ALTHOUGH Guernsey might be Shelbyville to Jersey’s Springfield, one cannot knock the Sarnians’ commitment to motor sport.
They take it seriously over there, and while Nigel Mansell might live here, they have a home-grown world champion in Andy Priaulx – whose success makes you proud to be a Channel Islander.
So when a Jersey driver wants to be the next Andy Priaulx, it is an acceptable aspiration.
But it is not a pipe dream for Joel Wroe-Johnson, a bright, good-natured 16-year-old who lives in St Ouen. He is not only driving for a professional racing team in a multi-round production car championship in the UK, but he is doing rather well in it.
And not only is his talent being recognised by some important people in motor sport, his track record of considerable success in karting (including consistently winning in Shelb – er, Guernsey) is reminiscent of another driver who rose up the ranks to find success with the big boys.
But hang on a sec – a 16-year-old? He’s not even able to drive on the road yet. Which is another reason to be impressed with Joel’s success to date. ‘I’ve wanted to get into motor sport since I was eight,’ he explained. ‘I wasn’t pushed into it, but it was certainly in my blood – my grandfather was involved with building the kart track at Belle Vue and my uncle, who now lives in Australia, used to race in the UK with the Jersey-based Modern Hotels team.’
The Victoria College student, who was born in Liverpool and moved to the Island when he was seven, inherited a passion for all things mechanical and he got his first kart, christened Betsy, five years ago when he was 11. Showing immediate promise, he won his first race at Sorel against older and experienced competitors and went on to win the Mini-max class that season.
Over the next few years he dominated the junior ranks, to the extent that he needed to look elsewhere to find adequate competition.
‘At the beginning of last year I saw little point doing another season in the juniors, so I looked to Guernsey, where I could compete in the hill climb against some pretty serious drivers,’ he explained. ‘I got off to a shaky start in my Swiss Hutless kart but was selected to join the Maranello Guernsey team and, using one of their karts, I won over there, beating Chris Law, who had quickly become my arch-rival.’
Supporting Joel along every inch of track has been his mother, Leila, a music teacher who has made many sacrifices, including financial, to give her son the best chance of fulfilling his talent.
After last year’s success and the continuation of Joel’s unblemished record, the next natural step was to compete in the UK. Joel and his mother looked at the British Super 1 Kart Series, the top championship in the country, but it was prohibitively expensive. They next looked at Ginettas, before settling on the Mini Challenge, a core feature of Dunlop’s Great and British Motor Sport festivals.
‘With my dream of following in Andy Priaulx’s footsteps, it made sense to move from karts to cars,’ said Joel. ‘I needed to change the way I drive to take a slightly more cautious approach, but that has made me a smoother, more precise driver. I am the youngest driver in Mini Challenge, but after three rounds I am fifth overall, second in my class and the leading novice.’
Driving for the Advent Motorsport team, Joel now has his own manager, mechanic and coach. The Mini Challenge consists of 17 races held at seven circuits, including Brands Hatch and Donnington Park, from April to September. Forty-odd people each pay teams for the privilege of driving a BMW S-Class or Club Class Mini in 20-minute races.
The second meeting of the series, at Pembrey in south Wales, was particularly successful for Joel, who made a home on the podium with a first, second and two thirds in his Club class. Providing the icing on the cake, the races were screened on Sky.
Displaying his usual confidence, Joel’s aim this year is to win the Mini Challenge and climb up the next rung. ‘I could compete in the faster and more expensive S Class but that would be more of a sideward step and a bit of a waste of money,’ he said.
‘My next goal is to race in the Clio Cup, which has a substantial amount of media coverage and would hopefully involve a sponsor coming on board.’
Amazingly, considering his commitment to motor sport, Joel has just sat 11 GCSEs. On top of that, he is one of 11 people from across the British Isles to have been selected for the Advanced Apprenticeship in Sporting Excellence at Loughborough University, which is a partnership with the London 2012 effort and concentrates on the theory of motor sport over ten weekends this year. Thankfully for him, Victoria College has been fully supportive and has given him the time off when needed.
Now with his own UK-based manager, Graeme Glew, Joel has a guide to help him negotiate the highly competitive world of motor sport. As well as developing Joel’s talent, Graeme is also helping him find a sponsor, as Leila can only fund her son up to a point. But Joel and his supporters are hopeful that success will be a magnet for much-needed cash.
And if it all comes together, Andy Priaulx won’t be the only touring car driver from the Channel Islands making the headlines.