The day began like many others at Silverstone do, especially in late October: damp and grey. But, unlike most others, this day marked a first. For Luke Browning, stepping into a Formula 1 car for his maiden outing, this was the culmination of a lifetime’s work.
On his climb through the ranks of the British junior series, from Ginetta Junior to British F4 (which he won in 2020) before his move up to GB3 and taking that title too in 2022, then competing on the international stage in FIA Formula 3 this season, the 21-year-old had been aspiring to this very moment.
Winning the 2022 Aston Martin Autosport BRDC Young Driver of the Year Award was a turning point for the Cheshire-born driver, helping him into that Hitech F3 seat and bringing a test in Aston Martin’s AMR21, the same Mercedes-powered car that took Sebastian Vettel to his final F1 podium in Baku.
Entering the garage to see an F1 car adorned with your name, packed with people including your family and famous faces such as Derek Warwick and Johnny Herbert, might be daunting for most, but Browning takes it in his stride.
Given the characteristic drizzle, he heads out in a DBX707 road car first to remind himself of the Grand Prix circuit’s 18 corners – not that he needs it, given his extensive experience at the track.
Next, tentatively, comes his first outing in the F1 car, with two series of installation laps on wet tyres as the rain clears. Even after those runs, Browning is awestruck. “It was only an install but, from what I felt, it’s quick,” he says, moments after jumping out of the car for the first time. “I took off the pit limiter when I released and it was quick. I’m looking forward to really unleashing it in a few push laps, but for the moment I was just building up. I was only cruising on the out-lap on wets, but the downforce is immediate. You point and it goes and it feels really direct.
“Through the low-speed stuff is pretty exciting, actually. It’s a lot quicker through the low-speed than I expected. I’m really looking forward to unleashing it through Copse once it dries up a little bit, that’s going to be the really exciting part, so that’s what I’m looking forward to.
“It’s a lot smoother, the ride so much more smooth than I thought. The bottoming is there, but in a normal single-seater you feel like you’re fluctuating a bit more. In F3, it feels a bit more bouncy and it feels a bit less refined. In an F1 car, it feels like you’re driving a sportscar on the road. It’s just everything is incredible – the ride, the power steering – and I’m really looking forward to smashing the brakes later on as well.”
As the track dries, Browning moves onto the slick Pirelli tyres, sampling both hard and soft compounds across four runs, taking in 44 laps – around 150 miles – of running. It’s an almighty jump from F3 to this F1 beast, but Browning takes it in his stride.
“It only sunk in when I walked into the garage today, everything set up and there’s an F1 car sat there. You just can’t quite believe it’s your seat, and it’s got my name on the halo. It’s an absolute dream” Luke Browning
Despite a lingering neck injury, Browning manages to go flat through Copse, a goal he had heading into the test and says was “mission accomplished”. “I knew not many people are taking Copse flat on the data, they weren’t quite flat, and I just went to bed last night thinking I want to take it flat,” he enthuses. “I went out for the first time on new tyres and bam, I committed and the grip was there and it was available.
“It felt so refined, and that’s just what I wasn’t expecting at all. I thought it was gonna be more raw, but it’s like the best sportscar on the market. You get in it, and it’s incredibly powerful, but it’s smooth, it feels driveable. It’s confidence inducing. And that’s what a Formula 1 car is – it’s not to be afraid of. OK, it’s a bit scary initially when you turn into Copse and you’re doing nearly 200mph. But, equally, the point at which you’re most loaded feels the most comfortable. So once you get past that phase of being scared, it’s just there. It’s a bit like dropping off a ramp on a skateboard. It’s a similar thing.”
Reflecting after his runs, Browning says the experience was “like a dream” and “a day I’ll always remember”. “Little boy’s dream come true, that’s for sure,” he remarks. “It was just as fast as anyone might think it could be, it was absolutely ballistic. The power, the brakes, the high-speed downforce is just absolutely incredible.
“It’s a day I’ll always remember and I have to say I’m just so grateful to the BRDC, to Aston Martin, to Derek [Warwick], to Autosport and to everyone involved who makes this possible for young racing drivers. It’s the biggest prize for a junior youngster coming up and I’m very grateful. Just lost for words.
“Even only last week, I was thinking this is coming by pretty quickly now, and I can’t really believe it’s going to happen. It only sunk in when I walked into the garage today, everything set up and there’s an F1 car sat there. You just can’t quite believe it’s your seat, and it’s got my name on the halo. It’s an absolute dream, just very, very thankful.”
Though he is a member of the rival Williams Driver Academy, Browning says he was “very grateful for the support [from Aston Martin], because obviously, being part of the Williams junior programme, it’s not necessarily in their interest to really put it into me and make the most out of this test”.
Williams F1 team boss James Vowles says he received feedback from those at the test, telling Autosport that he heard Browning had “performed very well”. “I think they were incredibly happy with what he did, given he’d never been in that car before,” offers Vowles. “There was no other driver, as far as I understand, on the day. So the reference that they’re comparing to his data is from a year ago. Once you start migrating that far away, it becomes really tough. But he performed very well, to the extent where Aston were very, very happy and said congratulations to us. So I think that gives you a knowledge of what’s going on.”
Aston Martin’s F1 Evolution Programme Director Robert Sattler was one of those impressed with Browning’s run, adding that his feedback was “outstanding”. “We were impressed with Luke, who adapted extremely well to the demands of driving an F1 car for the first time,” says Sattler. “Although he has a proven track record of winning junior single-seater championships, the Aston Martin AMR21 is a big step up from what he’s been used to driving in F3, and there are a lot more engineers and other staff involved in running a test like this than he’ll ever have experienced before.
“His feedback was outstanding and he was able to translate what we discussed off-track into ways of improving performance on it, and consistently. That was no great surprise because if you’re talented enough to win the Aston Martin Autosport BRDC Young Driver of the Year Award, then we expect you to have the potential to go all the way to the top in your racing career.
“Luke has certainly made a very good step on his journey and we wish him all the best for the future.”
But what does that future hold? Well, Browning’s dominant performance at the recent Macau GP suggests great things lie ahead, taking victory on his first visit to the tricky street circuit.
Although he admits his rookie F3 season was “tough”, he has high hopes for his planned return in 2024 and, although he hasn’t yet got a deal set in stone, is gunning for the title.
“I think we only had six points finishes,” he says of his season with Hitech that yielded 15th in the championship. “Considering we were top five in pace – I think we were in the top three in race pace overall throughout the year – it was just a really, really unlucky season.”
“I think we’ve probably learned the most this year of anyone on the F3 grid and that’s the biggest thing to take away. The more that you learn, the more you can progress” Luke Browning
Though he points to a race-ending mistake in Australia and two crashes that were not his fault in Austria as low points, he continues: “These things happen, it’s been on either part of the spectrum, but I think we’ve probably learned the most this year of anyone on the F3 grid and that’s the biggest thing to take away. The more that you learn, the more you can progress, and the better chance we’ll have next year if we go for it.”
Whatever happens, Browning’s landmark test represents an important rung on the ladder towards the very top and, if he can replicate wins like that in Macau, perhaps he is destined for a coveted F1 seat in the future.
A special perspective on the test
Aston Martin trainee performance engineer and GB4 race winner Megan Gilkes offered a unique perspective during Luke Browning’s test.
The former F1 Academy driver is working towards an aeronautical engineering degree at Imperial College London, and will return to the team full-time once she graduates next June.
For now, Gilkes is working with the team’s testing programme part-time, as part of which she also engineered on fellow W Series alumna Jessica Hawkins’s Hungaroring F1 outing.
“It’s been a fantastic day,” she says after Browning’s runs. “Luke performed really well, he looked after the car, really got down in the lap times as well, so he did a fantastic job. It was great to see him adapt so quickly to something that’s so new, stepping up from F3 for him into an F1 car.
“All the mechanics worked really hard to get it ready for this test. The car ran well, driver went really well, so it’s a happy day for us.”
Having recently announced her retirement from racing, Gilkes is able to help drivers in a different way than most other behind-the-scenes team members. The 23-year-old drove in the first season of W Series in 2019 before returning to her native Canada to race in F1600. In 2022, she competed in GB4 with Hillspeed, finishing sixth with two wins and a third place.
“I think that really does help for a different perspective, from the very experienced and very knowledgeable engineers,” she says. “I’m just starting out in my engineering career, and I’m learning all the time from the performance engineers and the race engineers in the testing programme.
“I try and look at the data with both the engineering mind and a bit of the driver’s mind so I can try and figure out, ‘What was the driver doing here? Why were they doing that?’ What might be driver related, what might be some car and set-up related, and try and put everything together from both sides of the picture.”