Burnley’s James Rawlinson on the fast-paced life of a test driver
15:30 22 March 2016
At just 24, he drives some of the world’s most advanced cars at terrifying speeds. Roger Borrell caught up with James Rawlinson
James Rawlinson has a maturity that belies the fact he’s just 24. That’s probably just as well as he can sometimes be found behind the wheel of high performance cars travelling at an eye-watering 180mph on the world’s most notorious race track.
With a sense of humour to match the old head on young shoulder, he says: ‘It feels like I’ve got one of the best jobs in the world. Do you think I’ve peaked too soon?’
As the youngest test driver working for Jaguar Land Rover and the youngest licensed to drive the iconic Nürburgring Nordschleife, Burnley-born James has the job of every car-mad youngster’s dreams. ‘I’m a bit shocked myself, to be honest – everything has happened so quickly.’
James, whose family home is just outside Colne, was one of those car-mad youngsters. ‘It was a total obsession and it still is,’ he laughs. ‘It’s always been about cars since I was tiny. The first thing I drove was a little electric Land Rover with pedals.
‘My bedroom was always – and still is – full of things to do with cars. Fortunately, my girlfriend doesn’t mind. In fact, I think she’s starting to share my obsession.’
James once harboured ambitions to be a racing driver and he was encouraged by his dad, John, who owns the Slate Age fireplace company in Fence, and his mum, Kathryn, now a secretary at his alma mater, Oakhill School in Whalley.
He started kart racing and put in some serious years on the track. But he was realistic enough to know that taking it further would require the sort of investment beyond most people’s wildest dreams.
‘I was one of those kids who was always drawing cars on the back of his schoolbooks,’ he recalls. ‘But I did work hard on my GCSEs.
‘When I first went to Oakhill I think I lacked a bit of confidence but they transformed me. I left with so much more than just GCSEs. It was massively important to me. I owe them a lot.’ James went on to do A Levels at Clitheroe Grammar School.
‘I thought I might go into motorsport as a development engineer so I more or less talked my way into Stafford University by telling them how hard I was going to work,’ he says.
James was as good as his word and gained a first in BSc (Hons) in Motorsport Technology. That was just over three years ago and when he put his CV online he received several signs of interest, including one from Jaguar Land Rover.
He was offered the chance to join their overseas test team, helping to manage the trials of new vehicles on a wide range of different and potentially dangerous surfaces.
He obviously made an impression and was appointed one of Jaguar’s youngest ever test drivers with the official title ‘stability attribute engineer’. To be so young and be trusted with cars that can be worth six figures in a discipline as vital as safety is highly unusual.
It means he leads an extraordinary life. Testing in Spain, Italy and France is balanced by the many weeks spent in the Arctic conditions of northern Sweden testing the stability and traction of vehicles by driving at speed on frozen lakes. To the layman, it sounds terrifying, especially when daylight can last only a couple of hours.
More frightening is the time he spends testing vehicles with colleagues on the notoriously dangerous Nürburgring Nordschleife in Germany.
James describes the 150,000 capacity motorsports complex as ‘awesome.’ He adds: ‘It’s definitely my favourite place – it has such a terrific vibe. People say it’s not just the longest but also the most dangerous track.’
He is far from blasé about the risks. ‘Yes, there is an element of danger in the job and I do ring my mum now and then to let her know I’m still alive,’ he joked. ‘But Jaguar Land Rover don’t typically teach you how to drive, they teach you how to deal with the potential risks.
‘Driving on frozen lakes sounds dangerous but it’s a flat lake and it’s relatively slow driving on ice. Besides, you are surrounded by snow so there’s always a soft landing!
‘In terms of going at 180mph on the Nürburgring you don’t get frightened because you are completely focused on what you are doing. You don’t think about anything else but testing out how the car behaves in extreme conditions. We take them to the edge.
‘You could say we take it to the extreme so that others can drive safely but you have to remember that when we are on the Nürburgring there is nothing else on the track other than trained professionals, you have been so well trained and are so focused you are not really aware of the speed.
‘It’s a hugely responsible role and there is a lot of sign-off work to ensure the car meets the desired attribute performance. Apart from the driving, it’s an exciting job because I get to try out the new models. I’ve recently been working on the Jaguar Project 7 which is a limited run of just 250 cars. Some of the vehicles I’m testing can be worth £130,000.’
James is full of praise for his senior colleague and mentor, Andy Gosling, who works with him testing the chassis-based electronic systems.
‘Because I was so young I was a bit concerned how the rest of the team would react to me. But we all live together during testing so it starts to feel like a big family. And as the youngest, they help me through and show me how to avoid mistakes.
‘It can be very hard work, especially when it’s dark 22 hours a day in the Arctic. You are on site for ten hours a day and in the car for up to eight hours. But we always get our breaks and Jaguar Land Rover are very supportive when it comes to a good work-life balance.’
James now lives in Warwick near the company’s engineering centre at Gaydon. ‘My mum and dad have always encouraged me and, if there is a down side to the job, it’s being away so much so I don’t get back to Lancashire to see them as often as I’d like.’
When off-duty he drives a Porsche 911, the car featured on the poster in his childhood bedroom, and there is a slightly more sedate Fiat 500 he shares with his girlfriend. Does hurtling at 180 mph on test tracks affect his driving on the roads back home? ‘I live near the congested M6 so there is never any question of speeding!’ says James. ‘And yes, I do have a clean licence.’