Dean Stoneman Beat Cancer. Now He Wants to Conquer Formula 1
It's not easy to become a potential F1 driver. Dean Stoneman has done it twice and beaten cancer.
All images via Red Bull
Cancer is horrific whenever the diagnosis arrives, but dealing with the disease in your early twenties must be particularly challenging. It throws your world into chaos just when you're figuring out who and what you want to be. One minute you're in the prime of life, the next you're dealing with your own mortality.
Dean Stoneman was 20 when he received his diagnosis in early 2011. It came just in time: two days later the cancer would have been inoperable. Facing a long course of chemo, he had to put his plans for the year ahead on hold. And those plans were pretty serious. At the time, Dean was rated as one of the most promising young racing drivers outside Formula 1.
Four years later he has beaten the disease and fought his way back to the brink of a place on the F1 grid. He's now even more highly regarded than before his illness thanks to an incredible comeback that many doubted was possible. Confirmation of that came in February of this year when he was asked to join the prestigious Red Bull junior team, the same programme that launched Sebastian Vettel towards becoming a four-time world champion.
Dean first made his name in 2010 by winning the Formula 2 championship. As a prize for this he tested for the Williams Formula 1 team and showed extremely well. In early 2011 he was preparing to race in the World Series by Renault, a championship one step below F1. His team-mate was to be Daniel Ricciardo, who within six months had landed a Formula 1 contract and now competes for the senior Red Bull F1 team.
"Everything was in place," Dean recalls. "It was looking to be a really good season with Daniel as my team-mate. Then I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. And at that point motorsport wasn't really an option."
Dean is an insanely cool character. A lot of racing drivers are, because being highly-strung and emotional doesn't get you far in a sport where poor decisions can be fatal. But something about the way the 24-year-old speaks makes him seem particularly laid back, even when discussing an illness that nearly killed him. And it easily could have done. Undetected for as long as a year, the cancer had already spread to his lungs, liver, kidney, and even his brain by the time it was discovered.
"I was two days from untreatable and had chemo the same day," he explains, still sounding utterly chilled. "I had 250 tumours they could count on the screen. I had to put racing behind me and concentrate on getting well. I did 24 weeks of chemotherapy; I had blood transfusion and four operations. There were a lot of side-effects.
"I just took every day as it came. It was so horrific. It's not as if you can say, 'I'm going to do X, Y, Z' [to get well again]. It's hard to describe unless you've been there and done it. It's horrendous, the worst thing ever. Getting back in the car again was a great feeling. And I did the powerboat racing just to keep me occupied."
That last sentence might need a little explanation. As part of his recovery, Dean decided to race powerboats with his friend Dean Paling as co-pilot. This was 2012, a year after his diagnosis and while he was still suffering the physical traumas of battling cancer. Obviously racing offshore powerboats is a totally different game to cars on a circuit, and Dean was primarily there to have some fun while regaining fitness and confidence.
Or at least that was the stated intention; the two Deans had other ideas.
"We went out there and won nine races and came second in the other, which was great," says Dean, who became UK champion in the process. "After nearly passing away and having a terrible year we decided that I needed to have a bit of fun, rather than pushing myself to the limit when I wasn't feeling ready.
"It's completely different [from car racing], but I've known it all my life. My dad was offshore powerboat world champion in 1995. I've got a good feeling for boats and I love the water. So I felt it was something I needed to help me boost myself again and get out there and enjoy it."
With his confidence back and the cancer beaten, Dean has spent the past two years reminding the rest of the motor racing world about his massive natural talent. In 2013 he raced Porsches in the British championship "to get the feeling back and make sure I still had the ability to break, overtake, and all the rest." He won his debut race, which put any such questions to bed. Later that year he decided he had unfinished business in single-seaters and made a one-off appearance in the GP3 Series, which sits two levels below F1.
"I decided that I wanted to race in GP3 in Abu Dhabi for the final race of the season and it went really well: I was 7th in the first race and second in the other, which showed that I still had the speed."
For 2014 he secured a full season in the championship. And, despite the impediment of swapping teams mid-season when his original employers hit financial trouble, Dean was back in red-hot form. Five wins placed him second in the standings, and his name was once again being mentioned as a star in waiting.
Following his recovery, however, Dean didn't see a career in F1 as realistic. The current financial state of the sport means drivers need to bring insane sums of money just to get a breakthrough. But the Red Bull link has opened the door once more. The ethos of their young driver programme is to pave the way for talented racers to make it into F1. Suddenly, Dean has a viable route in.
This year he'll be competing in World Series by Renault – the same championship he was set to race in when he received his diagnosis. There's no hiding from the fact that he's under pressure to win the title at the first attempt. His new team have taken the last two championships and, as a Red Bull junior, he'll be expected to perform from the word go. It's a huge challenge – but he's coped with a few of those before.
"To have Red Bull on board and be able to walk around in Red Bull kit, to be a part of their programme... it's been a lifelong dream. Hopefully I'll go out there and deliver. It's going to be a tough season – there's some good drivers out there – but there's no reason why I can't win."
If he does, Red Bull will almost certainly give him a shot in F1. They're extremely demanding, but if you kick arse on the track they'll back you all the way to the top. Just ask Vettel and Ricciardo.
Whether or not things pan out that way, Dean has already achieved something pretty unique: he's fought his way to the cusp of a place on the F1 grid twice. And beaten cancer. And won a powerboat racing title. You know, just for the fun of it.
Formula 1 is currently rife with bad news stories, and seeing a young cancer survivor join the likes of Hamilton and Vettel would be a rare piece of positive PR. But the feel-good aspect of getting Dean on the grid would be secondary. Above all else, he has earned his shot at the big time.