There is not yet any scientific evidence that genes have an effect on one’s racing talent. However, a famous surname can at least go a long way for support and connections. Jolyon Palmer was able to benefit enough from family backing and a great education for mechanics and setup, that he was able to make it to Formula 1 and a midfield drive in a cash-strapped era for the series. After almost two years, the bright-eyed journeyman left with his head down. Only two points finishes, and defeated convincingly by his teammates, he would find the Sky Sports lounge a lot cosier than the racing seat.
|Date of Birth||January 20th 1991|
|Best result||6th (Singapore 2017)|
Early Life: Every Weapon in the Arsenal
Jolyon grew up in Southwater, a village in Sussex in the south of England. He has a brother and two sisters, and all are the children of former 1980s F1 driver Jonathan Palmer. Jolyon’s childhood was somewhat bizarre in that he was nurtured to enjoy karting and racing, both with his own machines and with F1 on the television – only, it was his father commentating.
He initially wanted to be a footballer, and has spoken more than once about the potential for his life to have taken a different path. Until 2004 he was playing at the county level for Sussex, while his sisters are both professional showjumpers. His brother Will was also a driver, winning national British awards in the 2010s, but has since retired to pursue other personal endeavours.
Jolyon took racing semi-seriously, running karts full-time when he turned 14. His heroes in F1 were Fernando Alonso and Juan Pablo Montoya, and the success of the former inspired him to approach racing as a career he himself wanted. His father Jonathan was able to nurture this inspiration with the correct environment for him. After his own late start in racing, Jonathan was able to instil the attitude in Jolyon from an early age that it is just as important to be smart and perfect outside of the car as it is in it. Jolyon learned the ropes of setup, understanding how a racing machine works, getting the best out of it. Because, when one is not born with a wunderkind level of talent, they must use every other weapon in their arsenal.
Jonathan was able to provide more than just advice for his son, however. From his retirement he had moved into business, forming coalitions around the UK to acquire and upkeep the country’s classic racing circuits. He helped prop them up with his own self-made, low-cost racing series which would allow young British drivers to gain experience and rise up the ladder. Even drivers such as F1 reject Justin Wilson were supported this way. Formula Palmer Audi, the saloon series T Cars, and later the revitalised Formula 2 of the late 2000s, would all be run under the senior Palmer’s umbrella group, and all would feature his son Jolyon behind the wheel.
2005-2010: A Very Catered Racing Ladder
T Cars, the aforementioned tin-top saloon series, was Jolyon’s first foray into his professional career. His debut season was lukewarm, featuring opposition from many other racing families like Alex Brundle, Henry Surtees, and Max Chilton. He partook in a full season the following year, with four podiums in 20 races to round out the year. Autumn Cups rounded out the year’s racing, and Jolyon got whatever experience he could from them.
For 2007 he moved up to Formula Palmer Audi. This was open-wheelers at last, and featured a twenty-race calendar running around seven of the UK’s classic and prestigious racing circuits. Originally this was quite a money-maker for Jonathan, but by the late 2000s there was enough in the savings that the series was able to start attracting more than just pay-drivers. Of course, a cheap driver to run was Jonathan’s own son, who very quickly got up to speed against a mostly British opposition, which included Stefan Wilson and Alex Brundle again. Jolyon’s first win came in his ninth race, along with his first pole position. Earlier in the season he had blown a good chance for a podium when he crashed out of second place, again at Brands Hatch. His first win was followed by a second at Oulton Park, and Jolyon spent most just off the leaders in the standings.
One unexpected fact is that Jolyon Palmer only has one kidney. When mucking about with his friends at the age of 16, he crashed his quad bike into a tree, and was seriously injured with serious blood loss. As a result, he lost a kidney, seriously damaged a lung, and was in a coma for some days. As a result, he was out of racing for the rest of the season, and ended the year 10th in the Formula Palmer Audi standings before being fit to return in 2008. His lesson was learned from the minute he woke up again. All else he has to say on the matter is that “I had a boring time in hospital.”
The 2008 season had Spa-Francorchamps to add some internationality to the series. The star of the season was Jason Moore, who after three wins from the first five races, kept his lead all the way to the end of the season, with Jolyon and Tom Bradshaw being his closest opposition most of the way. Of these three, Palmer was consistent but the least successful. Finishing third overall, he had one win, three poles, and 11 podiums from 20. Not enough wins and simply without that extra edge to beat the opposition, but absolutely not an embarrassment. At this stage in his life and career, it was more than enough to take the next step up.
The next series in Jonathan’s catalogue, was the brief revival of Formula 2. The series’ inaugural season was full of a lot of motorsport’s nearly-men, such as Andy Soucek and Robert Wickens. Between them these two drivers dominated the show and would go onto some great things, if not F1 drives. Jolyon found entry to the series very tough. One points finish at Imola was his only shining moment of what was a ruthless year against decent and, for the first time, international opposition.
He was also reminded of his own mortality yet again at Brands Hatch, when the driver behind him, Henry Surtees, was fatally injured by a loose wheel:
“Henry was right on my tail and if I was half a second further back then, who knows, it could have been me … It makes you realise how fragile life is, really – and it put [sic] a bit of perspective on the dangers of motorsport – but you can’t really think about it. As soon as you do, you have lost your edge.”
Most of the successful runners of that year moved on to better things, and with a year’s experience behind him, Jolyon was suddenly hyper-competitive in 2010. With 43 of a possible 50 points after the first weekend, he was locked in a season-long competition with Dean Stoneman, who had graduated from Formula Renault UK. Stoneman would take the title in the end, though his own career would also be sadly stunted following a diagnosis of testicular cancer the following year. Five wins from 20 was brilliant going for Jolyon. Stoneman beat him, primarily through consistency and one or two fewer dud races, but Palmer held his own well, and the two were a class ahead of anyone else on the grid. Rather fittingly, the last Brit to win in F2 before Jolyon was actually his father Jonathan back in the 1980s.
All six years of his professional racing education so far had been in his father’s series, and it was time for Jolyon to approach the international scene head-on:
“Jolyon’s had it pretty tough actually. Those championships didn’t have the pedigree that the established championships had and there’s no doubt that that has been a handicap.” Jonathan Palmer on his son’s chances for GP2.
2011-2014: From Newbie to Record Breaker
While the Formula 2 revival was intended to be the main feeder series to F1, GP2 actually was the series in that position. 400 brake horsepower was now 600, and one or two international talents was now ten or twenty. This was no longer a spec series, and Jolyon had to deliver the goods above and beyond himself and his team. In his first season of 2011 he finished last of the full-time runners, while his teammate (future contracted HRT F1 driver) Josef Král took two podiums. Arden may not have been the fastest team on the grid that season, but Charles Pic and Luiz Razia were able to take wins the prior and following year, and Jolyon was not on their level. He had a few more family favours to call in, such as when he used a Formula Palmer Audi event as an excuse to get some track-time on the Nürburgring before the GP2 paddock would arrive.
In 2012, after doing double duty racing and studying, Jolyon graduated from the University of Nottingham with a bachelor’s degree in Management Studies. He moved from Arden to iSport, with whom he had done a few in-season tests the previous year, to partner none other than the great Marcus Ericsson. Marcus was a veteran of GP2, as Jolyon would come to be, and would have the measure of the Brit even if both drivers were quite inconsistent. While Jolyon did have his first real moments in the sun, they were few and far between pointless weekends, of which six of the 12 rounds ended up being. He took his first points in sprint races, before eventually taking his first win at the Monaco sprint – the first British win in the series since a young Lewis Hamilton. At 21 years old, he still had promise.
Now in 2013, it was to Carlin for Jolyon, partnering F1’s lucky bastard Felipe Nasr. Nasr again had the measure of him as had Jolyon’s previous teammates. The opening rounds of the year were the best for both drivers, and Palmer took mid-level points for much of the time. His first win of the year was a feature win at the Hungaroring, followed by another feature win at Singapore, lights to flag, fastest lap. Impressive pace, and Palmer was clearly getting stronger and stronger as he became more experienced. Nasr took more podiums when the going was at its best, and finished ahead overall, while James Calado and Sam Bird were the Brits on the block taking wins and fighting for the championship.
Jolyon would win the GP2 season in his fourth year. With this fact, he draws some parallels with Giorgio Pantano, a fellow reject and GP2 champion who struggled for Formula 1 glory. Palmer’s Achilles heel had been that he was inconsistent. He simply wasn’t there for a season – he could have some brilliant races, but wasn’t championship material. That all changed for his fourth and final year. At the fourth team in as many years, he took his DAMS car to victory four times. There were chances such as at Barcelona where he could have won more, if not for an early clash with Rio Haryanto. He took a record number of points in the series regardless.
The real stat to note is that Jolyon did not score points in only two races. Quite the achievement over 22 events, and it is what put him far and away ahead as the best of the year. His runner-up and fellow F1 reject Stoffel Vandoorne bottled his chances early on with five pointless races in a row. While Palmer never won at home, he took a dominant feature win at Monaco, another at Sochi, and two sprint wins in Bahrain and Monza. The Sochi race was a wild one, where circumstances of Nasr choking his title chances with a twice-served penalty and Vandoorne fluffing up his best opportunity to pit, and Mitch Evans pushing the Jolyon all the way to the finish, all meant that the championship came much earlier than expected!
Caterham F1, who had lost backer after backer, and seemed to have more team principals than drivers, were able to return to the grid for the 2014 season finale. Ericsson had severed connections with the team after signing his 2015 contract with Sauber, and the team first turned to Jolyon as the new GP2 champ for their seat. Palmer instead chose to finish his season at GP2 and contest the weekend with DAMS for one last time:
“I think there’s more than a slightly messy situation there … I’ve got a GP2 race to do so we weren’t particularly interested”.
2015: An F1 Driver, Almost
It is well understood by now that winning a feeder series is no guarantee of an F1 drive. Davide Valsecchi and Fabio Leimer, Jolyon’s GP2 champion predecessors, never participated in a F1 race. Four years in the series had given Palmer the necessary know-how to succeed in familiar territory, which was advantageous against the up-and-coming rookies, but not the kind of performance that excited the team bosses that he was a rising star. He was smart enough to know that victory in GP2 was no guarantee of an F1 seat, but would do his damnedest to make that a reality.
After taking part in the young driver test for Force India when the 2014 season ended, he worked as hard as possible to stay with the team, citing that its “proper FP1 programmes” had given chances to Paul di Resta and Jules Bianchi to move up to a race seat in the past. Hoping for a Force India race seat, he had to make do as test driver for the Lotus team the following year. It was a better situation than most young drivers got, still: he was entered into all but five of the season’s race weekends for free practice running, in place of Romain Grosjean. His eventual rise to racing driver was confirmed in the autumn of 2015, as the Frenchman surprised Lotus with his resignation and moved on to the new Haas team.
2016: F1 with the Returning Renaults
“Getting into Formula 1 has never been harder. When I won GP2 in 2014 I felt that I was ready to move up back then so it feels like it has been a long time coming … I would say it is probably racing or nothing.”
The Lotus team were, in Jolyon’s words, “strapped for cash” when they were bought in December 2015 by Renault. Truthfully, they were shackled with debt, and were dependent on ever-more unstable PDVSA money from Pastor Maldonado’s Venezuelan backers. As Renault completed their buyout and Pastor’s money dried up, he was replaced by the Dane Kevin Magnussen, who had been ignominiously dropped by McLaren at the end of 2014 and forced into a reserve driver year in 2015, just like Jolyon had. The two were to be teammates for Palmer’s debut season.
Palmer’s contract was understood to be providing the Renault team in the region of £5 million, which would have filled at least some of the hole left by Maldonado’s absence. Software issues hampered Jolyon’s running in testing, while he could clearly feel the change in pace, the slowness of the Renault engine compared to the predecessor Mercedes. The now-disgraced Carlos Ghosn, then CEO of Renault, said: “I want every time a race starts for Renault to compete. That is not going to happen in 2016.” It was clear that the new season was going to be difficult for the team.
After a troubled testing period, Jolyon did well in his first race at Albert Park. He was actually in the points for the middle period, holding off the Toro Rosso pair of Carlos Sainz Jr. and Max Verstappen for many laps. He had outqualified Magnussen by reaching Q2, and finished a few seconds ahead of the Dane. Melbourne would turn out to be one of his strongest drives, however. At Bahrain, both cars were out in Q1 and a full second off the elimination zone, while Jolyon’s hydraulics failed on the warm-up lap. Overshadowed by Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari engine failure, Jolyon quietly pulled into the pits before the race even began.
Jolyon’s remarks to the press were positive and down to earth, but they didn’t stay that way. When Q2 visits became Q1 dropouts, such as in China, Jolyon dropped his pretences of talking up Renault’s in-season development:
“In Melbourne the performance was there, in Bahrain it was falling away, and here it is catastrophically bad … I think the whole weekend was maybe my worst ever as a racing driver. It’s been very bad.”
How bad? In China he failed to take advantage of the safety car after an incident-packed first few laps. He stayed out rather than changing tyres which, while promoting him to 7th on track, saw him fall so far back as to be comical. He was almost last by the time he left the pits, and finished 22nd in a retirement-free race.
So, for the following races this became the standard: Palmer out in Q1, often a sizeable few tenths off of Magnussen, before recovering enough to finish a few places off the top ten. His screentime was often limited to his Q1 dropouts or when Kevin made a stupid move on him on the last lap in Barcelona. Palmer’s return to Monaco, at which he had won twice in GP2, saw him crash twice in practice and again on the first real racing lap in drying conditions, which eventually required Renault to provide a new chassis for the following round.
Both Renaults qualified on the last row of the grid at the maiden Baku race, while Palmer was suffering quite regular reliability issues in his new chassis. The whining got more common as his limited running was being worsened by front-runners bringing out yellow flags:
“It’s just frustrating, because [Lewis Hamilton’s] clearly got the pace to get through Q1 and yet he’s still causing yellow flags for us when we’re trying to do our best in the only session we get.”
Outqualified and outpaced, he was now frustrated, such as when he was penalised in two consecutive qualifying sessions for speeding through yellow flags or for disobeying track limits. The British Grand Prix was a complete disaster, seeing Jolyon out in Q1 again in changing conditions, while on Sunday he took himself out of contention when he tried to leave his pitbox with only three wheels. For this he took a ten-second stop and go penalty (remember those?), and after a gearbox failure later on, got a stern talking to from his staff live on the tv cameras. He called this debacle “one of the least enjoyable races of the year so far”.
Rumours about his imminent firing came about as early as the Russian Grand Prix, when Magnussen took a miracle 7th place. Esteban Ocon was Renault’s reserve driver and regularly touted as Palmer’s replacement. A good early stint at Hungary allowed Jolyon to hover around the points positions, and was his best showing up until that point all year. Then, for a reason that Jolyon himself was perplexed by, he spun of his own accord and dropped to 12th. This was followed by a rare Q2 entry at Hockenheim, which sadly came to nought as he finished second-last and behind a Manor. At Monza he was on the butt of more poor overtakes as former teammate Nasr gave him no room after the first chicane and ripped off his front wing.
Malaysia was Palmer’s only moment in the sun all year, with a point following a quite top-heavy retirement list. The “best Friday I have had all year” became 19th on the grid and a “pretty depressing” result. Sensible strategy paid off, keeping out of trouble and keeping up a whole race pace: 10th place and a point. He built a pace advantage over Magnussen, but as often is the way with rejects, never enough, and never when it mattered. By now, Renault were clearly going backwards, and even in chance moments such as the terrible conditions of Interlagos that year, Palmer ruined his opportunity by torpedoing into Daniil Kvyat. Doing the very same thing the following race to Kvyat’s teammate Carlos Sainz Jr. copped Jolyon a penalty. He finished the last race of the season in last place.
2017: Last Chance Saloon at the top
Palmer struggled to keep his seat for another year. The team had hoped Kevin Magnussen would be a long-term investment, but there had been serious in-fighting between the Dane and team management. Team principal Cyril Abiteboul and he had fought, and Kevin was offered a more lucrative deal by Guenther Steiner to join Romain Grosjean at Haas. As Jolyon unwisely shouted him out of the door, Hülkenberg – the Brit’s original replacement – got the other Renault. Now there was still room for Palmer. Ocon was next in the team’s sights, but had a cast-iron guarantee with Force India. Renault finally turned to Jolyon and kept him on by a simple process of elimination.
New rule changes for 2017 were making the cars much more physical to drive, and Renault were publicly aiming to be the fourth-fastest team on the grid. Palmer was more than aware of his shortcomings the previous year in spite of a poorly-prepared Renault team. He knew he had to deliver.
Back at Albert Park, he had a heavy crash in practice before qualifying last, and didn’t make the finish after early reliability problems. His famous outburst that “everything conspired against me” was not helped by teammate Hülkenberg narrowly missing out on Q3 by under a tenth, while finishing 11th. Jolyon got caught out again speeding under yellows in China, following the first of two identical crashes for Antonio Giovinazzi. Out in Q1 anyway, he made a smart gamble for slicks in the race as the formation lap ended, but that got ruined by Giovinazzi’s second identical crash, whose subsequent safety car allowed everyone else to take slicks as well and ruin the Brit’s advantage.
Things perked up again at Bahrain with Renault’s first double-Q3 in years. Both had poorer long-term pace, and Palmer fell to 13th and last by race end. In Russia he was out on the first lap after a double crash into Grosjean, and that was after already crashing out on his flying lap just the day before. The disaster earned him his only Reject of the Race award on our site. At this point Palmer’s total lack of speed was becoming more apparent – as the car improved and Hülkenberg would do his usual, bringing home constant points finishes, Palmer was posting best times that were a second behind the German. Team principal Abiteboul was publicly calling for points (his predecessor Frédéric Vasseur had been more forgiving), afraid of Renault becoming a one-car team. Jolyon had been unable to take points in an attrition-heavy Monaco race. He didn’t even start his second and final home race at Silverstone, with a hydraulic problem taking him out on the formation lap at the last corner.
The occasional off-the-cuff outburst to the media only built more public pressure on him, such as when at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix he snapped at a BBC journalist for starting the Thursday of every F1 weekend with a negatively-pointed question.
Palmer later confessed to “overdriving” his car, and getting mentally affected by being outpaced session after session. The one exception was the Singapore Grand Prix. After one point in 34 races, a miracle fell into Jolyon’s lap when three front-running cars famously went out at the first corner. From here it was simply a job to keep his car on the road and out of trouble. It was a tough race, reaching the two hour limit due to the conditions, but Palmer did it: sixth place and one step of three towards unrejectification.
However, fate knows irony all too well. On the Friday of that same weekend it was announced that Palmer was out of the team in two races’ time – Jolyon read the news on Autosport. Carlos Sainz Jr., eager to escape the Red Bull machine, found an opportunity with Renault and took it, and Renault were more than happy to have him. Sainz was originally going to be in the car by Hungary at the latest, and when rumour got out, Renault felt compelled to publicly back Jolyon until the contracts were signed. The rumour mill had been so productive that even Robert Kubica, at that time absent from F1 for seven years following injury, was touted as being in line to take the seat for Belgium.
A crash with Max Verstappen in Malaysia showed that Singapore had perhaps been a flash in the pan, while Sainz would take 7th on debut in Palmer’s place and in regular conditions. At the time of his dismissal he was beaten by Hülkenberg in the points 34-8 and lost the qualifying battles with Magnussen 8-11 and Hülkenberg 0-15.
After his “mutually-agreed” dismissal from Renault, Palmer received little to no interest from other F1 teams. A brief whiff of a rumour to Williams vanished as quickly as it came, while he was publicly very non-committal to other potential series like endurance racing or IndyCar, regardless of the occasional coaxing by the media.
2018-present: From the Racing Chair to the Couch
There was no next step, except out of the cockpit. The BBC, after selling their contract to Sky in 2011, still did semi-regular live television broadcasts, and kept up their radio commentary. It was in both of these that Palmer leapt into his new career, being a natural person in front of the camera. From late 2018 to the end of 2020, he even had his own column with the broadcaster that acted as a post-race summary of the talking points after each race. He would usually have a wet and uncommitted position, and the column was eventually discontinued. From here he has worked with the BBC still, and more recently with F1TV and occasionally Sky Sports, giving colour commentary and analysis.
Unlike most F1 drivers, Jolyon never left his hometown except to move to London. His personal aim has always been to keep his life as normal as possible, and that includes the proximity to his workplace, his friends, and his family. He found the F1 life unbelievably busy, and it worked against him mentally. He went from a reliable tester in 2015 to a prone crasher in both his F1 seasons, and from a positive photogenic personality to a frustrated try-hard. Having reached the top series with technical tenacity and a hell of a lot of hard work, his grafting had its limits, and being outpaced so definitively by benchmarks like Magnussen and Hülkenberg meant that he was painted into a career corner.
Palmer worked hard and learned well, while nobody wins a GP2 title by accident. He didn’t possess the X factor on his own, but did well with everything else he had at his disposal. His father helped, as did his native English and “nice guy” public persona. It placated the press for a while longer than if he had been, say, Pastor Maldonado, a driver who crashed much less regularly than Palmer did for the same team. With the tools at his disposal he went far, but the dream was always going to end there without the results. Once he lost his on-track reliability, and the occasional unwise remark became constant hyperbole, there was nowhere to go for a driver only interested in driving in Formula 1 and nothing else.
Sources: motosport.com; bbc.com; autocar.co.uk; driverdb.com; formulatwo.com; gp2series.com; lotusf1team.com; autosport.com; espn.co.uk; skysports.com; motorsport-total.com; sbs.com.au; theguardian.com; reuters.com; greatbritishlife.co.uk; driving.co.uk; bleacherreport.com.
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