Real boy racers given kart blanche

Guy Hodgson pays a visit to Buckmore Park in Kent to uncover the Formula One 'Champions of the Future'
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The scenes around the paddock were familiar. Shapely women mingled among the dirt and the oil, fussing over their drivers while wondering whether their nerves could stand the strain of viewing their loved ones defy physics on the track. The difference was that these were mothers, not wives or girlfriends.

"I watch," one said, her tone betraying the depth of her bravery. "A lot of mothers can't but I feel I'm in control of events if I'm there. It's stupid, I know." Did she worry? Her eyebrows threatened to take off. "Of course," she said. "Of course I do."

The object of her concern at Buckmore Park, near Chatham in Kent, looks like a tadpole, his head made enormous by a helmet, the spindliness of his limbs exaggerated by his overalls, but these eight to 16-year-olds hope - no, expect - to be transformed into princes of motor racing.

The event was billed Champions of the Future and is no idle boast. Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost took their first fix of speed behind the wheel of a kart and all but two of today's grand prix drivers took that route towards the pinnacle of motor racing. One of them is Damon Hill, who hopes to wrap up the Formula One world championship this weekend in Portugal, but more of that later.

"The great drivers today were great kart drivers yesterday," said Ron Dennis, boss of the McLaren-Mercedes Formula One team, who sponsor the six-race series. "It's a common thread. There's no doubt that a small percentage of the drivers you see here will make it to the top. In 10 years if everything went smoothly."

There might have been embryonic grand prix drivers at Buckmore Park but the scenes would have astonished people whose exposure to motor racing is limited to Formula One. There is no equivalent of Williams, for example, a team so dominant that others, mechanical breakdown or mistakes apart, are destined to follow and, glory be, overtaking is done on the track instead of in pit lanes. The karts were wheel to wheel, fighting for an advantage.

A short while spent at the hairpin closest to the paddock showed why mothers close their eyes and pray. Kids only just too old to be playing with Dinky cars were fractions apart, their tyres screaming in protest, a plastic petrol tank wedged between their legs and their rears two inches from the ground. They are boy racers in the best terms of the words, too young and not daft enough to confine their wheelspins to fast exits from pub car parks on a Friday night.

"The smell of two-stroke and the noise, it's all very nostalgic," Martin Brundle, the Jordan driver, said. "You miss the hooligan element, if you like, in Formula One, charging around and having a good old scrap. The tracks are big enough to overtake and the atmosphere is terrific."

There are other qualities required in an F1 driver, like a thick skin when your boss tells you to accelerate in the direction of another team, and the organisers of the Champions of the Future series were not exactly left on the grid when it came to landing a soft blow on a body that has taken a verbal pummelling in recent weeks. "If he'd raced karts," a press release read, "would Damon Hill be better at overtaking?"

The gist of the argument was that karts teach parts of racing that are hard to acquire elsewhere. Hill, so paddock wisdom had it, does not go by his rivals with the smooth ease of Schumacher because karting was left out of his education.

"Karts are so evenly matched," said Martin Hines, three times the world karting champion and creator of the series, "that the slightest error can mean you lose 10 places. If you go off line a whole train of karts come by bumper to bumper and there's no gap for you to get back in. It teaches you not to make any mistakes."

David Coulthard, who raced with Hill at Williams before joining McLaren, would not be so stupid as to criticise a driver who is poised to win the world championship, but he began his racing in karts at the age of 11 and acknowledges the debt. "I learned how to drive in them," he said. "I used to race every weekend, four times a day, whereas now I only compete in 16 races a year. My skills were honed in karts. All I've done since is develop my knowledge of how to set a car up."

The sheer enormity of the transition through the various grades of motor racing hits you when Coulthard, a grand prix driver for three seasons, reveals he only paid off his debts incurred on the way up last year. It's not just the racing that makes champions for the future important, he says, but the education programme being run alongside it to teach young drivers out-of-car skills like dealing with potential sponsors and the media.

"There's a much clearer route into cars now," he said. "Even when I was starting there was no natural progression from karts in this country, whereas now these kids will tell you which type of car they will be driving and in what year. It's all mapped out. There's no doubt about it, some of the youngsters here will make it."

Like possibly the two youngsters from the Formula Cadets race who clearly were aggrieved with each other after a heat. There was no violence but a few pouts and glares were exchanged before the duo retired to their own teams with tales to tell. As they had been saying all afternoon, a perfect grounding for Formula One.