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Driven Dean's back on track
Two years after cancer wrecked his Formula One dream, Dean Stoneman is preparing for a remarkable comeback.
He will resurrect his career over the Easter weekend, when he takes the wheel at Brands Hatch for the opening round of the Porsche Carrera Cup GB.
But Dean is grateful just to be alive.
Since winning the 2010 F2 Championship – which he followed by driving faster than Rubens Barrichello, Pastor Maldonodo and Paul Di Resta while testing for the Williams F1 Team in November 2010 – he has come through the biggest challenge of his life.
Still only 22, Dean was found to be riddled with tumours when finally diagnosed with cancer in January 2011.
Two days after agreeing to drive the Renault 3.5 for ISR Racing later that year – with ambitions to follow Sebastian Vettel's path into F1 in 2012 – his worst fears were confirmed.
“I signed up on the Monday and was in hospital in the Wednesday,” he recalls.
“I had the rarest form of testicular cancer, with symptoms spread from head to toe - including sore nipples, spots on my back, heartburn, pain through my groin, a lump in my stomach and a blocked kidney.
“I had a tumour on the left of my brain the size of ten pence piece, pins and needles in my face and I couldn’t speak.
“The doctors said ‘1’ was OK and ‘4’ serious and then marked me 4+++ – the highest you can get. “My X-rays looked like a snowstorm – they counted 250 tumours covering my right testicle, liver, lung, chest, and brain.
“I was two days from untreatable, two hours from losing my legs and a kidney and was given a 30 per cent survival chance.
“A lot of people think it was just an operation to take my right testicle out but it was intense, involving two three-week cycles of chemotherapy for 18 hours a day.
“I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. It was the biggest race of my life.
“They told me if I had any bleeding or coughing up of blood I would have a zero per cent chance [of survival].
“So it got scary when I had blood coming out of my toe nails! It would have been so easy for me to just sit there and give up. Within a week I’d have gone.
“But the day I went in the nurse said ‘never give up’. I can’t thank her and the amazing staff at Southampton General enough. I owe everything to them.”
We are at Silverstone, where Dean is enjoying his lunch, having driven faster than his more experienced rivals during the morning session of his first official Porsche test day.
Last year, he prepared for this day by winning the P1 SuperStock UK powerboat championship in typically fearless fashion.
He is the son of a former British powerboat champion, but racing cars is what Dean was born to do and his passion for the sport is evident as he reflects on his incredible journey.
“After being diagnosed I never thought I’d get back in a race car,” he admits. “At the time the most important thing was my health.
“I was in bed for 24 weeks and for three months I couldn’t walk all the way upstairs.
“But two months after the chemotherapy and four operations, I tried out the World Series Renault car with my fingers literally strapped to the steering wheel!”
Dean has not yet fully recovered from the nerve damage in his extremities.
“If I had the physical strength to race cars I would have done last year,” he said. “Boats are quite hard on the body, but nowhere near as physical as racing a car so the powerboating was a bit of fun to get back enjoying myself again, living every day as the last one.”
Dean’s career has evolved through circumstance. He began as a motocross rider but switched to go-karting when the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2000 reduced access to Hampshire’s farmland.
The effects of the chemotherapy make a return in the two-seater Porsche 911 GT3 the logical next step.
“I’ve got a lot of side-effects; tingling pins and needles in my feet all the time, cold feet and the nerve damage means the feel through the pedals has been a problem in the cars,” he reveals, casually. “It’s just natural now, I know what feels right through my legs, but to get all my fitness back will take me two years.
“Hopefully I’ll get back to where I was, but the chances are I won’t fully recover from the nerve damage, now I’ve had two cycles of chemo’.
“That’s why I decided to go with sports cars this year, they’re a lot easier on the body.
“I can drive the Porsche all day, every day, as I could a single-seater when I was fit.
“But now I would struggle to hold on in a single-seater for half a day. And I’ve been knocked back so far I feel physically drained after a day’s testing in the Porsche.
“It’s about seeing what works and what doesn’t, but my fitness is improving all the time.”
Having won the 2010 F2 Championship while unaware of the seriousness of his symptoms, Dean’s fitness was an advantage during the chemotherapy.
He was diagnosed soon after undergoing intensive G-force training with Mark Webber’s fitness coach, Don Gatherer, following his successful try-out with Williams.
“During F1 testing I carried heartburn tablets everywhere, but a lot of my aches and pains were put down to the extra exertion of driving an F1 car,” he explains.
"I’m pleased I fulfilled a dream by driving one but, realistically, I’m now too far behind to get a seat in F1 and the costs are astronomical.”
It will cost a fraction of an F1 budget for Dean to race in the Porsche Carrera Cup. His driving suit hangs a little more loosely on his 5ft 11in frame than it did in his late teens and now bears the logo of the Wessex Cancer Trust, for whom he is a youth ambassador.
He hopes it will soon be joined by those of sponsors willing to share in his story.
Dean signed up to the Porsche Carrera Cup last month on the advice of Tiff Needell, the Hampshire-born former F1 driver and television presenter.
He was then put in contact with Redline Racing by Tim Harvey, the former British Touring Car Champion, who won the Porsche Carrera Cup in 2008 and 2010 – and who will be commentating on this year’s Championship for ITV.
“I didn’t think about racing a Porsche, until I asked Tiff what I should do when I saw him last month,” explains Dean.
“Within two days I was in a Porsche on a race track. From there it’s been test, test, test.
“The speed is different to what I’m used to. In a Formula Renault I’m lifting a little in sixth gear when I go round the first corner at Silverstone.
“But in a Porsche I’m shifting down into fourth gear from fifth.”
Dean will return to Silverstone for the penultimate race of the championship in September, but is most looking forward to racing in his home county at Thruxton in May.
“There’s good support there and it’s the fastest course – I’ll be hitting 168mph on the back straight,” smiles the former Wyvern schoolboy, who lives in Bishop’s Waltham.
Dean also knows he will at times have to rein in his innate need for speed.
“I look at second as first loser but points mean prizes in this series,” he says. “Although I’ll try to win every race, it’s about finishing and consistency.”
This time last year, Dean was considering IndyCar racing in the US, but now has the next few years mapped out.
“It’s a stepping stone, you have to start somewhere, and the Carrera Cup seems the right route because next year I can go to the Porsche Super Cup, which supports many of the F1 races.
“Eventually I’d like an opportunity in Le Mans, which is the ideal place to develop my career and get paid.
“At the moment that’s the plan. I could be doing this for the next ten years at least.”
Whatever he goes on to achieve, Dean will never be allowed to forget the biggest race of his life, not least because of the regular check-ups and scans he will undergo for the next seven years, before he can officially be given the all-clear.
The scars will always be there, but he has not just changed physically over the last two years. Dean is more grateful than ever for his two three year-old sons, Theo and Jaydon.
“They’re the best thing that ever happened,” he said. “I’m definitely a different person. When you’re in that situation you actually realise what you have.
“Before I was quite lively but now I tend to stay low and enjoy myself with family and friends.
“You don’t realise what you’ve got till you lose it but now I get to do the job I love again – driving a race car fast.”
More information can be found at deanstoneman.co.uk