Jack Aitken: Flying the Taegeukgi at 200 kilometers per hour
Korea’s Taegeukgi flag and Britain’s Union Jack flew side by side around a racetrack at 200 kilometers per hour on a hot December day in Bahrain last year.
The two flags were both sewn onto the racing suit of British-Korean racing driver Jack Aitken, whose Korean name is Han Se-yong, so when Aitken made his Formula 1 debut on Dec. 6, the Taegeukgi did too.
Born in London to a Scottish father and Korean mother, Aitken says he is extremely proud to fly the flags for both countries. Although he is a British citizen and has lived in the country his entire life, he spent his childhood visiting Korea once or twice a year and has worked hard to learn the language.
While Britain, and especially Scotland, has a strong racing heritage, the sport is still relatively unknown here. But although Korea is still a long way from becoming a motorsport powerhouse, Aitken says he regularly gets messages from young Koreans that want to learn more about the sport and how they can start their own careers.
Acting as a guidance counselor for budding Korean drivers is one responsibility that Aitken says he’s “more than happy” to have.
It started with a party
While Aitken has been a fan of Formula 1 for as long as he can remember, the path from enthusiast to professional is a lot less clear in race car driving than it is in other sports like football or baseball.
While the parents of a football fan might send their offspring to an after-school academy or have them play for a local team on weekends, making the jump from Formula 1 fan to getting behind the wheel of a race car is a lot more difficult.
For Aitken, it started with a birthday party.
“I had been to a go-karting party and really liked it,” Aitken says. “So my dad said that if I got a certain grade in my exams, he would take me karting again. I got the grade, we went karting, I loved it and I just kept begging to go back again.”
For young drivers that can’t drive a full-size race car, go-karts are the way to start. After that first experience, Aitken and his family starting going back every weekend. He started training and racing at 8 years old, slowly building up points based on completing races in order to get a racing license.
It wasn’t until he was 12 that things started to get more serious. As Aitken continued racing and started to see better results, he began to get invitations from bigger teams and offers to race in Europe. It was at that point that he realized race car driving was no longer a fun hobby, but a potential career.
But despite his obvious talent, his parents had one strict rule — he couldn’t race if he didn’t keep his grades up.
“The deal was always that I got to go racing on the weekend if I did well at school during the week,” Aitken says. “I had to make sure I kept up with exams and everything like that.
“So I stayed in school until I was 18, which is a lot longer than most young drivers and athletes, but my parents were quite keen to keep me in school and make sure that I had that safety net. That was the condition.”
Budget till you make it
Aitken graduated from go-karts to cars when he was 17, earning points toward his racing license and then taking the high-speed version of a driving test.
But getting a license is only the first step. Racing is quite unique compared to other sports in that drivers are largely responsible for footing the bill, and the earlier you are in your career, the more money it’s likely to cost.
“You start from the basic principle that its quite an expensive sport,” Aitken says, “so you have to be able to bring budget to the lower-level team, and they will take that money and run the car and provide the service of mechanics and enter you into races, giving you the knowledge that they’ve got on how to improve and set up the car better.”
That idea of “bringing budget,” or providing the funds to race, doesn’t only apply at the lower levels of the sport. Established racers often still bring money into the team, but they’re able to do so through third parties, like sponsors.
That makes racing a rich boy's game, and there is certainly a corner of the sport carved out for people who have enough money to drive really fast cars for fun, even if they’re never going to be especially competitive.
For more serious drivers, like Aitken, it relies on family and friends gambling on the fact that you are good enough to rise up the ranks until you start making money, not just spending it.
“When you reach the level just below Formula 1, the tables start to turn, and teams will either offer you reduced prices if you’re a good driver, because if you can give them good results it makes them more attractive to other drivers who will bring them money,” Aiken says. “Or you can get sponsors because there’s more TV the higher you go.”
It’s only once a racer reaches Formula 1, that teams really start to foot the bill.
As unusual as the pay-your-way style of motorsport is, Aitken says it’s a necessary evil for such an expensive sport.
“It’s just the way it is,” he says. “You’ve got these very advanced bits of machinery, these cars, and the infrastructure around it — you need a circuit to go racing, and circuits are expensive to build, the consumables, the race tires, the fuel, driving the cars from circuit to circuit in big transporters. It’s a very expensive sport compared to others, and it's always been that way.”
Long road to the top
Despite the unconventional approach to financing, the racing career path follows a similar pattern to other sports.
In 2016, Aitken signed to a team racing in the third-tier GP3. After finishing fifth overall that season with one win and seven podium finishes, he returned to the GP3 in 2017, finishing second overall.
On the back of that strong season, Aitken moved up to the second-tier Formula 2 in 2018, where he has continued racing. His best finish was in 2019, at fifth, with a big three wins and seven podium finishes.
Yet despite being a Formula 2 racer on paper, Aitken is also on the very cusp of Formula 1, the top tier of the sport where household names like Lewis Hamilton compete.
When Aitken was promoted to Formula 2 in 2018, he was also appointed as the reserve driver for the Renault Formula 1 team. The two moves aren’t related — there are plenty of Formula 2 drivers with no affiliation to a Formula 1 team — but for Aitken, both leagues came knocking in the same year.
“You’ve got two nominated drivers per team, and then you’ve got a reserve driver or a third driver, which was me,” Aitken says. “The reserve driver is there in case one of the main drivers gets injured or otherwise can’t drive the car, so you’ve got a replacement ready to go.”
Aitken was Renault’s reserve driver for two years. While he never did get a chance to race for the team, it did give him a chance to get used to Formula 1 cars.
“Formula 1 cars are so complex and difficult to manage, never mind drive them quickly, so someone like me will come in and spend time in the simulator to get ready should I need to step into the actual car,” Aitken says. “I’ll be clued up on all the systems, get to know the driving manual, get to know the team and I can slot in as seamlessly as possible to give the team as good a chance of still getting a result.”
In 2020, Aitken joined the Williams Driver Academy and was named as reserve driver for the Williams Formula 1 team, giving him more experience in a different vehicle.
Like at Renault, Aitken essentially became the No. 3 driver at Williams and was ready to step in if either of the two appointed drivers were unable to race.
One day in Bahrain
Aitken’s chance finally came on Dec. 6 last year at the Sakhir Grand Prix.
When news broke that Lewis Hamilton had tested positive for the coronavirus, there was no reason to think it would affect Aitken — Hamilton raced for Mercedes, a completely different team.
But Hamilton’s sudden absence meant that Mercedes chose to call up George Russell, a Williams racer who Mercedes also had under contract. With Russel moving up to Mercedes to fill Hamilton’s spot, that left a seat free in the Williams lineup for Aitken.
The Formula 1 debut of a young driver ought to be a fairly unremarkable affair — they might set some good lap times or show some potential, but they’re unlikely to manage anything spectacular on their first outing, especially because the fastest teams with the best cars, like Mercedes, probably won’t call up a rookie.
By that standard, Aitken had a fantastic debut. He set some good lap times and outpaced his more experienced teammate Nicholas Latifi, despite racing in the exact same car. He proved to Williams that he had what it took to race at the top level and likely secured his spot as the No. 3 man, and potentially the next person to step into the Formula 1 team, for the foreseeable future.
Unfortunately for Aitken, that’s not all that happened in Bahrain.
On lap 61 of the 87-lap race, Aitken spun out at the final corner, clipping the barrier and damaging the front of his car. While accidents like this are common and Aitken’s was fairly minor — he still finished the race — it triggered a series of events that disrupted the entire grand prix.
With pieces of Aitken’s car still on the track, a virtual safety car was triggered, slowing cars down to give officials time to remove the debris. When this happens, teams often choose to send their cars to the pit to change their tires or refuel.
Mercedes made that decision, but an error in the pit meant that Russell, who had led for most of the race, was sent out with the wrong tires and had to come back in again to change them. That mistake cost him the title.
Although Russell’s downfall had nothing to do with Aitken, it was triggered by his mistake and brought him a lot more media attention that a rookie would normally get.
“I was pretty frustrated immediately after the race with the spin and damaging the car,” he said. “Luckily I was still able to finish, but in the heat of the moment I was really disappointed in myself for making the mistake.
“After I had a night to sleep on it and I look back on the weekend there are a lot of things to be really proud of. I got up to speed pretty quickly and got comfortable with the car and was able to really push it.”
Williams also saw Aitken’s potential and had him lined up to race the following week, although in the end, Hamilton recovered and returned to Mercedes, pushing Aitken back to the No. 3 spot again.
Repetition and reward
Although Aitken doesn’t consider himself superstitious, he does insist on following the exact same routine before every race.
“Probably about half an hour before I have to get in the car I start listening to some music, usually quite upbeat and fast-paced to get me in the mood,” he says. “I’ll do a 10-minute warmup to get everything moving and make sure that I’m not going in cold. I’ll have a coffee, because coffee is important, and then get all my gear together.”
Following those steps is less about luck and more about ease and comfort for Aitken, who says it’s a lot easier to be on autopilot ahead of the race so that he doesn’t have to think about what he’s doing.
But while he may not want to think about what he’s doing before a race, Aitken is prone to self-reflection. Looking back on his career so far, he thinks that some of the most important moments have been his failures.
“In racing, as for most sports, you will lose more times than you win, and the losing is going to hurt more than the winning is going to feel good,” he says. “So you have to come to terms with the fact that you’re going to struggle more than you’re going to be happy about stuff. You have to be comfortable with that and accept that you’re going to learn from that, and the struggle will make you dig deeper and harder each time.”
Aitken’s move to Williams is proof of that. Before he got the call to join the team, he was having one of the worst seasons of his career. That made him work harder and push himself more, and less than 12 months later he was sitting in a Formula 1 car.
Aitken has one goal in his career — to race at the very highest level he can, whatever that may be.
At 25 years old, he feels like he’s established himself as a race car driver and is keen to explore other areas of the sport. While he is still working toward a Formula 1 career, Aitken is also interested in exploring other areas of the sport.
“We’re seeing the rise of electric car racing at the moment, which is becoming very popular,” he says. “Formula E is exciting. The support from manufacturers is huge and the racing is pretty spectacular, so that would be an amazing opportunity if I could race in Seoul.”
Formula E, the electric racing circuit, is due to arrive in Seoul for the first time in May next year.
Whether in Formula E or something else, Aitken is on the lookout for a chance to race in Korea. While he has attended exhibition events with Renault here in the past, he has never had a chance to race here.
“To drive in Korea would be a great experience and feels like something I should have done by now,” Aitken says. “I’ve driven on every continent in the world that has a circuit, and to not have Korea on that list just seems wrong.”
BY JIM BULLEY [email@example.com]