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Chris Vlok Just Might Be New Zealand’s Favorite Formula Racer

Chris Vlok got into racing via his interest in business at a young age. After buying and re-selling bike parts and cars at a young age, Vlok realized he had a passion for racing cars before breaking into the Formula racing industry that made him famous today. We spoke with Vlok about how those early business skills introduced him to his life’s passion, and how life in New Zealand is faring during the COVID-19 crisis.

Grit Daily: You have your own interesting early start in business, buying and selling bikes and cars. Tell us about that? 

Chris Vlok: Yes for sure, looking back it was pretty awesome. It all started when I was around 12 or 13, in New Zealand we had this website called TradeMe which was starting to become pretty popular, basically our version of eBay or something like that, and at the time me and my friends were crazy about bikes and spent most of our time riding or working on them. I’m not really too sure where I got the idea from or what sparked it but I basically started scouring TradeMe for bike parts that I thought were poorly listed and under-priced, and then bought them and re-listed them with better photos and description, and sometimes even fully restored the part first. This whole thing snowballed and eventually I was buying and selling all sorts of bike related stuff, then motorbikes and go karts, and then finally when I was old enough to get my license at 15 I moved onto cars and straight away into old BMWs, which my brother was already into and the rest was kind of history. That’s how I started racing too, one of the old BMWs I bought would go on to become the first car I built and raced! 

GD: What turned you on to cars?

Racecar driver Chris Vlok, in a project Land Rover, with dog, Einstein.

CV: Ever since I was a little kid I’ve always been fascinated with how stuff works; the mechanical aspect to anything whether it was a toy car as a kid, a bike in my early teens and then cars as I grew older. Next to my love for the mechanical aspect of cars, long before the day I got my first one, cars have always represented freedom to me. I have so many great experiences that revolve around cars when I was younger – mostly on the farm here in New Zealand. From learning to drive in my dad’s Series 3 Land Rover before I could even see over the dashboard at 6 years old, to my first time hitting triple digits on the speed in my parents Holden Astra… also on the farm haha. For that particular one, I was bent on hitting 100kmh like I had seen my mom and dad driving on the road, so one day while we were working on the farm, I snuck off in the mighty Astra. I had my eyes fixed on the speedo rather than where I was going, and when I did finally hit 100 I quickly looked up and to my horror saw that I was rocketing toward a fence. 

Thankfully I managed to stop in time but it was close. But yeah, cars have ultimately always meant independence for me. Alongside this they have also been a way to express my individualism, all these choices – where to put your seat, what wheels to run and which tyres you use… are you a Castrol guy or Shell guy? Or which radio stations do you set to which buttons? I loved and longed for this feeling so bad that before I could get my license I would steal my parents cars when we were supposed to be working on the farm and just cruise around listening to music, windows down and just taking in that immense feeling of liberty. It simply doesn’t get any better than being behind the wheel of a car, good music through a good stereo, and just eating up the road… and as Bruce Springsteen said, “It’s the ultimate metaphor of moving forward.” 

GD: for the uninitiated, what’s the difference between Formula 1 and 3? 

CV: The difference between F1 and F3 is phenomenal. I’ve always described to people who ask me (happens a lot as you can imagine), that the best way to look at F3 is as a scaled down F1 car, in almost all aspects. For sake of ease, the most critical differences between an F1 car and F3 car are in the size of crucial components eg. power unit – F1 cars are making over 1000hp this year, from a turbo charged V6 engine, whereas the current F3 car is producing just shy of 400hp from a naturally aspirated V6 engine. Obviously, this is easy to understand for the average person. More power means faster acceleration and top speed. 

Besides the obvious difference in power, and because both F1 and F3 cars are very similar in weight, there are really only two other fundamentals that you can easily compare by – tyre size and aerodynamic grip. Both F1 and F3 cars now use the same tyre compounds from Pirelli (F3 being limited to a smaller selection of them) but they are significantly different in size. Both cars run a 13” rim, but the F3 cars run a much smaller tyre overall. Comparing them in numbers, the current F3 car runs a 250/575r13 in the front, and a 290/590r13 on the rear, compared to F1’s current 305/670r13 front, and whopping 405/670r13 at the rear. If we assume that each tyre will have 1.5cm of rubber touching the ground at all times at its circumference, when we multiply that by the width of an F3 tyre (1.5×290) we get 435 – so the total area of one rear F3 tyre touching the ground at any one time is 435 square mm / 43.5 square centimetres. If we run the same calculation with the F1 rear tyre, we get 607.5 square mm, or 60.8 square cm. That extra 20cm of rubber touching the ground is major, and gives the F1 car significantly more mechanical grip. 

That’s basically like Lebron playing ball in some kids size 10 shoe vs. his monster size 15 shoes. The next comparison gets a bit complicated, but is arguably the most important difference between an F3 car and an F1 car: its wings. With aerodynamic grip, we are using wings to generate downforce (we know wings can make planes fly, but if we turn them up upside down, they can make cars not fly). 

The aerofoil is an amazing thing, and the feeling of the grip that this creates in either F3 or F1 is incredible. I’m not sure about the current F3 car, but when I was still racing them they were about 600kg with me in it, and at 200kmh it was weighing about 3 times that. F1 cars today weigh around 750kg, and can hit upwards of 8 lateral g around some corners. Most road cars can barely hit 1, and although no team is ever going to share exact figures on downforce, we can run some rough calculations to estimate. 8g of lateral force corresponds to a side force generated by the tyres under the normal force or weight of the car. This times the effective coefficient or friction of the tyres or “Mu”, and then divided by the weight of the car will give us a rough estimate of the amount of downforce an F1 car is producing whilst hitting 8 lateral g. A quick google revealed the Mu for this is roughly 2. So 750×8/2 = 3000 kg of downforce…. I’d bet money on it being closer to 5000kg of downforce total… but you get the point. F1 cars create crazy amounts of downforce, and thus grip. Theoretically, you could drive an F1 car upside down over certain speeds when the wings are working.  

GD: Some of your former Formula 3 peers are now big stars leading Formula 1. But tell us the truth. Who’s the best? 

CV: It’s been pretty epic to watch everyone go off and do their thing around the world, not only in F1 but many other upper echelons of motorsport. Some of the current F1 drivers that I used to race against like Antonio Giovinazzi and Nicholas Latifi, and then in other championships like DTM it’s been great to watch Lucas Auer. My ex F3 team-mates Sean Walkinshaw is now in Japan racing super GT and Ed Jones racing Indy Car. I do still envy them a lot… but the competition of motorsport as we know is not limited to just on the track, there are a lot of planets that need to align to succeed in motorsport, and they are equally as great drivers as they are astronomers. 

GD: What’s your role in racing nowadays? 

CV: That’s a great question… I’ve always considered myself as a bit of an oddball in racing with how I started my career and what came with that was quite a unique skill set. It took a while to find my niche and where I could really add value and for many reasons too, but about 4 years ago now my racing life crossed paths with my technology and business interests and experience, and things just snowballed from there. Now I’m doing less driving and more business around motorsports and sports in general too, mainly in building partnerships between tech companies and sports or entertainment properties around the world. For the past 3 years I’ve been incredibly lucky to be working with some of the biggest names in sport like the Boston Red Sox, Liverpool FC, Man City, The Dallas Stars, Arsenal FC, Washington Redskins, Inter Milan, Racing Point F1, Sail GP, Williams Formula One team, Rahal Letterman, Hendrick Motorsport, Roush Fenway Racing, Nio FE, and many, many more. It’s been pretty epic I must say, to be kicking it with the big boys in sports. It was never part of my plan but I feel like I am adding genuine value (on both brand and team side), and that is my ultimate goal in life. 

GD: What is your relationship to your home country, New Zealand? 

CV: New Zealand is still a huge part of my life. I am South African and was born in Cape Town, but we moved here to NZ when I was 3, via Canada for two years. Canada is also a big part of my life since over the years, we spent more than 5 years there in different stints. But ultimately NZ is home for me. I grew up here, my best friends that I came up with are here, my immediate family is all here, a big portion of my life is here, my dog is here! The flipside to that, and something that I’ve always struggled with for the last 10 years of racing around the world is that there is very little for me here in terms of opportunity in our business and in general with my ambitions. Compounding this, since a few bad experiences of living aboard whilst I was just 20 years old trying to make it as a driver in Europe, I developed a pretty big dislike of traveling alone and more so having to leave all my friends and family at home each time. Maybe if I was doing little 3 – 6 hr flights across the states or in Europe I’d be fine, but when you’re 20 years old and doing 2 long haul flights every couple of weeks to literally opposite sides of the world by yourself, things got pretty tough… so it’s been a huge thing for me, always. It’s one hell of a career path for someone who likes being at home and hates the traveling part of international business. I’ve said it many times before, the best and worst thing about New Zealand is simply how far away it is from everything. At the moment with Covid it’s pretty nice to be here!  

GD: What’s one conventionally held wisdom about Formula racing that’s just plain wrong?

CV: That’s a good question. I think it’s less common now but I remember when I was just starting to race internationally, people back home were seeing it at face value, you know, the nice places, cars, yachts, and parties, and they were like “Damn, that boy is making some bank!” In reality I had almost no income and was living what I referred to as the Champagne taste, food-stamp budget lifestyle. My parents were spotting me for travel and accommodation costs while I was roughing it behind the scenes trying to keep the dream alive. Of course, that’s the world we live in though… I showed the world the racing driver I wanted to be, and only the good parts of it. Instagram is the highlights reel man… I didn’t want people seeing the copious amount of time spent alone in crappy hotels or dingy little apartments, the overnight busses or red eye flights on Ryanair behind the scenes… it was all superyachts, cool cars with hot chicks… basically the epitome of F1 in image form. So, going back to the question… I think a massive misconception with Formula Racing is that anybody driving F3 or above is getting paid well, let alone at all! At the end of the day it’s a seriously individual sport at this level, there is so much at stake, so much money changing hands and being spent by sponsors that as a young driver you simply can’t afford to not look good.