Lewis Hamilton’s father Anthony knows how precarious the path to Formula 1 is, which is why he’s trying to educate young karters – and their parents
By Rob Widdows
World Champion F1 racing driver Lewis Hamilton has a lot to answer for. So does his father-thegrafter Anthony. When Lewis swept into Grand Prix racing in 2007, and came close to winning the World Championship in his first year, he left in his wake a trail of youngsters who thought they too could pull off this trick.
Some sought advice from the Hamiltons, but too many did not, and that’s where the problems started. And it is also why a scheme called Formula Kart Stars (FKS), whose patrons include Bernie Ecclestone, is working hard to help young racers find their feet. And prevent too many more dads losing their shirts.
FKS is managed by Carolynn Hoy (nee Grant-Sale), the former kart racer who was runner-up in the 1982 British Championship. Carolynn bought the McLaren-Mercedes Champions of the Future series from Martin Hines who, with Ron Dennis and Norbert Haug, had established it as a path to Formula 1.
“In the early days I spoke to [Red Bull team boss] Christian Homer and asked what an F1 team is looking for in a driver. His answers surprised me,” says Carolynn. “Teams are increasingly looking for drivers who are highly educated — ideally in physics, chemistry and maths — because they have to listen to engineers, understand what they’re saying, apply what they hear, and then deliver. They also have to understand how a car is built, how it works and why. Karting, he said, is still important experience, but top five is fine, they don’t have to be championship winners.
“I also wanted to tackle costs. Some teams were charging more than £100,000 a year to go kart racing. This is crazy. Two years ago Tom Ingram won one of our championships on £10,000 using one engine and one chassis, with his father running the team and looking after the kart. They had the confidence, whereas many parents just want to pay a team to put their son at the front. What pleases me most is the support we’ve had. Bernie Ecclestone takes a real interest, even though he has far bigger fish to fry. He’s telling all the Grand Prix circuits that they have to build a kart circuit as part of their plans — that’s fantastic.”
Many youngsters have tried to emulate Lewis Hamilton‘s mercurial rise through the ranks — a career nurtured, lest we forget, by McLaren. The chances of a schoolboy finding a McLaren contract in his pocket, however, are slim.
Anthony Hamilton no longer manages Lewis, but he remains involved and now looks after new Force India driver Paul di Resta — a former Stars of Tomorrow winner — and Dutch kart champion Nyck de Vries. What is left of his time is devoted to FKS in the hope of helping young racers avoid falling by the wayside.
Anthony is tough to track down. People to see, things to do, never in one place for very long. You have to be persistent, just like him. But when he does sit down to talk he makes a lot of sense and is keen to pass on what he’s learnt on his own journey to F1.
“Very few young drivers are going to make it to F1 and the problem is that along the way many of them get lost,” he says. “Their parents get into financial difficulties, and children end up with no education, no money and broken homes. They have also missed other opportunities while chasing that elusive chance of a place in F1.
“The purpose of Formula Kart Stars is to set out a baseline for youngsters and their families who want to experience motor sport at various levels, and to combine that with a proper education. When Lewis was a kid, we did the Champions of the Future series, and that meant taking him out of school for one or two days a week, or a week if we were racing in Scotland. So I made sure Lewis had a private tutor and kept up with his studies, because if you’re going to be in F1 you need to be smart enough to stay in F1.”
So how can FKS help change the mindset of ambitious children and their families?
“The emphasis is on education,” explains Anthony. “Fine, you want to go motor racing, but don’t neglect your studies. And for parents we advise them not to mortgage themselves to the hilt in the pursuit of a dream, to take it one step at a time. We want to maximise the potential of kids who go karting so that those who don’t make it as drivers can still achieve in other areas.
“I know many families who were racing at the same time as us who are now bankrupt, the parents have split up, and the kids have much worse career opportunities than they would have had if they’d stayed in school. It’s tragic.”
So how far do the Hamiltons accept that they laid a trail precious few can follow, that most fathers won’t get three jobs at once to pay for the best equipment, and not every son has the commitment and drive to take him all the way?
“When Lewis went to F1 we had hundreds of people writing to us asking how we did it, how do they do the same,” says Anthony. “Then we heard of families who’d sold their houses in Kent and moved to Italy to go racing in the hope of emulating what Lewis had done. One of our objectives now is to put something back, make sure people don’t try to copy what we did. It was very hard work, we pulled together as a team, we had a plan, and we always had in mind that — if the plan failed — then Lewis still had his education and there would be other options. Too many kids have given up their education, and that’s not good news.”
Agreed, but surely he can understand the passion of these children and their families?
“Us parents, especially us fathers, are a competitive bunch of people. We want our kids to be the best, and I was probably no different,” he concedes. “But I kept my feet on the ground. I honestly believe that when you look at Lewis, what distinguishes him from other drivers is that he is a unique individual, and I think it will be a long time before somebody else like Lewis comes along and makes it to F1 in that way.
“Everybody has a unique ability, though that may not be as a Formula 1 driver — it may be as something else in the business. It’s a matter of having the presence of mind, and having parents with the same open-mindedness who can accept that their son may not be the next Lewis Hamilton. Instead they have to look at what else the sport has to offer.”
Time, then, to hear from the man himself, the boy karter who made it all the way to the top. Lewis Hamilton, now a FKS patron, will never forget his roots. Last winter he invited the winners of his ‘Lewis Hamilton True Grit’ award (presented at each of the 12 FKS rounds) to spend the day with him at the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today had I not done what was then the McLaren-Mercedes Champions of the Future series,” he says. “All the top guys in F1 came from karting, it’s where you learn so much that helps you in the future. But first and foremost you need to ask yourself how much you want it, and you have to commit yourself, make sacrifices, take every opportunity and listen to people around you who’ve been in the sport for longer than you have. They will pass on some valuable knowledge.
“When I started, I don’t think I really thought so much about the future, I just wanted to go racing, to learn — and to win. Later you know what you can do, where you want to go, and being in a series like FKS helps you focus.”
Back in the F1 paddock this year, Hamilton Sr is not anxious to take on a stable of superstars. He’s more concerned with guiding talented people in the right direction at the beginning. For those lucky few who do make it to the top, the job may not yet be done. Anthony thought that he and Lewis were well prepared for the political labyrinth that is F1. In many ways they were, but in some they were not.
“I knew you had to be smart to be there,” he reflects, “but nothing prepares you for some of the things we encountered in the first three years. You go in believing in people, believing in humanity, and you keep your eyes open. You try to do the decent thing and then you start to realise that perhaps this is not what the business is all about. I don’t want to go into any detail about some of the things that went on, but I’m now well prepared for any of that — and now I can advise my drivers to do things a little differently. I tell them not to wear their hearts on their sleeves and be careful what they say. It’s not just about being a racing driver, or about money, fame and glory. It’s a great business to be in, but you need to be careful how you go about it, and you must be there for the right reasons.”
Bernie Ecclestone rarely lends his name and influence to anything outside his control. But he is supportive of this karting enterprise, deciding to adopt the scheme in 2009 and rename the Stars of Tomorrow series as Formula Kart Stars.
Not only does he invest in FKS and sponsor the Sky TV coverage, he also awards a ‘Bernie Ecclestone Driver of the Day’ prize at each race. Two years ago he flew the winners of this prize to Monza for the Italian Grand Prix. He is passionate, too, about the educational aspects, coming up with the FKS strapline ‘the road to Formula 1 through racing and education’.
“I have a feeling,” he says, “that in the future our F1 World Champions may well come from Formula Kart Stars. That’s why Formula One Management supports the scheme.”
The signs are that Carolynn Hoy and Anthony Hamilton have created a valuable school for would-be racing drivers. The ethos is clear, and is communicated at every opportunity by a man who speaks from experience.
“I think we have a unique agenda, and we’re seeing a great crop of young drivers coming through who are not only fast but smart,” says Hamilton. “Our question is not ‘how deep are your pockets?’ but ‘how big is your heart?’ We want to know that they have a commitment to fulfilling themselves in the right way, at the right pace, just as they would in school.”
This, in many ways, is what a 21st-century Grand Prix team is looking for. A modern F1 car is a highly sophisticated machine, increasingly packed with complex technologies, and testing is severely limited. Yes, the top teams still seek the fastest drivers, but these days they want to see brains as much as bravery.