The teenage talent who was 2022’s club racing king

Samuel Harrison topped Autosport’s National Driver Rankings last year after a trophy-laden season across a range of single-seaters. That he achieved the feat despite admitting his A-Levels proved a distraction to his performances in the first half of the season makes his accomplishment all the more impressive

The teenage talent who was 2022’s club racing king

For the second year in a row Autosport’s National Driver Rankings were headed by the Historic Formula Ford 1600 champion in 2022. And, again, the table-topper also excelled in several other machines.

But, unlike last year’s conqueror Cam Jackson – who was already a well-established name at the forefront of historic motorsport with multiple titles under his belt – Samuel Harrison achieved his success aged just 18 and in only his third season of car racing.

Prior to that, Harrison competed in various karting contests that culminated in him racing across Europe and beyond – the Yorkshire driver’s highlight being a 10th-place finish in the Junior Max final at the Rotax Grand Finals at the Conde circuit in Brazil in 2018.

“My dad used to race so I was always around racing cars in general and I started outdoor karting when I was 11,” says Harrison. “I got into it after my mum – whether or not she regrets it now! – got me a birthday present to go karting.”

That gift clearly ignited a passion inside Harrison and he was eager to make the move into cars as soon as possible. But, without the huge budgets needed to progress up the modern single-seater ranks, he followed in his father Tim’s footsteps and opted for something a bit older. Aged 16, he made his debut in Classic Formula Ford in a Royale RP29 in 2020 and instantly began turning heads.

“Sadly, COVID happened and it was a bit of a shortened season but it was good to dip our toes in the water,” Harrison recalls. “Initially, it seemed quite a big jump [moving into cars] but actually racing put my mind at ease because it wasn’t much different to karting at all. It was good – it could’ve been better, but I had some car breakdowns, including in just my first weekend.”

In the end, his best results were fourth places at Brands Hatch and Donington Park but Harrison had already shown signs of the talent that would take him to an impressive 21 victories last year. For 2021, he opted to switch to the Historic FF1600 championship, still taking in some Classic events, in the family Elden Mk8 and it was three runner-up finishes at Cadwell Park, including two where he was right on the gearbox of Jackson, that really demonstrated Harrison’s potential.

Harrison romped to the Historic Formula Ford title in his Speedsport Merlyn Mk20

Harrison romped to the Historic Formula Ford title in his Speedsport Merlyn Mk20

Photo by: Gary Hawkins

Among those observing that meeting with a keen interest was Speedsport boss Mike O’Brien, someone who has been watching motorsport right back to the days of Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart in the 1960s. And he liked what he saw.

“I was watching at Hall Bends and it was just stunning what he was doing with this car,” says O’Brien. “He was six inches behind Cameron Jackson’s gearbox going into Hall Bends and he was stunningly fast, inch perfect and I thought, ‘wow’, it was like watching Tony Brise! I thought he was something really special so I approached his mum and dad at the next race and had a chat and that’s it really.

“I offered him a good deal for the Walter Hayes Trophy [in the Carl Hamer Trophy class for pre-1982 machinery] at the end of 2021, which he won. It was based on my instinct – I thought I’ve got to have this bloke in my car!”

"He had never driven it in the wet before and his first lap in qualifying was about seven seconds faster than everybody else. He was on pole by 4.6s. It was a mini-Villeneuve moment and I thought my stopwatch was wrong" Mike O'Brien

Harrison took full advantage of the opportunity to race for the team that guided Pierre Livingston to the 2020 Historic FF1600 crown and prevailed in a thrilling Carl Hamer final in the Speedsport Merlyn Mk20 over category pacesetter Richard Tarling. And the teenager was well aware of the significance of that result.

“That was a big break thanks to Mike at Speedsport,” says Harrison. “I managed to get my first win in Formula Ford and I was over the moon. It helped me, and I managed to carry that [form] into last year.”

Sure enough, Harrison’s Hayes exploits led to a full season in the Merlyn in 2022 and, while the Historic championship may not have enjoyed its strongest season, Harrison swept the board, winning nine of the 14 races to claim a maiden title.

His success may have looked straightforward, however the table below shows his first FF1600 win, incredibly, did not come until June. That can be partly explained by the tricky juggling act Harrison faced over the opening part of the campaign as he was also preparing for his A-level exams.

“It was a bit of a shame because I was doing my A-levels at the time so I wasn’t fully on it – I felt like I could’ve shown a bit more,” says Harrison. O’Brien concurs: “His full potential was only really displayed once he got the exams out of the way.”

Aboard Speedsport's Chevron, Harrison produced a stunning display at a wet Donington

Aboard Speedsport's Chevron, Harrison produced a stunning display at a wet Donington

Photo by: Mick Walker

And that makes Harrison’s Driver Rankings success all the more impressive, given there was a portion of the season where he was not quite fully up to speed. Yet the Merlyn was far from the only car in which Harrison starred during 2022.

He also took eight victories at the wheel of Speedsport’s Chevron B15 and only missed out on the Historic F3 title because he did not contest the overseas rounds at Dijon. However, one of O’Brien’s favourite moments of his protege’s season came at the wheel of the Chevron in the rain at Donington.

“He had never driven it in the wet before and he just went out and his first lap in qualifying was about seven seconds faster than everybody else and he was on pole by 4.6s,” remembers O’Brien, who was timing from the pitwall. “It was a mini-Villeneuve moment and I thought my stopwatch was wrong.

“It’s things like that which mark someone as special. It just seems to be effortless for him. He never looks like he’s going to make a mistake and he’s ridiculously consistent.”

It was a similar story when Harrison jumped into the squad’s Brabham BT6 Formula Junior for the October Silverstone event when O’Brien’s son Michael was competing in British GT.

“He drove the BT6 and only did about six laps on a test day,” says O’Brien Sr. “He didn’t have fresh tyres and jumped in and was fastest, won both races and set a new lap record – what more can you do?”

Perhaps the icing on the cake would have been a win in his family Lola T240. It was a big ask given its deficit to the Historic F2 pacesetting Marches, but Harrison did still propel the car up to second at the Oulton Park Gold Cup before a wheel came loose late on.

Nevertheless, Harrison was still able to top the Autosport rankings and, while not aware of his progress initially, from mid-season, he was keeping an eye on the leaderboard. And that was part of the reason why he even had a couple of outings in Monoposto in Adrian Holey’s Dallara F397. Yes, it was a chance to gain experience in a slightly newer single-seater, but it was also another opportunity to bolster his victory total. And, sure enough, a crucial triumph at Donington Park was key in him pipping Ben Short to the top spot by one win, even if Harrison admits “the bad luck returned in the final race and I broke down on the last lap”.

Harrison was bang on the pace when he jumped into Speedsport's Brabham BT6 Formula Junior at Silverstone

Harrison was bang on the pace when he jumped into Speedsport's Brabham BT6 Formula Junior at Silverstone

Photo by: Mick Walker

Despite all of his success, Harrison is taking nothing for granted. He is incredibly modest and did not expect to claim so many wins.

“I knew that racing for Mike, I had a car I could do it with but I didn’t think I would do as much as we have and win as much – it’s surreal,” he admits. “If someone had told me that I would be sitting here doing this now a year ago, I wouldn’t have believed you – I would be pretty shocked.”

Picking a favourite from his 21 wins is tough.

“They’ve all been brilliant!” he says, before adding: “The first race at Donington Park in both F3 and FF1600 in the wet. The Formula Ford was hard fought but the winning margin in F3 was quite unexpected [almost 90s]!”
But it was no surprise to O’Brien – “he just jumps into the cars and is very fast,” he says.

"That’s my aim as a driver, to be able to have a career in GTs, similar to what Mike’s son Michael is doing. My goal is to race at Le Mans, that would be a dream come true" Samuel Harrison

Now, having showcased what he can do in the historic arena, Harrison’s next target is proving himself in the world of modern GTs. He enjoyed a test in an Orange Racing GT4 McLaren at the end of last year and is also completing a Motorsport UK coaching course to add another string to his bow.

“That’s my aim as a driver, to be able to have a career in GTs, similar to what Mike’s son Michael is doing,” he says. “My goal is to race at Le Mans, that would be a dream come true.”

While Le Mans may still be some way off, with more Speedsport historic outings in the pipeline this year alongside a potential GT programme, Harrison’s name could well be featuring near the top of the 2023 driver rankings, too.

Harrison has tested Orange Racing's McLaren GT4 and is targeting a future in sportscars as a professional

Harrison has tested Orange Racing's McLaren GT4 and is targeting a future in sportscars as a professional

Photo by: Jakob Ebrey

The battle to top Autosport’s National Driver Rankings

While Samuel Harrison enjoyed a tremendously successful 2022, for much of the season it looked like another racer would top the Autosport National Driver Rankings. GT competitor Lucky Khera led the way when Autosport produced its first top 50 winners’ table at the start of May and was already on nine triumphs, courtesy of overall or class glory in the Ferrari Challenge UK, British Endurance Championship and GT Cup.

At that point, he had a huge four-victory advantage over the chasing pack as Autosport again sought to find the most successful driver in terms of race wins over the course of the year. Khera continued to lead the standings over the summer, notching up further victories at the wheel of a BMW E46 and GT3 McLaren, while Harrison’s slightly slow start to the season meant he did not feature in the top 50 until mid-June, when he was in 18th spot.

Khera’s stranglehold on first place lasted all the way until the end of August, when a barren spell allowed a collection of other drivers to reel him in. Focus Cup and Scottish Fiesta star Liam McGill was the first to displace Khera but, by now, Harrison and Mazda MX-5 maestro Ben Short had established themselves as firm contenders.

Throughout the autumn, the leader regularly changed as an entertaining battle emerged between this quartet. Harrison first reached the summit at the start of September, but it was not long before Khera was back on top.

McGill then had another brief stint in charge in October before Harrison definitively grabbed first place after his quadruple success across Historic FF1600 and Formula Junior at Silverstone. He ultimately finished just one win clear of Short, who scored 20 victories and was in turn one ahead of McGill. The trio all beat Cam Jackson’s table-topping 18 wins from 2021, although it must be noted that campaign began a few weeks late due to lingering COVID-19 restrictions.

Khera ended up fourth on 18 wins, the same number as 750 Motor Club Hot Hatch champion David Drinkwater. Other drivers to star in the early stages of 2022 before slipping back include Legends aces Will Gibson and Stewart Black, Junior Saloon Car frontrunner Harry Hickton and Clubmans champion Michelle Hayward, but none of these could match Harrison’s rich vein of form over the second half of the season and deny him the honours.

MX-5 ace Ben Short narrowly missed out to Harrison by virtue of one victory

MX-5 ace Ben Short narrowly missed out to Harrison by virtue of one victory

Photo by: Gary Hawkins

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