17 June 2007

At the start of the first rain-soaked Buckmore Park practice session yesterday 11-year-old Aidan Hills sat concentrating in his seat while his father, Darren, brought the kart carrier towards him. Eleven years ago this was where the Lewis Hamilton dream began.

The Buckmore Park go-kart circuit is a little, self-contained world of kids and dads, karts and motor homes and spanners, tucked below the M2 just south of Chatham. It is now deep in local legend how in 1996 Ron Dennis came to watch the prophetically named Champions of the Future event and first clapped eyes on Lewis Hamilton, as the little wonder from Hertfordshire took the race by the throat.

One supposes that Ron and Lewis were rather too involved with Indianapolis qualifying yesterday to be having misty-eyed recollections of their first fateful encounter. Indeed Aidan and his scrap car-dealing dad were also too busy making adjustments to their Honda Cadet, the lowest form of kart life, to indulge in fantasies of Formula One. But you guess that Bill Sisley, the Buckmore Park chairman, will remember the Hamilton race until his dying day.

“Lewis had been coming here with his father since he was eight,” said the man whose commitment to kids and karting has an almost messianic zeal about it. “You could see straight away that he had something. Because the Cadets are so basic it is much more about the driver than the machine. Within two or three laps I can see if a boy is different. They have a touch and a talent that puts them apart.”

The story never flags in repetition. For while Bill’s own 20 years in karts may have left him creaky in the back and deaf in the right ear, he retains a passion for the sport you can warm your hands on. Johnny Herbert was one of the first stars that he mentored and his son, Tom Sisley, won both the Cadet and Junior British Championship and became a team-mate of Jenson Button on the European tour.

“What you are looking for,” he says as another set of hopefuls whirr off round the tyre-padded helter-skelter of the track, “is natural speed allied to competitive edge, and the intelligence to react to changing circumstances.

“Lewis always had terrific natural speed. We are talking about a feel, and a balance of the car underneath him. He is a great over-taker, takes a great line through a course and above all he wants to win. At one stage I thought he might be getting over-eager.”

Bill then goes on to relate a tale of Hamilton throwing his toys out of the pram after being out-gunned by a boy with a superior car, nodding in recognition of Lewis’s initial reaction to the situation in Monaco when he was unable to overtake McClaren’s world champion Fernando Alonso. Significantly, he then contrasts this to Button, a wonderfully smooth driver who never crashes but whose hunger for victory might not match that of the younger man.

“But I think Lewis has already answered queries on his temperament,” added Sisley, who watched Hamitlon on TV yesterday as he claimed pole position for today’s US Grand Prix. “I think he suckered Alonso [in qualifying]. He had held a little back and Alonso made a mistake. I remember Alonso in karts, he was very good until he got beat and then he sulked. I thought Lewis was very, very impressive. And with Ron as his mentor, he has had the ultimate tutor and heavyweight financial backing.”

Ah, yes, the ‘F’ word on which so many promising careers, including that of Sisley’s son, have foundered and which already begins to confront the Hills family from Worthing as they sit in their motor home and prepare to do something about the brakes before the next of the day’s six Cadet practice sessions.

“I haven’t really got any spare cash,” Darren Hills says good-naturedly. “This kart cost about £2,500 and everything else is going to get much more expensive, so we are going to need a sponsor from somewhere, and after he won the O Plate [the one-day championship in May which gives Aidan the right to wear the letter ‘O’ on his car for the season] Roger from RPM came up with a new motor, and that must be worth some £1,200.

“But I have always loved cars, Aidan has really taken to this, and it means that the two of us are really involved together.”

His son, a slight, five-stone figure gulping some squash at the other end of the table, nods in agreement.

“I have given up football except for practice,” he says, “because I want to concentrate on this. Once I won the O Plate things seem to have taken off for me and I have won five, six, no, seven races since.”

So I have to ask: “What about the future?” Aidan’s face goes far away as he looks out of the window and, inevitably, says: “I would like to be in Formula One.”

A few yards away there is another spanner, another dad, and another little dreamer, the sunny-faced Ashley England, who is 10 years old but presently leads the Super I Honda Cadet class, which runs throughout the season.

“If he were to go up a class,” says Alan England, as he works on the kart, “it would cost us the best part of £35,000 for the year. So you see that you have to be successful to get the funding. But this involves all the family and we are having the greatest fun out of it.”

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