The king of kingmakers

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No one was better than Martin Hines at turning promising young karters into racing royalty. Mr ZIP kart may be gone, but he leaves a lasting legacy…
By Rob Widdows

Quiz question: what do Lewis Hamilton, Gary Paffett, David Coulthard, Anthony Davidson and Jason Plato all have in common?

Answer: their talents were discovered and developed by triple FIA World Superkart Champion and ZIP kart designer and manufacturer Martin Hines. Known as Mr Karting, Hines died earlier this year after a long fight with cancer, leaving a legacy that will continue to inspire and influence every child who climbs into a kart. Hines was renowned for his Driver Development Programme, better known as Young Guns, and a World Championship team supported by the Racing Steps Foundation which are accepted worldwide as being the first rungs on the ladder to the Formula 1 grid.

In September 600 people attended Hines’s funeral, almost as many went to a memorial service, and at Silverstone in October people gathered at the BRDC clubhouse for a final farewell to the man who took karting from a little-known backwater to the world stage.

On a sunny autumn day in Northamptonshire beers were drunk, tears were shed, ever more torrid tales were told and memories swirled around Silverstone as his mates and rivals cheered Hines around his final lap. They came to remember him, not only as a friend but as one of the great movers and shakers in the motor racing business. To remember him as he would have wanted, swapping stories of battles on the track and looking forward to a future for their sport which would not have been possible without him.

This was a salute to Mr Karting, the man who made it possible for young racers to realise their dreams. Hines was their mentor and a solid pair of shoulders to shove them toward stardom. It is an amazing fact that ZIP Cadet karts have dominated every major championship for the last 15 years, constantly developed by the Young Guns team, an outfit that is generally accepted to be the most influential in Junior kart racing to this day. Lewis Hamilton’s boyhood victories came aboard a ZIP Cadet, and the machine is still the equipment of choice for five- to eight-year-olds who dream of following in his footsteps. Under-18 World Champion Jake Dennis and Tom Harvey, the Super 1 Cadet Champion, are just two of many talented youngsters who looked to Hines as their guru as they learnt how to race and win.

Consider also the involvement of F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone, whose patronage of Formula Kart Stars, a programme run by Anthony Hamilton and former kart champion Carolyn Grant-Sale, is yet another endorsement of a sport that he knows will supply the World Champions of the future.

As a driver, and long before his business exploits, Hines was one of the best, winning races and championships around the world. In his foreword to Hines’s autobiography, David Coulthard writes: ‘As a young karter I was in awe of Martin Hines. He was hard but he was extremely fair. I never raced wheel to wheel with him but I know he would have won.’

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One man who is very well placed to explain the influence and inspiration of Hines is McLaren Group chairman Ron Dennis. The F1 team has helped and developed several young drivers who began in karting including, of course, Hamilton.

“There are many young drivers who can drive a kart quickly,” observes Ron, “but one of Martin’s great skills was to identify those extra qualities that made a driver stand out – the winner instinct. He believed in Lewis from the earliest stages. He could see that Lewis was a winner rather than someone who could merely drive quickly. When Martin told you that a young driver was the complete package, you could believe him. He realised that there was a substantial gap in the level of professionalism between karting and single-seaters, that this gap was an obstacle to many young drivers going forward, and he did his best to raise the level of karting so as to reduce the impact of that obstacle.

“Martin always believed that budget should not be the sole arbiter of whether a driver moves forward or not. There’s plenty of talent and commitment on display in karting, and once that talent has been identified it has to be developed and put to the test. I’m proud to say that McLaren has helped several drivers who are now racing at a senior level to take that step.”

One young karter who was guided along the path to glory is double British Touring Car Champion Jason Plato, who raced for Hines’s team from 1983-86. He says the world of karting will never be quite the same.

“Martin is irreplaceable, there will be nobody else like him who could do what he has done for the sport,” he says. “He was such a generous man, he bought me everything I needed as a young lad, did all the deals for us. But it wasn’t just the financial support – it was the advice he gave us. I will be eternally grateful for the start he provided. Karting was his passion, and his legacy will live on for longer than any of us. He could spot that extra special ingredient in a driver, see if there was a cake to be made if you like. He had the vision to understand who had the right ingredients, which he could then help mould into a winning racer. “The word ‘legend’ is so often misused but in this case it’s correct. At every level of the sport Martin enabled young drivers to achieve things that on their own they could not have done. Very few people actually make it to the top in motor sport, but Martin was involved with a great many of those who did.”

Hines’s autobiography is called Every Split Second Counts – My Life With Fast Karts, Fast Women and F1 Superstars. The first four words are a clue to how he lived his life because, as they suggest, he was very competitive. That much was obvious to anyone who worked alongside him in one of his businesses, at Grand Prix Racewear (GPR) or in one of his karting teams. At the GPR headquarters at Silverstone, the atmosphere is one of energy and passion and a drive to succeed that will remain despite the loss of its founder and leader.

“He had a spark that drew people to him, he was passionate about the sport. Just talking about him gives me a buzz,” says Tina, Martin’s wife of 32 years. “He was a ball of energy and it was tough to keep up with him at times. He was a hard man, yes, but the rows were soon over and done with. He never bore a grudge, everything had to be out in the open and when things bugged him they had to be aired. People knew where they stood with Martin and that was important to him.

“He just knew if a young driver was going to make it – not just their skills on the track but when he spoke to them, how they behaved. There was nobody like him for wheedling out fantastic drivers. He would see a young kid on a kart and he’d get so excited if he thought this was one who had what it takes. His spark will always be a part of ZIP karts, and all of us here will be working to guard his legacy. What we have lost is a great talent spotter.”

Among those at the BRDC clubhouse were the men who had raced alongside – or more often behind – Hines. They included Reg Gange, who was teamed with Martin at Hermetite, and who won the British Grand Prix on a ZIP kart at Silverstone – at the time the world’s fastest kart circuit.

“It was really very quick round here,” says Gange, looking at what used to be the old Woodcote corner, long ago emasculated into what we see today. “When I won, Martin had just produced the GP full body and only three of us had it. I had mine a week before the race and made some modifications… Fortunately they worked and I won the race by some distance. The following year Martin incorporated all my mods into his new kart, as you do. But it was hairy then, very fast, and there was catch fencing with virtually no runoff like you see today. We were doing 150mph under the bridge and into Woodcote, and the tyres weren’t really made to do those speeds, they used to pop if you weren’t careful.

“We took the racing seriously, but we partied hard too. It was different then – we had a laugh, we were all friends. Martin did so much for karting. Some people didn’t like what he did – they say it made karting unaffordable – but someone had to do it and we’d never have had Superkart racing without him. Martin made karting what it is today, no question. These days the rich and ambitious fathers are the problem – they all think their kid is the next Schumacher, and they’re not. Most kids will go quick on a kart by the time they’re 15, but it’s picking the special ones, that’s the trick. And Martin was very good at that.”

Dennis has a story that illustrates the passion with which Hines approached the business of motor racing at the top level.

“He was passionate about ensuring that young drivers fulfilled their potential, and it wounded him personally if they fell short of that for want of finance or opportunity. Shortly after we announced Nigel Mansell would be driving for us in 1995, Martin and his wife came round for dinner. I made an off-hand remark about the challenge of identifying and retaining drivers with championship potential. Martin embarked on what I can only call a sales pitch. I genuinely couldn’t anticipate the direction it would take.

“He argued that we were making a strategic error in focusing our attention on drivers who were already an established proposition. He said we should identify drivers at karting level and then nurture them through the transitional stages to F1, thereby creating the perfect McLaren driver. Nobody else had attempted such a project before. This conversation ultimately resulted in the McLaren Mercedes Champions of the Future programme, and it was Martin’s energy and tenacity that brought together the vital elements such as the TV package which made it a success. Lewis’s career is a testament to that vision. Martin set young drivers an important example – that you cannot succeed on raw talent alone, that hard work and discipline bring rewards.”

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Today, the racing side of Hines’s GPR empire is run by former driver Matt Kelly, who is responsible for the race teams, the development programmes and a partnership with Cranfield University known as Cranfield Motorsport Simulation. The simulator training programme is part of GPR’s plan to become a ‘one-stop shop’ for young drivers.

“I’ve been in racing all my life and have met some competitive people,” says Kelly. “But Martin was super-competitive, whether he was walking down the corridor, making a cup of tea or doing a deal. It was ridiculous, and sometimes he wasn’t easy. There was this massive work ethic. He was meticulous, but that’s how GPR has grown from his days as a kart racer. People looked up to him. If he said this is the way you do it, then people got on and did it. He had good ideas, did good deals – if he had 500 engines to sell he’d set up a class for those engines.

“ZIP is a respected brand worldwide, karting is the accepted way into F1, and Martin achieved all that. One thing he hated was dirty driving, people banging into each other on the track, blocking or weaving. When he saw that at the top level he would say, ‘They wouldn’t be f****** around like that if they were on Superkarts, or they’d be dead.’”

The last word comes from Dennis, a man who knows the values of hard work, tenacity and integrity. “I remember when we let Martin test one of our F1 cars and he rolled it, doing a substantial amount of damage. He telephoned me to explain himself and was very clear that the accident had come about through his error. Few racing drivers will confess to making a mistake, especially when the consequences have been that destructive, but Martin Hines was a great character.”

Gone now, but not forgotten. The work and the planning will be paying dividends for decades to come. Every talented Young Gun is where they are today because Martin Hines showed them how to get there. The chosen few will go even further.

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