Meet The Office Broker Playing ‘A Game Of Chess At 150 MPH’ At The Weekend
Running a London commercial property agency can sometimes feel like a high-octane pursuit, especially during a downturn. But James Townsend goes in for something even faster-paced at the weekend.
“It’s chaos, a totally unique experience," Townsend said. "One of the only things that comes close to it is jumping out of a plane, but that lasts about 30 seconds, and this lasts for 25 minutes. And you’re not the only one in control, there are a bunch of other crazy people in front of you trying to get in your way.”
Townsend, co-founder of the east London-based tenant rep firm Kontor, isn’t talking about trying to find good, affordable office space for a client in hipster heartland Shoreditch. He is talking about a hobby that has turned into a passion, one where more than 1 million TV viewers a week will watch him the next few months: motor racing, specifically the 2020 Porsche Carrera Cup Great Britain, part of the British Touring Car Championship race series.
Last weekend was the first race of the season, and Townsend’s debut in what is the UK’s fastest touring car series, where drivers can reach up to 175mph in Porsche 911s. Racing for the Fox Motorsport team, he came in 17th out of 20 drivers, both amateur and semi-pro, at the Donington Park circuit, and is hoping to improve on that when the championship moves to motorsport icon Brands Hatch this weekend.
The races are televised on ITV4 as part of its coverage of the British Touring Car Championship, with viewing figures that regularly top 1 million — more than watch illustrious motorsport peer Formula 1.
Townsend speaks lyrically about how racing became his passion, and how he uses it as a tool to develop his business (clue: it is not a self-funded hobby, with a set of tires that might last 10 minutes costing £2,500. Sponsorship is key, and he works with clients to use his platform to give exposure to their businesses.)
Townsend grew up the son of a mechanic in Suffolk, so cars have always been an interest. Although a keen go-karter as a kid, he never pursued the enthusiasm into adulthood.
“I got to 30 and realised I didn’t have a hobby,” he said. “I didn’t want to go and play five-a-side football. I did a few track days, and got talking to one of the guys there, who asked if I’d ever considered racing. I decided to do it before I got old and decrepit, or before kids came along and meant I couldn’t go out and play anymore.”
Townsend founded Kontor with fellow CBRE alumnus Luke Appleby, and the firm has made its name advising tech firms looking to expand in London. It was the first broker to represent WeWork when it came to the UK.
Townsend’s route into racing came through the Ginetta race series, first through one-off "gentleman’s races," then through the Ginetta G40 GT5 series, a seven-race series where amateur and wannabe professional drivers race identical Ginetta cars, and speeds reach up to 135mph.
The highlight for Townsend came at the Knockhill Racing Circuit in Fife, Scotland, where in pouring rain he knifed his way, Senna-like, from the back of the grid to take first place in one of the three races that make up each meet in the series.
The low came a year later, when entering the final weekend of the season at Thruxton leading the overall championship, his engine blew up, meaning he had to settle for third place.
“It was nothing that I did or the team did wrong, but these cars are under such stress, these things can happen,” he said wistfully.
In spite of such setbacks, he gives an excited and insightful overview of why he loves motor racing so much.
“It activates a different part of your brain, it’s like going back to school,” he said. “I’m 34, and it is like being a 5-year-old again in the way you have to learn. It is very different to driving on the road, it is heavily physics-based, working out the weight transference of the car as you drive around a corner. You can spend a whole day testing in a car and working it out, then you have to apply it in a race against other drivers. It is like a game of chess at 150mph, it is mind-blowing.”
Townsend admitted that the step up from the Ginetta series to the Porsche championship had been an eye-opener.
“You are going from a top speed of 135mph to 175mph, so everything happens a lot quicker: The corners come up quicker, and so do the back of the other cars,” he said. “I was surprised by how much quicker the guys at the front were going. But we know it would take a year to get up to speed, and the aim this year is to get a place on the podium one weekend.”
He also pointed to financial disparities, with more established teams being able to spend more time on testing and on the raw materials like tires: Some teams will only drive 40 miles on a set of tires, whereas he has to go around 150 miles on a set, which impacts performance, he said.
Townsend is not the only petrol head in property of course: former Workspace chief executive Jamie Hopkins is a keen amateur racer, too. But few have taken it to Townsend's level.
“It is not a cheap hobby, and if you tried to do it with your own money, you’d soon run out,” he said. “It’s almost become a second job, especially trying to find sponsorship. I’ve managed to use it as a business development tool. It's good exposure for our clients and their clients, I’ve got my racing license, so I can take people on track days. It’s been a great platform.”
The quest to pull in sponsors explains the eye-catching livery his car sports: data from ITV shows that brighter-coloured cars get more seconds on screen.
Townsend’s aim, he said, is to drive in the Le Mans 24-hour endurance race before he is 40 — one of the meccas of motorsport, vividly portrayed recently in the Oscar-winning film Ford v Ferrari.
But first up, the challenge is to improve his position in the next race at Brands Hatch.
“It was a bit of a baptism of fire, but I learned so much from it,” he said.
Keep the spot on the podium free.
Contact Mike Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org.