At just 18, JEREMY WAHOME is flying the Kenyan flag high in motorsports. Currently racing in the British Formula 2 as one half of Chris Dittmann Racing team, he is the closest not only Kenya, but Africa is to being represented in Formula 1, the highest class of single-seat auto racing in the world. STEPHEN MBUTHI caught up with him
When did you realise you wanted to be a racing driver?
I started racing at the age of eight, when my dad bought me a 60cc racing go kart to try out at GP Karting in Nairobi. After my first try, I thoroughly enjoyed myself and began competing in the national Kenyan championship, at a go kart track in Solai, Nakuru.
Ever since, my interest and passion for racing has increased, and I moved up categories to 100cc when I was 12, Formula BMW when I was 15, and British Formula 3 (F3) when I turned 16. In 2014, I came second in the Rift Valley Motor Sports Club Championship.
In June 2015, I took part in my first ever car race in the Formula BMW Asia Cup Series in Malaysia. In August 2015, also in the Formula BMW Asia Cup Series, I finished on the podium three times (second place twice and one third place), and I also managed to win the best rookie award three times.
In January 2016, I signed up for my first full season in the prestigious British Formula 3 championship, and I had a best finish of ninth place, which came in June at Silverstone GP circuit.
Through racing in the British Formula 3 championship, I’ve gotten the opportunity to race at amazing circuits such as Silverstone GP, Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, and other historic tracks such as Brands Hatch GP. In my 2017 season, also in British Formula 3, I’ve managed a best result of sixth place so far in a very competitive championship.
How did events play out that you went up from karting to British F3?
In June 2015, I got an invite to participate in the Asia Cup Super 6 one-off event in Malaysia. That went well and we decided to take part in the full Asia Cup Series Championship that started in August.
I find it exciting to be the closest to flying the Kenyan flag in F1, and hopefully I can inspire many other young racing enthusiasts to follow in my footsteps.
After the first weekend of racing, five races, I left with the six wins I’ve mentioned above. That is when my family and I decided we should move to race in Europe and in the British F3 championship.
I did a test with Chris Dittmann Racing in November, which went really well, and we then signed up to race with them for the 2016 season.
How hard is it being a racing driver?
Most people don’t realise, but because of the speed, concentration needed and G-force experienced, racing drivers must be very fit. I have at least three cardio sessions and three strength and conditioning sessions a week.
It is crucial to be able to sustain a high heart rate for the whole duration of the race and for your muscles to cope with all the physical demands throughout the race without feeling fatigued.
I also have a strict diet plan, avoiding oily fatty foods, fast food, sodas, junk food, desserts and all the nice things you can imagine. Due to my height (6ft 2), I must try to keep my weight low as well.
That sounds like a lot of work for a teenager. How do you manage it all?
Being a teenager and already chasing my career comes with choices and sacrifices. The racing schedule can get very busy with travelling, practice, and race weekends starting on Thursday afternoon and ending on Sunday afternoon.
Also, due to my training regime, I spend a lot of time in the gym or outdoors going for a run. Therefore, there is limited time to socialise and hang out with friends, but that’s the name of the game, and in order to become competitive and professional in sports, such sacrifices are needed. Racing drivers like me have to be aware and accept this from a young age.
How about school, doesn’t all that training affect your studies?
My grades at school are good, I guess. I’ve been averaging an A in my A-level subjects; Maths, Economics and Business at Cheltenham College in the UK.
Having the chance to race is a unique opportunity that I have been blessed with, so that is why I want to pursue a career in racing and maximise and take advantage of this amazing opportunity that God has blessed me with. Plus, getting paid to drive a Formula 1 car for a living would be quite a fun job.
Where did you go to school before Cheltenham College?
I went to Rusinga Primary School in Kenya from kindergarten up until year eight.
I then moved to Hillcrest Secondary School from year nine to 11. I started doing my A-levels at Hillcrest, then once my family and I decided that I would join the British F3 championship, we thought it would be beneficial to also school in the UK, and I joined Cheltenham College in November 2015. I finished my A-levels (Form Five and Six) in July 2017.
I now plan to study international business at the University of Surrey here in the UK.
Bearing in mind that motorsports is not the safest of careers, how does your family cope with the danger factor?
My parents and sister are supportive of me. When they allowed me to race, they understood what I was getting myself into and they accepted that the danger factor was there too, and it’s part of racing. So, there’s not much they can do, but they always remind me to be careful.
Do you live with your family in the UK?
No, I was in full boarding at school in the UK, and would see my family when I came home on school holidays in April, July, August and December.
What would you like to achieve, bearing in mind that you are the closest Kenya is to being represented in Formula 1 (F1)?
I find it really exciting to be the closest to flying the Kenyan flag in F1, and hopefully I can inspire many other young racing enthusiasts to follow in my footsteps and chase the F1 dream. Hopefully, I can show others that it is possible for Kenyans to branch out into unique sports around the world, where Kenya hasn’t previously had a presence.
It’s not just driving fast cars and travelling though, is it?
No it isn’t, racing drivers are still employed by their employers, that is the teams, and it is still a job like any other. Therefore, employment contracts are involved and it is important that drivers negotiate for themselves a deal that they are happy and comfortable with. At top level racing, some drivers have huge salaries, so, having a business mind and knowing how to manage this is important.
Could you take us through how you prepare for a race?
During the week before a race weekend, I go to the team’s headquarters and drive the simulator at the circuit we are going to race on. I can practice the gears I need for various corners, braking points and important factors to get a quick lap time.
Track practice is on Friday, where as a team, we work on all the areas we touched on in the simulator, and transfer everything I’ve learnt onto the actual race circuit. We also have some qualifying simulations and race simulations during practice on Friday.
Before qualifying and races, I like to get into my own quiet space and focus on what areas are most important and what areas I need to improve on. I then jump in the car, say a prayer and get racing! I don’t have any superstitious beliefs.
The driver tends to get the most attention in motorsports, but there’s a whole team behind them, tell us about that.
Most people only see the driver at work when racing, but if it were not for the whole team and mechanics, a driver wouldn’t be able to win races.
My mechanics in the Chris Dittmann racing team are always up early on a race weekend, and stay up late, making sure that every single aspect of the car is in perfect condition, to give me the best chance to win.
If any bolt came loose, a tyre fell of, or anything on the car failed, not only would I not finish the race, but there might be a serious accident as well, so the team and mechanics play a major role to a driver’s success. It is important to have a good working relationship with each other, so as to motivate each other and stand a higher chance of winning together.
Who are the racing drivers, past or present, who inspire you?
When I first gained interest in Formula 1 around 2007, there was a new kid in the block who was showing everyone who’s boss in his rookie season, and that was Lewis Hamilton.
Ever since, I’ve always enjoyed following and watching him race. His overtakes are brave and his ability to put together a quick qualifying lap under pressure is amazing. I never got to watch the late Ayrton Senna race, but from what I’ve heard, researched and watched on YouTube, he was one of the best and purest racers ever seen.
Apart from Formula 1, are you interested in other sports?
I like to follow all kinds of motorsport, be it MotoGP, Formula 2 and 3, DTM, or endurance racing. I also enjoy watching football, but I don’t follow it very closely, that is, watching every match. I like to watch some rugby here and there whenever Kenya is playing, and finally, athletics, Olympics and World Cup when they are on.
Tell us about your library in Kibera.
I launched a library in Kibera Primary School in February. This was a way for me to give back to society and to give the less privileged an opportunity to get some form of education and realise their dreams.
I’ve been privileged and blessed to have gone to some of the best schools, and this has helped open my eyes to all the amazing opportunities in the world today, and I’d love for these young children in Kibera to get a good education and have access to all these opportunities as well, and providing a free library was the best place to start.