The boy who drifted, the boy who made Richard Hammond look pretty hopeless at drifting, is now a fully paid-up member of the Red Bull athletes club. Yup, alongside the likes of Neymar jnr, Max Verstappen and Lindsey Vonn now sits Conor Shanahan, from Mallow.
You might remember Shanahan. From that episode of Amazon’s The Grand Tour where, as a 13-year old, he out-drifted Hammond in a face-off at the old Rockingham circuit, scoring 27 points to Hammond’s two. That’s two.
Shanahan is now all-grown up, by which we mean he’s 17, and he’s unrepentant about spanking the TV superstar. “Yeah, working with Richard and the Grand Tour guys definitely taught me a lot. It was a big step for me at the time, because even though I’d been drifting since I was nine, I’d never done a big media thing like that before. We were there from Wednesday through to Friday filming, and because of my age there were restrictions on how long I could film for, so it was pretty intense. Great fun, though, yeah.”
Shanahan has now been snapped up by Red Bull, and that in itself brings certain pressures. After all, for every Max Verstappen or Sebastian Vettel, there's a heck of a pile of discarded wannabe superstars left in the wake of the massive Red Bull publicity machine. If you don't perform at the highest level, you don't get to stay in the family. For someone who can't even buy a pint yet, Shanahan is pretty laid back about the whole thing.
“I think maybe you could even look at it the other way because it kind of puts you in a line where there’s so many talented athletes with Red Bull, so it’s amazing to join the family,” he says. “You feel that you’re doing something right if you’re getting into family like that.
“It’s a big thing because, you know, if you went to a racetrack and you’d seen a guy wearing a Red Bull helmet, or with a Red Bull car, you’re always gonna say ‘That guy’s fast.’ It’s just been an incredible couple of weeks and I’m really looking forward to the journey with Red Bull. I’m sure I’ll be doing my best, and this is only the start.”
Shanahan is limbering up for the 2020 Drift Masters European Championship (DMEC) if and when it gets going this year (if and when anything does...) and has rebranded his 700hp Nissan drift car in the full Red Bull livery. Which mean's he is now the guy with the Red Bull helmet, he's the one with the Red Bull car. He's the one that the other kids, the other drivers, are going to be looking at.
While we wait for the restart of motor sports in 2020, Shanahan is keeping match fit, as is pretty much every other top-line driver right now, by playing games. Well, more accurately, by using highly realistic simulators, supplied by Fanatec and Digital Motorsport.
“Obviously you’re not going to have the speed, the sense of speed in a sim, but when you get like your head around that, that’s when it starts getting realistic,” he says. “I’ve seen many drivers who were good drivers and when they sit down, they find that they can’t play because everything like the steering is doing the same thing and all that kind of stuff, but you just don’t have the sense of speed.
“It’s keeping me fresh. I learned everything I know off the simulator because I’ve been playing it for six years. Just before I started drifting I got into the simulator and I managed to learn a whole lot of the tracks, so it just goes to show that it does pay off. You can get into the sim and be right on it, learning what your feet need to do, learning when to use the handbrake and clutch, it’s a massive help. To have such experience before you get into a car it’s a massive benefit and I learned an awful lot of simulator because you don’t have to worry about crashing so you can kind of push the limits, find what are the limits, so it’s a really, really good way to practice and obviously right now is great to stay fresh and keep everything sharp before we get back to racing.”
It was probably inevitable that Shanahan would go into some form of motor sports. His dad is a rally title-winner, his brother, Jack, is a fellow drifter, and his mum is the only Irish woman driver to win a national Autoglass championship,
“I always had an interest in motorsport,” says Shanahan. “I’m driving cars since I was five or six years of age so it’s always been in my blood. My mum has won national championships, my dad has won multiple rallies and of course my brother being, obviously, a massively successful driver. He’s won three British championships, he’s a two-time world champion. He definitely taught me a lot. I think it’s fair to say that I learned from his mistakes, rather than my own.”
He could have jumped the other way – both Shanahan and his mother were into soccer, with Shanahan playing at a county level at one point, but his dad’s influence pushed him towards cars.
“My dad never had any interest in the football, he always just wanted me to drive,” he says. “That’s always the way he was, which is understandable. That’s the way he was brought up. He has been driving cars as well from a very young age and he’s very competitive – if you’re not winning you’re not good enough, that’s the way he is.”
That family connection also brings with it a tinge of regret, even anger, that the sport of drifting is not better publicised. "It can be a mainstream media sport I think, but for some reason it just hasn't gone out. There's a massive opportunity yet to be made of drifting, especially in Ireland, We've got a three-time world champion – James Deane – first-time European champion and like it's rare that he's even mentioned. He's never even been on a TV show in Ireland. What other sports can we say that we've for a three-time world champion or multiple European champion? There's not many motor sports we can say that in, and not many sports at all."
As of now, Shanahan’s plans, once the racing season does eventually restart, is to make the most of the dangling Red Bull opportunity. He has ambitions to tackle rallying, or even rallycross, as well, but says that he doesn’t see himself ever truly leaving the drifting scene behind.
“I always say, if you can drive a drift car competitively, I think you could get into any another car and do other motor sports, and you could be competitive. I think it would be a lot harder for another motorsport person to come to a drift car and try to drive it. You need a strange technique for it, it is completely opposite what you do in any other motor sport. So, yeah, it’s quite a buzz to drive the car. To be honest, there’s not many other feelings like it.”