Karting: Small cars still demand serious driving: Matchbox cars on the circuit are no novelty items but a nursery. Jon Culley reports

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The Independent Online
A MONTH ago, Damon Hill cruised sedately around the Silverstone racing circuit in the blue Williams-Renault, one hand guiding the steering wheel, the other gripping a huge Union Jack as he squeezed every drop of emotion from the greatest moment in his career: victory in the British Formula One Grand Prix.

Yesterday, the historic Northamptonshire track hosted more Grand Prix racing, but of a somewhat different kind as more than 200 drivers contested six race categories for the British kart Grand Prix.

If the notion of swarms of go-karts buzzing along in the tyremarks of Formula One giants seems a little bizarre, then the reality is no less so. Think of tiny Matchbox cars on a road designed for big Dinkys and you have the picture. But this is no novelty event on Silverstone's busy calendar, not to be lumped in with the truck-racing branch of motor sport, despite the fairground connotations that attach to it. This is serious stuff, demanding driving skills, the experts insist, which are the equal if not better than any Hill will need to call on in pursuit of his objectives this year.

Indeed, as Martin Hines, the Frank Williams of the karting world, explains, this is not an offshoot but the essential root of the whole motor-racing tree.

'It is the nursery for Formula One,' Hines says. 'Of all the Formula One drivers competing today, there will be no more than two or three who did not start in karting.

'Damon Hill is an exception, having started out on a motorcycle, but Michael Schumacher, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, the late Ayrton Senna, all the household names - most were champions in karts.'

Kart Grand Prix racing has existed a relatively short time, since 1978, but the sport arrived in Britain in the 1950s, brought here by American airmen.

The first karts, Hines said, consisted of a steel frame, four wheels and a lawnmower engine. Some of the machines in action yesterday did not look substantially different, although these were only the 60cc, 55mph models driven by the youngest competitors.

Moving up the various classes, the cars acquire larger engines, up to 250cc, more bits of bodywork and resemble Formula One cars in miniature, right down to the on-board computer. And the speed - how does 160mph, with no seatbelt, no safety cell, wind rushing past your exposed helmet and the road two inches from the seat of your pants rate among white- knuckle rides?

'It is the most exciting form of motor racing that exists,' Hines insists. 'I've been racing for

30-odd years and there is nothing to beat this. It is the same as Formula One except you might have 25 karts going into a bend together, wheels bashing against wheels, and you can go from 30th on the grid to first if you drive well enough.

'It teaches you to drive. No racing team will be interested in a driver who has not competed in karts. Schumacher still races karts once a month to keep his reflexes sharp.'

Apart from racing himself - he added the 250cc Formula E title to his European crown and five past world titles yesterday - Hines manufactures the ubiquitous 'Zipkart' and runs the sport's most successful racing team, which numbers the Williams No 2, David Coulthard, among its most recent old boys.

The race which was most likely to contain a future Grand Prix champion was that contested by the youngest of all these boy racers, aged eight to 12, in their 60cc machines. If they possess the talent, they will have graduated into junior motor racing proper before they are old enough to step inside a 250cc kart.

Yesterday's winning cadet, bespectacled Niki Richardson, aged 12, from Hullbridge, near Southend, is inspired by Damon Hill. 'He's loved racing cars since he was a baby,' his father John, a haulage contractor, said. 'When other kids watched Noddy, he was glued to Formula One.'

(Photograph omitted)

Results, Sporting Digest, page 31