Feats on the ground
Banbury, February 13: A meeting with one of British racing’s bright young hopes, a few days beyond his 15th birthday…
There was a time when front-running junior racing teams operated from simplistic huts scattered around Silverstone’s perimeter, with their own cars in one corner and – possibly – somebody else’s in another (illicit sub-letting being a useful tactic to subsidise running costs).
It’s quite hard to relate that to the way modern teams operate. A breeder of champions in F3000 and GP3, race winner in GP2 and Formula Renault 3.5 and now also committed to the new entry-level MSA Formula, which begins at Brands Hatch on April 4-5, Arden Motorsport is tucked away on a bustling Banbury industrial estate, its smart two-storey building incorporating immaculate working bays for four separate teams, bar area, boardroom and a couple of highly sophisticated race simulators.
Nor is it just the surroundings that have changed. Thirty-odd years ago teams would be looking to hire drivers in their early 20s. Today, Arden’s freshest recruit is 15 – and then only just.
Born in London on February 4, 2000 to a Pakistani father and Kenyan mother, Enaam Ahmed won last year’s FIA CIK world and European karting titles, beating an 88-strong field at Essay, France, to clinch the former. (Michael Schumacher’s son Mick was runner-up in both.) Quite a transition, then, from his first racing experience.
“I was taken to Silverstone for the British Grand Prix in 2005, the last year of the V10s,” he says. “I was sitting at Stowe and clearly remember the sound – I found it so scary that I cried and couldn’t watch the whole race…”
There is no motor sport pedigree within his family, but F1 gripped him properly in 2008, as the TV relayed images of Lewis Hamilton edging towards the world title. “I didn’t know that much about racing,” he says, “but started watching Lewis and thought, ‘Wow!’ I subsequently went to Rye House to do a few corporate days, after which it rather escalated.
“I obtained some OK results when I began racing cadet karts, aged nine. Things started getting better – I wouldn’t say good – when I was 11. I was scoring top-five finishes in the British championship, and in 2012 I had a really strong season. That was when I began to think I might be able to get somewhere, because previously I’d just treated it as a hobby. Stevenage Sheet Metal then stepped in as a sponsor and that allowed me to move into European racing, so I started working harder at improving my nutrition and fitness. I had to give it my all, or the next karting season might be my last. If I didn’t do well, I knew I’d be expected to focus on school instead.” Ah yes, education. How does that work?
“I’ve had great support,” he says. “In 2014 school arranged my timetable so that core lessons were from Monday to Thursday, which left Fridays free for travelling to events. I also took homework to the track with me.
“I don’t know what will happen in my future life and it’s important to complete my education. I see myself as a normal kid and want to make sure I have a back-up plan. I’m looking to do maths to A-level and quite fancy a career in the financial sector if motor racing doesn’t work out.”
Prior to signing for Arden, he’d tested Italian- and French-spec Formula 4 cars, at Albacete, Spain, and Le Mans Bugatti, then had a run in a recent Formula Ford Jamun at Pembrey.
“That had wings,” he says, “but they didn’t seem to do very much so I was sliding around everywhere. It taught me a lot, though.”
His 2014 successes attracted broader media attention – and a few inevitable ‘Is this the next Lewis Hamilton?’ headlines. Did he see that as flattery, or an irritating distraction?
“It’s a huge honour that I’ve even been mentioned in the same breath,” he says. “I still see myself as a kid who rocked up at a kart track and won a couple of races. That kind of stuff doesn’t distract me: I just try to concentrate on my driving. A couple of years ago they’d have been comparing some other youngster with Lewis Hamilton and 12 months from now it might be somebody else. Everybody matures at their own pace – and besides, I might have a terrible season, stop at the end of it and slip quietly back to school to complete my studies. Who knows?
“I’m aware that I’ll be up against drivers with more car experience, but for me the whole thing is a learning curve. I don’t have any real expectations – I know it’s going to be hard, and that I’ll be against stiff opposition, but I don’t like to look too far ahead. I just want to focus on what I’m doing now, perform at the very best level I can and then see what options open up for me. It’s a whole new world and I’m starting from ground zero.”
As you might have gathered, he doesn’t sound 15…
Stoneleigh, February 20: Race Retro, a charismatic pre-season show that glances simultaneously backwards and forwards
The conflict was ever thus.
Should you set off before the capital awakens, and thus traverse its density with such speed that you reach your destination far too early? Or do you allow yourself what ought to be enough time, then spend a whole morning struggling to reach the M40’s southern extremities?
Option A always seems most sensible, and also accommodates a leisurely breakfast at Warwick Services – although that raises another burning question. Which bloody idiot thought it a good idea to sprinkle icing sugar on croissants?
Patisserie unsweetened and coffee consumed, I still peel early into the sprawling Stoneleigh Park, which momentarily feels like a racing paddock of yore. Race Retro won’t open its doors for 40 minutes or so and a few last-minute arrivals are still being prised from their trailers prior to exhibition.
The event retains an old-school charm inside, too, because it is redolent of ancient racing car shows, when cottage-industry manufacturers – Hawke, Royale, Dulon, Van Diemen, Elden et al – would vie for attention with their latest single-seater ranges. There’s not much new being unveiled, for the theme after all is history, but there is beguiling diversity and it’s nice to see that Crosslé, which bucked the trend by surviving the onslaught of one-make racing, has official representation.
There are some fresh announcements – Chevron Racing assuming responsibility for servicing heritage Lolas, for instance, one famous name supporting another – and a number of presentations. Julian Grimwade becomes the latest driver to receive the VSCC’s Motor Sport Brooklands Memorial Trophy, for his 2014 race performances at the wheel of his ‘Norris Special’ Frazer Nash, and it falls to me to present a cup once held by such as Mike Hawthorn and Innes Ireland. My initial suspicion is that I’m much too young to be conducting such ceremonies, but a glimpse in the mirror suggests otherwise.
Race Retro weekends present an opportunity to watch the live action rally stage, but Fridays are a good time to renew old acquaintances, forge plans for the campaign ahead (Espíritu de Montjuïc in Barcelona from April 17-19? That sounds particularly tempting) and browse automobilia stalls selling chipped Corgi Toys, T-shirts sporting the logos of defunct F1 teams, Hillman Minx brake shoes and much else besides. This bit of the show is a quixotic delight.
I used to keep race programmes and still do, but for a long time didn’t bother (or else gave them away) and have ever since been trying to plug a few gaps. A 1987 Brands Hatch FIA F3000 programme for £3?
Who wouldn’t want one of those?