In motorsport terms, Australia is a heavyweight. The country can lay claim to international champions in a wide variety of categories and remains a consistent producer of talent both on the track and in the paddock.
While plenty of Aussies fly the nest in search of success, the country is also home to a thriving domestic scene. In particular, the Supercars Championship is a destination series where drivers can spend their whole career, meaning talented local racers do not need to look beyond Australia's shores.
For those that do, the challenge is significant. It is easy to forget that heading for Europe means taking a round-the-world trip to a very different culture and climate – and that's not to mention the racing aspect.
One driver who has recently taken that plunge is Shae Davies. A native of Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast, Davies has already climbed one mountain by reaching Supercars in 2016. Now, he's tackling Europe.
Whereas many promising young Aussies will depart in their teens, Davies had built a career at home before making the move. Now, at 29, he's effectively starting from scratch.
"Pretty much my whole career has been in Australia until this year," says Davies, who first moved up the ranks through the country's domestic Formula Ford and Porsche Carrera Cup categories.
"My dream was always V8 Supercars, so I progressed down that path. I did a few years in the development series and then got a break during 2016.
"That was a baptism of fire but a hell of a good experience. Due to sponsorship I couldn't really continue [into 2017] and so I went back to the development series.
"Last year, due to a lack of opportunities in Supercars, I started opening my eyes to the rest of the world," he explains.
This led him to contest Blancpain GT Series Asia aboard a Porsche 911 run by the Craft-Bamboo squad, an experience he describes as "a hell of a lot of fun."
"I really enjoyed the paddock atmosphere, the cars and the style of racing," Davies adds.
So, at the end of 2019, there were two potential paths: remain in Australia and race in the renamed Blancpain GT World Challenge Asia, or head to the other side of the planet to go up against Europe's finest with Belgian Audi Club Team WRT.
The outcome of that decision explains why a bloke from the Gold Coast now finds himself residing in a Belgian countryside cottage.
The culture shock
It is not unheard of for drivers to live outside Europe and commute in for their racing commitments. When Shane van Gisbergen won the 2016 Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup title, he did so alongside a full-season campaign in V8 Supercars. In fact, the Kiwi won both championships in what was a landmark season.
But Van Gisbergen's efforts in Europe consisted of five Endurance rounds, one of which he missed due to a clash. Davies is contesting the full Blancpain GT Series, dovetailing his Endurance Cup duties with a programme in Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe. That's 10 dates in total, as well as two official tests. Any thoughts of commuting soon disappeared.
"Logistically, it's not easy. Doing the full season meant it would be a bit hard going back and forth from Australia, so I've got a place near the team in Belgium, which has been really useful. It's definitely accelerated our relationship-building process. I'm 10 minutes away by road and it's good to spend time with the crew."
That said, making such a big move is never simple.
"In Europe, the cultural differences between areas that are so close geographically is quite strange to me," he explains. "Australia is such a big mass of land, you can travel for hours on the plane and everything is pretty much the same when you get off! Here, I can drive two hours and be in the UK, where everything is quite similar to what I know, then drive back across and there's very limited English spoken.
“It's on me to sort [the language barrier] out, but it's definitely challenging. Just going to the supermarket, you don't realise how much you need your language. I live near the beach at home and now I'm in a little country cottage in south Belgium – it's quite a different experience, for sure!”
If that wasn't enough to wrap his head around, every track on the 2019 schedule is a journey into the unknown for Davies – a daunting task for a driver trying to prove his merit on the European stage.
"It's tough," he confirms. "In first practice, when you want to be fine-tuning the car, I'm learning my surroundings. You're behind every time and I don't really come good until the race, which I'm quite proud to say has been a strong suit for me. But it's definitely hard to get up to speed as quickly as I'd like, because I'm up against guys who've done this year in, year out. When I rock up, it's for real. That's tough, but I'm living the dream because these are such awesome cars to drive."
He has also been impressed by the standard of the paddock that he’s found in the Blancpain GT Series.
“It's a nice treat to have hospitality and somewhere to relax during the race weekend. Having multiple trucks for the team and the sheer number of people, all of that is impressive to me.
“In Supercars, each team is limited to one truck per-car, the crews are very small, and there's no hospitality. The teams don't have their own hideaway, so it's a different experience. Australia is still very professional, but to come here and see some of the big rigs is impressive.”
Learning the ropes with WRT
Making a successful switch to Europe can hinge on selecting the right team with which to do so. In that respect, Davies is perfectly placed. As the most successful outfit in Blancpain GT Series history, WRT has the resources and knowledge to make his adjustment as smooth as possible.
"If you had a wish-list of teams to join when coming over from Australia, they'd be at the top," Davies confirms. "They've had so much success – it's actually quite daunting!"
He is also able to draw upon the knowledge of his team-mates, who have considerable experience of European competition. At Endurance Cup rounds, he shares the #17 Audi R8 LMS with Britain’s Alex MacDowall and French racer Paul Petit.
"Alex and I get on like a house on fire. He's a Pom and I'm an Aussie and we have a similar sense of humour, and Paul is a good solid guy as well."
He describes his season thus far as "character building". The #17 crew did not even make the start of the opening round at Monza due to a practice crash, but momentum has started to build with Silver Cup points for ninth in class at Silverstone and seventh at the Circuit Paul Ricard 1000kms.
And there has been promise in Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe, where Davies shares with hotly-tipped teenager Tom Gamble. A Silver Cup podium and sixth overall in the opening race at Brands Hatch hinted at good things to come for the pair.
"Tom is super-fast and has really good credentials at a very young age. He knows the tracks and has that raw pace, while I bring a lot of experience, so I think we're a formidable little duo. That was shown by our race one result at Brands, so I hope we can continue that at Misano.
"Of course, I'd like to have had more success, but looking at it objectively and given the number of cars there are you need to keep your expectations under control. I hope by the end of the year we have a few more podiums – that's the goal."
The next opportunity to spray some champagne will come at Misano, a circuit that Davies describes as being “kind of Aussie” in its character. “It's short and it's stop-start, which I'm used to from back home,” he adds. “I hope that plays into my favour.”
When it comes to the long term, he remains open minded. Clearly he has not made such a move with the intention of it being a one-year programme, but equally he cannot guarantee that his future lies in Europe.
"This might sound corny, but it will depend on whether Europe wants me. A lot of things need to line up, because at the end of the day this is a business. There is interest from my side and I love the racing, so if something can work out next year I'll be happy to come back. But we're only four races in, so with more than half the season to go there's a lot to play for.”
He’s not wrong: over the coming weeks Davies will tackle two Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe events and the marquee Total 24 Hours of Spa. If he can take a few trophies back to the cottage in Belgium over the next month, it should go a long way to ensuring that he’s extending his stay beyond 2019.
Qualifying for both Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe contests will begin at 13.15 on Saturday, with one-hour races taking place at 19.00 on Saturday evening and on Sunday at 14.00. These will be the headline act for a particularly busy event, with support action coming from GT4 European Series, Blancpain GT Sports Club and Lamborghini Super Trofeo.
➢ Provisional Timetable