FOUR weeks ago Calan Williams calmly walked along Belgium’s famous Spa-Francorchamps racetrack until he stood at the point of no return. Then he looked down.
In front of him was a drop of 41m, equivalent to the height of a 12-storey building.
At the bottom was a left turn, a right turn, and then an incline that shot up to the sky. God knows where the road disappeared to after that.
He was looking at Eau Rouge, the most famous corner in motorsport.
Four-time world champion Lewis Hamilton puts it on a pedestal.
“Eau Rouge is always the most exciting part of the circuit,” he told the F1 website. “When you get to the bottom your insides drop. Then when you get to the top they come back up and it feels like everything will come out of your mouth.”
Fernando Alonso, a two-time world champion, is also in awe.
“It’s a mind-blowing corner,” he says in an F1 documentary on Eau Rouge. “It’s a rollercoaster. The height change in Eau Rouge is impossible to appreciate on TV.
“The question is: Is it the most special corner of the championship, or the most special corner in the history of motorsport?”
Such is its danger, there have been countless crashes and, in 1985, German F1 driver Stefan Bellof lost his life at Eau Rouge as he attempted a daring pass. After a number of near-misses in the 1990s there were calls to realign the corner into a safer chicane, prompting the late, legendary Ayrton Senna to say: “If you take away Eau Rouge, you take away the reason I do this.”
And now Calan Williams, a 17-year-old from Edgewater in Perth’s northern suburbs, was standing at the top of that controversial corner, carefully contemplating how he could conquer it.
His eyes darted to the left, to the right, then back to where he’d just walked.
Beside him his engineer, Tom Toovey, advised him on the line he needed to keep on race day: “If you look straight up there, it’s almost straight …”
Calan was listening with one ear but his mind was also ticking along to its own rhythm. The next day was a practice session. Then, on the weekend, he would be taking on 16 of the best young drivers in the world in Round Three of the 2018 Euroformula Open, another rung on the ladder towards his Formula One dream.
He knew on race day he would scream down the hill and confront the Eau Rouge corner at around 240km/h. To put that into perspective, the speedometer in your car probably stops at 220km/h.
But one thing kept ticking away in Calan Williams’ head as he stood there quietly studying the cliff-like drop, the left-right turn at the bottom, and the incline rising steeply up the other side.
“How can I drive through here even faster?”
Going fast has been ingrained in Calan’s mindset since his father, Greg, took him to a V8 event at Barbagallo Raceway when he was six years old.
The speed, the sound, the flash of colours as cars ricocheted around the track spun his inquisitive mind. He was fascinated. But then, at the end of the race, he saw drivers climb out of their machines. He couldn’t believe that men had been inside those vehicles. What? How? Why? Now, he was fixated.
“I was absolutely captivated,” he says. “I couldn’t get my head around the fact there were people inside the cars.
“I remember getting this feeling that I wanted to know what it was like to be in one of those cars, to be in full control of something going at that speed, racing against other people.
“From there I just really started to follow motor sport.”
And he soon found his fix — Formula One.
“I worked out there were a few TV channels that broadcast F1 so I started to watch them,” he says. “It was towards the back half of 2006, and in 2007 I began to follow Lewis Hamilton.
“I remember Dad telling me about him. He was my favourite. He was the new driver and that’s what I wanted to be. I wanted to be the next F1 racer.”
It became an obsession, a boy glued to the TV screen absorbing some of the world’s greatest races.
He cheered wildly in 2008 as Hamilton won his first world title when he stole fifth place on the last corner of the Brazilian Grand Prix, the final race of the year.
He watched in awe in 2011 as Jenson Button came from last with just 26 laps to go to win an epic Canadian GP.
And he sat there fixated as Sebastian Vettel became the youngest-ever triple world champion when he won the rain-soaked 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix.
Of all the races, the Monaco street circuit became his favourite. Not for the yachts, or the glamour, or the opulence. Calan focused on something else. The skill.
“It would have been just before I turned seven when I watched my first Monaco Grand Prix,” he says. “Just the skill that it required to be able to race for one-and-a-half hours around such a tight, twisty street circuit going at the speeds they do and to not make a single error.
“I was — and I still am — completely fascinated by that.”
And that fascination locked in a dream that, for more than a decade, has never been dented.
“My ultimate goal has not changed since I started following motor sport at six years old,” he states emphatically. “And that is to become Formula One world champion. That is my ultimate goal.”
And for the past 10 years he hasn’t just dreamed of being an F1 driver, he’s done something about it.
“Calan was seven when he first got behind the wheel,” his father, Greg Williams, says. “That was the youngest they could start in a go-kart. It was all totally new to us.
“So my wife, Jenny, and I researched what was involved. We spent that first year working out if it was safe and what the whole scene was about.
“But Calan was the one who found out that F1 drivers started in karts. So, of course, he wanted to start in karts.”
For the next few years the rookie racer dominated events at the Tiger Kart club. In 2015 he stepped up to serious racing against experienced adult drivers when he made his WA Formula Ford Championship debut. Not only did he qualify on the front row, he won the race.
“That was the real eye-opener,” Greg says. “That was with Brett Lupton at Fastlane Racing. Brett’s worked with (Formula One ace) Daniel Ricciardo and the Leyton House F1 team so it meant Calan was with someone who knew what he was doing.”
The next step was a national competition and last year, as a raw 16-year-old, Calan competed in the Australian Formula 3 Premier Series.
Amazingly, he was crowned champion, claiming pole positions and victories at every round (11 wins, including 16 podiums from 17 races).
But while the success was encouraging it was also expensive. Competing in WA Formula Ford cost the Williams family about $80,000. Last year the costs crept above six figures.
Financing his son’s dream meant dipping into the family savings but also finding sponsors.
“All through motorsport — up until Formula One — the driver is funding it,” Greg Williams says. “That mindset was a big step for us.
“It’s like a web. You have to build this whole network of profile, engagements, contacts, relationships, etcetera, so that when you’re talking to people you get more interests than knockbacks.
“You’ve certainly got to be thick-skinned.”
You’ve also got to have a plan. As Calan blazed a trail across the Australian circuit, Greg and Jenny knew that if their son was to have a shot at realising his F1 dream they had to go to Europe.
Their conundrum was the same as any aspiring speedster. To take the final steps up the motor-racing ladder a young driver — if they have the talent — usually competes in one of the entry-level series in Europe before moving up to FIA European Formula Three, Formula Two and then Formula One where just 20 prestigious driving spots are available.
In 2007 a 17-year-old Daniel Ricciardo was on a similar path and chose the European Formula Renault Series as his pathway to F1. From there he went to F3 and was picked up by Red Bull.
The Williams family decided the best entry-level circuit for Calan would be this year’s Euroformula Open.
Last December Calan went to Barcelona for a test drive and locked in a deal to compete in the 2018 Euroformula Open with the Fortec Motorsports team after he equalled the times of Fortec’s experienced Romanian driver Petru Florescu.
“We were very pleased with the progress Calan made over two days,” says Fortec Euroformula Open team manager Mick Kouros. “He matched our very fast competitive driver (Florescu), which did surprise the team.”
But competing in the 2018 Euroformula Open — which runs over eight rounds on Formula One tracks from April to October — will cost close to $1 million.
To keep the dream alive, the Williams family has come up with a unique investment strategy to help fund Calan’s future.
“We set up a shares program where we have investors,” Greg Williams says. “With Calan, we believe he has the talent, but not the financial resources that’s required (to compete in Europe).
“It was designed so Calan can move through the different racing levels if he’s good enough. And if he does succeed, then investors get a percentage of the returns.
“To do this we needed to incorporate Calan Williams Racing and so therefore we’ve got a board that manages that.”
With the leading F1 drivers earning up to $50 million in prizemoney — and sometimes more in sponsorships — the potential return for investors could be rewarding.
The chairman of the board is experienced company director Bill Munro and one of the directors is human rights lawyer and 2016 Australian of the Year finalist Rabia Siddique, who made headlines around the world when, as a British army major, she was taken hostage during the Iraq War, where she then negotiated her release.
One of the biggest investors so far is home-building titan Dale Alcock who was integral to the share concept going ahead.
“Something like this can be high risk as to whether you’ll ever see a return,” he admits.
“But rather than people just shelling out money and then, let’s say if Calan’s successful, there is no return for that, well why wouldn’t it be better if you could support him in that journey knowing you actually have an investment in his ultimate success.”
And he is convinced Calan will be successful.
“The Williams family is a normal Perth family with a son who has an extraordinary talent, and an extraordinary focus about what he wants to achieve.” he says.
“And I thought, here’s an ordinary family wanting to take on what would have to be the most expensive sport in the world. So I said, look, I’ll pitch in and provide a level of investment into that.”
Greg is energised by the support his son has received.
“As with all of Calan’s investors, Dale has been a great supporter,” he says. “But what’s important is the people involved need to want to be part of the story and part of Calan’s goals.”
Someone who has provided advice for the family is Joe Ricciardo, who speaks with the wisdom of experience having already been on the journey with his son Daniel.
“When Greg first came to me I said, ‘Do you want the truth?’ I said, ‘Follow your dream, but just be wary of everything around you’,” Joe recalls. “I wasn’t trying to be negative, just honest.
“Daniel had one year (to have a shot) in Europe. We could only afford to have him there for one year and, fortunately, Red Bull talent-scouted him.
“If you haven’t (got long-term finances) you’ve got to make an impression that first year. Someone has to pick you up. Remember, you’re up against kids who’ve got 10 times your budget and they drive for the best teams, who have the best engineers because they pay them more … it’s a hard game.”
In his recent autobiography, Australia’s 1980 F1 world champion Alan Jones revealed how he experienced a similar disparity when he first arrived in Europe in the early ’70s.
“I was surrounded, literally, by rich kids who’d driven up in their brand-new Porsches,” he wrote in AJ: How Alan Jones Climbed to the Top of Formula One. “(They) had sponsorship cheques dripping from their back pockets and were whipping out photos of their little pad in Surrey they’d hired for some exorbitant price ‘for the season’.”
Joe Ricciardo sees similarities between Daniel and Calan, admitting he knew his son had the “X-Factor”.
“Yes, of course I knew (Daniel had talent),” he says. “He had to, otherwise we wouldn’t have gone to Europe. It’s like Greg knows with his son. He knows Calan’s got that drive and he’s giving him a go.
“I agree with that. I tell people like Greg the reality of it all, but I also say, ‘Don’t take away that dream’.
“If it doesn’t happen and they don’t make F1, at least when they get to 50 they can say, ‘At least I had a go’.”
And having a go is what Calan is living at the moment.
In the three Euroformula Open races this year, Calan has caught the eye, qualifying inside the top 10 from all six opportunities, as well as spending periods during all events in the top five.
For a rookie racer competing on foreign tracks for the first time it’s impressed the powers-that-be at Fortec.
The standout was last month when he got behind the wheel at Belgium’s Spa- Francorchamps track, something he describes — despite all his Australian successes — as his career highlight.
“Yes, that was the ultimate,” he says. “Rocking up to Spa-Francorchamps and realising I was driving at this historic circuit that I’ve grown up watching for 10 years and thinking, ‘This is my turn to race here now’.”
And race he did. When he got to that famous drop at Eau Rouge he put his foot on the accelerator. With the sound of other cars buzzing around him like a swarm of angry bees, he plunged downhill determined not to hold back.
Hitting the Eau Rouge corner at the bottom and spearing right, the G-Force — which can reach 4G compared to 3.2G of an astronaut taking off — sucked his eyes sideways as he went to accelerate, and then overtake, up the steep incline.
It was daring driving but, according to Calan, something that just had to be done.
“The first time I went through (Eau Rouge) it was hard to keep my vision straight because even my eyes were being pulled downwards,” he says. “It shakes up your vision, purely from the compression that you feel from the change of incline at that speed.
“But, yes, in each race there was someone I overtook. When you’re going side-by-side you have to be the last one to back down. You have to hope the other person is going to back out, otherwise one of you is not going to come out of it very well.”
After gaining more confidence from his Belgium race, where he earned championship points by finishing seventh, Calan believes his goal of a Formula One debut in 2021 is on track.
“It’s certainly ambitious,” he admits. “But the most ambitious goals are always the most satisfying ones to achieve.”
And, I remind him, that goal isn’t just about making it as a Formula One driver, but to be world champion. I ask him one more time: “Can you do it?”
His response is calm and deliberate.
“I believe with maximum effort and appropriate backing from sponsors and everyone, I believe that anything is possible. Yeah.”