Oliver Wilkinson’s rise to McLaren factory driver status, which the Englishman attained at the start of this year, has been rapid considering he only made his racing debut in 2016.
The 25-year-old from Leeds currently forms part of an all-factory lineup for JOTA in Fanatec GT World Challenge Europe powered by AWS, piloting the team’s McLaren 720S GT3 in both the Endurance and Sprint Cups.
In this latest Pirelli Paddock Pass, Wilkinson discusses the first half of his 2021 season, his journey to works driver status and what he’s gained during his time with McLaren.
What’s your analysis of last weekend’s GTWC Europe Sprint Cup round at Misano, where you and Ben Barnicoat challenged in the top 10?
“Going to JOTA was quite a late thing to be put together, in terms of the season starting.
“So we have been a little bit on the back foot compared to some of the other teams in the championship with the level of experience these guys have. We’ve had a little bit of catching up to do.
“So it was nice to finally see our pace and performance shine in Misano. We’ve been working very hard to get to this point. There were so many positives to take away.
“Yes, the penalty [imposed after the first race] was a shame, but to finish on track in fifth place was massively confidence-inspiring for all of us.
“It was a real shame that things went the way they did on Saturday, because it could have been two really strong points finishes and would have left us P9 in the championship having missed a full round at Zandvoort. All in all, it’s been a really promising start to the year.”
After an early retirement at the 3 Hours of Monza, you rebounded to finish 16th at the Paul Ricard 1000km. How did you find that most recent round of the Endurance Cup?
“It was a little bit of a scrappy weekend. We had a few different small issues that we had to work through, throughout the weekend.
“But all in all, I think there were a lot of positives for us to take away as a team. Although a few small issues impacted our chances of an outright result, our race pace looked really promising.
“Sometimes, with us being so new to the championship, it’s difficult to be there fighting in the top three sometimes, when the level of competition is as high as it is.
“So the big thing for us from Ricard was, although we weren’t actually fighting for a result in that race, we showed to ourselves that we have the pace to be up there in the future. That, for us, was a really big thing.”
What’s it like representing the only McLaren entry in the GTWC Europe Pro category?
“It comes with its challenges, that’s for sure. As a manufacturer, we’ve been the only car. It massively limits your chances of success, because you don’t have the same amount of chances as some other manufacturers do.
“But at the same time, it’s quite special for us as factory drivers, because we really are racing for McLaren at these weekends.
“With it being the only car in the Pro class, we really are racing for all the guys back at base, for everybody at McLaren and for JOTA as well.
“It certainly brings an added side of pressure to the weekend, knowing you’re representing the factory.
“It also brings a great sense of honor, for all of the guys we’ve worked with over the past three or four years with developing the car and getting it where it is today.”
Having previously worked with McLaren in a junior capacity, you are now a factory driver proper. What does this mean to you?
“It’s amazing to be able to work so closely with a manufacturer in terms of development, on race and road cars. Getting to work at Goodwood this weekend, for example.
“Being a factory driver at McLaren is very special for me because it just gives opportunities in motorsport that you’d never be able to get without this position.
“It’s a real honor for me to represent McLaren as a factory driver, and to be able to work for them in that respect.”
How did your association with McLaren Automotive start?
“I was in the Aston Martin Driver Academy in 2019. I think that’s what put me on McLaren’s radar. I didn’t win the Aston academy: I was sort of second in that.
“But off the back of that, I got offered to do a test with McLaren in a GT3 car which all went really well. I met everybody and got chatting, and we discussed my goals for the future. We discussed if there was any sort of way they could help me.
“Off the back of that, they made me a McLaren ‘Professional’ driver [for 2020], to which I was within a second of Rob Bell and Joe Osborne, and we all worked very closely together. Rob used to report back about me and things like that.
“Going into 2021, they made the decision to put me and Ben together. We’re both Yorkshiremen, both the same age. They felt that Ben, with his level of experience, and myself developing as quickly as I had been, we could gel as a really good pair together.
“That’s where the JOTA deal came from and the factory contract came along with representing McLaren on a global stage in GT World Challenge Europe.
“It happened very quickly, really. And I have been very lucky to have been taken in by the people who have taken me in and helped me in the ways they’ve helped me.”
What have been some of the personal development areas that you’ve focused on in the last couple of years, particularly with McLaren?
“I think going into championships as competitive as World Challenge, you need to be able to extract every last bit out of the car and its setup to get up at the sharp end.
“That’s one of the biggest things that McLaren has taught me: to understand what I feel in the car and what the car is doing underneath me – how to report that to my engineers and how to make an improvement to go forward.
“I think the biggest thing for me, being with McLaren, is how they’ve helped me to process information. We’ve worked a lot on me as a personality as well, and how to show yourself.
“They are the two biggest things they’ve helped me with. When you go out there and racing, you’re on your own. But the support they’ve given me in other areas is fantastic.”