For many around the world, COVID-19 has had a devastating effect, but for one young New Yorker, it presented the perfect opportunity to accelerate his motor sport career, from virtual to reality.

When high school learning in the USA shifted to online, it no longer mattered to Max Esterson whether his lessons were taken in Brooklyn or Brackley. What did matter were the opportunities for testing, for racing, and for establishing his career path.

To truly understand what drives a person forward, it helps to first look back. Listening to Max Esterson, it’s clear that throughout his young life, he’s enjoyed one key advantage; he grew up with a family that only knows how to support (as opposed to push). Of course, he was guided, but he learned to make his own decisions (and own mistakes), encouraged with the acuity that success isn’t born, it has to be earned.

His earliest memories were not of holidays and pets but of family trips to Daytona and the Brickyard. His father Robin had been a talented Indy Car race engineer and whilst the young Max wouldn’t have realised it at the time, the imprint of names such as Fittipaldi, Giacomelli, Unser, Ganassi and Andretti would help to shape his own experiences when watching the likes of Scott Dixon, Dan Wheldon and Tony Kanaan, fuelling a passion that might one day see him added to their ranks.

The iRacer : © Estersons

But unlike so many of his contemporaries, there was no early years start in karting to set him on his way.

Instead, around the age of ten, he found and clamped his brother’s old Logitech driver’s wheel in front of a home computer and started to spend every allowable hour fuelling a growing need for speed. Within a year, he’d ventured into iRacing. It took a while for the results to come but as time passed, his skills, driving and understanding the characteristics of the cars he was racing grew. By 2018, he’d reached ‘Pro’ level in GT Endurance, going on to finish 7th in the World Team Championship in 2019 and individually rising into the global top 40 (from a pool of over 130,000 competitors).

Indeed, it wasn’t until 2018 that he had his first foray into racing karts; he was a natural, despite the awkwardness of his height. Then, by the end of 2019, with his iRacing career starting to attract wider industry attention, he was offered a test in a 1600cc Formula Ford; the road to Indy beckoned, but sadly, so too did the Coronavirus.

Despite cancellations and delays, a late-starting season finally got underway. Stepping into his Team Pelfrey car at Pittsburgh, Max Esterson finished P4 on his debut, going one better in the final race of the weekend to score a hard fought-for podium. He returned another podium next time out at Mid Ohio, and then claimed that all-important win at Virginia in July (to add to his iRacing GT3 win at the 12 Hours of Sebring just a few months earlier).

Arriving in the UK at the end of 2020, Esterson immediately proved his potential by finishing 6th at the Formula Ford Festival

Then came the lockdown and with it, the decision to cross the pond and finish school online in the UK.

He combined days out on track with nights, clock wound-back to Eastern Time, focusing on study. The hard work paid-off. He graduated from school, and his season in Formula Ford saw him round-off with a spectacular win in the Walter Hayes Trophy final.

P2 at the Festival in 2021
Followed by winning the Walter Hayes Trophy final just a week later. © Jakob Ebrey

Now, for 2022, he’s made Silverstone and the GB3 Championship his home.

I met him in the Douglas Motorsport garage at Snetterton where he was testing the new 022 Tatuus-Mountune car:

M.E.     “I had my first taste of a GB3 car at Anglesey last August. It was a good comparison as I’d recently raced the Ford there (he took pole position and three podiums). Straight off, I was significantly quicker, and it’s not a long lap, so I left knowing two things: (1) This is what I want to do, and (2) with this level of pace, I was going to need to understand the nuances of the whole package; chassis, engine and tyres.

 “It’s not that the car is difficult to drive. In many ways, it’s easier. Get your inputs right and you buy time to manage and deliver the lap. In Formula Ford, the car makes you work second-by-second, simply to hold momentum. In GB3, there’s less movement and far fewer shifts, and so instead of reacting, you’re constructing. I like that.”

Leaving the Douglas Motorsport garage at Snetterton for GB3 testing

And what about the new car?

Now that he’s gained some seat time (in mixed conditions), how does Gen 2 GB3 machinery compare to that first test last year?

M.E.     “First time out, it was another one of those ‘wow’ moments. Straight away, you feel the difference in power. It’s not just an improvement to the top-end but right through the rev range. And the new chassis brilliantly compliments this. The (engine) mapping takes you there but it’s the extra downforce that makes it possible to carry and hold more speed through corners such as Riches, Palmer and Coram.

Teamwork, testing and data

This leads us nicely into the physical demands of racing at this level.

It’s all very well to have more power and grip but you also need the strength to exploit both, especially when new qualifying rubber is bolted-on.

M.E.     “Yeah, I knew I was going to have work harder in the gym, and as we build speed in testing, I can see that fitness is going to become a key factor in getting the best from the car, especially with two rounds on the Silverstone GP circuit and the trip to Spa.”

And what about set-up? He’s not an experienced karter, and this will be his first year with slicks and wings. How is he finding the transition to data-driven racing?

M.E.     “This is the bit I really love.

“In iRacing, I spent hours, every day, making the smallest adjustments to suspension and wing settings in order to learn what I had to do to go quicker over a single lap, and how to preserve the car and tyres over a distance. The team here are really helping my knowledge of the car and it’s already clear that we’re going to work well together.”

So overall thoughts are?

M.E.     “There’s nothing not to like! The power delivery is exceptional, as is the way you can use it. The grip isn’t just better, I’d say it’s more predictable too. Of course, compared to the Formula Ford . . well there is no comparison. And then the addition of the Halo gets a big tick, but most of all, it’s the whole package: The car, the tyres, the circuits and the media coverage. This championship has taken a huge step forward in 2022 and it’s giving me the opportunity to do the same.”  

Exploiting the grip produced by the GB3 car shod with Pirelli wets

Joining him on the GB3 grid is a wealth of talent from British F4 (including past champions Luke Browning and Matthew Rees), returnees from the class of 2021, and some of the brightest rising stars from Australia, Scandinavia, Canada and the USA.

Whilst most of these are the same age or even younger, many will have been enjoying top-flight competition for upwards of ten years. It’s going to be the young American’s biggest test yet and though still a relative novice, the experience gained from winning and learning in Formula Ford (which remains one of the toughest tests of all) is undoubtedly going to serve him well, as will all the time he still spends on his sim rig.


* The opening rounds of the 2022 GB3 Championship will take place at Oulton Park this Easter weekend (16th & 18th April).


Jakob Ebrey (cover and body), Steve Hindle and the Estersons

Written By

Steve Hindle
Steve Hindle

Steve has lived his life with motor sport; from childhood years as a fan, to racing around the greatest tracks in Europe, first as a driver and later as a team principal. Today he's a familiar sight trackside and in the pit lane, notebook in one hand, camera in another, capturing moments and contributing to some of the leading titles in motor sport and automotive media.

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