Teenager Philip Gana, Nigeria’s first licensed KART racer, talks about his racing journey, Lewis Hamilton, representing Nigeria despite living in England, in this interview with PETER AKINBO
So what got you interested in racing instead of other sports like football?
I just like the feel of going fast and I like rollercoasters and all that, just going fast. I enjoy the feel of it. So, when I was younger, I always used to be interested in Formula 1, always used to watch the races and then afterwards, I was very interested. So, I asked my parents for the F1 game and I enjoyed it, I was quite good at it. I also went out karting on my birthdays, most years, with my dad and friends and I was good at it. So, I knew I always wanted to be a professional. So, me and my dad contacted the Nigerian affiliate for the governing body for FIA in Nigeria, the Automobike and Touring Club of Nigeria, and we asked them if they had any Nigerian representing Nigeria at the Academy Trophy, and luckily, they gave us a space for the FIA Karting academy in 2021.
How easy was it when you first started driving?
It was not easy. It was quite hard actually because I started racing at European events, which were like the top-level and a lot of the drivers were national champions, been racing for two to three years or even more and I was just starting out and I did find it hard.
And how do you find it now?
It’s getting better. I’m improving, like every time I go karting, I’m getting feedback from my team, getting feedback from my dad. In my last race, I was only about a second and a half off the fastest people in the world.
So, how old were you when you started driving?
Before, when I used to go to the track with my dad to kart race, I was eight but I only started racing professionally when I was 13. I am 15 now.
You competed in the IAME Euro Series in 2022, how did you find it travelling to Spain and Belgium?
Well, it was a big step up from the FIA Karting academy truthfully, it was like more experienced drivers because I moved up to the senior field, which is 14 and above. So, I was racing with way older people like 19, 20-year olds. On the one hand, I found it difficult but on the other hand I found it good for my improvement because I was racing against the fastest people in the world.
So, how did you fare in Germany, Italy and in Sweden at the FIA Karting Academy trophy in 2021?
In Germany, it was my first ever major competition. I did okay in Germany; in Italy it was the same again and in Sweden, the same again. So, I was about in the middle of the pack.
How does it feel being Nigeria’s first licensed KART driver in Europe?
I’m very proud, I’m very honoured to be representing the Nigerian people of all different tribes of course. That’s one of my motivations to keep going and to be representing such a good nation.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
My parents are Nigerians, my dad is from Kwara State, while my mum is from Niger State. I grew up in London but was born in Hungary. I have a brother James. It’s a great and very supportive family.
What is the most challenging aspect of racing?
The mental aspect is quite challenging you know, you have to bounce back from it like learn what you did wrong and fix it. That’s quite hard, but also the physical aspect of it – you know, you’re in a very fast-moving machine for like 10 to 15 minutes racing against other people, so, you need to be level headed and not try to be excited because one mistake and you could hit a wall and get injured.
Have you ever had any injuries since you started racing?
Not big injuries, no but I’ve had like small minor ones when I had a little crash, when I get into crashes. There was one time in Valencia, I got a bad case of whiplash because I crashed backwards into a wall.
What’s your happiest moment since you started racing?
My happiest moment was my first ever race in Germany. It was a very proud moment for me and my family, especially my dad, being the first Nigerian people to compete in the FIA karting academy trophy. I don’t know how to explain the atmosphere, but it was like very electric, kind of everyone was excited, everyone was ready to do the races.
What is your saddest moment since you started racing?
My saddest moment probably came in Sweden when in one of the heats I had to DNF (did not finish) because of an engine issue and then as soon as I DNF-ed out because of the engine issue, two people collided and were out of the race. To give a bit of context you get points depending on where you finish like. Zero is the best, zero is like when you come first, that’s temporary points. Zero is first, second gets two and third gets three, so, I lost out on two points if I didn’t have an engine and then when it was the final I did my best of course and I found out I was only two points off into the final.
For your first race did you feel any pressure?
A little bit of pressure because when I used to do the races with these rental karting, I was always quite close to the front, close to the podium but rental karting to professional karting is like a massive step up. Some of the pressure was put on me by myself, because some of my friends and family, who were more mature, were just like ‘you don’t need to come this position or that position’ mostly just self pressure.
How do you train?
It’s a mix between doing exercises, especially like core and upper body exercises, and simulation training like using the wheel going on the tracks and just practicing the tracks over and over again, but also to do your exercise you need to be very fit to play the sport.
Do you have a coach?
I don’t necessarily have a coach but I do have a team called Croc Promotion. I’m part of a team and all of them help me out, even if they are not like my mechanic. They help me out with their observations, if I’m not taking this corner well I can try something different, stuff like that. Just giving me advice.
What are your goals with the sport?
Obviously, the main goal is to win the championships and to get to into Formula 1 or Formula E or one of the top driving categories. But I’m also hoping this could make a gateway for me in other things, maybe like working on cars or like developing cars.
Who is your idol?
One of my idols is Lewis Hamilton because he represents all the minorities, also some other people who are in the same situation as me they’re not from these super rich families and had to work very hard to achieve their Formula 1 dreams.
How expensive is KART racing and has it been easy getting sponsors to help facilitate your races?
It’s a very cash intensive sport.
Imagine having to travel to another country with a vehicle, your mechanic, tyres, fuel, spare parts, flights, accommodation and feeding for a week. An average race week in Europe can go up to €10,000 or more if the vehicle is involved in an accident and has to be repaired. It has been very difficult getting sponsors. But thankfully we have one that has been with us since the Academy Trophy and the Euro Series and have agreed to also assist us for the 2023 season. They are called KOCH Energy, and they are a Nigerian company, we could have not achieved what we have without them, we are truly grateful. We are currently reaching out to other corporate entities in Nigeria to assist, but no luck so far, but we keep trying and have our fingers crossed. For a successful season, we would need at least 10 major sponsors. But I would also like to thank the many families and friends that have also supported me over the last two years.