Prize pupils

John Surtees has a vision of how Britain should promote its young driver talent. And through the Henry Surtees Challenge he's starting to make it happen

By Ed Foster

In our November issue, John Surtees made very apparent his views on what the motor racing ladder should look like. In short, there needs to be a clear route to the top and if you win a championship, Surtees believes you should also win a scholarship for the following season in the next series up the ladder. This way real talent is guaranteed a chance, regardless of financial backing.

Typically, Surtees is not content just to voice an opinion. He wants to make a difference to young drivers himself, and that's where the Henry Surtees Challenge comes in, in the form of a karting event held at Buckmore Park in October, pitting a bumper crop of young drivers head to head for an amazing selection of prizes.

The rewards on offer were what every aspiring young racing driver dreams of (see right), and 45 hopefuls paid the £500 entry fee to take part. "This is one of the most competitive fields of karters I've seen here," said Buckmore founder Bill Sisley, a man who has been involved in karting since 1973, helping the likes of Hamilton, Button, Wheldon and Herbert along the way. The field was so competitive that some seasoned single-seater racers didn't make the A Final (the field was split in two, the slower half competing in the B Final).

At the front was Jack Aitken, a 17-year-old who has been competing in the now-defunct InterSteps series. He set fastest time in his qualifying session, finished third in the first final, and then won the main final by an impressive 7.9 seconds. The prize he chose from the 12 on offer was the GP3 test with Carlin Motorsport in Portugal. "They probably won't be offering me a drive off the back of the test," he said with a smile after the prize-giving, "but it's the contacts that are so important. It's good to get to know the team as Carlin's right up there and GP3 is a premier series."

The list of entries for the Henry Surtees Challenge was impressive — from 2012 KF2 European Champion Ben Barnicoat to the likes of GP3 racer Alex Brundle and 2012 Formula Renault BARC Champion Scott Malvern. But Sisley, who is based at Buckmore every day, wasn't surprised the quiet Londoner won by such a margin. "He's got the raw pace," he said. So, I asked, why hasn't Aitken won any championships in karts? He came second in the 2010 Super 1 Title, and in cars he has yet to really stamp his mark. "His parents insisted that he had a good education," Sisley explains. "He goes to Westminster school and that's had priority over his karting. He's always had natural speed, but he maybe hasn't had enough time to spend testing like the rest of them do.

"There's so much potential there, though. If you take some of the other racers, they've had the best of the best from when they were six years old — I'm not knocking them, I'm just explaining why some have been very successful. They've had the results because they take it more seriously and everything else comes second to their karting career. I'm not saying Jack's parents aren't ambitious, because they are. I agree with the way they've done it, I would have done it the same way."

The focus on school is paying off — this year Aitken got 10 A"s in his GCSEs. However, 2013 isn't an exam year so Sisley expects him to start producing the results. "He's been driving for Fortec Motorsport this year [in InterSteps] and they're in discussions with various teams to move into BARC FRenault next year. I think he's going to be a lot more committed.

"He has the pace, but he needs to eliminate certain aspects of his driving. There have been instances when he was a little too aggressive. Having said that, though, I'd rather someone was aggressive and had crashes rather than not, because if they don't, they're not trying hard enough. It's quite common with young drivers — Lewis Hamilton is a classic example. I'd say he's that type of driver, a seat-of-the-pants fast one."

Aitken was certainly fast at Buckmore, as the other podium finishers will surely admit after losing sight of him within a matter of laps. "I didn't really come into this thinking too much about a result," he said afterwards, "because it's for a good cause [all the £22,000 raised went to the Henry Surtees Foundation's fund for the Kent, Surrey and Sussex Air Ambulance]. It was just going to be a fun day out. In the end the others made it quite easy for me. A few laps in I thought they were on my tail, but I looked behind and no one was there! I had the pace, my fastest lap proves that, but I think I was pretty lucky as well." Indeed — the scrapping behind him meant Aitken could relax, take the racing line and focus purely on setting good lap times.

Within five minutes of chatting to Aitken talk turns to the complexities of making it to F1 in today's financially driven world. "It's almost like planning a race," he said of his route up the racing ladder. "You can't really firm it up because you never know what's going to happen. I think the single-seater world is a bit of a mess at the moment. If you look at America they have a clear ladder, whereas here in Europe it's all a bit spread out, and no one's really governing it at the moment.

"John Surtees' idea of scholarships is how it works in America. It really seems the way forward. The only reason why that isn't happening here is because too many different organisations and people are trying to pull it in different directions. You do have people being picked up by Fl teams and programmes like the Racing Steps Foundation, but for drivers who don't have that support it's very difficult. I've got my parents to thank for making it this far, but there will come a stage when you have to say 'this is too expensive'." Aitken hopes he'll be picked up before that happens.

"It's too early to say whether he's the next Hamilton or not," says Sisley. "But what you can say is that he has potential. He has a good chance of making it because he's got the speed — if you don't have that you might as well go home — and he's intelligent, which some aren't. What he does lack is experience. I'd say he's a rough diamond in the sense that he has the attributes, he just needs to be finished off."

Some praise, considering just how many great racing drivers Sisley has watched come through karting. Such words won't be enough to get Aitken to his dream of Fl, but combined with the spoils of the Henry Surtees Challenge, they certainly will help.