To describe Australia’s James Kovacic as a talented racing driver would be a masterful piece of understatement: the 18-year-old is sensationally gifted.
Born in Gosford, north of Sydney, James has won almost every championship he’s contested across the width of the country, and it didn’t take long before he was starting to turn heads overseas.
He bypassed the domestic open-wheeler scene and made his racing debut on foreign soil in the Formula BMW Americas championship. His first race was at Mexico’s Puebla circuit, and he finished on the podium – a huge result for a rookie driver in an ultra-competitive field.
At the ninth round at Lime Rock, he claimed a richly-deserved and emotional first win, and ended the year fifth overall and as the series’ top rookie. For an Aussie kid trying to make his way in motorsport, this was a massive achievement.
Juggling motorsport ambitions and his studies is a challenge faced by many aspiring teens, and James has tackled this with aplomb, always approaching his chosen path as a privilege while making sure he never neglected the foundation that a good education would give him.
Of late, he’s had to tail off his racing activities to complete his high school education, but the few outings he’s had have again made waves.
Having never sat in an IMSA car or driven at Laguna Seca, he planted the car on pole during the weekend and won his first ever race! He then became the second-youngest driver ever to compete in the American Le Mans Series in his one and only outing championship outing.
And now, with university ahead of him and brilliant school exam results to his credit, James now tackles his next motorsport chapter, and he took the time to talk with us and record a video interview exclusively for RichardsF1.com.
We’re sure you’ll find one of the most articulate, intelligent and grounded racing drivers you’re ever likely to meet, and we’re thrilled and grateful for James’ time and support in making this interview possible. We’ll certainly be watching the next few years with great interest…
|Full Name:||James Kovacic|
|Born:||16 July 1993, Gosford (AUS)|
|2003||Karting (Midget Class), Queensland and Tasmanian State Champion|
|Ford KartStars National Championship, 1st overall|
|2004||Karting (Rookies Class), Northern Territory, Queensland and West Australia State Champion|
|2006||Karting (Junior Class), New South Wales and Queensland Junior Clubman Champion|
|Australian Junior National Light Class, 2nd overall|
|2007||Karting (Junior Clubman Class), New South Wales State Champion|
|Karting (Junior National Light Class), Northern Territory and West Australian State Champion|
|2008||Karting (Junior Clubman Class), New South Wales State & Australian National Champion|
|Karting (Junior National Heavy Class), New South Wales State Champion|
|Rotax Karting World Finals|
|2009||Karting (Clubman Light Class), South Australian State Champion|
|Karting (Leopard Class), South Australian State Champion|
|Jim Russell Racing School, Shootout Finalist|
|Formula BMW Americas, Team Apex, 1 win, 2 podiums, 5th overall|
|Formula BMW Pacific, EuroInternational, 4 races, 3 podiums|
|2010||IMSA Prototype Lights Championship, 2 races, 1 win, 2 podiums, 1 pole position, 1 fastest lap|
|2011||American Le Mans Series, Intersport Racing (LMPC Class), 1 race, 6 points, 21st overall|
|2012||American Le Mans Series, MSR Oreca FLM09 Chevrolet LMPC, 2 races, 6 points, 29th overall|
|2014||IMSA United SportsCar Championship (Prototype Class), BAR1 Motorsports Oreca FLM09|
What sparked your interest in motorsport in your childhood?
To be honest, there weren’t a great deal of things that sparked an interest for me. Nobody in my family has ever been involved in motorsport and I guess the two things that enabled me to start being interested at all in the sport was the fact I had a local hire kart track just down the road from my house, and I played video car racing games. I got a go-kart for Christmas one year, and from that point on, it just became my thing. I enjoyed the travel, the racing itself, but I guess most of all I’ve just enjoyed the competition over the years. It’s a sport where some things are out of your control, but through a lot of hard work and practice, things generally end up happening how you hope.
Who were your motorsport idols when you were growing up?
I’d always heard stories about now established Australian drivers such as James Courtney and Ryan Briscoe, so I guess what those two achieved was something I was hoping I could emulate. In saying that though, when I started racing I never saw myself as being anywhere near as successful as those guys, moving up a class in karts or making the step into car racing seemed ridiculous. I didn’t think I’d ever reach the heights I have now. In terms of a Formula 1 star that I followed, it’d have had to be Kimi Raikkonen. When he was driving for McLaren he had so much raw pace and aggression, and that’s the type of driving I’ll always respect.
Your formative years were spent watching karts at the local Forresters Beach circuit, but you were initially knocked back on getting behind the wheel because you weren’t tall enough. You eventually got behind the wheel at the age of eight, do you have many recollections of your first experience in a kart?
I have such a terrible memory of my childhood and I think it comes down to moving around and travelling so much. I remember when I first went to the kart track at Newcastle. I was watching the karts go around and I thought to myself, ‘I’m gonna crush this’. Little did I know!
My first day actually in the kart was really frustrating, the engine was rich and we were too inexperienced to know any better. For half the day I was driving around like a snail and just wondering what was so wrong with me that I was even slower in the straight compared with everyone else. Luckily, there was a kind gentleman at the track, the father of Hayden McBride (who ended up being a national champion), who helped us work out the problems. From then on I was on my way and having a ball. Hayden’s father unfortunately passed away very shortly after that meeting, but I’ll always remember him because if it wasn’t for that help, I may not have experienced what I have in motorsport.
The best part about my early years in karting was the number of fierce competitors around my immediate area. If you could win a local club race at Newcastle, you’d be well on your way to winning a state championship, such was the competition level. I think that really helped me progress quickly and I’m very thankful that it was the case.
Your first outings were alongside your father, Valentino, who then helped to try and buy a kart for you. How instrumental has the support of your family been?
Without my family I’d never have been able to achieve anything that I have. Whenever I’ve needed help they’ve always been there for me, and they’ve been fully supportive in my motorsport efforts and I can’t even begin to thank them enough for that. My father has largely been the person that has helped me at the track and things of that nature, he’s worked incredibly hard for me and I’m very appreciative. In saying that though, it hasn’t always been roses. The amount of disagreements a father and son pair have at a race track is quite astounding! I think it’s brought us closer though, and I’m grateful that they’re giving and trusting me with the freedom to live my life how I want to live it, even after putting so much time and effort into my exploits.
You joined the Newcastle Kart Racing Club and won several races on a provisional license, which was an unprecedented feat. In your entire 2003 Cadet class campaign, you were never beaten. What was the reaction like from observers and your rivals?
Sadly I didn’t win my first race, I was leading until my engine seized with two laps to go. We were advised to put more fuel in due to the race being at night and the air being thinner, but … well we just put more fuel in the tank. All class.
My other race wins caused big and largely negative reactions from competitors, they weren’t pleased to see a new kid on the block doing well and all through the junior ranks I was accused of cheating.
It got tiresome and I ended up having quite a poor outlook on people in the sport as a result, but as I grew older accusations faded, there are only so many times people can disagree that you know what you’re doing when you continually show promise in such a wide variety of categories.
You made your senior class debut at the 2008 SKUSA SuperNationals, where you competed against some of the best names in the business in the US open-wheeler scene, including Dan Wheldon, Jamie McMurray and Buddy Rice. What was the experience like to be racing among such esteemed competition?
It was certainly one of the most amazing experiences I’ll ever have. I was the youngest in the field, had no idea if I’d be competitive, and was quite honestly a little bit out of my depth in terms of experience. Somehow though, I had good pace and I was really giving it a go. We had some troubles in qualifying, had a crash in one heat and an engine failure in another, and was put on the back of the grid for the final. There were 100 entries and only 40 made it into the final, I’m fairly sure I got a wildcard entry. I woke up in the hotel on final day not expecting to go to the track, only to have the team calling me to get on the grid!
I ended up puling myself up from the last row of the grid to about tenth, and I was happy with the effort. To race against actual internationally acclaimed drivers was something else, there’s not many better things an athlete can do then put himself up against the best, and even though it was a high-profile event, there was a great relaxed vibe about the whole weekend. That probably had something to do with the race being in Las Vegas.
After continued success in karting – including become the youngest driver to win a Junior Clubman State title – you took the unusual jump straight into Formula BMW competition. How did you decide on this route and how did the opportunity to compete in the Formula BMW-Americas championship come about?
In karts I had plenty of success, I became very used to what was happening and it started to fall into a bit of a routine. I’d raced against the same people for what was getting close to ten years, and although things are never quite the same, eventually I wanted to make the next step and I became very eager to do so.
I was given an opportunity to have a test in Indonesia in a Formula BMW, and I took it with both hands.
I didn’t particularly like environment, and I decided with my family that it wasn’t the right place to be to forge my career, so we instead looked towards America and to those people who may be able to help.
I met Graham Watson from memory in the early stages of 2009. He’d helped well-known drivers establish themselves in the past and he became somewhat of a mentor for me. Graham was an opinionated character, but he knew what he wanted and he put a lot of faith in me. It was very important to me that I had someone from the industry willing to say that I have what it takes, it gave me a wealth of confidence and that was something I was severely lacking in.
Unfortunately, Graham passed away before the first race of the season. His loss saw the slipping away of vital links in the industry, but also the loss of what should have been a great friendship. Even with the loss of Graham, however, we finalised talks with a team competing in the Americas series and I had one test with them before the first race. It was strange travelling so much to America, but in hindsight, I think it was the right choice. I met some great people and I’ve travelled to some great places – some of the indirect benefits of being involved in motorsport.
You finished on the podium in your very first car race, and achieved some outstanding results including your maiden win at Lime Rock. What did this success mean to you?
I can honestly say that my first win at Lime Rock was the happiest moment I’ve ever lived. I was the young Aussie kid in a team that hadn’t had a win in years up against a number of wealthy, well-tested drivers with much more seat time in comparison to what I had had at the time, and I managed to make my mark. There was so much emotion and it’s the old cliché, it really just can’t be described in words. I’d wanted that victory so incredibly badly and for it to actually happen was beyond amazing for me. I had to drive back to the team truck through a crowd of people who were applauding (the Americans really love their sport), and the first thing I did when I got out of the car was hug my dad. I was struggling to hold back the tears.
It was a similar feeling that I had at my debut at Puebla, Mexico, where I had a podium in my first ever race. In Puebla I was a mess, I was really struggling to have faith in myself because I was in such a strange position. I just thought to myself, ‘What are you doing here? You’re an Australian teenager racing a car in Mexico?! Get back to the beach where you belong’.
I was calmed down by Mitch Biner, he’s been a family friend for a long time now and he’s my guardian when I travel overseas in some cases. The problem I was having in Puebla wasn’t about talent or skill, it was just about actually making myself believe that I belonged where I was, and after a hard fought podium, I came to realise that maybe this, what I was doing, was the right thing after all.
You also had the opportunity to compete in Formula BMW in Asia, finishing on the podium in the two support races at the 2009 Singapore Grand Prix. What was the experience like on your first ever street circuit outing, and to be a part of the Grand Prix environment?
It was a unique experience in Asia, and one that I had to have in order to learn a number of things about motorsport. I competed with the team I was racing against in America, so that was a little bit odd. I was unhappy with a number of things, largely car-related, and I had a lot of trouble communicating that to the engineers. I’ve learnt that I always have to hold my ground and get done what I want to get done if I’m ever going to achieve success in this sport.
In terms of the actual event, it was great. Australians are generally popular no matter where they go, and this was no different – except that I had an American flag on my car, which was slightly odd! The track was actually quite nice to drive and I didn’t have any problems with wall contact or anything like that. I’d gained some street racing experience from the SuperNationals in Vegas, so that helped, but I enjoy the challenge of taking on something different.
I was renowned in America for being a driver that went well on the traditional types of circuits where bravery could make the difference between being quick or slow, and the street racing environment brings that into play a little bit. All in all though, if you don’t think about the walls, there’s no problem. I’m glad that I took part in the event and I was satisfied with my results in trying circumstances, but you’re never happy when you don’t win.
Sadly, Formula BMW ceased competition at the end of the year in the Americas category. How much of an impact did this have on your career path, and how did you try and rebuild from that point?
I’d always planned on doing two seasons of Formula BMW, one to come to grips, and one to challenge for the title. Obviously that couldn’t have happened due to Formula BMW ceasing its American operation, but if anything, it forced me to progress more quickly. I was awarded the international rising star award that year because of my potential overseas, but we didn’t get the funding it usually entails because we simply weren’t sure on a direction. I wanted to remain true to formula cars, but that became increasingly unrealistic and unattractive due to both the nature of racing in such categories and the high expenses. Without a significant benefactor, progress into those categories was simply impossible. So Formula BMW folding was quite difficult for me, and caused me to reassess where I wanted to go with motorsport.
You took the big step into sports car racing and made your debut in the IMSA series at Laguna Seca in May, 2010. Sensationally, you won on debut, and picked up third place in the second race of the weekend. Can you describe this experience to our readers, particularly on a circuit like Laguna Seca. Also, what is the Corkscrew like to drive?
I was terrified. I was being thrown into a category that had double the horsepower of the Formula BMW, and onto a track renowned for being challenging. I hadn’t driven a car for a fairly long time before hand and I was really worried about letting myself and everyone else down that had worked so hard to help get me where I was. At the same time though, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. I didn’t want to say ‘I could have’.
So I went over to Northern California and threw up in my helmet before the first practice session and the first race. I blame that on two things, nerves, and the fact that the closest eating establishment was a Wiernerschnitzel!
It was the first time it had ever happened and I guess it just shows how on edge I was, but towards the end of the first practice session, I felt right at home.
The car was doing everything I wanted, the track seemed to suit me rather well, and the extra horsepower only took a couple of laps to get a hold of.
The motivation to win was really high as usual, and once I saw that I was within range after testing, it was the only thing on my mind and I got it done in the first race. During the second race, there was a mandatory pit-stop for cars. We were leading, made our stop, and were on track for a comfortable win, but unfortunately for us, a number of cars pitted just prior to a safety car being deployed onto the track, so they were basically given a two lap advantage on the rest of the field.
The track was amazing, the wind buffeted the car around, and this was a fairly large car, like crazy, and you really had to work hard. I remember being told by one of the team’s driver coaches that with the corkscrew, there’s one thing you have to do: aim for the tree. Due to the right kink being blind on the descent of it, people have had to look for a marker on the edge of the track to direct them towards an apex, and luckily, there was a rather large tree smack bang on the perfect point. It’s such a huge drop that photographs can’t do it justice, most people would struggle to walk the track back up the hill in that section and it’s a real thrill to drive.
In 2011, you made your American Le Mans Series debut with the Intersport Race Team outfit, back at Lime Rock, the circuit where you claimed victory in Formula BMW. Again, you took this like a duck to water, and performed extremely well. What was this experience like, and how did you manage to adapt to the endurance format of racing with such ease?
I was much more confident in this event. I’d gone through plenty of doubts about whether or not I was cut out for this in previous years, but by this year, especially after my results at Laguna, I knew that if I was focused I’d perform well, and I like to think that I did. It was a big thrill and quite challenging.
The horsepower was once again double what I had driven previously and for the first time I was racing something that I thought even looked mightily impressive. I was given my first ever live television interview by SPEED TV, and I had a couple of interviews with ESPN as well, which was great and a real confidence boost. The one scary moment was during the second practice session, the rain started to come down really hard, and I hadn’t had much time in a car of late let alone in the wet. My co-driver said he didn’t want to go out, he knew how difficult the cars were to drive in the wet and he didn’t need a reminder, but I wanted track time before the race, so off I went, I was pretty nervous. When I was out there though, I was topping the time sheets for most of the session and only went to second when an LMP1 car edged me out. I was quicker than my team mate who was in another car at the same time, him having three years experience in the class and being fresh off a win in Italy. So I was pretty excited by that. I was surprised in myself that everything was working so well.
In the race we had to start from fifth due to a poor qualifying performance by my team-mate, who made some calls on car set-up that didn’t work. I was the rookie, so I let him make the calls, from now on I’ll go with my instincts. In any case, I got to the lead within the first half hour of the race, but I simply wasn’t fit enough.
I hadn’t been in a competitive race since Laguna the previous year and my neck was severely unconditioned for what was needed at Lime Rock, one of the highest average speed tracks in America. I was still dicing for the lead though when a GT collision forced me to stop on track, unluckily the car I was racing with avoided the crash and got a good gap on me.
A safety car came out though and we were neck and neck again, the co-driver got in and we were looking set for a win or a strong result, but unfortunately there was a mechanical failure during our final pit-stop. It wasn’t the ending such a good weekend deserved, but I had people such as Allan McNish, a two-time 24 hours of Le Mans winner, stand up and take notice, which was a great feeling.
I’m not sure if I really adapted quickly, I was just doing what I do. I’m quite used to being thrown into the deep end and learning how to swim fast now, and although I was slightly hesitant about it all, I was confident in my abilities and I’d say that’s why I was able to suddenly be competitive even though it was such a large step. I see myself being like this in all my racing in the future.
What are your long-term racing aspirations?
As a child I always said I’d be a Formula 1 driver, which was the ambition. It still is, I’d be more than happy to drive in Formula 1, I just see the road towards that as being one that can destroy a family financially, and many people have lived through that.
It’s such an incredibly difficult road, but it doesn’t only take talent, which is very disappointing. Ultimately, I want to be earning money out of something I love rather than paying the bills for it, so for that reason I don’t see formula car racing in Europe as an option. I’d like to achieve a career in either IndyCars or the International Le Mans Series, and I think after what I’ve done and the things I’ve been told that I have what it takes.
I’m going to give it a real go, and it would be a dream come true if I can succeed in my efforts. I also know that motorsport is like any other sport in the way that not everyone makes it, sometimes things just don’t work for you, sometimes it’s circumstances that prevent you, but the reality is that there is a life outside of motorsport, and some people trying to achieve success within it often forget that.
For this reason, I’m making sure I get a quality education, because I’d like to enjoy life, and if I can’t do it through motorsport, I want to make sure that I have the necessary foundation to succeed in any other pursuit that I wish to undertake. But that doesn’t mean I have any less intent or drive to become a recognised star in racing, I just know that sometimes you need a ‘Plan B’ when you’re taking a risk, and motorsport is a risk in more ways than one.
Images via James Kovacic and Motorsport.com