Kristy Lawson is used to taking care of things. Her garden is bursting with watermelons, sweetcorn and various summer berries, and she's clearly in her element with the whole family at home. And currently, that includes her son, Red Bull Racing's Formula 1 reserve driver Liam Lawson, who last month was named a finalist in the Halberg Awards for New Zealand's Best Sporting Moment for his top-10 finish at the 2023 Singapore Grand Prix.
"I love having everyone home," tells Kristy, 52, who also shares Jessica, 30, Holly, 23, Marcos, 19, and Leah, 18, with husband Jared, 50 – all of whom are at home when the Weekly visits in Pukekohe, South Auckland. "This isn't even busy – it's a holiday compared to how it used to be."
This is the one time of year Liam is back from the UK, where he and his girlfriend, California-born Hannah, 20 – who's also here – are based. After a few weeks' rest, Liam returns to the track on February 11 – his 22nd birthday – behind the wheel of a go-kart for the 2024 KartSport Grand Prix. It's a return to his roots for the aspiring Formula 1 driver, and one he always tries to attend as it's the event that set him on his current path to become one of the best racing drivers in the world.
Although he missed out on a permanent seat on the 2024 Formula 1 grid, Liam got a taste of things to come in August last year, when he stepped in for the injured Daniel Ricciardo and made his Formula 1 debut in the Dutch Grand Prix. He's known as the one to watch – which is something any mum would be proud of, but Kristy talks about all her kids with equal delight.
"We've treated all the kids the same," she shares. "We've never stopped them doing what they want to do. Holly and Jess were both competitive dancers – they were both Irish dance national champions – but Jess' dance school was 45 minutes away from where we lived in Clarks Beach at the time.
"Three times a week, when all the babies were asleep at lunchtime, I'd make dinners for everyone and put them in boxes – you learn very quickly to never have hungry children! When Jess finished school, I'd load everyone into the car with food and PJs, drive her to class, take the kids to Mum's and give them all dinner and a bath before driving home again."
But after six-year-old Liam got in a go-kart for the first time, things got complicated. "I'd meet Jared at the Papakura off-ramp or the Karaka rugby grounds, then carry on to dancing, while Jared took Liam go-karting in Mount Wellington," Kristy recalls.
"From the start, Liam was fiercely competitive – he hated being at the back of the field," says Jared, who is general manager of a freight company. "We'd go to the local kart club every week and it just grew. That turned into 40-plus meetings a year across the North and South Islands.
"If you want to do it seriously, you must do as many meets as you can. The more you do, the faster you go. The faster you go, the more you test. Liam had to prove himself in those early days, and he won his first national title when he was 10, and won four national titles back-to-back in 2012 and 2013."
Liam says he knew from the moment he got behind a go-kart wheel that he'd found his passion. "Even before I started driving cars, I knew," reflects Liam. "Dad would watch Supercars and Formula 1 on TV, and as soon as I was old enough to understand what was going on, I knew that was what I wanted to be."
Adds Kristy, "He was always obsessed with anything that had wheels. He'd make speed bumps for toy cars and practice making jumps work on the floor at home."
But Jared and Kristy soon realised that to keep Liam doing what he loved, something had to change.
"It's a great sport, but to race competitively, you need to spend a lot of money on it," says Jared. "The first year he got into it, he didn't have the best gear and the engine wasn't great. He did learn to get the most out of it, though, by learning how to carry speed through the corners and brake as late as he could."
But to progress further, Liam needed better equipment.
"You need the best engines and the best tyres or you can't keep winning, so we applied for a young New Zealand rookie driver development programme, the SpeedSport Scholarship," tells Jared. "It was the only way to help him follow his dream. Liam getting that – along with a lot of help from sponsors – was a game-changer."
While the scholarship helped with funding, it was up to Jared to teach his then-12-year-old son how to drive. Liam wanted to learn manual, but the only manual in the family was owned by big sister Jess.
"Dad would take Liam out to the park in my little VW Polo and teach him practice starts in it," laughs Jess. "I thought he was just learning the gears, but Dad was teaching him how to do racing techniques like dropping the clutch. He absolutely burned my poor little car!"
Liam quickly progressed through the ranks, clinching the 2016 Formula Ford championship on his 15th birthday. But his dedication meant something had to give, and at the end of Year 11, he was given permission to leave school early.
"Liam had done most of his schooling, with the odd Friday off, but he'd been invited to go to Europe the next year," recalls Kristy. "He's smart – he works with the engineers and has learned everything about cars – but school wasn't his thing. We looked into online schooling, but being on the other side of the world made it impossible."
Liam tells, "I remember doing practice sessions for a race in Europe and watching some of the other racers doing schoolwork on the side. I was concentrating 100 percent on improving my driving and they were doing English assignments." Liam signed his first multi-year driver contract with Red Bull on his 17th birthday.
Although Liam admits he missed out on some "normal" teen benchmarks, like house parties, he wouldn't change a thing.
"It's all been my choice," he insists. "It's easy on the motor-racing circuit for your head to be turned, and plenty of drivers go out a lot and enjoy drinking and partying, but my focus has always been on driving."
Although Liam is clearly loving being home with family, his eyes are firmly on becoming a full-time Formula 1 driver.
"When Liam's home, he's Liam. When he's racing, he takes on a whole other personality," says Jared. "As soon as he gets to the track, he becomes completely focused and blocks out all outside noise."
"Every race I do is just very, very important," insists Liam, who adheres rigorously to the training and nutrition calendar he has on an app on his phone. "Even go-kart races feel as important as a Formula 1 race. It doesn't matter what the race is – I just want to be the best."
So how does he have time for a girlfriend?
"He doesn't!" laughs Hannah, who turns 21 on February 12 – the day after Liam's birthday. "I'm doing an online course at Arizona State University to become a Physician Assistant, and I make sure I've done all my study when he's away so I can give him all my time when he's home."
It's clear that for Liam to achieve his dream, it takes a village. But his family wouldn't have it any other way – almost.
"I can't watch his races!" admits Kristy. "At the beginning, I could, although I didn't like it. Now, when he's racing, the TV is on upstairs and I'll be downstairs with my headphones on, playing music. It's not even about the safety. I just can't bear to see him disappointed.
"Jess is my eyes – she updates me on every lap, letting me know he's all right. Then I can come in for the last lap and watch him drive over the finish line."
"I'm incredibly lucky to have the support I do – from everyone," says Liam, who returns to the UK this month. "I'm loving being home – although Mum makes sure I stay up to date when I'm away. She even FaceTimes me to show me how well her veges are growing!"
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