Go-karting is more than a hobby. For many, it's the first rung on the F1 career ladder, says Anthony Peacock

Every kid born with testosterone and the urge to pedal a pushbike as fast as possible fantasises about becoming the next Michael Schumacher. For most, these dreams are supplanted by more pressing teenage concerns such as outré haircuts and the charms of Emma from the sixth form.

But for a lucky few blessed with talent and rich parents the fantasy becomes reality. Their teenage fumblings will just have to wait: there will be plenty of that as a rich and famous Grand Prix driver later.

Or maybe not even so much later. McLaren Formula 1 star Kimi Raikkonen, who lost the 2003 championship by just one point to Schumacher, had only completed 24 car races before he made his Formula 1 debut a year earlier (where incidentally he scored a World Championship point). Before then, other competitors had voiced concerns about whether or not he was experienced enough to be given the superlicence needed to race in F1. After all, the DVLA wouldn't countenance licensing a 16-year-old to drive a 50 horsepower Ford Fiesta. So why should somebody barely five years older have access to the 900 horsepower in a Formula 1 car?

Racing drivers, like policemen, are getting younger and younger. Britain's Jenson Button was only 21 when he started his first Formula 1 race. He had to be driven to and from the circuit in Australia because he was too young to hire a car.

But even Button seems positively geriatric compared to Lewis Hamilton. The British karting sensation was not even a teenager when he was signed up by McLaren as part of their young driver programme several years ago. He's also black: a sure sign that the established order in Formula 1 is changing.

The conventional career route to the top used to start with go-karts at around age eight and move on to Formula Ford at age 16, when young drivers were first let loose on single-seaters and proper circuits. Formula Ford cars use the same 1600cc engine as was once found in the Ford Escort, and when the young Schumachers had mastered that they could step up to Formula Renault: more serious racing cars equipped with a Renault two-litre engine and adjustable aerodynamics. From there only Formula 3 (essentially a mini-Formula 1 car) stood between a young driver and Grand Prix glory.

Then Raikkonen came along to subvert the system by skipping the Formula 3 part entirely and going from unknown Finn to F1 superstar in 18 months. No wonder young Hamilton sees him as a role model.

But while Hamilton now enjoys the backing of one of the richest F1 teams in the business, most youngsters (or their parents) have to cope by themselves. The costs involved would finance a fleet of supercars. A season in Formula Ford costs around £100,000, while Formula Renault will relieve dad's wallet of £140,000 - if it is kept to a budget. Even top-level European Championship karting (as done and won by Button) can easily cost £100,000.

That is where Zip Formula comes in. The series is the brainchild of multiple karting champion Martin Hines, and aims to bridge the gap between karting and cars - all for around £35,000. Hines is a guru who leads by example. His son Luke is a factory driver with Vauxhall in the British Touring Car Championship while another one of his protégés, Gary Paffett, is racing for Mercedes in Germany's prestigious DTM Touring Car series.

Hines believes that there is no point in a driver simply learning his trade in a season that can cost the same as a semi-detached house and his efforts have now been recognised by British motor sport's governing body, the MSA. Two years ago, the MSA put together a three-tier plan designed to guide young drivers towards the Holy Grail of Formula 1 within a reasonably affordable structure. Step one: Zip Formula. Step two: Formula Renault. Step three: Formula 3. Fame, girls, and an enormous yacht are bound to follow.

Yet after a successful start in 2002, Zip Formula did not run this year because of a contractual dispute with engine supplier Ford. The problems have now been solved and Hines is upbeat for 2005.

"So many drivers and teams have pushed me to start the series up again, and it's going to be even bigger and better next year," says Hines. "We offer safe and competitive 120 horsepower cars which are run to a realistic budget on a level playing field. Because we're not a 'chequebook' formula, we produce quality drivers who are ready to make the next step."

Money talks, and for those wanting to steal a march on the opposition, there is always Formula BMW. The cars look like proper Formula 1 machines with fully adjustable wings, slick tyres, and a top speed just short of 150mph. However, the championship's USP is a special dispensation from the MSA allowing 15-year-olds to race. There's a generous prize package and the series uses the same events as the British Touring Car Championship. But such prestige comes at a price, which is reckoned to be something in the region of £180,000 a season. Unless your dad's surname is Hilton, it might be worth looking elsewhere. But come to it with a proven track record and it becomes easier to attract sponsorship. The reigning Formula BMW champion is Tim Bridgman, who won Zip Formula in 2003 and seems set for a bright future. You heard the name here first.

Another series designed for drivers who still use Clearasil is T-cars, which allows 14-year-olds to drive at 100mph in mini-touring cars. The words "tempting" and "fate" might come to mind, but the cars are strong and the series is reasonably good value at around £30,000 a season.

The vast majority of these young drivers are never going to make it and will no doubt go to college and end up as tax accountants in a few years - but at least they will be able to look back with fondness at their glory days. Aged 17 and a bit...

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