He beat Lewis Hamilton, was tipped for F1 – then fell hard into obscurity. Now Colin Brown is back from the brink…
Every January, some of Europe’s best amateur karters descend on Milton Keynes for the British Rental Kart Championship. With the winner securing a spot at the world finals, competition is fierce.
For a car salesman from Croydon his entry is a surprise, sprung on him by his brother.
Zipping up a pair of old, faded overalls, he pauses. His stomach twists, waves of nausea coursing through him as beads of sweat flow down his spine. Short of breath. Mouth dry. He turns to his sibling.
“I can’t do this.”
For the first time in years he allows his memories oxygen. Nausea replaced by anticipation. Breath easing, emotions settling, his eyes sparkle and dance. He hasn’t so much as sat in a kart for seven years. He hasn’t competed for 13. Unremarkable, perhaps, but this isn’t just anyone.
This is Colin Brown, Formula A world champion and once Lewis Hamilton’s greatest karting rival.
It is a glorious day in Wandsworth, the sun shining through the window of a small pub, a perfect spectrum of light refracted through a pint of water across a rickety wooden table.
“Did it come naturally? Maybe,” Brown says. “I had a really long fringe and I could never really see where I was going. My first time at Rye House I came into the pits, didn’t judge the gap, smashed into the back of Anthony Davidson and broke his rear axle.”
Rookie shunts aside, Brown was up to speed quickly. He remained in awe of the likes of Jenson Button, Anthony Davidson and Dan Wheldon, but by the time he made it to Super One, competing against Gary Paffett, Niki Richardson and Mike Spencer, he was one of the boys to beat.
By 1994 Jenson Button had moved to Italy, racing for Team Rambo in Junior ICA, and the team wanted someone to spearhead its Cadet campaign. With wins at Fulbeck, Clay Pigeon and an early lead in the standings, Brown was the logical choice.
His first race was the Italian championship, but after winning the pre-final his kart was wheeled to the technical bay and excluded: the offending engine part was taken away and never returned. No appeal was offered, no explanation given. Next up was the Industrie Torneo at Parma. Again, Brown won. Again he was put through scrutineering. Again he was excluded from the event. But this time he was banned from racing in Italy. “I was 13 years old and gutted. I loved it in Italy and I thought the whole country was against me. I didn’t know what I’d done.”
Within a year his ban was rescinded and he returned to Italy to race JICA in 1995. He won from the start, graduating quickly to ICA and in 1999 to Formula A. But it was in 2000, with a year under his belt, that it all came together.
“That 2000 season in Formula A was amazing,” Lewis Hamilton says today. “It’s almost like the Senna/Prost era of karting. There was a wave of really good drivers. It was a good time for karting with good tyres, air-cooled engines… it was just authentic. It was one of my favourite years of racing.” Hamilton and team-mate Nico Rosberg entered Formula A in 2000 as the target team, with entrant CRG rebranded as the official Mercedes-Benz McLaren outfit, MBM.com.
“It was very competitive, an extremely high level,” says Rosberg. “We had an F1-style approach with an awesome truck, an awesome set-up. I was the youngest, about 14, and Colin was one of the first guys to whom I chatted when I got to Italy. He was winning at the time and doing so well. He was talented.”
With incredible reliability and unrelenting pace, MBM.com dominated the multi-round European series. Hamilton romped home as champion, with Rosberg second in the standings. But that was as easy as the team would have things. What followed were three high-pressure events, beginning with the world championship at Braga, Portugal.
“The level of competition was high, but seems even more so now when you look back and see the drivers that were there,” says Le Mans winner Loïc Duval, who’d finish that year’s world championship in third place. Indeed, the field that year included names that would go on to win races and championships at almost every level of post-karting competition. Up against Hamilton, Duval and Rosberg were Robert Kubica, Lucas di Grassi, Giedo van der Garde, Pastor Maldonado, Marko Asmer, Jamie Green, Ernesto Viso, Mike Conway, Ben Hanley, Alvaro Parente and Clivio Piccione, to name but a few.
The final was a three-way contest between Brown, Hamilton and Piccione, but when Hamilton’s crankshaft went it became a straight fight between Englishman and Monégasque. Earlier in the race Brown had witnessed Piccione try a move on Hamilton into the left-right kink on the straight. It failed, with the attacker losing a few kart lengths in the process.
“When I overtook Piccione on the last lap and we were going down the straight, I thought I would do exactly what Lewis did,” Brown says, with a chuckle. “I fully opened the door and gave him no choice but to aim for that gap. As soon as I saw his nose, I shut the door, took the sweepers and sure enough he fell a few lengths behind. It was the break I needed.”
Colin Brown was world champion. A few weeks later, he’d add the Monaco Kart Cup to his list of accomplishments, thus sealing two of the big three stand-alone events and half of the major Formula A titles.
The final race of 2000 was the World Cup in Japan. The teenagers were treated like rock stars by the fanatical fans and the race proved worthy of the adulation they received. It remains on YouTube today as a testament to an incredible generation of racing talent.
“It was a hell of a good race,” Brown says. “My style was always aggressive but I was very relaxed. I got into the lead pretty early, but the slipstream meant a few kart lengths were never enough. Honestly, it could have been any of us that day.”
By the third lap, Brown and Hamilton were out ahead, locked in an intense duel that would last for 20 laps. By the close Piccione would be involved, too, in a race only sealed on the penultimate tour when Hamilton took the lead with an audacious move at a seemingly impossible passing spot.
But Brown’s frustration today lies not in the knowledge that he failed to defend from Hamilton, but that another driver had also nipped past: Piccione.
“To this day, I can’t watch the last lap of the World Cup,” Brown says. “Piccione never looked forward. I’ll never forgive him for that. I think he was more interested in beating me than actually taking it to Lewis. I was screaming at him in my helmet to go after Hamilton because either one of us could have had a chance. But he didn’t. That enraged me.”
Hamilton was overjoyed, his delight coming in no small part due to the fact he’d beaten Brown in the process. “Colin was up there with the best,” he says. “He was an all-round solid racer with an elegance to his driving.
“He was older than me and Nico, always one step ahead. We would be watching his races and he was one of those guys that you would cheer on because I knew him and he was really cool. It’s like when I grew up watching Formula 1 and I saw Fernando race and then I got to F1 and I was racing against him. Your respect stays the same but then you think, ‘Oh, I can match this guy and sometimes even be better.’ But Colin was a very talented driver.”
Brown, too, has nothing but respect for his great rival. “A lot of people think I must be really bitter about Lewis,” he says, “but it’s actually the complete opposite. Lewis was the best driver I came across when I was racing.”
Of the four titles on offer for Formula A in 2000, honours were split evenly between Lewis Hamilton and Colin Brown. But while Hamilton decided to graduate to Super A in 2001, for Brown the time had come to move on to single-seaters.
At the BRDC Awards Colin was honoured with the ERA Club Trophy. Presented to the British driver who had established the most meritorious performance of the year outside his homeland, Brown became the first kartist and youngest driver ever to be given the honour. He was also made one of the club’s first Rising Stars, alongside Hamilton.
Brown’s father Colin Sr realised he’d taken his son’s racing as far as he could and former racer David Hunt agreed to oversee Colin’s burgeoning career. Hunt would put Brown into British Formula Renault for the 2001 season, but not before sending him to Pentti Airikkala’s Racing Technique school.
“I was amazed and excited about Colin,” the Flying Finn wrote to Hunt in June 2001. “Never before have I had such a naturally talented kid on my courses – and I have had a few pupils, more than 9000 since 1984.”
Brown entered British Formula Renault with Dave Forster Racing, which had come second in the championship in 2000 with Ryan Dalziel. “The feeling of being in a single-seater for the first time was everything,” Brown says. “It was life. Being strapped in this car, on a big, open circuit. It was better than anything I’d ever experienced. The speed, the smell… I loved it.
“We went off to Brands Hatch for the first round of the season. I qualified sixth, finished fifth and was awarded ‘driver of the day’, which I thought pretty cool. Round two was at Thruxton and at the end of the first practice session I was quickest. That felt the bollocks.”
It was a promising start – so much so that Hunt reputedly received an approach for Colin’s contract from Flavio Briatore.
“I deliberated this and had a chat with Colin and David,” Brown Sr says. “David said we could go with Briatore, but we’d heard lots of bad things about Flavio. I asked David if he had the money to get Colin to F1. Answer? ‘Yes.’ So we turned Briatore down. Three months later David ran out of money.”
Colin’s former kart manager Fabiano Beletti had become heavily involved in an Italian Formula Renault team and wanted his champion racer back behind the wheel, so for 2002 Brown moved back to Italy and signed with Scuderia Veregra.
He scored points just twice as the team struggled to find a shred of competitiveness. Beletti realised his outfit fell beneath the requirements of a driver with whom he had achieved so much, so for 2003 he funded a move to Euro F3000.
“The car was amazing,” Brown says. “I was screaming and laughing every time I put my foot down. It blew me away.”
The Euro F3000 calendar featured nine rounds at international-grade circuits. First time out at the Nürburgring he qualified 10th, but his driveshaft failed en route to the grid. For the second round at Magny-Cours he qualified 12th but battled to sixth. Driveshaft failure hit him again at Enna, before a stunning qualifying run at Monza put him on the front row.
“I stalled and fell back to last,” he says, shaking his head. “I remember thinking, ‘Shit, we are really quick here,’ because in no time I’d caught them all up and I was picking them off. I knew I had the pace to get back onto the podium. I got back into sixth, but this nutty American [Joel Nelson] decided he would commit to a do-or-die and take us both out.”
By now, Colin was again starting to make waves and his exploits had come to the attention of John Byfield, who was managing Jenson Button in Formula 1.
“John contacted me and asked if Colin was under contract,” says Brown Sr. “He said he was interested in signing Colin and I told him he needed to talk to the Italians. They had made quite a financial commitment to Colin, without any formal contract.”
Today Byfield says that, with Button’s career being his prime focus, he would not have taken on another driver. While he recalls contact with the Browns, he remembers only agreeing a loose advisory role in Colin’s career.
According to the Browns, however, they signed a seven-year management deal with Byfield’s Essentially Motorsport over a bottle of champagne at the Grosvenor House Hotel, London, on July 21 2003. Colin withdrew from Euro F3000 on the advice of his new manager, promising to repay Beletti. A Formula 1 reserve driver role and budget for a full season of competitive racing had been dangled as a tantalising prospect for 2004.
But Colin Brown would never sit in a racing car again.
“Fabiano Beletti was a great person,” Brown says. “I loved him. I loved his family. I couldn’t just walk away, but Dad insisted. I had no choice. Essentially said it was talking to people and had this, that and the other. It said it had funds, but never put me near another car or drive again. We never went near to or spoke to another team. We never had anything.”
For Colin Brown, the 2004 season passed without a single lap in a racing car. As Rosberg flew to the GP2 title and Hamilton to European F3 honours in 2005, again Brown didn’t so much as turn a wheel. By the time the contract with Essentially Motorsport was terminated by mutual consent, it was too late.
After almost three years away from competition, there was no chance of going back. His racing career was finished.
“Colin had all the flair, all the passion, all the skill, all the ability,” says Anthony Hamilton of his son’s great rival. “He was always a threat. If Colin was in F1 today, he’d be one of the most in demand. My heart sinks when I say that.”
For Brown Sr, time has not eased the pain of his son’s experience. “The biggest works karting team in Italy once saw me in the lift at a race,” he says. “They came over and said, ‘When Colin goes out on track we all stop working and watch him. We’ve never seen anything like him.’ As a father this has all been really, really upsetting. I still feel guilty about it.”
Colin tried to stay involved in motor sport, becoming a kart instructor, but the pain of his lost career was too much to handle.
“I felt like I couldn’t go near racetracks again, because they brought back memories of where I should be. I was out partying every weekend to try to get my mind off reality. I took my anger out on going out, shagging, being carefree, probably hurting people along the way and drowning my sorrows in a club or a bar. I did that for years. I was totally broken.
“It was the wrong thing to do. But when it gets to the point where depression gets a grip, you become a passenger. You’re on a conveyor belt that you can’t get off without help.
I’d given up on myself.”
He stares out of the window, eyes bloodshot and hands trembling. For the first time his words are timid, stuttering and broken, the bravado of the world-beater a distant shadow. “Over parts of my life I felt as though I had no reason to live,” he says. “I’ve been suicidal. I can admit that. Once a week, sometimes more than once a week, for years.”
He exhales deeply, steadying his hand on the glass of water and, taking a sip, looks up and smiles. “And then my little girl was born. She has given me my light back again. She has given me a reason.”
And so to that freezing morning in Milton Keynes. And to that first step back into a world that had previously brought him so much pain.
“My brother has been my rock,” he says. “He has been the one who stood by me and has now got me back into racing.
“That day I was so nervous. But as soon as I pulled my zip up, pulled my helmet on and sat in the kart, everything disappeared. It was like I’d never been out of the seat.”
From that one amateur kart race, the name Colin Brown was once again spoken in karting circles. And it resonated.
His phone began ringing.
“I’ve had teams contacting me to come and test proper karts. That has lifted me out of a grave. I feel alive.”
Brown could be forgiven any amount of animosity towards the sport that spat him out. Misfortune is one thing, but his story reflects the waste of a potentially peerless talent. Yet for all his heartbreak, and for all that might have been, he is now finally able to look back with fondness and pride.
“It’s so funny. If I’d never had that amazing beginning to my life, would I have felt like I had lost so much? Probably not. But would I go back and change it? No. Even with all the shit I’ve been through, to have had that amazing experience… Who gets to do that?
“Even if the outcome were to be exactly the same, I would do it all again just to have those moments.”