Rising karting star Alex Dunne (15) set to contest Spanish F4 championship
He has yet to sit his Junior Cert, but Alex Dunne already knows what it is to drive flat out in the rain through motor-racing’s most storied curve.
“Sketchy,” chuckles the 15-year-old, when asked of the experience.
He is still too young, of course, to drive on public roads, but Alex’s first test run for Pinnacle Motorsport in preparation for the upcoming Spanish F4 championship took him to Spa Francorchamps last month and an introduction to the famously intimidating Eau Rouge.
Leaking Belgian skies were the last thing he needed for his first experience at the wheel of a race-car, but the Dublin kid now living in Offaly did not miss a beat.
“You may as well go in with your eyes closed, keep it pinned and hope for the best!” he laughs, prompting dad, Noel, to instantly interject “Oh my God, don’t be doing that!”
Since the age of eight, Alex has been turning heads in the karting world and maybe on some level a life in motorsport was pre-destined. For years, Noel – following in the footsteps of his own race-driving father, Matthew – was one of Ireland’s doughtiest racers, winning multiple championships and – most memorably – taking the Kent Festival race at Brands Hatch on the Formula Ford Festival weekend of ’06.
The genetic jigsaw is completed by Alex’s mother, Elizabeth, a former Mondello Park employee.
In other words, he grew up in an environment routinely punctuated by the noise of screaming engines. “They tell me that I’d fall asleep in my pram to that sound,” he says now.
This then is a family story that could, frankly, lead them anywhere. Noel is candid enough to admit that their investment in Alex’s career, thus far, already stretches to somewhere between €400,000 and half a million euro.
“Each step is a huge leap financially and I’m out of my depth already!” he acknowledges.
“But I would not regret anything we’ve done. The day I saw him win his first race took me higher than anything I’ve achieved myself. I get emotional all the time. We do as a family. We’re very much involved in what he does.
“It’s everything to us.”
The investment, by necessity, now stretches to more than finance. Because of the incessant travelling required to contest international karting races, they chose to take him out of Newbridge College, Elizabeth is now doing the home-schooling.
Dunne’s will be a single-car Pinnacle entry in the F4 championship, the team – with bases in Kildare, Malaysia and China – run by former Irish champion and Asian F3 race winner, John O’Hara.
An ultra-serious world clearly in which to immerse a child, so it seems only natural to enquire if Noel Dunne has any worries about the pressures about to start building on his young boy.
“Not really, no!” he says emphatically. “Because he’s had it from the word ‘go’. We started karting in Ireland, he got to the front and we went straight to England. We were advised not to, told that he’d be miles off the pace. But he finished ninth of 60 cadets at PF International circuit in his first race over there.
“So we spent two years racing in the British Championship and he ended up coming second overall. My fault he didn’t win it. I was his mechanic and forgot to put the transponder on for one race. He won the race but was disqualified.
“Cost him the title!”
From the UK, they graduated to the European championship, Alex finishing seventh overall in 2019 despite competing off a modest budget compared to some opponents and still struggling palpably with the physical demands being placed on an as yet still growing body.
He also ran as one of the youngest drivers in a World Championship weekend at Portimao last November, so many grid surnames reflecting iconic bloodlines, like Enzo Trulli, Lorenzo Patrese, Sebastian Montoya or Charlie and Oscar Wurz, all sons of former Grand Prix racers.
Covid severely impacted last year’s karting schedule, Alex managing just four races in his final year and, though there are seven weekends (incorporating 21 races) scheduled for the Spanish F4 championship now, the pandemic still casts a shadow.
The recent addition of Belgium to Ireland’s mandatory hotel quarantine list clearly muddies the water for the Dunnes, given the action starts in Spa (five of the seven rounds will be in Spain, the other two in Belgium and Portugal) two weeks from now.
The hope is that Belgium’s place on that list will be short-lived and that international travel will, at worst, return to the repetition of constant Covid testing with which father and son have become so familiar in the last year.
Alex’s car remained in Spa after a total of four days testing in March and Noel and Alex will travel to that first race weekend by sea and road, taking a ferry from Dublin to Cherbourg, then driving to the Circuit where access will only be granted to those testing negative for Covid.
They will stay in an Airbnb with the rest of the team and cook their own food as they try to keep costs down.
“We’ve always been restricted in what we’ve done,” explains Noel. “In senior karting, some of the professional drivers for factory teams would have a budget in millions. With us, I covered entries, tyres, a bit of the testing fee and maybe paid for a mechanic. That was it.
“We have several small sponsors too and, without them, we wouldn’t be where we are. It’s the same going into F4 now. We’ll be watching the pennies. John (O’Hara) is really looking after us. It’s almost like a joint venture.”
The jump from kart to race-car is one of the most profound to be made in motorsport, with a top speed suddenly rising from around 120kmh to 230kmh on the straight at a circuit like Spa. That’s taken quite a psychological adjustment.
“The first time I put my foot to the floor in testing, I won’t lie, it felt a bit nerve-wracking,” admits Alex. “But after half my first day at Spa, it started to feel pretty natural. As you’re going up through Eau Rouge especially, you can feel the wind pushing you back into your seat. That feels nice.”
Three of the F4 weekends will be at Grand Prix circuits – Spa, Portimao and Barcelona – and Alex has been long familiarising himself with each one through the magic of a racing simulator bought during the first lockdown.
His ambitions are resolutely rigid, with a strictly controlled diet necessary and a still ongoing exercise programme to strengthen his upper body. It’s anything but a normal 15-year-old’s existence.
“I didn’t have any, had a bar of chocolate,” he replies flatly.
Interests outside of racing?
“Sim-racing, that’s all!”
Never wanted to be a footballer?
Ever play other sports?
“I played football, pretty useless. I attempted rugby at Newbridge College but, to be honest, I was always a lot smaller than the others. And anyway, at the time, karting was my main focus. So I stayed away from rugby in case of risking injury.”
It’s estimated that their budget for the F4 campaign will be around €350,000 and Pinnacle’s expectation is that Dunne will be challenging for poles and race wins by the season’s end in November.
The early indications during testing in Spa suggested an even quicker graduation might be possible.
By the end of the opening two sessions, he was just 1.2 seconds off pole pace over the 7km circuit despite it being his first time in a race-car. Two weeks later, they went back and that gap was down to four tenths of a second.
To begin with, Alex’s feedback to the team was franked by the hesitancy of a child among adults.
“The first two days, I felt he was very hesitant in how he communicated with the engineers,” says Noel. “He wasn’t really confident, he was having to think about what he was going to say. If that was karts, he’d have come straight out with the information they needed.
“We spoke about it on the way home from the track. He started telling me ‘The front of the car just doesn’t feel natural…’ And I said to him, ‘You’ve got to tell them exactly what you’re feeling, not me’.
“But he’s jumping up into cars and he’s thinking ‘I’m only 15, I shouldn’t really be critical of the car!’ He’s actually very good at going through data, but always looks at himself first. You see some of the arrogant young kids out there that are paying for everything and you hear them ‘This is s**t! That car’s undrivable!’
“Alex hasn’t been brought up that way. But the engineers needed his feedback. The second time we went back, he did that. Told them that the back of the car needed to be a bit freer, so that he could slide it a bit more.
“The minute he said that, bang. Quickest on the track.”
Alex says that he watched the Netflix Formula One series, ‘Drive To Survive’, in a single sitting and there’s no doubting that that’s the level he hopes this rollercoaster takes him to.
That’s the dream?
“Yeah, 100 per cent,” he replies emphatically.
And his father’s too?
Noel is more circumspect. “I think he has a career in motorsport ahead of him,” he says. “I’ll hold his hand as long as I can, which won’t be for too much longer to be quite honest with you. Like for the last two years, he was kind of standing on his own two feet. I was more the helmet-carrier really.
“He wants to be a racing driver, that’s the career he wants. And I’m very confident that he will achieve that.”
Alex Dunne has the support of Motorsport Ireland’s new race academy and his current sponsors are Vanfleet Transport, Harris Group, Maxus Ireland, KCMG, Reynolds Logistics, Artisan Marble and Porcelain, PDS and Associates and Xpress Health.