Young up and coming Danish racer Nicolai Kjaergaard is in his second season racing in British F3. After a strong performance in the opening race weekends at Oulton Park and Rockingham, Overtake Motorsport sat down with the 18-year-old to talk about how he got into the sport, heroes growing up, the challenges of balancing racing and studies and future plans.
Having started karting at an early age, Nicolai Kjaergaard has been making waves not only in his native Denmark but over here in old Blighty. The talented youngster is settling in with Carlin for his second season in British Formula 3.
Having spent the day with Dare To Be Different last week, the F3 desk wanted to get the Dane’s views on starting a motorsport career and the challenges faced by a modern day driver.
I started by asking Nicolai about how he got into motorsport.
“Basically, my dad has always loved cars.” Nicolai explained that when his father reached his thirties, he started racing historic motors purely for the enjoyment of it. “After that [my brother and I] started karting when I was seven and he was eight. So it came from my dad, and the fact that he loved cars and racing himself. Obviously, when we started it was just for fun, but it got more and more professional.”
It’s clear to see that racing is in Nicolai’s blood so I asked him who were his heroes growing up.
“When I was really young it was probably (Fernando) Alonso and (Lewis) Hamilton”, Nicolai recalled. “I think many racing drivers do a really good job. Every time I see a driver doing a good job at something, I think I’d like to be that good.”
He also included Danish drivers Jan Magnussen (CART, NASCAR, Le Mans) and Tom Kristensen (Le Mans, Sebring) as big idols for him. “It just shows that even though we are a small country, we can still produce some really big names within the sport.”
The Danes have a strong history with motorsport across all formulas and disciplines. I asked Nicolai if there were sufficient opportunities in Denmark for young people to get involved in the sport.
“When I was in karting, it wasn’t very [popular]”, Nicolai recounted. “Tom Kristensen has just retired, Jan Magnussen is racing all the way over in America most of the time, but after Kevin (Magnussen) came into Formula 1, it put the spot light on the sport again.”
Delving a bit deeper, Nicolai went on to say, “I think it was just because there was a middle phase between some really big names and then the next generation, there was a couple of years where there wasn’t much so much attention on it. But now, especially this year (Kevin) Magnussen is getting into the top ten regularly, it’s been quite big again so obviously that’s really good for us… [Also, getting] sponsorship is easier and just the fact that people talk about racing is really good.”
Looking at the bigger picture, Nicolai said “It’s never been as big [in Denmark] as it is in England. In England, it’s obviously a really big sport, but there is quite good attention right now in motor racing in Denmark.
With England in mind, I wondered what had attracted a Danish teenager to come to our perennially rainy grey shores…
“Well it’s quite a funny story”, Nicolai began. “Dennis Oulson (Norwegian racing driver) and I were in the same team in karting. I had his old mechanic in the last two years of karting. When I was going to go into cars, the mechanic suggested the manager had Dennis used. So I got in contact with him and he recommended British motorsport because it is really good for fans, it’s really professional… and also the tracks are difficult because of the weather. It’s very challenging and you learn really fast.”
It was for these reasons that Nicolai made the choice to come to England over Germany and Italy. “You learn a lot [in British domestic motorsport] and all the teams and drivers are quite high level all the way through.”
At 18 years old, Nicolai is still in school so I asked him what it’s like to try and balance race life and school life.
“Obviously that the most challenging bit right now”. Nicolai explained that ordinarily, his schooling would be for three years but due to his racing commitments, he has extended his studies to four years. “[My school] allow me to be gone for quite long periods, which is good.”
Speaking about the logistics of balancing his education with race weekends in Britain, Nicolai told me that he flies into Stansted airport and collects a car that is parked nearby with a friend, allowing him to drive himself to wherever he needs to go.
Although Nicolai feels that arrangement works well, convincing school and friends is always a little harder. “Obviously, it’s always difficult to follow up in school when you are always gone but it works out quite well. At the start, it was harder with friends and school, but after a few years you get used to it,” he elaborated.
Certainly, when Overtake was in school, and that was some time ago, none of our friends were racing drivers. I wanted to find out what Nicolai’s friends thought of his career.
“[At the beginning], they couldn’t really relate to it”, he began. “It’s not like if you were a footballer! But if you explain it to them, and when they see things on social media and article like OM have written, then they start to understand what it is and they think it’s quite cool.”
In the early days of his career, Nicolai struggled to get the importance of the sport and what it meant to him across to friends. “When I was in Formula 4 and especially go-karting, no one could really relate to a go-kart and how it could be so high level, for them it’s just [an activity to partake in] on a Sunday evening”
But with the youngster making headlines, it began to get easier. “I think it’s getting easier and easier for them to relate to it when I got into Formula 3 and people started writing about it”, Nicolai went on to say.
“The higher the level, the easier it gets and obviously that makes it easier to balance it out because people understand why you are never there!” he laughed.
Although Nicolai’s career is on the rise, much like every school-goer the land over, homework still needs to be done. But that doesn’t faze the young Dane… “Because I have the four years I also have lessons when I am home so I have more time to do my homework even though I have to train… it balances out quite nicely.”
At the top end of motorsport, drivers have the money to spend on simulators in their homes and an endless pot of money to spend on preparing for race weekends. For Nicolai, that is a luxury not readily available. “I have thought about it actually quite a bit”, Nicolai said. “Right now, I fly over a day earlier then I would normally just to race and I go to Carlin and do a whole day in the simulator on the track we are going to race… track time is so expensive and so valuable,” Nicolai explained. “You need to hit the ground running when you get there not start learning what gears to use and where the breaking points are”. With the necessity to be “on it from session one”, Carlin provides the young racer with the best simulator experience.
With there being so many different facets to a modern racing driver, I was keen to know what aspect of being a modern-day driver Nicolai found challenging? Was it attracting sponsors, building a support network, training, the constant flying, or balancing school life?
“I think it’s a combination of things”, the 18 year old said. “Obviously, when you are younger – especially in karting – it’s more difficult to get sponsors, it’s more difficult to make the school understand why you are gone so much, and all those things before the results come in.”
At the lower levels, Nicolai found it difficult to justify spending so much time, money and effort on something that lacks the publicity to the people around him.
“When you go into Formula 3, and you start being at the front of F3, then people start to understand that it takes so much time and that it is a professional sport. So sponsors and school were more difficult to start off with, but then it’s been worth the effort because obviously if I hadn’t made the effort back then I wouldn’t be where I am now today”.
Although Nicolai still encounters those problems today but he is optimistic that as time goes on, these issues will become easier. It’s clear Nicolai has to work hard to balance his commitments, but he would advise other prospective young drivers that the most important thing is “not to give up just because it doesn’t go your way… if you keep doing the right thing and keep working hard, at some point you are going to get the results you are waiting for. People are going to acknowledge you worked hard and I think that people who work hard get a lot further than those who are just naturally gifted.”
That’s not to say Nicolai doesn’t recognise the talents of drivers who bring more to the table. “Obviously, a combination [of hard work and natural ability] are the people who go on to be legends like Hamilton or (Sebastian) Vettel. But hard work can bring you a long way, so never give up and just keep working.”
Moving on to the now, Nicolai is in his second season in British F3 and first with Carlin. How was he finding the season and how was he finding it with Carlin?
“I had some rough times in Formula 4 and also some times last year in Formula 3”, the former Fortec driver said. “We were lacking the pace, we weren’t where we wanted to be.”
Reflecting on the lessons learned, the Dane is much more optimistic. “I have done the hard work in the past two years so now I’m in a position where I can challenge for the front consistently”. Clearly happy with his testing performance, as well as race pace, he went on to say, “[During] testing and racing, I have never been out of the top three pace-wise, so I think the hard work we have done in the past two years[is paying off.]”
Now a Carlin driver, the young Dane is more than happy. “[Carlin] are just doing a really good job and I think that makes me able to challenge for the front consistently, so I’m really pleased with that.”
But what were Nicolai’s view on the strength of the competition in British Formula 3 this year?
“I would say there are less people who have done it for two years, but the people who have come in have done many seasons in F4.” Nicolai singled out Lanan Racing’s Kush Maini who’s been at the front of Italian F4 and Linus Lundqvist who was almost challenging for the title in British F4 before he experienced mechanical issues.
“He [Lundqvist] also raced in Swedish F4 before if I’m not wrong, so many strong drivers have come in. People like (Jordan) Cane, who was winning races last year, are now doing a second year. It’s a strong grid but it think it’s a similar level to last year overall.”
Although Nicolai clearly has his mind set on the task in hand, I did want to touch on his plans for the future and what his goals were in the next few years. He revealed it would be his last season in British F3 but where he is going next is difficult to say… “There are many rumours going round that the format of Formula Renault and the way Formula 3 works now [are going to change] so where I’m going? It’s very difficult to say.”
The Dane is also keen to see how this season pans out. “Right now, I don’t know where I’m going next year,” Nicolai explained. “But the goal in the next couple of years is to definitely make a professional career out of it, maybe in the next three years. Maybe even before that, depending on what opportunities open up, so that I can make a living out of it.”
It’s clear to see Nicolai has big plans and certainly the determination to bring those plans to fruition. If the start of this season is anything to go by, I can’t see why this young Dane’s career won’t go from strength to strength. Nicolai Kjaergaard will be a name to remember.
I finished off our chat by asking him if he could drive any car, with anyone as his team mate on any track, which car, team mate and track would he choose?
“That’s a difficult one”, Nicolai laughed. “It would probably be an F1 car, with Alonso.”
Pinning him down for a track was a little harder. “I haven’t done many of the F1 circuits but I would say Spa would definitely be it. I’ve done it in a British F3 car and it’s a mega circuit. It’s such an iconic circuit as well. So historic and great fun to drive, so I think that would be it.”
I’d like to thank Nicolai for his time and for talking to Overtake Motorsport. Nicolai is currently second in the standings for British Formula 3 and can be found at @nicolai_kj on twitter and www.nicolaikracing.com online.
This interview was transcribed and edited by Sara Page.