Under the Visor: Jessica Hawkins

As a professional stunt driver, it is Jess Hawkins’ job to make other people look good – but with the help of W Series she is emerging as a star in her own right. The 24-year-old daughter of an air conditioning mechanic says, “I just want to be happy and I think that’s what racing does for me. Now, with W Series, this is the first time I’ve been in a position where I don’t have to lie awake at night worrying about how I’m going to find the finance to race the next season. I can’t quite put into words how amazing that feeling is – to know there’s not an ‘if’ or a ‘but’ – but instead that I’m definitely racing. I want to win a W Series Championship and I’m determined to make it happen. I’m massively looking forward to the season ahead. I might not be from the same kind of background as some of the other drivers, and I might not therefore have had access to the same financial backing as they have, but I’m just as much of a racing driver as any of them.”

Jess’s 11th place in the inaugural 2019 W Series championship secured her a place on this year’s W Series grid, because the top 12 finishers in the 2019 series automatically qualified for the 2020 championship. For Jess it was a crucial breakthrough in a tough journey that has already taken her on a trajectory of ecstatic highs and crushing lows. In her late teens, a desperate quest to secure funding led to extreme measures such as dressing up in her race suit and driving from door to door, distributing leaflets to local businesses. “I wrote a bit of blurb about myself and how much I wanted to race,” she recalls. “I also listed different sponsorship packages aimed at different businesses. I printed it all on leaflets. I then drove around local industrial estates with the leaflets, targeting small, local companies. It was so hard. It messed with my head, to be honest. At times, I struggled with the motivation to keep going, and the worry of it all made me physically ill. But, however bad it got, I never lost sight of my goal.”

Jess has always gone to enormous lengths to secure race drives for herself – evidence of a level of determination in her character that she traces back to the age of eight, when a new arrangement made by her divorced parents dictated that her dad would take her out every other weekend:

“My dad took me to a driving range on one of the weekends I spent with him, and I could see flashes of karts in the distance at Sandown Park.”

“I was instantly curious and kept saying, ‘Dad, can we? Can we? Can we? Please!’ Now, unbeknown to me, my dad had raced in Formula Ford in his youth, but I didn’t find that out ’til I was 15. There must have been a reason he didn’t tell me. I guess he knew how hard it was to make it and maybe he didn’t want to expose me to that. I still don’t know what was really going in his head on that day when I first spotted the kart track. Initially, he didn’t want to take me, but he eventually he gave in so I got my first glimpse of a kart, aged eight.

“When we first went to take a look, the people who ran the track said I was too small to have a go. I was gutted and persuaded Dad to take me back four weeks later to see if I’d grown. Unsurprisingly, I hadn’t. But I kept on and on ’til eventually they lowered the height restriction a few months later and I literally and immediately fell in love with racing: the speed, the competition, everything.”

Jess grew up in Poole, Dorset, and showed talent in several sports, including netball, hockey and football, which she played for Reading. The classroom seemed boring by comparison. “I struggled with the early years of school because it bored me and all I ever wanted was another chance to race,” she remembers.

“I used to bore my classmates with racing talk – none of them had a clue what I was on about. It’s very hard to explain the magic of racing to non-motorsport people.”

“We live in a different world. But, even though all I really cared about was racing, I managed to get things together and left school with nine GCSEs and a BTech in sports management, coaching and leadership.”

Another accolade emerged early on when she was crowned British Karting Champion, aged just 12. She says, “A family friend stepped in to help me get the karting experience I needed, and I was sponsored by Pomepure, a pomegranate juice company. It was the step on the ladder I needed.”

Since then, career highlights have included winning the British Open Championship in 2008 – an event she planned for by sticking a note on her kitchen wall.

“I’d written on this bit of paper: ‘Jessica Hawkins 2008 British Champion’. I put it up in the kitchen. It was there for months before I won it. I guess it was my way of focusing – and it worked.”

She has other unusual racing habits, such as collecting old crash relics. “My mum used to go mad because at one stage I had an old nose-cone in my wardrobe and a bent steering wheel too. There was also a punctured tyre still on the rim. They weren’t all crash souvenirs to be fair – some of the stuff I kept was linked to good memories, things like me moving up a class in racing.” But, despite the inevitable shunts, and the related relics she collects, she has suffered only one serious accident, aged 17: “It was in a kart race at Shenington [Oxfordshire]. There were a lot of drivers going into the same corner, and I picked up the wrong end of it. I remember thinking ‘This is going to hurt’ and it did. But it was OK.” 

Danger is a side of racing that Jess’s parents, Mike and Diane, have found hard to cope with. “My mum has often worried like mad,” Jess admits. “In fact, both my parents have struggled to watch my races at times. Other drivers would often tell me, ‘I’ve just seen your dad pacing around behind the garages with a fag in his hand.’ And at Brands Hatch, the W Series finale, in August last year, when I urgently needed a good result to qualify to race in W Series this year, my mum couldn’t watch. She had her hands over her eyes and had to rely on her friends to tell her what was happening.” Diane need not have worried: Jess drove a strong race to seventh place, and got the six points she needed.

Away from the racetrack, life has been busy for Jess in recent years, too. In 2018 she was one of only 11 stunt drivers from more than 2000 hopefuls selected to take part in a £25 million Fast & Furious Live project – a travelling big-stadium show featuring the best stunts from the eight successful Universal films. There has also been a part for her in the production of a Chemical Brothers pop video, and, bigger and better still, she is one of the stunt drivers on the next James Bond movie, ‘No Time to Die’. Look out for a Land Rover Defender yumping and bumping over super-rough terrain. In the driver’s seat, making it do things that appear to defy the laws of physics, will be Jess.

She loves not only racing but also speed for speed’s sake, she says. Indeed she is in the Guinness Book of Records for it, last year having helped Honda make headlines by piloting its mega-modded lawnmower to a Guinness World Record, blasting it from rest to 100mph in just 6.29 seconds and on to a top speed of 150.99mph. 

Away from driving, she struggles to cite other passions. “My life is racing,” she says. “Well, racing, cars and speed. There’s nothing interesting that’s not to do with driving.” There must be something? “OK, I have a big, big love for shoes,” she reveals, admitting to a 50-pair collection. Her favourite is a ‘win bonus’ pair of Alexander McQueen creations which are particularly cherished because “they make me look taller”. For the record, she measures 5ft 3.5in – “and don’t forget the half an inch”. That translates as a smidgen over 1m 61cm, in case you were wondering.

Does she ever chill out at home, in Kettering, Northamptonshire, where she now lives with the love of her life, a black and white cat called Moo? Yes, occasionally. She enjoys house music, Peaky Blinders and Homeland, and any clothes which are “comfy” – especially her trademark collection of bobble hats. “I started to wear a bobble hat one day because it was raining. Also, my old job as a karting mechanic was quite physical and a bobble hat used to stop the wind blowing my hair in my face. Now, a bobble hat is never more than two feet away from me. I’d definitely panic if I forgot to pack one.”

Yes, I’d get hatsick, definitely. It’s just become part of me now. In the early days of W Series, people would say, ‘Jess, take your hat off.’ Now, if I take it off even for a moment it’s, ‘Jess, where’s your hat?’”

A bobble hat isn’t the only thing that Hawkins requires to make her comfortable at a racetrack. A series of superstitious pre-race rituals includes “a new pair of white Converse All Star socks on race day, asking my mechanic to pass my water bottle to me from the left before I pass it back on the right, and three songs: The Way I Are by Timbaland, Sing it Back by Ash & Naila, and Pushing On – Tchami remix.”

Interviewed for BBC Sportsround, aged 12, she was asked what makes a good racing driver. She replied, “You have to be smooth, keep the momentum going and don’t be scared.” Would she still stand by that advice? “Yeah, pretty much. I think that was a good place to start.” She has come a long way from that snapshot of an earnest little girl with a big dream – but she will never forget her roots. “I have the utmost respect for all the other drivers out there. We all have our own journeys and I’d never change mine because it’s made me the driver I am – and the person I am too.”