Racing driver Tom Chilton at home in Redhill
- Credit: Archant
Many kids list being a racing driver as the job they want to do when they grow up but for Tom Chilton, the dream become a reality. Andy Newbold met up with the British and World Touring Car Championship driver at his home in Redhill
It’s a dream career for young boys across the globe but for Tom Chilton, it wasn’t the most conventional journey into motor racing. “It all started for me with my dad one day talking to his mates in the pub when they made a bit of a bet to each find a car, which cost under £100 with a failed MOT that they could use for racing,” he tells me. “They all ended up buying Ford Escort Mk2s, which was great as they have rear wheel drive, and so they went off racing in a field. After a few weeks, the wives were getting jealous that their husbands were off every weekend having fun and wanted to come along, which ended up in the wives racing each other. My mum did not want to do it though so she suggested I have a go – I was eight-and-a-half years old but I was nine stone so I was a big boy. In fact I think I was heavier than any of the other mums that were racing! That’s where it started.”
This early introduction to motor racing led to a passion that has shaped his life so far and indeed that of his younger brother, Max, who is also a successful racing driver. Tom has since spent 12 years as a British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) driver and six years racing in the World Touring Car Championships (WTCC) – 2017 having been an excellent year for him when he won the Independents’ Championship and came third in the overall competition. He has won upwards of 70 trophies during his racing career, travelled the globe and been interviewed on Fox News to an audience of 64 million people.
I ask Tom about his brother Max and how he also got involved with the sport. “Once he was around eight, he started karting and ended up being a very, very good go-karter – he came second in the European Karting Champions of Champions street circuit of Rome, which was pretty impressive and he was always at the front in a go-kart, whereas I was always getting lapped as I was so heavy.”
Was there sibling rivalry between them? “Yeah a little bit. We are actually quite different in what we do and we’re really good mates and meet up every week,” he says. “I was very lucky from the start as my dad had loads of great contacts – my first sponsor was Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic when it was starting to kick off a long time ago – I was the youngest guy to get a racing car licence while I was still at school and I was big news. Jay Leno from The Tonight Show wanted to interview me once but Mum was like ‘He’s not leaving school’ so I never did that. But it is all about sponsorship. When you are young, it’s really hard.”
At the age of 13, around the turn of the millennium, Tom was being trained by the best and getting PR and media training from the likes of Andy Constable, his then coach and manager, and Brian Jones, the Brands Hatch commentator. In fact, Tom was one of a new breed of young drivers – even Jenson Button was eight years older than Tom was when he started his career, so while most kids were doing their homework and climbing trees in their spare time, he was out learning how to heel and toe in Golf GTIs and Ferraris. “I knew I was well on my way when I signed for Honda Racing at 17 and I was actually in the same room where Ayrton Senna signed his contract at Honda’s HQ in Slough,” he recalls. “7UP was sponsoring me and at the time was also sponsoring David Beckham, so it was a big deal.”
Since then, in the BTCCs, Tom was the youngest race winner [at 19 in 2004], has had 12 wins, 45 podiums, a manufacturers’ title and won the 2010 BTCC Independents’ Championship. From 2012 onwards he has been competing in WTCCs, which has meant lots of world travel.
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In preparation for this interview, I called on a motor racing pal of mine, Rob Edmed, to supply me with some quickfire questions for Tom:
How did you feel returning to the BTCC’s in 2017? “Amazing, coming back reminded me of the fans and following I had here – in the WTCC, they always want to support their local hero, not a Brit – even if you smile a lot. My social media went crazy! The racing is different in Britain too – like a big fight on the circuit with 32 cars within a second a lap. I absolutely love racing and it is super, super close in the British and I love that. I think Britain makes some of the best racing drivers in the world because of the nature of the UK circuits, they are tight and twisty, which leads to very close racing, also some T-bones and crashes. I love coming back for the fans if I’m honest.”
Was it a challenge switching from driving the Citroen C-Elysee in the WTCC one weekend and then the Vauxhall Astra BTCC the next? “Honestly I can hop in anything and go flat out, but when I had a big break during the WTCC after Argentina while the cars were being shipped to Ningbo in China I came back and finished the BTCC’s and had a gall bladder operation (causing me to miss Silverstone). Interestingly just driving the Astra consistently I felt as if I was driving better – by the end of the year I was flying gaining about a 10th of a second, which is a lot in racing. The Citroen is the best touring car ever built though.”
What is your favourite racing car that you have driven and which car from history would you like to drive? “Definitely the Citroen WTC. The best car, in terms of ultimate fun, was at Goodwood Revival – it was a Russian taxi called the Gaz Volga. I raced against ex-Formula One, British and WTC drivers and it was great fun. You are basically driving sideways the whole way.
Who is the better driver – you or Max? “In tin tops me (and Max would admit that) but in single seaters Max would whip my butt! In single seaters, you need to be light with a super strong neck as you experience 60 kilos every time you break and turn, most people would be ringing the accident helpline to claim compensation after that.”
Tom goes on to explain the vast differences between their types of driving and his extensive knowledge of his craft, most of which goes over my head. In order to steer (pun intended) the conversation towards his life in Surrey, I ask what his day-to-day car is. “My ‘daddy’ is a Volkswagen Tiguan R, which I think having test driven all of them is the best mid-range SUV for the money as well,” he says. He also has a Nissan Skyline GTR 35.
Now 32, Tom is dad to four-year-old Freddie, and two-year-old Rupert. So far the prediction is Freddie will be a rugby player and Rupert a singer/songwriter, though there is still plenty of time for them to adopt his love of motor racing. The Chilton family business includes Let’s Explore, in Horley, which is his favourite place to take the kids and there is also Let’s Race and Let’s Golf nearby for when Tom wants to relax. His other loves are running around the “beautiful” Priory Park and mountain biking all over Surrey.
Tom has had regular TV appearances including an episode of Take Me Out when he was single and many episodes of Top Gear. “It’s all good fun working on Top Gear. You are allowed to hit each other – you are not allowed to in normal motor racing. I rolled a double decker bus once, which hurt my neck for about four months and I had to roll an airport staircase during a race – I nearly rolled it while taking it to the hanger at 20 miles an hour,” he laughs. “It was great fun though, there was lots of mickey taking by Clarkson and Hammond about my then spiky hair.”
So what does the future hold? “I’m really excited about moving to Motorbase Performance and racing with Arthur J Gallagher again. To be back in a Ford Focus brings back lots of good memories from when I was 2010 BTCC Independent Champion. I can’t wait for the season to start. I would also like to do LeMans 24 if I can get sponsorship – this year is the first year it doesn’t clash with BTCC. I’d like to put some time into working with charities too, maybe working with the homeless, or children’s charities inspired by the work my dad has done over the years.”
I get the impression that Tom is very happy in his skin – confident yet grounded. At 32 he has already achieved more than many people in their lifetime and has an unwavering passion for what he does. With that attitude, I am sure he is on track for many more successes in the future.
My Favourite Surrey
Favourite restaurant: “I quite like Wagamamas but for the best steak outside London it has to be Buenos Aires Steakhouse in Reigate.”
Favourite view: “From the monument on Reigate Hill – it’s higher and better than Box Hill!”
Favourite pub: “I like the Plough in Leigh and The Dolphin at Betchworth for a good pint! Up there are what I call good old English pubs.”
Favourite shop: “Finch Cycles in Bell Street, Reigate a family-run business managed by my friend Chris Finch, where I get my bike stuff. He races too!”