Leeds driver Ollie Wilkinson on the fast lane to success with McLaren

FOUR years ago Ollie Wilkinson had not even set foot on a motor racing track and freely admits he “never had a massive interest in motorsport”.

Saturday, 12th December 2020, 6:00 am
Leeds driver Ollie Wilkinson with his McLaren car. Picture: Xynamic Automotive Photography.

Fast forward to 2020 and the 24-year-old from Leeds has forged out a stellar career for himself in sports car racing as a paid professional for McLaren – competing in one of the most prestigious championships on some of the most famous Grand Prix circuits in Europe.

While the traditional route to success in motor racing usually involves years of learning the ropes in karting and progression through various formulas, Wilkinson freely admits he took a completely different path.

“For me it’s a little bit different from a lot of people,” he explained. “I’ve always had a real love of driving and for cars but I never actually had a massive interest in motorsport.

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Ollie Wilkinson takes part in the British GT at Silverstone this year. Picture: Xynamic Automotive Photography.

“I had a few quad bikes when I was younger but being a racing driver wasn’t always the dream if I’m being honest.”

In fact it is fair to say that his motor racing career would not have got off the ground at all had it not been for family holiday to the Caribbean and a quiet word with a family friend.

“In about 2016 I happened to meet up with a family friend of mine,” added Wilkinson. “He’d had a little bit of British GT racing experience and I became really interested in it.

“We ended up going on holiday to the Caribbean shortly after that and we did a track day at Bushy Park in Barbados. I did quite well and I absolutely loved it.”

Ollie Wilkinson in the pits in his McLaren car. Picture: Xynamic Automotive Photography.

As soon as he got home from holiday, Wilkinson wasted no time in talking to Horbury-based Optimum Racing and impressed them so much on a test day that he was soon lined up for the final round of the 2016 Ginetta GT5 season.

That went well and the following year he did a full season in the championship, competing well against much more experienced drivers.

Wilkinson said: “I ended up finishing third overall in the championship in 2017. I led a few races by over a second and crashed because I was just trying to go fast! So I easily had the potential to win the championship. All in all though, it was really promising.”

A year in sports cars followed in 2018 as Wilkinson got behind the wheel of an Audi GT3 in the European GT Open while sharing driving duties with mentor and friend Bradley Ellis.

Competing in the pro-am category, Wilkinson chalked up an impressive third place in the championship, a performance which attracted the attentions of Aston Martin who quickly signed him up for their driver academy in 2019 – with the ultimate prize of a factory drive at the end of the season for the top academy student.

Optimum Motorsport also made the switch to Aston Martin for 2019 so Wilkinson competed with experienced professional Darren Turner in the European GT Open and also in the British GT with Ellis.

“2019 was the biggest year I’ve had to date,” said Wilkinson. “The British GT went really well and we won that as Silver Cup champions which was mega. I also gained massive experience doing the European GT Open where we finished eighth despite missing a round.”

After such a successful year, Wilkinson was dealt a major blow when Aston Martin decided not to offer him the factory drive. However, the setback proved short lived as another major manufacturer was on the phone to him within a matter of days.

“Unfortunately things didn’t work out with Aston and I didn’t end up winning the academy,” Wilkinson explained. “But luckily for me off the back of that I got contacted by McLaren who then offered me a contract to be one of their paid professional drivers for 2020. To receive a phone call from McLaren was mind blowing to be honest. To have joined a team like that so early in my career is more than I ever hoped for. I have done in three years what I hoped to do in five.”

Wilkinson’s McLaren career began in the prestigious GT World Challenge Europe championship this year but with the Covid-19 crisis unfolding, only four endurance races were possible.

Still, he helped the team claim two top-10 finishes in McLaren’s first development year in the series ahead of... hopefully, a full season in 2021.

“It has all been a dream come true to be honest,” added Wilkinson. “To be driving at these circuits and to be representing a company and a brand like McLaren is absolutely just a dream come true.”

Not bad for a lad from Leeds who only stepped in a racing car for the first time four years ago.

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