Catching Up With Julian Van der Watt
 January 10, 2019| 
  • Series News
JGS_2018-Portland-189896

South African Julian Van der Watt looked long and hard before deciding which series to race with in 2018, researching the support systems and graduation rates of ladder systems all over the world. After much consideration, the 21-year-old Cape Town resident made the jump to America, joining the first rung of the Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship.

A seventh-place finish in the championship – including a podium at the season finale – served as a springboard for Van der Watt, propelling him to adventures that included heat victories at the Walter Hayes Trophy in England and an Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires test.

“The Road to Indy had the best support system and the best structure,” said Van der Watt, who won the 2017 South African National F1600 Championship after a successful karting career. “There isn’t another series like this in the world that supports drivers all the way through the ladder system. One of our contacts, Stephen Simpson, who races over here (driving the JDC-Miller Motorsports prototype in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship), suggested we get in touch with Team Pelfrey, and that definitely worked out.”

Van der Watt joined Bruna Tomaselli and Kyle Dupell at Team Pelfrey and set about tackling two very new (and one uniquely American) experiences: street races and an oval track. His season-high finish was a hard-fought third in the finale at Portland.

“There was a lot to learn but I really enjoyed it - especially the street races at St. Pete and Toronto, and the oval at Lucas Oil Raceway. For a South African who had never driven on a street course – and we don’t even have oval racetracks – it was a really great experience. And the atmosphere with the team was great, with Jonny Baker and my mechanics and everyone on the team. We had a good year, with the podium at Portland the highlight. I was happy to get the team a podium in the final race! Another standout moment for me was at Mid-Ohio, where we started 14th and came up to fifth.”

Van der Watt finished the season with a podium and nine top-10 finishes in 14 races and as soon as the checkered flag flew on the season, he began to consider his next move. Weighing the possibility of moving up the Road to Indy ladder, he tested both an Indy Pro 2000 car with BN Racing (winners of three races in 2018) in the Chris Griffis Memorial Test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and a USF-17 with eight-time champions Cape Motorsports during the series open test at Homestead.

“We thought we might look at the series in 2019 so we decided to test with BN Racing at the Chris Griffis Test so that we would have other drivers to compare ourselves with. BN was really great; they have a great car and a good structure, and we were in the top three consistently through every session. It is quite a big jump from the USF-17 to the PM-18: the power difference is huge and the downforce really displays your fitness. We handled it well but after two days of constant testing you do get tired! It is a very nice car to drive, with a lot of grip and a lot of power, and it’s a well-balanced car.

“We also had a good test at Homestead with Cape. We improved every session, so the team was happy. They did a great job – but it’s Cape, they’re always at the top of their game. They are great to work with: they push a driver to his absolute limits, making you extract all you can. They give you the perfect platform to perform, but then they make you extract as much as you can from yourself, pulling out all your potential in every corner. It’s an unbeatable package, as we’ve seen the past eight years.

“We’re still deciding what we’re going to do next year, but I hope we’ll have a decision soon.”

But the season did not end there for Van der Watt. Having competed in the Formula Ford Festival in 2017, he returned to England in October for the partner event, the Walter Hayes Trophy at Silverstone. As Van der Watt relates, it was an up-and-down experience that ultimately showed his pace, with several heat race victories and a pole position in the final.

“I hadn’t driven the car in a year, so we went in with no expectations, just planning to learn and get some good wet-weather experience. We were in the top three in most of the practice sessions, qualified second for the first heat and won that rather convincingly. The next day, they merge all six heats into two races and we started third. We fought hard with the two Team USA drivers and came through with the win. Honestly, that was the last thing we expected, against British drivers who drive in those tricky conditions every day!

“I started on pole in the final and was battling among the top three, but as it happens in many of these one-off races, we got spun out into the gravel, and it was game over. But I came away from the week with a big smile on my face – we got a pole position and had great pace in the wet so I’m really happy with how that went. It was great experience.”

Looking back on the season, the off-track moments stand out to Van der Watt as much as the on-track ones. He and girlfriend Lauren took advantage of their time in America to get to know the country, living in a downtown Indianapolis apartment and exploring when they could – something they hope to do more of in 2019.

“We went back to South Africa a few times during the season but we got an apartment in downtown Indy during much of the summer. It’s become our second home. And it’s been great to be able to see some of the States. We stayed on in St. Pete for a while after the race, we visited Miami, and we traveled to Chicago quite a bit so it’s become one of our favorite cities. We also stayed on in Portland for a few days after the race – it reminded us a great deal of Cape Town, with the mountains, the river and the climate. It was really amazing. We’re hoping to get a car next year, so we can take some road trips!”

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