For those of you who aren't familiar with the name, Ben Hurst is a Canadian race car driver. He has competed across multiple championships in motorsport for the last six years over both sides of the Atlantic. He has a job that many of us could only dream of. And at only 23 years old, he still has many years of racing to come.
Fortloc's Caroline Wilde joined Ben at the beautiful Turweston Aerodrom to sit and chat about everything and anything motorsport. The venue is a stone's throw from one of Ben's favorite circuits to race at, Silverstone. A fitting place to hear all about Ben's career, tips, tricks, and opinions about the motor racing world.
So, Ben, tell us about your current race series and how it's been participating in it
So, I race in British GT in the GT4 class. We've got GT4 and GT3 cars on track all at once. The GT3s are much quicker than the GT4.
In my opinion, it's one of the most competitive sports car championships in the world. If you make one small mistake, you have no chance of regaining that ground; you lose over the race weekend. But I absolutely love it. I race with Century Motorsport BMW, and it's one amazing race car.
So what made you decide that you just had to become a race car driver?
I've always loved cars – I get that from my dad. We would go around and look at cars when I was a little kid, and he was into racing when he was much younger. As soon as I was introduced to motorsports, I knew that's what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So I was lucky enough to keep working at it and got myself an opportunity.
No sportsman makes it to professional level without sacrifice. What sacrifices did you have to make, and do you hold any regrets?
I don't hold any regrets, that's for sure. I would say one of the sacrifices was moving over here [to Europe from Canada] away from my family and everything about four years ago.
And I don't really see it as a sacrifice. I'm really glad to have the opportunity to live here and to be able to follow my dream in racing. So I don't hold any regrets, but that's the one sacrifice I would say I've made.
Who is the person you believe is most responsible for your career and, without them, where do you think you'd be?
I'm not sure it's any one person. I think both of my parents have a huge influence. They've supported me through my early career and continued to support and watch the races and everything today. My girlfriend is also a big influence on making sure I'm staying positive and always helping me to prepare for race weekends and everything. So, I think it's my whole family, really, [who] has helped push me along this journey.
What's the biggest decision that you've had to face in your career so far?
I think that would be moving to the UK. I was racing in Canada before, and I had just won my championship in 2017. It was a decision of, "Do I continue racing in Canada, or do I go where the competition is at it's highest in the UK?" And I chose to take the big jump and learn as much as I could by coming to race in the UK.
Which driver do you admire the most from any series from any point in history, and why?
I definitely admire Carol Shelby the most. My grandfather used to work for Ford, so I've always loved Ford, and he's also one of the only drivers, if not the only, to win Le Mans as a driver, a constructor, and a manufacturer. I really... I really admire him for that. When he was told he couldn't keep racing, he found another way to go, and he started building his own car.
If you could go back to a specific race event of yours and do something differently, what would it be, and where would it be?
That's difficult... I think Silverstone last year in British GT with Aston Martin. I went to overtake someone around the outside of the last corner and I got bumped out of the way into the gravel trap. That ended our race. So I think that one stands out in my head because that was only about the third lap. Other than that, I'm sure there's other mistakes I've made, but that one's stuck with me since then.
So, when you're in your car, do you prefer attacking or defending?
I think that they both are very similar because when you're attacking someone you're looking for their weaknesses and where their car is stronger. And when you're defending, you're kind of watching in the mirrors of where you're getting away a little bit, so then you don't have to focus on the car behind. So I think I like both, but I think attacking is definitely easier because you can see the car right in front of you rather than watching your mirrors.
If you weren't driving cars for a living, what do you think you'd be doing instead? Is there anything that you particularly think you would definitely be doing or interested in?
I would definitely be in the automotive industry somehow! Whether it's working with the car company on the marketing side or working with classic cars. I always loved classic cars. So something along those lines... but I'm not quite sure what it would be. I've kind of been focused on racing for the past... well since my career started!
And speaking of when your career started... going back to your first driving experience. Did you pass your test the first time?
Yes, I did. I went and did my theory test the morning of my birthday, when I was 16, at 8 am. And then, in Canada, we do it eight months later. I went and booked my test as soon as I could and passed the morning eight months later. I couldn't wait.
Most people can participate in go-karting at any time. What can someone take from a karting session to help themselves with a professional career?
I think with go-karting, anytime you go, more than outright speed, it's important to be consistent. So if you can get your lap time to be the same at the end when you get your printout... just be the same lap time every time you cross the start-finish line. I think that's much better because if you can do a quick lap, you can do that once, but you might not be able to repeat it. Whereas in racing, we really look for consistency because that's your average over the whole race and how quick you can go. So if you can work on that in go-karting, then that's something you can take into a car someday.
Money is a significant barrier for those in the racing world. How can someone go about finding sponsorship? What would you recommend as a professional who's already in there?
Well, I did my dissertation at university on sponsorship because I knew it was the barrier in order to continue in racing. And the thing I've learned is that it has to be a benefit to both parties – you can't go around asking for money for nothing. So, if you can work out a way where they get something out of your racing... whether it's selling VIP tickets to a company's customers or... there has to be added value for the company that's sponsoring you. So I think that's the best way to go about it. It's different from company to company and race series to race series, but that would be the general way I would go about it.
What can a young driver do to learn how to improve their driver feedback?
I think the best thing they can do to improve their feedback is to focus on one corner, whether it's high-speed, medium-speed, or low-speed. Pick one per session that you're going to focus on, and you can really see how your car is reacting in that type of corner. That makes it much simpler for you and your engineer to sit down and figure out where to go in terms of setup, because you're not doing too much at once then. You can really simplify what you need to do.
What one piece of advice would you give your younger self that would have made a big difference in your career now?
I would have told my younger self to enjoy every second of it. Every time you get in a race car, just to have fun because, at the end of the day, that's what it's about, and everything will work out in the end.
How important is the off-track work for making it, such as working with engineers, people-pleasing, building relationships?
I think being close with your team is very important. And, especially your engineers, so they know what you want, and you know how to drive the car they've given you. I think it's always important to keep relationships because you never know when you might need favors from someone or an opportunity might come about. So, I think that is really important – to always maintain a positive relationship with everyone you work with.
Can anything from sim racing or race games be brought forward to the real-life experience?
I think learning race tracks is the biggest thing you can gain from sim racing. You could almost practice your ability to learn a race track by changing all the time and getting comfortable with it. You're never going to get the car exactly how it is in real life, but you can get the tracks pretty close, so I think that's the biggest thing you can carry over.
With so many different championship races, how would a young person know which to focus their attention on in order to make it in their career?
I think they should look at where drivers close to them have gone, whether in their local area or with a similar career path. Because there are so many championships worldwide, but it all does depend on both your budget and what the next step is after the championship you're looking at. So I think the best way to do it is to look in your local area and see what's very popular because that will also help get you sponsors – if it's popular where you are.
How much time should a young driver dedicate or expect to dedicate in order to become a professional?
I think to become a professional, you have to dedicate a large portion of your time. It's not an easy sport, and it's something you have to train very hard for, but you also have to sacrifice most of your weekends as well because that's when our races are. If you really want to make it as [a] professional, you should be sacrificing as much time as possible. I understand everyone needs a balance in life, and that's also really key because you can burn yourself out pretty quickly. It is important to have a balance but make sure that you're dedicating as much time as possible to racing and reaching your goal.
Tell us about a typical race day event for you. Do you eat specific foods at a specific time, or do you just simply do as your team tells you? Or is there much more autonomy behind it all?
It honestly depends on what series you're racing and what team. When I did the Dubai 24 hours – that race weekend, the race didn't start until Friday evening at 3.30 pm or 4 pm, so that was a very different build-up to a race. Whereas in British GT, we've got our warm-up at 9 am, so when I wake up in the morning, I'll have a coffee and some oatmeal just after I wake up. I'm at the track usually at 8 am, and then I have a quick meeting with my engineers before getting in the car for warm-up. We'll have a specific goal we need to meet in that session, whether it's driver change practice, making sure our pit timer is working. There's always something for us to do in warm-up before the race.
Then, if I'm starting the race, I'll want to get in nice and early, and if the race is around lunchtime I'll eat after my stint. If I'm second in the race, then I'll eat before my stint, and really just stay nice and calm before the race... listen to music and relax before you get in the car. It's the biggest thing because you can't focus on what you need to do without a clear head.
And how important is your memory for car setup, such as things that happen during a training session or a race event that the team can analyze and assess?
I think it's really important, especially when you get into GT cars that are getting more and more complicated. If you know exactly what lap something happened on and what corner, the engineers can go right to that on the data and find out what happened: whether it was a gearbox problem, setup problem.
If on your best lap you know you had traffic, and you can point that out, it's really important for memory in order to get that right. Because if you can't remember if there was an issue, the engineers have a hard time [trying] to fix it, and they can't see it in the data or look for it in the car.
And how would you explain to your engineers what needs to be changed on the car?
I think the best way to explain it is to work towards an understanding between you and your engineer about what you like as a driver and how they like to set up the car. When something needs to be changed, you can [tell] them what the car is doing, and they'll understand – if they trust you that it's something we need to fix on the car.
And they'll usually know the answer before you even tell them what to do because you've worked that closely together. So, sometimes if you know what you like as a driver, you can go in and say, "This is what I want in the race car," but most times, if you're working close enough with your engineer, they'll know what needs to be changed right away after your feedback.
What's it like to be in an accident and how tough is it to get back into the garage when you've crashed from a mistake of your own?
To be honest, it's worse for the people around you because you've been in the accident. You've hit the wall; you know what it feels like. Whereas when your family sees it on TV and tires are flying everywhere, and you're in a barrier, it's honestly a lot worse for them I think. But getting back into the garage, the team understands they have to fix the car; and everyone's a professional.
So if you're going to race cars, you're going to crash cars. That's kind of an understanding of everyone involved in motorsports. But I would say the worst part of it all is knowing you're stuck in the garage and your competitors are out on track. Whether it's in a race or a practice session, that's still time you've lost because of a mistake, or your teammate has lost. So that's definitely the worst part about crashing.
Can you personally tell without any clocks or any timing if you're on a quick lap?
Yeah. The engine notes feel right. You're using all of the grip you have available in your car. You'll know if you've gone too slowly through a corner. You'll know it as soon as you're doing it if you've made a mistake. But when you're really on it, you know it's a really good lap by the time you get to the end.
So, if you start off with bad pace from the beginning, how do you stay motivated for the rest of the race event?
Well, as we said a minute ago, anything can happen in racing. And I think even if you're slightly off the pace, you can always pick up a result because stuff will happen, and you just hope that it doesn't happen to you. But if you're slightly off the pace, you can pick up some good results because of mistakes other people will make or incidents that are out of anyone's control.
You can always pick up a result, so that's the best way to stay motivated. And as the driver, you kind of have to pick the team up and say, "No, we can get a good result out of this. We can race from where we are and bring the car home," and you will often get a decent result from it.
Aside from the championship points, is it more fun to battle the race between fourth and fifth position, or to be in the lead from the beginning and not be challenged by anyone?
I've done both. I think that if you're fighting all race long for a position, then that's much more rewarding at the end of the race. There is nothing like pulling away from pole position and leading from start to finish. But at the end of the day, when you cross the line, and you've outsmarted the person you're racing against, that's way more rewarding, or that can be way more rewarding than leading start to finish.
What's it like when you leave the race? The adrenaline is still pumping, and you get back into your normal car on the public roads. Are you still in race mode until you get to the first stop sign?
No, I'm not, to be honest. I usually have my family or girlfriend drive me at the end of the race because I'm pretty tired. But when you get into a road car it's a completely different environment. You don't have your helmet on; you don't have your race suit on. So, your brain does switch very easily. But usually, at the end of a race weekend, my girlfriend will drive me back, just to be on the safe side.
Drivers often talk about being a 'complete driver.' What does that mean to you?
To me, it means a driver who can hop in any car, in any championship, and be competitive but also bring the car home at the end of the day. There's a lot of drivers who can put in a quick lap, but they're risking the car at all times. So a complete driver, to me, would be someone who's quick in anything but also brings the car home at the checkered flag. Which is really what you need to be doing.
So what makes a track a delight to race on for you?
Something that that flows really nice, with high-speed corners and nice low-speed corners as well... a hairpin. It really takes a special race track to be really fun to drive, like Silverstone for me. I absolutely love it. It flows really well; it's got the right combination of high-speed corners and slow speed. So that, that to me is what a track that's enjoyable to drive is.
Since you've been in the industry, how have you seen motorsport change, and where do you see the future changing also?
Well, since I've been racing, they've introduced the halo device in F1 and in F3. When I did F3 and Formula Ford, we didn't have a halo, and looking back the cars look funny now without them. That's the biggest change. We've also had the introduction of Formula E as well. And I think that more and more companies are going to be using electric racing to promote their electric vehicles. I think that's a really good change that we're seeing, but also on the safety side, I think that's a really positive change to make it as safe as possible.
What would fans find most surprising coming from the point of view of a driver and the team during an event?
If you're with a really good team, the amount of waiting is incredible because the car's all prepped and ready to go hours before the race. But you still have to wait for the race or wait for your practice session. So, a race weekend is actually a lot of waiting. And when the TV cameras and stuff get switched on that's the end of what we've been waiting to do – we're finally ready to go.
From a driver's point of view, I don't really know what's going on in the race. I only focus on our car and what's going on out front of us. So quite often I'll ask who won or who's on the podium, or if there was a big crash or something [I'll ask], "what happened?" because I won't have seen it because I'll be focusing on what we need to do as a team. I think that's something not many people would expect being a driver. You would think you would know what's going on all the time.
Motorsport is very dangerous, but safety is improving all the time. Do you think that you would still drive during the 50s and 60s when safety wasn't so great and there were more dangers and risks?
I think I would have to be honest. I love those old race cars. I think they're absolutely stunning, and they're totally different from what we get to drive today. So I don't think I could be able to resist trying it back then.
Street circuits are great for fan accessibility, but do you prefer to be on a dedicated track?
I think they're very different. Street circuits are often slower with heavier braking zones and slow-speed corners, which can also be very exciting because they're very bumpy and there's less runoff. But nothing gives you the speed of a dedicated racetrack, like Spa or Silverstone. Because they can get proper high-speed corners and the tracks flow really nice because you're not worried about which streets you're going down. So I think both have their advantages.
Fan boost and DRS: are they a necessary evil to increase the spectacle or would the racing be better left pure?
I think it depends on the racing series. I think that if you look at GT racing, we don't have a fan boost or DRS, and the racing is as close as ever. If you look at the Spa 24 hours, you can have the battle for the lead after half distance and still be within a couple seconds of each other. But I also understand that some racing series are racing on street circuits, and it's more difficult to overtake. So, it actually becomes a necessity to get the show more exciting.
So I think you can have it both ways. I'm not sure they're absolutely necessary everywhere, but I think in some series, you definitely need it or else nothing would happen throughout the whole race.
What championship or motorsports series do you follow outside of your own, and is there one specifically that you would like to swap and join?
I would love to compete in the World Endurance Championship or IMSA in the US. But I follow pretty much every racing series I can. I'm always staying up to date with what's going on.
Self-funded gentleman drivers are part of motorsport, but do they devalue racing, or should it be left to the professionals and whoever's the fastest?
I don't think so. I think that self-funded drivers absolutely have their role in the sport. If it wasn't for them, the World Endurance Championship wouldn't have many cars on the grid. There are a lot of drivers who wouldn't have a job, because there's no gentleman drivers or self-funded drivers. And I think they've had the same dream that we have, but they didn't get started at a young age.
So they worked to build their own business and career, and when they had enough money, they decided they wanted to follow their dreams and go racing. So I don't think it takes anything away. I think it adds to the sport because without them there'd be a lot less cars. And if there were less cars the races would be boring, so I think they're a great asset to have in racing around the world.
I imagine they bring a lot of passion to the sport as well because they do it purely for their own enjoyment.
They do! They're there to have fun. Racing drivers, if they're a professional, it can be their job, and it's so competitive that it could be less fun for them. Whereas the gentlemen are there just really to have fun and get the best results they can.