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Vol. XIV No. 6
Friday February 10 - February 16, 2006

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by Saichon Paewsoongnern

 

Local Personalities

James Grunwell tomorrow’s Schumacher?

by Dr. Iain Corness

I spent a most enjoyable hour with a shy young man on his way up in his chosen field – motor racing. While there are many aspirants to the heady world of fast cars, James Grunwell has the credentials, having just won a Formula BMW scholarship against a huge field of hopefuls, to compete in the class that set Ralf Schumacher on his way to fame and fortune in Formula 1. At 16 years of age, that should be enough to give any young man a swelled head, but James Grunwell is not a braggart. He sat there drinking a cola and spoke quietly of his achievements, and his hopes for tomorrow.
His background is interesting. He was born in Holland, has a Dutch mother and a British father, but has spent the past 15 years in Thailand, so speaks fluent Thai (and English). His interest in motor sport was certainly not inherited. His Quantity Surveyor father was a noted footballer, who harbored the hope that one day he would play in the same side as his son, but his maternal grandfather did watch F1 on TV.
At school in Bangkok, he was an average student, with a more than average interest in sport, but by the time he was 13 years old, his favorite pastime at the weekends was running rental go-karts at the track in Pattaya. This was probably thought of as a good pursuit by his parents, keeping their son away from the electronic dens of iniquity that attract most 13 year olds.
One of his school friends owned a kart, and when he returned to Australia, asked James if he would like to buy it. Grunwell Senior probably thought this was not a bad idea as they would save all the rental fees, while still giving his son something to do on Sundays. Joe Grunwell put his hand in his pocket and James became the owner of a kart.
The Sunday runs-for-fun lasted only three months, as James heard about the Thailand Championships to be held in Bangkok. “I entered just for fun,” said James. He had nobody with him, and soon found out that ‘serious’ go-kart racers came with pick-ups full of equipment, spare engines and a mechanic. Despite having just himself and his kart, James came third, but he will most probably be remembered for having stopped as soon as he received the chequered flag indicating the end of the race, instead of just slowing down, and the rest of the field ran into him!
After that auspicious start the Grunwells, mother, father and James sat down to see what they were supposed to do next, if James wanted to continue with this ‘habit’. That was when they found out that motor racing (at any level) is expensive, his parents admitting at that time that they were totally naïve, never having been personally involved in motor sport. However, with James saying that he wanted to practice at the weekends, rather than hang out with the boys, the senior Grunwells swallowed hard and began to look at how they could afford this ‘hobby’ which was rapidly looking like an insatiable money monster. Those ‘in the know’ told them that they should look for sponsorship, and Champion (the spark plug people) said they would help. This eased some of the financial burden, but never forget that motor racing is a bottomless pit, into which you throw money! James also found out that when you are sponsored, you have a responsibility to the sponsors. No longer could he play contact sports such as Rugby, which he enjoyed, as he had to make sure he was injury-free and in top physical shape to compete at the weekend under the Champion banner.
However, now with their little team starting to look a little professional, James moved up into the Yamaha kart class and won the title. But now it was time to keep moving upwards. His mechanic raced a Mini at the Bira Circuit and James was invited to drive this car. “Invited” actually meant that he had to pay for his drives, and despite some dates clashing with his go-kart commitments, he still came third in the Mini championship. It should not be forgotten either, that at 15 years of age, he was not eligible to drive the Mini on the road!
That takes us to the start of the 2005 racing calendar. James by now had a taste of circuit racing and with Champion (and Mum and Dad) behind him he entered the ‘Concept’ car series at Bira, and the Rotax Max Junior series on the kart tracks. This gave him two wins in the Concept car, and a character building string of mechanical breakdowns; however, he won the Thailand kart title. This saw him representing Thailand at the World Final in Malaysia at the end of 2005, and closely after that, he was talked into trying out for the Formula BMW championship in Bahrain. There he set the fastest time, against some very much more experienced drivers, with everyone in equal machinery. The scholarship was justifiably his!
Now with the Formula BMW sponsorship in his pocket, he will be racing throughout Asia in this ultra-competitive series, which races at some of the F1 meetings, giving the youngsters a chance to be ‘noticed’. The Grunwells (Senior and Junior) now understand the system and have secured a seat with the Meritus Team, a group that has fostered such talent as Narain Kathikeyan (now in his second year in F1), Takuma Sato (F1 regular) and several other championship winners. However, this does not come cheap either. Around USD 200,000 to give James a crack at the first rung of the ladder towards the ‘big time’. His USD 50,000 scholarship, while sounding wonderful, falls short if you are serious about this game. James is. I believe he has the talent to go a long way. Your company can become involved in this young man’s future too. Contact the Grunwells through [email protected]



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