 racer Declan Lee, who talks about racing alongside his heroes, where he wants to head in his career and how a balaclava almost prevented him from racing!
What was your earliest memory of motorsport?
In my earliest memory of motorsport, when I was about 10 years old, I urged my father to take me to a French karting circuit in Abbeville. We often drove past the circuit and I would talk about it quite endlessly. He thought it was just a phase and that I would outgrow it in a year but if I continued to ask a year later, he would take me.
True enough, my father kept his promise. I arrived at the karting circuit and with the little French we knew, we managed to hire a kart and I just loved it. One of the men who worked there was the French 125 cc gearbox kart champion in France and he asked me how long I have been karting. Surprised that it was my first session, he told me that with a few minor tweaks he could get me to be a lot quicker. For the rest of that holiday, we spent most of the time waking up early to go to the circuit. I didn’t think my father realised what he was fuelling, but we both enjoyed it, rolling up in the morning beating the local French boys, with them wondering who we are.
Who or what inspired you to get interested?
Well, after my time driving around a few French karting circuits, my father showed me what a proper racing kart looked like, with sticky slick tyres and 4 times the power, in an effort to scare me out of pursuing it further, he says. However, all this did was urge me to want more. The UK scene for race karting is very big; so we went to an event, talked to some participants, all very friendly and helpful, which took me to a team, Project One Racing, where my love for karting and motorsport took off.
Who is your motorsport hero?
To be honest, I am always looking up to the drivers I am competing against. Not just because they are quick but the way they handle themselves, off track and when things go wrong. In the Kent Regional Kart scene, there are some excellent drivers as well – Eliot Rice, Jack Bartholomew just to name a couple. In the BRSCC Mazdas, I would have to say that currently, it’s the top drivers in the Mazda Mx5 SuperCup such as my new team owner Aidan Hills and the Championship winner Luke Herbert. I shared a ‘tent’ with John Landridge (Mk 1) last year and he was impressive in so many ways. James Blake Baldwin is a tremendous character as well, with a can-do and will-do attitude; very direct in his feedback to the team and about himself (and me). I could not repeat what he says but it is to the point!
If you want a ‘big name’ Sir Jackie Stewart stands out for me because I met him just before my first kart race. He signed my helmet and told me it was worth 2 tenths! Apparently, he is even more dyslexic than I am. He is a real gentleman and very generous in the way he can reach out to you.
How would you describe your first experience of taking part in motorsport?
I was 12 years of age. It rained so badly that the circuit began to flood. The team boss asked me how I was finding it. I replied honestly and said it was more a case of sailing at the far end of the track then racing. He seemed to like this feedback!
What memories do you have of your first race weekend?
Not great. The first car race was at Brands last year. There was a steady build-up to transition from a kart to a car under the care of Blink Motorsport for several weeks. I qualified a promising 9th. I went through Paddock from the start and found a car rolling backwards across the circuit. I had nowhere to go. To cap the DNF, I had hit my teammate, Sam Bailey and totalled my car. Welcome to car racing!
What is one race that you will always remember?
Well, the first one in a car was pretty memorable! Obviously, winning my first kart race. It took just over 2 years with many failures and lots of “if only” and “nearly”. Then, I just poled it and drove away from the pack. Pole followed by two heat wins and the Final. You do ask yourself, “why did I make it so difficult?”
What do you love most about what you do in motorsport?
The people’s and the team’s efforts are focused on trying to get as fast as possible, to win and to succeed. We share the same passion and goals.
How can someone get involved as a driver within the BRSCC?
I am a young driver and came up through karting. I can only speak from my experiences. The British karting scene is incredibly well developed and competitive. Plenty of talent and very close (you would eBay your family for an extra tenth!). You can learn huge amounts relatively cheaply; i.e. brutal lessons at relatively cheap prices compared to other forms of racing. If you can be competitive in karts, then you can be expected to manage car racing. I still race in karts; it keeps me sharp and physically, it is much tougher than a Mazda. This is not a route for older drivers though.
What I can also say, is just go along and talk to the ‘paddock’. The BRSCC paddock is a very welcoming and encouraging place. We attended 3 events over 2 years to get information and ask more questions. We got help from everyone and in particular Paul Austin of NHA Motorsport and Bryn Griffiths who drives for them.
Whichever route you take, in my experience, the key is to get in with a good team who can support you through the process – mechanically, technically and mentally.
Which driver would you love to be a teammate to and why?
I was in the same team (BLiNK Motorsport) as John Langridge (Mk1) and James Blake Baldwin (Mk3) last year. They are pretty special but in very different ways. Currently, I think I would say James Cossins and he is my teammate! James was very helpful to me in 2018 when I was trying to practice on a sim; he helped in my first two tests and he is lots of fun to be around and did I mention this – talented! Good luck brings me into the same team and he is going to be a good benchmark or tough guy to match depending on your point of view.
If you could drive any race car and circuit combo in the world, what would it be and why?
Sorry to be boring, but I actually look at what I know. Oulton Park has most of what I like. Buckmore Park before it closed to proper karting. That is not to say I do not like any of the other UK circuits. They are all different and we are a lucky country to have so many.
When it comes to race cars, I would love to try some historical classics.
What would you class as your proudest achievement in motorsport?
Two things – plugging away at karting when a lot of people probably thought I was too late into the game or lacking talent or both. It was tough, tough, tough. Then, I was pleased that I managed to be a credible car driver in Mk3’s in my first truncated season, despite the early knocks at Brands Hatch and Pembrey.
What do you love most about racing in your BRSCC championship?
I love the preparation to get to the race; I love the community at the BRSCC and the people I race with, the people I meet; the adrenaline from being on the grid; the hotels and travelling around the UK doing what I love with my dad who is my race manager and fan. I love it all.
Describe your driving style in three words
Send, see and hope! That is how the Clerk saw it anyway. This is a difficult question because I only know me. Drawing on what my Dad says, I am a smooth driver who approaches my limits carefully. So not great on the brakes at times as I am always trying to be smooth. I do see a big difference with say Aidan (Hills), who is absolutely on the ragged edge and has superb driving confidence in his ability to ‘catch’ the car. I could also say my style is like all young drivers, too early to turn in, too much speed in the corner and too quick to use the throttle after the apex. Basically, impatience to get it done!
What are your plans for the 2020 season and beyond?
Well, that’s easy – get into a race in 2020. Any race. Soon. Beyond that – One season at a time.
Long term, I hope to have a career in motorsport. I have limited but highly focused interests and from my first whizz in a kart in France, this has been the sole ambition.
What is your ultimate motorsport ambition/ goal?
I think winning the FIA Formula One Championship would be ‘entertaining’ but if I can make a living and go racing with like-minded people, I will have a good and varied life. Indeed, I take the view that you should not rule anything out except complete failure and giving up. So maybe I advance to a more professional level in driving or end up in race team management. Who knows? One step at a time and do each step as best as I can.
Who has been the one person that has influenced your motorsport career the most and why?
Lots of them. If I have to pick a few, I have to mention a doyen of British Karting, Gerard Cox of Project One Karting. In cars, Fraser and Richard Breland of BLiNK. They are all different people but share common characteristics, calm, experienced, stress the positives, problem solvers, patient with young rascals, honest at all times and passionate about success through their efforts and those of their drivers. From my perspective, they are all very important.
Who is your best friend in motorsport?
My Mazda, as it keeps pushing through all weather and forgives me for missing a few apexes here and there.
How did you feel when you won your first race?
Well, that has to be in karts. After a hard battle, I won the final. I was then promptly disqualified due to a technicality with the paperwork. The second-place driver refused the trophy and insisted I take the top spot and the trophy. Thank you, Tom Rotherham. Emotional stuff.
What is your favourite story or anecdote from your time in motorsport?
Not a favourite in any way, but my second race was at Pembrey last year. I made my way leisurely to my first race on Sunday. Only to find that the circuit was ‘live’. I was barred from entering the inner paddock. After careful pressure, the Clerk relented and a spectator lent me his push-bike to get to the car in the assembly area. I succeeded but only to be stopped for not having a balaclava (which is not mandatory). Mr Breland sprints to the tent and John Landridge throws his to Richard. I then don the kit but it’s too late – I have to start from the pit lane. This was my second race after the Brands debacle. It was not funny at the time and very frustrating. On the other hand, it was a good experience to start from a pit lane and focus on the comeback. I now wear a balaclava.
What has been your favourite race car that you’ve driven so far and why?
A single-seater since it is a purpose-built race car. For doing lap after lap, there’s nothing that I can think of more satisfying; however, the racing won’t be as close as the open-wheel nature.
I would love to try some historical classics such as a Patrick Motorsports Rover SD1.
Many thanks to Declan for the interview and providing us with some great insight in the process! If you fancy tackling these questions, whether you’re a driver, marshal, volunteer, coordinator, team owner or official, then e-mail Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org and you could be featured in our next interview!