Reigning Mini Challenge (JCW) champion Nathan Harrison has put his touring car ambitions on hold by making the switch to Porsche Carrera Cup GB with Team Hard.
Harrison, 24 from Oxfordshire, has emerged as one of the finest front-wheel drive racers from the outer paddock and has twice looked set to progress to the BTCC, this time after a successful pre-Christmas test with the Excelr8 Motorsport squad. However, with a key portion of budget still to be found, he’s opted to take a different path (for now) and develop his skills further with a Carrera Cup campaign.
A former karting star, he rose to prominence being ranked 6th in the world in Rotax Max standings and was strongly tipped for future success in cars, but when the anticipated mid-teen move into Ginetta Junior stalled with funding issues, it seemed, for a while, that the promise might be lost. Fortunately, the Harrisons know how to play the long game and when they reappeared on the grid three years later, this time in Mini Challenge (in the lower-powered Cooper Class cars), nothing was left to chance. Harrison won his class in his very first race, and then went on to take another nine class victories and importantly, the championship, in commanding style.
In 2016, he moved-up to the headline JCW class and finished 2nd overall before heading for a season in Clios (after losing a deal to race in the BTCC). In 2018, he returned to the Mini fold and was once again runner-up, then cruelly, last year, lost out to champion James Gornall on dropped scores (having finished first on points won). So the pressure was firmly on for 2020 and this time, despite two mechanical dnf’s from the first four races and a shortened calendar due to COVID-19, he raced superbly to make-up the deficit and win one of the hardest titles in British motor sport.
We met at Team Hard HQ, just as the announcement was made that he would be joining Tony Gilham’s squad for 2021. I started by asking about the reasoning behind the move?
NH: To be honest, Carrera Cup has always been on the radar. After winning the Mini title, the target had been to progress to the British Touring Car Championship, but from the start, we knew that the continuing impact of COVID meant that we might struggle to raise the budget. We’ve been in this position before (2017) and understood that we couldn’t rely on late promises, so we sat down with Tony to assess other options and we both pretty much immediately came-up with the same idea of moving to Porsche. From our side, we could have continued the push to race in touring cars but we didn’t want the prolonged uncertainty, although to be honest, I was pretty much prepared for the possibility of having to sit the year out, but nobody wanted this, not me and not my partners; we wanted an early commitment to a plan and then to get out testing. So when we pitched the idea of Carrera Cup, there was no hesitation and It only took a couple of weeks for the whole package to be signed-off . . and here we are, ready to make it happen.
It’s a shrewd move by Harrison. Carrera Cup is not only back in vogue, it’s positioned perfectly to provide a platform for the finest talent to earn factory-backing whilst also keeping drivers and sponsors firmly in the focus of ITV’s live race coverage. But it’s not without its challenges, in particular, the demands of switching away from front-wheel drive to a machine with not far off twice the horsepower he’s been used to. The GT3 Cup variant of the Porsche 911 isn’t just a world-class race car, it’s a beast that will only race at the front once you’ve mastered how to tame it. And it’s with this in mind that Gilham used the benefit of his own experience (three seasons in Carrera Cup) to create a structured campaign that will see Harrison first contest the Pro-Am category as he sets about learning the subtleties of racing the rear-mounted boxer-engined car.
NH: This year, the focus has to be on learning the car and leading the class. I’ve watched Carrera Cup closely over the past few seasons and I’ve seen how Pro-Am can really work to progress your career if you race well and put-in the time and effort with your team to find the extra tenths. Esmee (Hawkey) is a great example here. Not only did she win Pro-Am but she took a few overall podiums too: she proved her pace and captured a lot of screen time in the process.
I get this. Racing in Pro-Am doesn’t make him any less worthy or less talented than the young Pro’s in the top class, it just gives him time to learn; time that the others have already had in some shape or form. Which leads me on to my next question; will he have a teammate to be able to work with in sharing data? Something that’s key at this stage and level.
NH: Yes, we’ll be a two-car squad. The other driver’s name is yet to be released but having another car to compare and contrast with, especially as we work on developing set-ups, is going to be crucial. Again, this is a lesson learned from back when we ran as a stand alone entry. There are so many factors to be considered as you build for success . . access to shared data is always going to help.
Whilst it’s clear that we’re only on the opening pages of this particular chapter, I’m keen to learn if the move to Carrera Cup has altered Harrison’s ambition to race in the BTCC?
NH: We chose to race with Porsche because, let’s face it, it’s the finest sports car brand on the planet. There are so many opportunities to progress: There’s the obvious route to the Mobil 1 Supercup, and other national championships right around the world, and then there’s the door-opener to GT racing too. This isn’t a stopgap, rather, it’s the lead-in to any number of potentials. Of course, one of these is still the BTCC, but we’ve always known, ever since karting, that you can only race within the boundaries of your budget, so right now, I’m not thinking about anything other than winning with Team Hard and Porsche and repaying the incredible loyalty shown by my sponsors and partners.
The money-talk moves us on nicely back to the TOCA package and the importance of racing alongside the most well-supported championship in the country.
NH: Racing is all about winning and there’s absolutely no better place to be doing this than a TOCA weekend. Pre-COVID, the support from the grandstands and the bankings was just incredible, and to immediately be able to share the experience with your partners and their guests in the hospitality area is fantastic. We missed both last year, but thanks to Alan Gow and the ITV team, the live tv and online coverage did a brilliant job of keeping the BTCC and all the support series’ firmly in the frame. For 2021, obviously we want to see the fans back and lining the track, and for our sponsors to be able to experience the real return on their investment, and this is one of the key reasons for choosing to work with Team Hard. I’ve been nipping into their hospitality awning for a good few years now, chatting to Tony and getting a feel for when it might be my turn. They know how to make a good day ‘great’ and this is exactly what we want, both now and going forward.
Back to the track, I asked how prepared he is to face the challenge of not only a very different car but of a different style of racing too?
NH: This something I’m really looking forward to. Although on the face of it, Minis and Clios might appear fairly similar cars to race, they’re vastly different, especially in the way you approach cornering and tyre management. I relished getting the most from the JCW (Mini) after learning a contrasting style in the Clio and I think the Porsche is going to suit me equally well. I’m definitely at my best with ‘smooth, fast and flowing’ and the longer races should definitely also work to my advantage. As I said earlier, we have the will and we now have the way, all’s that left is for me to get my head down, learn this car and do everyone that has supported me justice.
I see so many talented young racers, fighting to make their way. Had just one deal gone the other way in 2017, by now, Nathan Harrison might already be one of the bright stars of the BTCC. But that’s motor sport. And to his credit, he’s proved his worth over and over with his results in Mini Challenge. The JCW is probably one of the hardest front-wheel drive cars of any to race; it’s chassis and suspension are so stiff that getting heat into the rears and keeping it there is an art in itself. This is probably one of the reasons why so many exceptional Clio Cup racers have struggled to make a quick transition. The Mini doesn’t pitch and roll like the Clio, and it doesn’t give as much feeling, so you have to be smooth, you have to always think ahead and anticipate the response rather than reacting to it . . and most of all, you need to keep your tyres fresh and alive. In short, you need to apply yourself the same way you would if you were racing, say, a Porsche. The drive might be at opposite ends of the car but there are key principles in common which makes me think that in moving to Carrera Cup GB, Nathan Harrison has made a very wise choice indeed.
- Nathan Harrison is the first driver we’re adding to our ‘2021 Watch List’. We hope to bring you more exclusive insights, interviews and images as the season progresses.