Driver spotlight: Jonny Cocker

Driver spotlight: Jonny Cocker

It’s been 15 years since Jonny Cocker became British GT’s youngest overall champion. And, as the early points’ leader tells Tom Hornsby, he now has the tools and co-driver to win a second title.


British GT looked very different in 2004. Blueprints for the now ubiquitous GT3 regulations were still a year away, while GT4 remained a twinkle in Stephane Ratel’s eye. N-GT and Cup classes ruled, Mondello Park, Castle Combe and Thruxton all featured on a 16-race calendar, and SRO’s current era of organisation had yet to begin.


2004 was also the year that a seasoned campaigner and 18-year-old rookie teamed up and cleaned up when Tim Sugden and Jonny Cocker swept to the N-GT and overall titles. For the latter – still the youngest driver ever to win a British GT crown outright – it was the start of a professional career that has taken him from multiple domestic and international GT successes to LMP1, Le Mans appearances and back again.


Thought teenage prodigies were a modern motorsport phenomenon? Think again!


“I finished fourth in Carrera Cup GB the year before and that success led to an opportunity with Tim [Sugden] and GruppeM’s Porsche programme in British GT,” explains Cocker. “My 911 experience was a real asset and we managed to win the title at our first attempt. Everything stems from there.”


Fast forward 15 years and Cocker – now a coach as well as Pro – heads to Snetterton this weekend with sophomore pupil Sam De Haan. Barwell’s #69 Lamborghini crew lead the GT3 standings for the first time after claiming a breakthrough victory together on Easter Monday at Oulton Park where Cocker also notched up his first British GT win since 2007.


De Haan represents a new breed of youthful amateur drivers eager to enjoy their GT racing without ever pursuing a professional motorsport career. Indeed, he and 32-year-old Cocker are the youngest Pro/Am combination on this season’s GT3 grid. But with youth also comes inexperience.


“Sam and I started working together at the end of 2017 when he’d dabbled in racing without taking it seriously!” laughs Cocker. “I suggested GT4 would be a good place to start but he was adamant about GT3. It was a seriously big step from his club stuff but I could see he had natural ability so agreed to help on the basis we do it properly: testing, time in the simulator, a proper team running the show. That’s when I spoke to Barwell – we go way back, their record is second to none and the Lamborghini was a proven package in British GT.”


Cocker and De Haan certainly had the tools, and their first season together also had its moments: second place at Brands Hatch and De Haan’s front row start at Donington spring to mind. But their Pro/Am combination was still a work in progress.


“Sam went to Oulton last season having started the minimum number of races required for a licence, so he really was in at the deep end,” continues Cocker. “Being young doesn’t automatically make you fast, and the level of British GT’s older but experienced Ams is so high that youth alone can’t compensate. You have to race, learn and put everything together. So yeah, 2018 was definitely preparation for this season. Honestly, I’ve been amazed by his rate of progress so far – full credit to Sam for that.”


Of course, one swallow doesn’t make a summer. And British GT’s Success Penalty system means Cocker and De Haan must serve a longer pitstop in Race 1 this weekend. But, nevertheless, what’s changed to make them early title contenders after finishing eighth last season?


“Sam’s improved in every area,” comes the emphatic response. “He’s always had the ability to do a fast lap time but that doesn’t win you races: consistency and racecraft does.


“Look at Oulton’s second race: the Pros don’t make many mistakes so tend to go round within a few tenths of each other. It’s only when the Ams get in that the race really comes alive, and we saw that in the second stint. Sam was part of a great scrap up front but didn’t put a foot wrong or rush a move. He was calm, forced a mistake from the leader and picked his moment to pass.


“But it’s not just Sam,” admits Jonny. “I’m still learning, and especially with a team-mate like Phil [Keen] in the other car. He’s racing or testing the new Lamborghini most weeks and is happy to share his knowledge. The Evo-spec Huracan has changed a lot in small ways compared to its predecessor, with the emphasis now very much on making it more comfortable for Am drivers. And that’s also had an impact on Sam’s performance.”


15 years is a long time in motorsport. But the more things change, the more they also stay the same.