For this edition of As Seen in Manchester from a couple of years back, we caught up with a particularly interesting chap called Gus Greensmith. Not only is Gus a regular face here at Seen Opticians — often popping in for a pair of sunglasses — but he also happens to be one of the youngest rally drivers currently driving in the World Rally Championship.
We rang him up as he prepared for the 2021 season to talk about his early days racing go-karts, how he gets in the zone and his love of swanky eyewear...
How did you get into rally driving? It’s not like football where you can just go and kick a ball around a park.
I actually started off playing football. I was doing trials for Manchester City, but at the same time, my dad was doing a bit of amateur racing. I went to go and watch him, and straight after that, I decided I wasn’t interested in football — I wanted to do something with wheels and engines. So I did karting for about three years, doing the British Championship, the European Championship and the World Championship, had a year spent as a sabbatical for my exams, and then I started rallying in 2014.
The first year I did that was the British Championship, then I did the Junior World Championship, then WRC 2, and then WRC.
That’s quite a fast rise up the ranks then.
I think I did it pretty quickly. WRC drivers usually get there when they’re 25 or 26, but I did my first one when I was 23.
How was it growing up doing all that? It sounds a bit busier than the usual lazy teenage life.
The last year when I was doing the World Championships, we did 45 weekends of that year away. I didn’t have much time at home, but then again, I wouldn’t call myself particularly normal… I’ve always wanted to do something at least a little bit remarkable — rather than just being stood still. It was what I loved doing, so I just worked at it as hard as I could, and I still am doing.
"You can be really obnoxious and say, 'I had a lot of talent,' but usually that’s not true — usually it’s how much you dedicate yourself to something." - GG
It sounds like you were pretty decent at football too. Was it a tough decision to leave that?
To be honest it was clean cut. I knew what I wanted to do — so I did it. Obviously go-karting is a bit more expensive than kicking a football around, so I had to do some persuading to my dad. The deal was that as long as I kept getting good grades, but if they slipped, then I stopped doing the racing.
You must have been good at karting even early on. What do you think set you apart back then?
You can be really obnoxious and say, “I had a lot of talent,” but usually that’s not true — usually it’s how much you dedicate yourself to something. I’ve always wanted to do the best at whatever I was doing, so I was always happy to concentrate on that as much as I could, and work hard from there. You obviously need a certain degree of talent to get to the pinnacle of any sport, but a lot of it is hard work.
In 2019 you got to the WRC — the top level rally championship. How did it feel to reach that?
Obviously it was a big thing. The year it first happened, I was supposed to be doing one rally for Ford, and then the rest of the season I would do in WRC2, which is like the support category. I went on to do three rallys. It was a mega feeling, but it was kind of… not bitter sweet… but I always knew I was going to get there, one way or another. That sounds like a bit of a shitty thing to say, but I think that was the level of self belief I had.
It’s not like you can rest on your laurels once you’re there either.
No, exactly — you’ve got to earn your stripes. Which for me, last year, I definitely didn’t do. In Monaco I crashed, in Mexico I wasn’t on the pace, then we had Covid, and then the budget for the team got slashed. In Turkey I pulled a pretty good performance out the bag, and Sardinia was even better, but there was a mechanical failure. And then in Monza, we had the speed, but I had a rather large crash.
It strikes me as something where there’s a lot of pressure. There must be a lot of build up between each rally.
It’s a lot of work towards something. It’s always been like that, and what I’ve found over the years is that when I go in my ‘go angry kill mood’, as I call it, it doesn’t actually work. You’re not relaxed, you’re driving tense and you’re too focussed on the job, rather than what’s important in everyday life. Towards the end of last year I was working on finding a balance between giving it everything I’ve got, and focussing on things I enjoy. You’ve got to find a good work/life balance, and try and stick with it.
What about when you’re actually driving… what’s going through your head then? What’s your thought process?
There isn’t one. If you’re thinking about driving, then there’s something not going quite right. Hearing the pace notes should be subconscious, and the driving should be flowing.
"Once you control your breath, you control your heart-rate and you control your mind." - GG
Almost a shut-off, flow-state type thing?
Yeah, it’s impossible to get it all the time, but you need to be doing everything you can to try and make that happen.
How do you get into that mindset?
I spend a lot of time with my sports psychologist, basically finding ways to be relaxed — trying to tune the brain. I do a lot of that through breathing, doing what we call zen breathing, slowing the heart-rate down. Once you control your breath, you control your heart-rate and you control your mind. Everything becomes much easier to deal with. That helps a lot of the time, but obviously when you’re under pressure and things aren’t going well, it does affect you.
'Get to the chopper!' Helicopter perspectives through Gus' Thom Browne 812 frames
Yeah, if you’ve got something in the back of your mind — maybe something’s not right with the car, it’s going to be niggling away at you. You want to shut that off.
That’s the idea, for sure. You want to shut everything out, and be completely focussed. As soon as you start to question yourself, it’s natural, but it’s not good.
Is that a common theme with drivers at your level?
Drivers aren’t the most open of people, especially when it comes to something so personal, so I think everyone does their own thing.
Are there any specific character traits you notice in drivers? Something that sets you lot apart?
I think everyone’s different. You have people like seven-times world champion Sébastien Ogier, who is very focussed and clear in his head, and then the guy who was fighting for the championship last year, Elfyn Evans, is a very humble, quiet guy who doesn’t make much noise about anything. People are very different, but I suppose the common trait is that everyone is dedicated, and they all want to do their best.
What’s going on in your cars? I imagine what you’re driving is a bit different to my old VW estate.
They’re nothing like a usual car. The shells might look similar, but it’s a completely different thing. It’s kind of hard to put it in perspective.
Four wheels and a bit of metal are the only things in common then?
Yeah. They’re all still made by the respective manufacturers, but the current spec of world rally cars are the fastest they’ve ever been. They’re really something quite special.
"Some of the jumps, we’ll be jumping 60 or 70 metres — especially in the faster rallys — and that feels like a long time in the air." - GG
Maybe a stupid question, but how does jumping work in a car? On a bike or a skateboard there’s a defined motion, but it’s not like you can pull-up the front of a car the same way you can pull on some handle-bars.
It depends on what kind of jump, but if it’s a typical finish jump, we’ll go up to it flat out, then come off the throttle. The aerodynamics basically work inversely in the air, so instead of pushing the car down, they push the front of the car up. So we jump, the front goes in the air, and we land on the back wheels.
You don’t want to land right on the front like in 70s police show.
It’s pretty much impossible in these cars for that to happen. The air gets under the front, we look at the sky, and we land on the rear wheels.
What does it feel like?
Some of the jumps, we’ll be jumping 60 or 70 metres — especially in the faster rallys — and that feels like a long time in the air. It feels pretty epic, especially on jumps over corners — going through a flat left hander, sideways in the air is one of the best feelings in the world.
You can get a bit wild and squirrelly on the way out, but if you’re pushing flat out for a good result, then I don’t think it really matters. You’ve got to take it as fast as you can, and hopefully come out the other side on four wheels, and not your roof.
There’s not much margin for error. Those tracks are narrow.
Yeah, it’s a pretty gnarly set-up, which is why we like it. We love the danger aspect of it, or I do, anyway. That’s kind of why I fell in love with rallying. It’s an ever-changing situation, depending on where we are. In Finland you can be averaging 100mph between trees, and then in Monaco you’ll be on tarmac with snow and ice. The one thing I do not like is water. I’ve never enjoyed driving next to lakes in rallys — I don’t fancy ending my life upside down in a car, drowning.
"We want to be as close as we can to hurting ourselves, without hurting ourselves." - GG
Is that variation aspect why you went to rally and not something like Formula 1 then?
Yeah, exactly — it’s what I love about rallying. When you’re on the limit in rallying, skimming trees and thinking, “that was really close to a big crash,” then that’s when it can’t be beaten as a feeling. It’s something very special. To be fair, that’s the reason I do it.
So it’s that thrill seeking thing — going as fast as you can, and getting away with it?
Yeah, that’s the idea. We want to be as close as we can to hurting ourselves, without hurting ourselves.
But when it goes wrong, you must end up in some wild crashes though?
Yeah, there was a crash I had in Italy in December, and that was a rather big one— 100mph into a barrier. I wasn’t very liked after that.
Does it knock your confidence a bit?
No, I’ve had so many crashes in my career that I’m used to it. It’s not ‘if we crash’, it’s ‘when we crash’. It’s just part of the job.
The side-shielded Helmet Lang sunglasses by one of Gus' favourite brands, Mykita
What do you do to shut off from all this? You were saying how important it was to find a balance.
Obviously last year with Covid it was easy. We all agreed to go on furlough, and I managed to switch off then. But when it’s normal season, you don’t get much time off. Usually a day at home with the dogs is how I switch off. Switching off can be a hard thing to do, but towards the end of last year, I found it much easier.
I suppose that brings us to one of your hobbies… buying and wearing sunglasses. Are there particular ones you go for?
No, not particularly — it’s more about how I’m feeling at the time. My favourite brands are Jacques Marie Mage, Thom Browne and Mykita. They’re the brands I always seem to be buying more of. We’re often in our race suits, looking the same as our team-mates, so sunglasses are a way of differentiating ourselves a little bit. We’ve not got too much to be wearing or carrying about, so sunglasses are a good addition. I always go for something a bit madder.
Are you into clothes too?
Yeah, I travel around a lot, so good attire is always important. I try and keep things casual and cool. Or at least I think it’s cool... I’ve never really had much care for what people think.
"We’re often in our race suits, looking the same as our team-mates, so sunglasses are a way of differentiating ourselves a little bit." - GG
Yeah, it seems like that’s a common theme for you, whereas a lot of people are very paranoid about what other people think.
I think one of the benefits of what my dad taught me when I was younger, was just to work hard, and then the harder I worked, the more self-belief I had. Obviously it’s a balancing game before the self-belief terms to arrogance or complacency, so that’s why my dad comes with me everywhere, to make sure that’s not the case.
To keep you in check?
Yeah. It’s a lot of pressure for relatively young shoulders, but as long as you work hard and try and be nice to other people, you can’t go too far wrong.
Definitely. Have you got any words of wisdom to wind this up?
I think I’ve made far too many mistakes in my life to be passing on any words of wisdom — maybe at 34 you can give me a call and I might have some.