Like many motoring robots, I’ve sat alongside Gavan Kershaw as he’s spirited the latest and greatest Lotus around the Hethel circuit with swift grace, and marvelled at how easy he makes going insanely fast seem. Sure, he’s equally adept at the smoky, squealy, high-drama stuff too, but it’s the unfussed way in which he achieves the big speeds and the low lap times that truly impresses. He doesn’t bully the car, isn’t prone to look-at-me flourishes behind the wheel – he’s silky smooth and relaxed. And forever smiling.
In part, Kershaw – currently attributes director at Lotus, ensuring each new model and those of the future are infused with the Hethel DNA – credits his driving style to the influence of some of his mentors within the Lotus vehicle dynamics department when he was younger. ‘You’d never see the likes of John Miles [ex-Lotus Formula 1 driver] or Alistair McQueen beating a car up around the track for the sake of it. But when you were inside the car with either of them it was poetic: the smoothness, the transition from the brakes back onto the throttle. They were more inspirational to me than some of the guys who used to throw you around inside the car and do strange things with it.
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‘I’d always try to be like John and Alistair and Roger Becker on the road – Roger drove very quickly on the road but typically was always reading the messages from the car at component level. When you were driving with him he was constantly saying things like, “I think the bypass valve in the damper could be smaller and we should really go and look at the top-mount pre-load, as that will solve that…”’
While his driving skills may have been honed by the example of exalted colleagues, Kershaw clearly has an innate ability to handle a vehicle, any vehicle. ‘I’m lucky that it’s natural,’ he says. ‘When I try something new, even something like a jet ski having never sat on one before, I can quickly feel things like the mass of it, the way it rotates, and instantly know it remotely, how quickly it’s going to turn, how quickly it’s going to stop. I’ve never been a thrill-seeker; for me it’s more about the oneness you can feel with something, how relaxed you are when you’re in control of it.’
Being born with a talent is one thing, but for that talent to flourish it really helps if it’s nurtured by your dad. Kershaw’s father, Dave, was a prolific and successful oval circuit racer in the late 1960s and early 1970s, driving home-built Superstox and Hot Rods. When he chose to give up racing because of family and work commitments, Dave funnelled his passion for the track into his young son. ‘I started racing karts when I was ten,’ Kershaw reveals. ‘They’d introduced a kart class called Boosters: they were 100cc and restricted, but essentially they were the same karts as the seniors used. Compensating for the smaller air restrictor was the fact that when you’re ten you weigh less, so they were bloody fast!’
There were local races twice a month for the young Kershaw to have fun and gain experience, and later on he had some accomplished rivals to compete against. ‘I’ve got a picture of Ralph Firman behind me,’ he grins, ‘and I remember racing with Darren Turner at Snetterton. Then when we went away to the bigger events you had Allan McNish, David Coulthard, Jason Plato, all of those guys. Mostly, though, it was dads and sons having fun.’
When the time arrived for road cars, Kershaw was ready to roll long before his 17th birthday. ‘My first car was a Fiat Uno that I bought when I was sixteen and a half – it sat on the driveway waiting for me to be old enough for L-plates. I tinkered with it every weekend. Before it had even traveled a mile with me at the helm it had different wheels, a different exhaust pipe, a new stereo and some very heavy speakers on the back parcel shelf – back then you had to have those. Again, I was influenced by Dad as he’d had some Fiats, 131 Mirafioris and a 127 Sport; we also had a Strada that would rot as you watched it.
‘Dad had a fairly average company car back then, an Escort estate or something, so we were always looking around for more fun stuff. My kids are horrified to learn that by the time I was about 25 I’d had close to 50 cars. Dad and I would go to Colchester auctions, buy something we fancied if the price was right, and sell it soon after. Within a couple of months of passing my test the Uno was gone and I had a Fiesta XR2, and then for some strange reason I bought a Rover 214 Vitesse…
‘Later, when I was working at Lotus and we were owned by GM, I borrowed some money from an aunt at a very preferential rate and bought an Astra GTE 16-valve brand new – I absolutely loved it. And then I learned about depreciation…
‘My first rear-wheel-drive road car came from Norfolk BMW dealer Rossiters. It belonged to the company owner’s wife and was a British Racing Green AC Schnitzer 318i with a huge spec. A bit later I had a run of weird stuff including an MG Maestro and a long-wheelbase Vauxhall Frontera, but then things picked up.
‘My uncle had owned a Ford Sierra Cosworth RS500 in Moonstone Blue from new. He then decided he fancied the Frontera I had at the time, so he gave me another loan to repay my aunt for the Astra and I ended up with an RS500. I was 22. Unsurprisingly it became uninsurable. The other problem was that I’d wanted to own one because I’d seen people like Steve Soper racing Cosworths; mine was bog standard and didn’t really live up to that vision.’
Growing up, Kershaw lived within 20 miles of the Lotus factory, so for any young car enthusiast the lure of Norfolk’s finest export was irresistible, particularly raised someone in a home environment of motor racing and hands-on engineering. The glamor of the road cars was a factor, too, in his choice of future employer. ‘Dad got a civil engineering job in Dubai in 1980 and his boss had a white Esprit Turbo. I sat in that car and it had a stereo cassette player in the roof and it was playing a recording of an F1 car that moved from speaker to speaker.’
Kershaw describes getting a job at Lotus as pot luck. ‘Dad was a technical development manager in the drinks industry and while fitting some new equipment in a local pub got chatting with the Lotus HR director. He told her about my karting and she suggested I apply for Lotus’s apprenticeship scheme. The interview was quite relaxed but they asked technical questions on what I knew about turbochargers and superchargers, etc. Because I’d been racing karts for six years since I was ten, I could talk to them about how we’d been changing caster angles and fitting stiffer and softer bump-stops to get the kart to handle. A fortnight later I got the job.
‘It was a traditional apprenticeship and on the very first day at college I met Matt [Becker, son of Lotus vehicle dynamics stalwart Roger, and until recently chief engineer at Aston Martin]. Also in that intake were James Key, now technical director at McLaren Racing, and Stewart Taylor who eventually went to California to work with Tesla. All four of us from that one year have done all right for ourselves.’
College involved learning practical engineering skills as well as technical drawing and CAD work, while out of term Kershaw and Becker were back at Lotus, typically hanging around with the ride and handling team. Studies completed, it was ‘a further four years of four to five months in every department of Lotus Engineering. So there you were, 20 years old, and knew a lot about cars as a whole and you knew nearly everyone on site so could get things done. And then Matt and I broke the mold where we actually became junior chassis engineers at a very young age, in our 20s.’
A little while earlier Kershaw had returned to racing, this time on the same quarter-mile ovals his father had competed on years before. Trying to sort out the rear suspension of his home-built Superstox, he turned to his new Lotus colleagues for help. ‘I approached John Miles for advice. At that point I didn’t realise he was our ex-Formula 1 driver, but he quickly became very interested in the car and used to come along and help us, and later, too, when we went Hot Rod racing.’
Throughout his 33 years (and counting) at Lotus, Kershaw has continued racing on and off, with a lot of time spent in the British GT Championship in cars including the Elise, Exige, Evora, Aston Martin DBR9 and Mosler. This passion for racing contributed to Kershaw’s appointment as technical chief of Lotus Racing in 2010. ‘I was put in charge of delivering some big projects – the Le Mans Evora, T125 corporate F1-style race car, the Evora GT4, the Exige R- GT rally car and V6 racer.’
A great and friendly relationship with Clive Chapman (son of Colin) and his Classic Team Lotus has allowed Kershaw to get behind the wheel of some of the company’s iconic race cars, too. ‘I’ve been so fortunate, I’ve probably driven 50 per cent of the Lotus Types that have been made. Highlights have to include winning my race at the Silverstone Classic in the Type 30 – afterwards Bob Dance [long-time Team Lotus mechanic in the Chapman era] said that the “Old Man” would have been proud. And then there’s the JPS-liveried Type 72 I’ve driven several times and shook down for Emerson Fittipaldi to race in Bahrain. I have a picture of me in the car signed by Emerson. Things like that connect to my childhood – I had a Corgi model of the 72 on a trailer being towed by an Elite.’
Starting with the M100 Elan, then the Lotus Carlton, and running all the way through to the latest Lotus models we are so admired, as well as many projects for outside automotive clients, Kershaw has significantly contributed to their enthralling dynamic repertoires. And in fitting testament to his faith in his own work, Kershaw’s garage is home to three Lotuses. ‘I currently own an Elise S1, one of the first 400 cars, so a true S1, in Azure Blue and completely standard. Then there’s a GT3 Esprit and an Evora S in Aspen White with Paprika interior.
‘I had a GT3 in Chrome Orange years ago that I bought off the press fleet and hugely enjoyed, but I had to sell it to buy the land our house is now built on. To me the Esprit is so special, such an important part of Lotus’s history, that I had to have another GT3 – Chrome Orange, absolutely standard and mint. It’s my daughter’s favourite.
‘The other day I came home after work to discover our family Volvo, the Esprit and a garden trailer were parked out on the driveway. My wife had moved them all to get at the Elise so that she and my son could go for a drive on a nice summer’s evening. That’s when I knew for sure that we own the right cars!’