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I t is a very long way from KartSport Canterbury’s track in Halswell to one of the world’s most prominent international circuits, the South Garda Karting track in Lonato del Garda, Italy. Last October, Canterbury’s young karting star Jacob Douglas proved that a driver raised on the Halswell track can successfully take on the world, after blitzing a field of elite drivers to claim the Bridgestone Trophy in the ROK Cup Superfinal in Italy. It was the first time this race has ever been won by a New Zealander.

There’s a great video of the race online, showing Jacob dominating the race to win by almost 2.5 seconds. In the after-race interview, the 14-year-old is incredibly composed. He’s just won the biggest race of his life but the young champ is modest enough not to brag, instead using his time on camera to calmly thank all his supporters. ‘I knew what I had to do,’ says Jacob, when I ask what was going through his mind that day. ‘I felt good going into that race and that helped me perform well.’

It was a big year all-round in 2019 for the high flier, who earlier competed in the prestigious FIA Karting Academy Trophy series in Europe, contested over three rounds between May and September. Jacob was the first ever Kiwi karter to gain selection for the series featuring the world’s best 50 drivers, aged 12–14 years, from more than 40 countries.

It was an out-of-the-box opportunity for Jacob that involved competing at challenging venues like Sarno near Naples. This is one of the world’s fastest kart circuits; Jacob only had three practice sessions there last year before competing in the second round of the series. He wound up qualifying second fastest and won the first of his three heat races. What a phenomenal achievement for this young Cantabrian to go all that way and win at Sarno.

Jacob finished the series eleventh overall and likely would have finished higher had it not been for some bad luck in the first round on a track in Germany, where he crashed out on the second lap after being hit by another driver.

There is no doubt that karting comes with its own risks. Jacob’s parents Craig and Rowena understand that all too well but say risk must also be kept in perspective. ‘He’s had a couple of accidents but has never hurt himself or done anything serious,’ says Rowena. ‘He’s going fast; he’s motor racing and that’s dangerous but so is playing rugby. We’re focused on supporting him – we want him to do well. He’s very passionate about this – it’s his dream – and I think if we’re able to, we should fully support anything that he decides to do.’

His success on track is remarkable but the fact that he’s able to handle everything associated with that is quite an achievement in itself. He has to leave his family behind to compete on the other side of the world in places where languages and ways of life are so different to home. On top of that, he has food allergies and has to carefully manage what he eats when away competing. ‘It’s pretty tricky,’ Jacob says. ‘To perform at my best, I need to have gluten-free healthy food and it can be hard trying to make sense of ingredients written in a different language! Finding your way around places can be confusing too.’

If it’s a race day, Jacob will be up early and won’t get back to his hotel room until 8 pm or so. ‘It feels like a long draining day, especially if you’re still jet lagged.’
Racing at this level requires 100 per cent commitment for weeks on end and a huge financial outlay on the part of his family to support him at international events. The pressure is intense and unrelenting. As well, Jacob has to fit schoolwork around the motorsport calendar. Last year, he completed many of his assignments, set by his teachers at Christ’s College, on plane flights or in hotel rooms.

It is a life that Jacob has known for a long time now, but he wouldn’t swap it for any other. ‘I love everything about it – the atmosphere, the adrenalin and hanging out with people off-track, having a good time. It’s a really cool environment!’

Jacob’s dad Craig, who owns and operates Selwyn-based building and construction company DP Homes, says people often assume that he and his wife travel with their son, but in fact they prefer putting every spare dollar towards his racing costs. As well, they are supporting the aspirations of Jacob’s twin sister, New Zealand champion ice skater Hayley Douglas, who also has her sights set on international competition.

In any case, they are confident that Jacob is in good hands with his mentoring and coaching team, international karter Tiffany Hamilton and partner multi-New Zealand champion Matthew Hamilton. ‘He would never have made it overseas without them – they have created his career,’ says Craig. ‘Jacob has been incredibly well-developed, trained and coached since he was eight years old. Winning is not just about training behind the steering wheel, it’s also about being mind and body fit and strong. He has to be the best he can be every day; it’s the only way to make it to the top.’

Jacob is aiming to emulate the career trajectory of Christchurch racing driver star Marcus Armstrong, who this year reached the top tier of junior racing – FIA Formula 2.

Craig says Jacob started out as a youngster riding motorbikes and was involved in motocross racing from the age of four, before ‘starting to play around’ with karting two years later. By the age of eight, he was already getting very competitive on the track. ‘One of the challenges in the early days was he was quite pint-sized compared to other boys his age,’ Craig recalls. ‘Even now that he’s maturing, he’s still one of the smallest boys in his class!’

While small in stature, Jacob is big in attitude and application. In 2017 he won his first New Zealand title in Vortex Mini ROK and did it again a year later, becoming the first person to win the title back to back. That same year he also won the 2018 Round Champion of Thailand.

Off the back of the first New Zealand title, he earned a place in the New Zealand team picked to compete at the International ROK Cup Finals in Italy…at age 11! Since then he’s been back to Europe racing, as well as travelled to events in Australia and the US. ‘Up until the COVID-19 Lockdown, he was booked to be racing 42 weeks out of 52 this year,’ says Craig. ‘It’s incredible what it takes for him to be on track, training and testing and racing at all these events both here and around the world.’

Of course, the global pandemic had an immediate impact on Jacob’s plans for this year, which had included two championships in Australia. He was about to compete in the first round of the Rotax Pro Tour there in late March when instead he had to catch an emergency flight home. This year’s New Zealand national champs, scheduled to be held in Christchurch over Easter, were also thrown into disarray. Thankfully, Jacob has a home simulator to train on in the meantime, while he waits for the virus crisis to pass, and he also works out every day or goes for a run.

‘Worst case scenario is the nationals will be postponed to next year and I still plan on doing the 2020 ROK Cup here to get my ticket to Italy again, and maybe do a few other races towards the end of the year.’

Words Kim Newth