In Profile : Jules Gounon, the comeback kid who conquered Spa
At first glance, it might seem that Jules Gounon walked a relatively smooth path to the top.
The son of former grand prix driver and sports car ace Jean-Marc Gounon, the youngster had clinched victory at the Total 24 Hours of Spa by the age of 22 and signed a factory contract with the iconic Bentley marque soon afterwards.
But appearances can be deceptive. Though he has achieved success early on, nothing has come easy. Setbacks on and off the track almost brought his career to a halt on more than one occasion, and it is testament to Gounon’s mental strength that he returned stronger than ever.
Indeed, Gounon’s experiences – from injuries and terrifying crashes to the exhausting search for budget – have made him wise beyond his 23 years. It is as though he has packed a decade of professional toil into a few short seasons.
Now a proud Bentley Boy, his turbulent early career can be summed up in his own words: “It’s easy to say, but what doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger.”
THE RACING DRIVER’S SON
Contrary to expectations, Jules had to fight just to get started in motorsport. “My father didn’t want me to race, so I didn’t start until I was 15,” he explains. "I was doing badly at school, so I made him a proposal: ‘I’ll give you good grades if you give me a go-kart.’ I used to have an average grade of 10 or 11, so he said that if I got up to 15 we’d do it. After the handshake I got my average up to 15.5 almost straight away and he agreed to let me race.”
Jean-Marc told his son that they would need to find sponsors and that there would be no money for a professional mechanic, with Gounon Snr. handling the role. “My dad didn’t make a lot during his racing career and now he runs a car dealership, which is a really tough sector in France at the moment,” explains Jules.
What’s more, Jean-Marc knew that without significant funding Jules would need to win in every series he contested – and that even this might not be enough.
“He told me: ‘You have one year to learn and one year to win.’ If I didn’t win the French championship in my second year, we would stop.
“The first year was quite good. When you are new there will be mistakes, but I was sixth in the French championship.”
After this Jules enlisted a school friend, Thomas, to act as his mechanic and together they delivered the title. Jules was building momentum and landed a factory contract with Sodikart that allowed him to step up to the world stage.
“My father told me: ‘Now you have one year to push and show that you are good enough, otherwise we stop.’ That season I won the world championship in the X30 class, which helped me find sponsors for Formula 4.
“The problem was that I only did six test days before the season started, whereas the other guys were doing between 20 and 25. The beginning of the season was hard but from the last nine races I won six times and I ended up second in the championship.”
For Jules, this was confirmation that he could go all the way to the top of the sport. But, once again, the experienced Jean-Marc was on hand with a dose of reality.
LEARNING THE HARD WAY
“I had all of these dreams in my head after the F4 season, because I was at the front and winning races,” Jules recalls. “But my father told me: ‘You’re not going to make it to Formula 1. It’s impossible without money.’
“I was 18 and sure I could do it, but then I went to Formula Renault and we didn’t have the budget.
“I only did two races in 2014. I graduated from school, but there was nothing for me to do. I worked for a few months at my father’s dealership, washing cars. At that point I realised how hard life can be working for minimum wage, and how lucky I had been.”
This perspective would serve him well later on, but at the time Gounon felt directionless: “I thought my career was over and I was in a really bad place mentally,” he says.
“My grandfather saw how down I was. He’d seen an advertisement for a Porsche scholarship, which cost something like €1,500 just to attend the selection, so he said: ‘Jules, I’m going to give you a gift. For your birthday and Christmas, I’ll pay for the scholarship. This will be your last chance.’”
Perhaps this would have placed too much pressure on some drivers, but it was a situation that Jules had grown accustomed to. True to form, he won the scholarship.
A drive in Porsche Carrera Cup France followed and the 2015 season began with a podium on his debut and a win just three weekends into the campaign. But, yet again, things began to go wrong.
“First, I had the famous crash where I put my car on top of another. That ruined my season because I couldn’t do the last races and Porsche didn’t send me to the international scholarship.
“At the same time I had problems with both legs, so I had to have surgery. I spent a month in hospital that winter and put on 15kg. I was thinking, what did I do?!”
For the second time, Jules’ career was hanging in the balance. Then came another chance at redemption.
“I went to Circuit Paul Ricard with my father, because he was doing the BOP for the Blancpain GT Series,” Jules explains. “I arrived on crutches, two months after my surgery.
“I went to the garage and started talking with someone, but I didn’t know who he was. We spoke for an hour and we instantly had a really good connection.”
Jules was talking with one of the bosses of GT Master squad Callaway Competition. The team needed a driver for the upcoming season, though Gounon’s budget was nowhere near the amount they required.
“But we’d had a nice chat, so they offered me five laps of testing at Hockenheim,” he adds.
The test went well and the team made Gounon an offer: run the first two races of the season using his limited funding.
“That was a big risk for me, because I’d be putting my full budget into just two races and after that I’d have nothing. But I decided that I’d rather end my career fighting against guys like Vanthoor and Mies than stop in Porsche Carrera Cup France.
“So we went for it and I won on my second weekend. On the podium, [team boss Giovanni Ciccone] said he’d pay for the rest of the season.”
Gounon went on to finish third in GT Masters and developed new relationships that would see him progress to the Blancpain GT Series. He started 2017 contesting a handful of American races with Audi, then found himself chatting with AKKA ASP Team boss Jerome Policand at a test day.
“I was just there for coaching but I was pushing like hell, as I always do when I jump in a race car.
“Jerome was planning to test a lot of drivers the next day in Spain and one of them pulled out, so he asked if I could come.
“I went there and was quickest. Jean-Luc Beaubelique asked me to do the Blancpain GT Series with him in Pro-Am, which really helped to build my confidence.”
These factors would all combine in July to complete a truly remarkable 18 months in Gounon’s career. In early 2016 he had been staring at a hospital room ceiling with no prospects; by the summer of 2017, he was staring down from the top step of the podium at the biggest GT race in the world.
MAKING THE BREAKTHROUGH AT SPA
Gounon joined the Audi-supported #25 Sainteloc Racing entry for the Total 24 Hours of Spa 2017. With the experienced pairing of Markus Winkelhock and Christopher Haase alongside him, it was a golden opportunity.
“We started the race in P19,” recalls Jules. “At the beginning I didn’t think we could do it, especially after we had a small issue during the night and lost more than a lap.
“At Spa we’re pushing so hard that it’s flat-out for 24 hours; every stint is like a sprint race. All of the fans I talk to love it for that.”
By Sunday morning the #25 Audi had emerged as a genuine contender for the win and eventually clinched a famous victory. For Gounon, it was a career-changing moment.
“The biggest emotion came on the podium. Sainteloc is a French team, so they played La Marseillaise and it still makes the hair stand up on my arms to remember the whole team singing. I remember seeing my grandfather and my father looking up at me and crying, which was a really proud moment.
“After the party I went back to my room and lay down. The trophy was in front of me and I was like: ‘Wow, we’ve just won Spa – this is unbelievable!’”
Having since signed a factory contract with Bentley, Gounon’s career now has the stability that it previously lacked.
“I’m really looking forward to going back to Spa with the new Continental GT3,” he says. “Last year Bentley finished second and was really tough to beat. A Spa victory is our main goal for the season.”
There is no doubt that the tough times have made Jules more determined to reach the top, but they also help him to keep matters in perspective.
“Sometimes now I go to sleep feeling angry because I have too much understeer,” he says. “Then I tell myself: ‘Jules, remember that two years ago you were washing cars and your hands were completely destroyed. Now you are paid to drive for Bentley, so enjoy it. It’s just understeer, it’s not that you don’t know how you’ll be able to eat until the end of the month.’”
To have developed such a mature perspective so early in his racing career suggests that Jules Gounon can be a force for many years to come.