“At the end of the day, I’m not going to be able to drift forever.”
Conor Shanahan is ridiculously well-spoken and media savvy for a 17-year old, but that beaut of a line, delivered at the back end of a half-hour conference call on his unveiling as a full-time driver with Red Bull, was delivered with no pun intended.
The Mallow driver is utterly unlike many of his peers who, like generations of teenagers before them, can only stare uncomprehendingly into the blizzard of options and challenges life throws at them as school days draw to a close and adulthood looms.
Shanahan knows exactly what he wants here and now and he has a fair idea of where he will find himself further down the road. Drifting is his thing for the moment, but motorsport boasts almost as many career paths as a race track does turns and this precociously talented practitioner is of a mind to turn a few.
Rallying and rallycross are just two of the other possible pursuits that could take his fancy, but for now it’s drift racing, a sport centred on an intentional oversteer which shunts the car into a sideways spin and, as it says on the tin, a drift state.
There is no checkered flag in this arena, but instead, a trio of judges who award their points on the basis of the speed, angle, and line taken. It’s why one website describes the whole adventure as more akin to figure skating than speed skating.
If this is all new to you, fret not, you’re far from alone. A painfully young Shanahan appeared on The Grand Tour with Jeremy Clarkson et al back in 2017 for a slot which began with Richard Hammond explaining those very same basics.
And if their audience needed telling...
For Shanahan it is all rhythm and technique.
“If you were to pick a really good drifter and put him in a rally car he would be able to drive. If you were to get a Formula 1 driver and put him in a drift car for the first time I think it would take a while to work out which way everything works.
“A lot of people don’t realise how much skill is involved in it. People just think, ‘pump the tyres up and put loads of power in and you’re good’. It’s not like that. We’re the same as any racers, we’re trying to make our cars as fast as possible.
“If you’re not fast enough, you’re not going to win. Even though we are sliding a car around a track, and it is judged by three judges, it is still the same terms as any motor sport. We are trying to be as fast as possible and a lot of people don’t understand that.”
If someone can be born to do something then the odds were always strong that Shanahan would end up behind a wheel His dad John won numerous rally titles and mum Valerie is the only Irish woman to have claimed a national Autoglass Championship.
Add to that his older brother Jack, who is a two-time British champion and a member of the same Red Bull family and, on top of all that, James Deane, a multiple winner in Europe and the US and world champion, hails from just a couple of miles down the road in Cork.
Young Conor didn’t follow that same path with blind obedience.
A fanatical soccer player, he was good and committed enough to play to county level even while he was surrounded by cars and motorsport.
It was only when he watched Jack compete in Poland seven years ago that the drifting bug finally began to bite. He was no more than nine or 10 at the time, but the raw talent was already there, waiting to be thrust into gear.
There is a video online from around that time in which he drives a drift car for the first time and, as far as this layman could make out, pretty much nailed it.
“I always wanted to do circuit racing,” he explains.
“That was my interest, go-karting, that’s what I had my fun in. Jack was getting involved in this sport. I slid around in it a few times when I was young and I thought it was great but...
“I never could see this vision in my mind that I wanted to dominate this sport because it was hard to understand.
“Now it is a bit more clear because of the exposure from the likes of Red Bull and you can follow it, but it wasn’t getting any mainstream media exposure before.”
Shanahan won his first ever event, also in Poland, back in 2018, but struggled through 2019 due to reliability issues with his car.
The hope is that this new deal can rectify such issues and propel him onwards because motorsport is an expensive business, at any level.
The Shanahan brothers will operate as one ‘team’ under the Red Bull umbrella from here on in, Jack’s and dad’s expertise under the bonnet complimenting Conor’s and their mum’s organisational skills.
Add in a few other relatives and friends chipping and that’s basically the operation which, on the road, numbers no more than half-a-dozen, the two drivers included.
That’s how it rolls on the European scene and the Shanahans will want for nothing compared to their competitors. The new deal brings with it a brand new engine, a new gearbox, and some pretty cool livery, but it isn’t a licence to print money. Nor to throw it away.
The season opener in Austria has already gone south thanks to the current strangeness and the follow-up, due in Poland on June 6, isn’t likely to get a green light either.
It’s frustrating but then you hear Shanahan had been looking ahead to 2021 long before this pandemic hit and you think, yeah, this kid will be alright.