Formula 1 hasn’t raced at Circuit of the Americas since 2019, and it returns amid huge excitement and with a thrilling championship battle getting closer to its conclusion.
But while Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton fight it out for the drivers’ championship, another title will be settled this weekend as the W Series makes its U.S. debut for the final two rounds of its season.
Jamie Chadwick and Alice Powell are the main contenders, and for many fans, the event will offer the first chance to see the all-female series hit the track. However, if you’ve seen the latest James Bold film – No Time To Die – then you might be familiar with the work of another of those on the grid.
“I feel quite embarrassed actually when someone asks me what I do!” Jess Hawkins tells RACER. “I’m like ‘Ermmmmmm…’ I feel a bit awkward! ‘I’m the driver of a fast motor vehicle.’ I don’t know, I shy away from that question. It’s cool, but… What would I say? I’d say, ‘I drive cars round in circles.’ That’s often the most fun thing, donuts! I get a bit awkward with that one.”
Hawkins is certainly not one to blow her own trumpet, but as a racing driver and a stunt driver, she has one of the most exciting work portfolios I can think of.
“I’ve been very lucky,” she says. “I stopped racing because I ran out of money, basically. But I stopped racing for an opportunity to get into the stunt driving business that I thought I was way under-qualified for.
“I was lucky enough to get the job, but I think it was my rate of progression that got me the job, because picked it up really quickly — as I guess as you would expect someone who drives cars a lot to do. But I got the job over some already extremely established people within the industry, which was really heartwarming actually.
“I got three months of intensive training. Literally, my 9-5 job was drifting cars, learning stunts for a live action arena show, and honestly it was the most incredible experience of my life. You genuinely could not pay for the training that I had, or if you could, it would take a long time and be extremely expensive!
“I’ve always said it’s the same set of skills used for racing but just used in a completely different way, and I had to relearn but I was lucky that I picked it up. It’s given me another string to my bow, and while I was extremely sad to be walking away from racing at the time, I had no future in racing because I had no budget.
“So I made the decision to go down the stunt route, and it’s really W Series that has brought me back into racing. They’ve given me a second opportunity, but equally I’ve got the stunt driving to fall back on.”
That second opportunity came in 2019 for Hawkins, who had been successful in karts and Minis but was out of the sport for pretty much all of 2018 before she raced in the inaugural W Series season and finished 11th overall. It was then followed by the COVID-19 pandemic cancelling the second year of competition, but 2021 has been another high as the 26-year-old returned to the series alongside a role as driver ambassador for Aston Martin.
“It’s been one of the best years of my life, followed by the worst year of my life followed by the best again! A massive rollercoaster, I guess you could call it the last few years, and they’re all really different. Somehow I’ve managed to merge the stunt driving and the racing driving and they’ve all knitted together. I’m sure it won’t always be that smooth, but it’s been great to be able to do the both of them.
“It’s been amazing being part of an F1 team. It started as an ‘If this role was available, would you be interested?’ a very long time ago. And of course I said, ‘Yeah of course!’ and then I didn’t hear anything for six months.
“Then it turned into ‘Remember what I said six months or so ago? It’s happening now. A contract will be at your door very shortly!’. So I had many sleepless nights just wanting to sign. It’s incredible, and literally within a few hours of my first day I felt so welcomed and everyone was so amazing. Genuinely I do feel a part of the family, because that’s what it is.”
There have been further setbacks due to COVID-19 that mean Hawkins’ simulator time has been limited so far, but she travels to a number of races with Aston Martin and has found Sebastian Vettel particularly keen to take her under his wing.
“Hand on heart, he is one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met,” she says. “Honestly. I’ve been on several track walks with him now, I’ve obviously been here with the team for a few race meetings and we went on a track walk in Monza and he’d already been in the morning with his father before the team one I was lucky enough to be involved in.
“We were having a chat on the long straights and I’d never been to Monza before, so someone said to me ‘Oh, Jess, there’s the banking over there!’ and I was like ‘Oh wow, that’s amazing!’ and Seb said ‘What, you’ve never been here before?’ And I replied ‘No’ and he said ‘After the track walk, I’m going to take you’.
“So as we got out of Parabolica, there’s an exit off to the left and he took me there and showed me. He’s got his own stuff to deal with, but he gives me more time than he needs to, shows a genuine interest in his team – including myself – and he really does have a huge heart. I knew he was a great person before, but this has really just solidified it.”
Vettel’s support has come in many forms, both direct and indirect, as he has become a major ambassador for the LBGTQ+ community in recent years. His own statements in places such as Hungary and Russia – where laws and attitudes have been less supportive – further resonate with Hawkins, who races against her partner Abbie Eaton in W Series.
“She would probably say the same thing – I’m in it to win, and equally so is she, but at the same time if I win, I want her to finish second. I know I can’t always be that picky! So first and foremost I have my best interests at heart, but equally, if she’s doing well, it makes me feel warm, and I’d like to think she says the same thing. It’s nice to go through the ride with each other, but we’ve said we’ll leave that at the track, and as far as we’re both concerned our career comes first.”
The pair did finish one ahead of the other at the last round in Zandvoort, where Hawkins was fifth and Eaton sixth, as the former extended her run to three consecutive point-scoring finishes heading into her first race in the U.S.
“It was about time!” Hawkins says. “We actually started the season with a fifth, which is higher than I was expecting to be at the start of the season, but then I got a penalty and it was taken away from us – understandably, it was my fault.
“Then we really struggled for a good few rounds, struggling to get in the top 10 even, which I struggled to deal with mentally, as well. But there’s so much more to racing than just driving — it’s as much a mental game as a driving game — so that hurdle has been crossed and we’re over that now, and all I’m concentrating on is the future and having a really strong finish to the year.
“I’d never raced round the Silverstone GP circuit before and I live half an hour from there, let alone race in the U.S.! So, my first experience, and I’m very excited.”
While Hawkins is setting her sights on a test in the Aston Martin F1 car at some stage, she also admits her future could lie on this side of the Atlantic, given the unique skillset she possesses and further opportunities to race.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned over my strange career, it’s never rule anything out,” she says. “Never plan, because I’ve made so many plans and then some strange opportunity will come from a very strange place and it blows everything else.
“Who knows? If I end up in America, then I end up in America long-term, as long as I’ve got a career doing what I love doing. There’s Hollywood for the stunt driving and then IndyCar… What more could I want?”