Wilson reaps rewards of dad's weekend hobby

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The Independent Online

When Justin Wilson leaves the startline at Silverstone on Sunday it will be the proudest moment for his leading supporter - his father, Keith - who was prepared to sell his business if a gamble to raise money for his son's Minardi drive failed to come off.

Father and son will carry the hopes of the nation's aspiring young racers into the British Grand Prix, for theirs is a tale enacted every weekend at kart tracks across the country. In 1987 they went to watch at the Wombwell track, near Barnsley, because Wilson Snr wanted a Sunday hobby.

They got hooked, and Wilson Jnr's long frame was squeezed into a 50 mph Cadet kart. Soon they were taking it very seriously. While Justin did the winning on track, Keith kept wielding the spanners while avoiding the "karting dad" trap of arguing with other parents. "The hardest part," he says, "was picking the age at which you stopped fighting the kids' battles for them. There's a point where you tell yourself you mustn't get involved."

Today he is going through it all again with younger son, Stefan, who is set on following his older brother the way Ralf Schumacher did Michael. They climbed the ladder, to 100cc karts and then junior formula cars. Justin became the first 16-year-old ever to win his first car race, but the real turning point came when he won the 1998 Formula Palmer Audi championship, the series founded by the former Formula One racer Jonathan Palmer.

The success led not just to Wilson winning a fully paid Formula 3000 drive for 1999, but gaining the ebullient Palmer as his manager. The alliance would be strong enough not just to win the 2001 Formula 3000 title, something no other British driver has done, but to overcome the handicaps of Wilson's height - 6ft 4in - and lack of money. This year Palmer created the unique Invest in Wilson scheme whereby people could buy shares in him, and recently it raised the £1.5m to secure his Minardi seat.

Keith Wilson has learned the "racing dad" art of remaining calm in crisis. He recalls an accident at Brands Hatch in which Justin injured his feet, just as he himself had done during his own short racing career in the 1970's. "It took two hours to cut him out. I was in a terrible state. I reproached myself, feeling it was all my fault. But within a couple of hours, when I knew Justin was OK, all I could think about was the next race."

Karting sons and fathers will be keen to monitor their progress on Sunday. The Minardi will not be good enough to allow Justin to do more than run near the back, but just seeing him racing in the big league will be enough for Keith - for the time being.

"It's fabulous to be here. It's not nice being last and it'll be good to get out of that situation, but people keep reminding me that there's only 20 people in the world sat at that table. And Justin is one of them."