Australian Grand Prix: Jolyon Palmer on being close to death

By Gary RoseBBC Sport
Jolyon Palmer
Meet the Palmers: Jolyon (right) is following his father Jonathan into Formula 1

Formula 1 is dangerous, and most drivers at some point in their career will come close to the darkness. Too close.

"It was pretty serious. It was particularly bad for my parents, who were told there was a chance I would not pull through."

British driver Jolyon Palmer is telling BBC Sport about just such an experience. And, at the time of writing, he has not even made his debut in a sport that lost driver Jules Bianchi less than a year ago.

Palmer, now 25, was in a coma after crashing a quad bike at the age of 16. He lost a kidney, punctured a lung, suffered liver damage and lost a lot of blood.

"I was in a bad way," he said. "I was racing a couple of friends for fun. I was winning the race, but I looked over my shoulder, lost balance and hit a tree."

Jonathan Palmer during the 1980s and his son Jolyon Palmer today
Jolyon (right), in testing last month, bears a resemblance to his dad in his 1988 Tyrrell

Palmer's next memory was of waking in a bed surrounded by doctors. He had been airlifted to hospital and was unconscious for three days. His parents had even been told to prepare for the worst.

"The good thing for me is that I didn't understand the peril. My first thought when I woke up was 'damn it, I am going to miss the next race'."

For many, such an experience would be enough to convince them that a career in racing was not for them. Instead, a nice, safe desk job.

Not for Palmer. "I can't imagine myself in an office," he said. "I've always wanted to be outdoors and doing something sporty."

I never saw my dad race

Jonathan Palmer during the 1980s and his son Jolyon Palmer today
An F1 driver's son does not necessarily have to follow in every one of his father's footsteps...

His parents did not deter him from pursuing his dream either.

"My mum panicked about me getting back on a quad bike, but not a racing car," he said. "If I had that crash in a single-seater, it would have scared her a lot more."

His dad was never going to stand in his way either.

Jonathan Palmer was an F1 driver for six years from 1983, racing for Williams, RAM, Zakspeed and Tyrrell before a stint commentating on the sport for the BBC alongside Murray Walker.

"I never saw my dad race," Palmer said. "He was in midfield a lot and they didn't really show the midfield much. It was all about what Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost were doing. They weren't too fussed what Jonathan Palmer was up to.

"I watched more of his stuff from before he got into F1, in F3 and F2. That was more interesting because he was in a title fight.

"I'd been watching F1 since my earliest memories and karting for fun at a young age, but it was when I was 12 that I decided I wanted to get into F1."

Inspired by Alonso

Formula 1: Who can win the F1 Track Memory Challenge?

The passion to pursue that career was heightened by the exploits of Fernando Alonso in 2003.

The Spaniard became the youngest driver to win an F1 race at the time - and Palmer has been inspired by his career ever since. He remembers being glued to the television when Alonso won his first world title in 2005.

"Ferrari was so dominant and it had got quite boring, but then along came Alonso and he beat Schumacher," Palmer continued.

"I always support the underdog and I was cheering him on to win the championship. The car also looked incredible.

"There's no doubt I was a huge Alonso fan at that point - and it's a little surreal to think I will be racing him - but I won't be thinking about that in the car."

Feel the fear and you lose your edge

What Palmer will also be blocking out is fear.

In 2009, during an F2 race at Brands Hatch, Henry Surtees - the son of 1964 world champion John Surtees - died after he had been struck on the head by a bouncing wheel that had broken free from a rival's car.

Palmer was in the car just ahead of Surtees when the accident happened.

Jonathan Palmer
Jolyon's father Jonathan competed in F1 from 1983 to 1989

"I knew Henry and you just don't think it can happen, but then it did and it was a massive shock," he said.

"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 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."

Not off to Monaco

Palmer has had to wait patiently for his opportunity to become a fully-fledged F1 driver.

After winning the GP2 title two years ago he was invited to test for Force India before signing up as Lotus test and reserve driver, which led to him taking part in several practice sessions last year.

His chance for a full-time seat came when Romain Grosjean announced he was leaving Lotus to join new team Haas.

Jolyon Palmer
Palmer (centre) describes himself as just a "normal guy" away from the track, going to the pub with his friends

Once Renault's takeover of Lotus was complete, Palmer - along with Dane Kevin Magnussen - was signed up for 2016.

He may now be among motorsport's elite, but Palmer has no plans to drastically alter his lifestyle.

"I can't see myself going to Monaco or anywhere else a lot of the drivers live," Palmer said.

"I live in London, I like it there and I've got a lot of friends there, who I like to go to the pub with and watch a bit of footie.

"My mates are all from school, they are not racing people but they follow it now and want me to do well. They do find it weird if I am spotted in public.

"I consider myself just a normal bloke to be honest. It is different when you are at a track and your whole focus is F1, but when I get back I am just a normal guy, like everyone else."

Midfield general

If not racing, football could have been Palmer's calling, although the Londoner is modest about his ability as a youngster.

"I was a bit like [German international] Philipp Lahm," he said. "Attacking right wing-back was my best position. Either that or a centre midfielder.

"I played football a lot until I was 13 and played at county level for Sussex. I haven't played much since racing competitively, just the odd game of five-a-side."

Despite his talent with a ball at his feet, it was arguably inevitable that ultimately he would catch the bug for racing, given his family's background.

Palmer also enjoys a close relationship with his brother Will, himself a talented racer rapidly rising through the ranks. With Will six years younger, the two have not had the chance to race on the same circuit, but they have found an area to compete.

"He kills me at racing games," Palmer said. "I get annoyed and just stop playing. I am a really bad loser. I beat him at Fifa though. He is pretty dialled into racing games but I'll take him on at Fifa any day.

"Hopefully we can one day race in F1 together. He won the Autosport club driver of the year and McLaren Autosport BRDC awards last year, which is the biggest thing for young British drivers and means he will test a McLaren this year.external-link

"It is crazy for me to think he will be doing that aged 19. It will be awesome if I can be here in a few years' time and my brother is the new kid on the block and I am established."

Jolyon Palmer
Jolyon Palmer won the GP2 series in 2014, becoming Britain's first GP2 champion since Lewis Hamilton in 2006

The podium Palmer Sr never had

Palmer, though, is all too aware that a career as an F1 driver can be very short-lived - if you don't prove your worth almost immediately then there is always another talented hopeful, or a driver with more money, waiting in the wings.

As a result, Palmer, who lists his overtaking prowess as one of his strengths, knows he needs to impress from the outset, as well as claim some family bragging rights along the way.

"My dad never got on the podium and I like to think I am the better driver, so that is the target for this year." Palmer said.

"I can't wait for Australia. Testing is always difficult to see how we stack up against the opposition, but it would be great to finish in the points in the first race.

"Even if we are not qualifying in the top 10 then the first thing for me is to have a good race, and if I can finish in the points that will be fantastic."

Points? Podiums? We'll have to wait and see where Palmer's fledgling season sees him finish up. But, given what's happened already in his short life, he might be happy he's merely able to start.

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