For anyone who watched with dismay the unfolding confusion and ridiculousness that was the 2021 Formula One finale in Abu Dhabi, there is at least some hope to be had about the future of motor racing. Specifically, there's some hope to be had about the future of Irish representation at the very pinnacle of the sport.
We've seen Irish drivers do well in F1 in the past – names such as Derek Daly, David Kennedy, and Eddie Irvine, depending on whether you consider that last name Irish or Northern Irish, spring to mind – and now, with luck, a new name is on the way to being added to that list. Alex Dunne.
The teenager from Meath has already had something of a sparkling career. He’s a multiple race winner in pretty much ever form of karting – always the nursery slopes for any aspirant racer. He started young, too.
I think the switch, from karts to cars, was initially a little bit of a struggle
"I originally started racing at the age of nine" Alex tells The Irish Times. "I started in Ireland, before venturing over to the UK, and got to race in the highest levels of karting there."
He raced and he won – Dunne's victories include wins in Irish and British karting championships, racing in the IAME karting event at Le Mans, placing 11th in OK world karting championship, and in 2019 taking an outright win at the Adria circuit in Italy, as part of the Junior European Karting Championship.
Since when, Dunne has made the step up from karts to “proper” racing cars. He’s now racing in the German Formula 4 championship, where the cars look like Formula One racers, but in miniature.
Powered by turbocharged engines supplied by Fiat-Abarth, these F4 cars are quick, nimble, and challenging. Not only that, but Dunne gets to race them on such legendary tracks as the Nurburgring and Hockenheim, scenes of many an F1 world championship battle.
“I think the switch, from karts to cars, was initially a little bit of a struggle” Dunne tells The Irish Times. “But after a day, maybe a day and a half, it started to feel more natural for me. I had a lot of coaching from my father, who raced cars as well, so that was helpful. I also had a home simulator, which helped me get used to the gearbox, changing the brake bias, all those sorts of things. So actually I’d felt pretty comfortable before I’d even driven the physical car.”
That use of electronic simulation has come a long way in motor sports. The 1997 Formula One world champion Jacque Villeneuve famously used a PlayStation game to learn the layouts of the circuits on which he'd be racing, but now drivers like Dunne can not only used sim-racing to prepare for the real thing, it's also a way of showing their skills to a wider audience.
"Ever since Covid started, sim-racing has really stepped to the next level" says Dunne. "Lots more drivers started getting onto iRacing and other simulations back when we were all locked down. I actually got to race against both Lando Norris and Max Verstappen in online racing."
Mention of the newly-crowned world champion begs another question – Verstappen has been repeatedly accused of being too aggressive in his racing, so how does Dunne feel about that, as a young up-and-comer? “I think you can see that they’re two very talented drivers fighting for the world championship” says Dunne.
The problem with motor sport is that it's really expensive
“If you look back at the old days, racing was pretty tough and aggressive, and I think that’s what we want to see. Not crashes, of course, but good, hard fights for races and wins.”
Getting to race against Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton, et al on the Formula One grid is Dunne's ultimate ambition. He is as he puts it, "fully focused" on making it to the very peak of motor sports, and he's gained a useful ally on the way there. The US Racing team for which he's been driving in German F4 is co-owned by none other than Ralf Schumacher, brother of the seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher, and a multiple Grand Prix winner himself.
Although he’s not yet won a race in German F4, Dunne has been impressive, taking several “Rookie Wins” – where he’s been the best-placed newcomer to the series in a race – and scoring two pole positions in qualifying for races at Hockenheim.
US Racing team co-owner Gerhard Ungar said of his performances: "Alex has a very concentrated and exemplary attitude about racing and being a race driver. His attitude and approach impressed me right at our first test in F4 together. The first test already showed that he has a really good speed."
Speed isn't everything in racing, sadly. Money is arguably at least as important, if not more so but Dunne enjoys backing from some heavy-hitters including Harris Group, a leading supplier of vans and heavy trucks in the Irish market; Van Fleet Transport; Reynolds Logistics; and Motorsport Ireland.
“We’ve had incredible support from our sponsors” says Dunne. “The next step is certainly possible, but of course the problem with motor sport is that it’s really expensive. But as I say, we have some incredible support which hopefully can help us.”
When Max Verstappen skipped to the top step of the podium at Abu Dhabi, it was the first time a driver from The Netherlands had become F1 World Champion. Would it be hoping too much that Alex Dunne, at some stage in the future, could add another first-time country to that list?