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Enaam Ahmed – the beginning

Edgar's Hyundai Super One MSA SeriesI don’t suppose than many readers will be familiar with the Rover comic, but during my childhood it was essential reading for just about every young lad.

Alf Tupper was a great Rovers character. Known as the “Tough of the Track”, he shattered world records in every athletics event, surviving on an exclusive diet of Fish & Chips. Someone once opened a Fish Restaurant in Alf Tupper’s name and no doubt made substantial profits from the association. 28 years ago, Shami Ahmed exploited another legendary British name when he moved from his parents’ market stall in Manchester to set up a factory producing Jeans and T-Shirts under the “Joe Bloggs” label.

Shami promoted this brand by sponsoring several emerging personalities who, he believed, would eventually become household names. Included in the list were Robbie Williams from Take That, together with boxers Nigel Benn, Michael Watson, Lennox Lewis, Prince Nazeem and Amir Khan. He was also associated with Tottenham Hotspur and various rugby teams. When Anthony Hamilton asked him to help his young son who had just taken up kart racing, Shami stepped in with a sponsorship package.

“I never actually saw Lewis racing in those days, even though we were providing quite a bit of money,” Shami confesses. “I was impressed by Anthony’s pitch for sponsorship and made a few enquiries amongst some knowledgeable acquaintances. They assured me that the lad had talent and so I took a gamble. The first kart meeting I ever attended was at Rye House when my son Enaam made his racing debut almost four years ago. He’d become interested through a family friend, Chris Zobe, who was racing Renault Clios. A month after trying a corporate kart at Rye House we bought him an MS/RPM Honda. Enaam raced it for the next 12 months, mainly at Rye House, Buckmore and Bayford Meadows.”

Just like Lewis Hamilton had done 15 years earlier, Enaam was soon catching the eye of Martin Hines who advised him to move out of Hondas and into Comers. “I joined the Zip Young Guns outfit racing alongside Oliver York, Alfie Brown and TJ Nelson,” says Enaam. “For the best part of 2010, though, I was competing in Formula Kart Stars and Super One with Eclipse. I remained with them throughout 2011, too. It was quite a large team with Jamie Caroline, Cameron Roberts, Alex Stott, Tom Gamble, Hugo Bentley-Ellis and Cory Jay Coupe in amongst our ranks.”

In November last year Enaam switched to Fusion and is very happy with the set up there. “It’s quite a pleasant environment as we all seem to get on fairly well together,” he says. “Being with a top team is definitely an advantage, but I realise that not everyone can afford to go racing in this way. I think there will be quite a lot of very talented drivers who don’t get to show their potential and so I’m very privileged that my family has been able to support me in the way they have. My job is to do the best I can out on the circuit and so far this year things have gone very well for me. Obviously, winning the British Championships has to be my top priority, but the other major competitions are on my list of targets, too. The O Plate at Rowrah came first and I was pleased to win this one, even though it involved a large slice of good fortune.”

The good fortune referred to by Enaam came about because of a last gasp attempt by Josh Smith to overtake Dean MacDonald. It sent Dean sliding off the circuit before he resumed in 5th place. Smith was hit with a 10s time penalty that relegated him to 7th position. Enaam had started the last lap of this race having to defend 3rd place against a fierce onslaught from Jack Armstrong and Oliver York. MacDonald’s sudden demise handed him 2nd spot, which was swiftly changed to 1st after Smith’s time penalty had been applied. “I don’t like winning races in this manner,” he confessed afterwards, “but it’s nice to become an O Plate Champion, nevertheless.”

Some months earlier he laid down a marker by claiming the ABkC Winter Series with wins at PF and Glan-Y-Gors. These victories gave him a perfect score when the Shenington round was cancelled. In Club meetings, too, he’d enjoyed great success notching up a brace of wins at Kimbolton and a 2nd place behind Dean MacDonald on the PF circuit. “I knew that Dean was going to be one of my main rivals in 2012 but we get along quite well together,” he says. “In fact Dean’s father, Johnny, prepares some motors for me. John Davies does the other ones.”

Enaam’s British Championship aspirations were given a major boost when he won the opening round of Formula Kart Stars at Kimbolton ahead of Lewis Taylor. Things didn’t work out quite so well for him during Round 2 on Sunday. He claimed a front row grid position for the final but could finish no better than 11th in this race. Rounds 3 and 4 were held at Ellough Park, which Enaam now considers to be his favourite circuit. He won Saturday’s final very convincingly but took a knock in Sunday’s race that initially placed him outside the top ten. However, he fought back well to finish 2nd, catching Dean MacDonald on the line to finish just 0.08s behind.

Larkhall marked the half way point in these championships. Enaam arrived with a lead of three points in the championship table hoping to consolidate his position. However MacDonald proved to be unbeatable on his home turf, especially in the wet conditions that prevailed throughout. Enaam’s weekend ran much less smoothly. He finished 6th in Saturday’s Final, improving by two places the following day.

He left Scotland with an 18 point deficit to MacDonald but looked to be in good shape down in Wales. At the picturesque Glan-Y-Gors circuit near Betws-Y-Coed came home 1st in Saturday’s Final ahead of Bentley-Ellis, MacDonald and Smith. Only four or five yards separated these four drivers at the finish. He was disappointed to be subsequently docked two places for an alleged incident involving MacDonald, but this matter is now the subject of an MSA Appeal. Sunday’s Final resulted in a comfortable win for Smith, but Enaam finished close behind Zak Fulk to take 3rd spot. With four rounds still remaining, the championship is still wide open..

It looked for a while as if Dean MacDonald’s S1 title bid had got off to a super start at PF when he won both Finals in extremely wet conditions. However, Dean was subsequently excluded for a technical infringement in Final 2, allowing Enaam to inherit the win. Earlier that day he’d finished Final 1 in 4th position. Next time out at Whilton Mill the weather remained dry throughout. Enaam claimed 4th spot in Final 1 after being pushed out of position whilst challenging for the lead. He fared better in the next one taking 2nd place behind Zak Fulk. It was sufficient to hand him a championship lead of five points before the next round at Larkhall.

Once again MacDonald was in fine form at Larkhall and won the first final quite comfortably ahead of Enaam whose tenure on 2nd place was equally secure. Dean was out on his own in Final 2, a race which Enaam will no doubt want to forget. His engine lost power in this one which left him badly exposed to the chasing pack. He finished 17th, hopefully a result he’ll be able to drop from his final championship tally. “It means that Enaam is six points behind Cameron Roberts in the table, but on dropped scores he’s still four points in front,” Shami emphasises.

It’s been a pretty good year so far for Enaam and his championship prospects are certainly bright. I asked him, though, to look into the more distant future. “Ultimately, I’d love to get into F1 which, I suppose, is every young driver’s dream,” Enaam replied. “That’s still a very long way off and I’m taking one step at a time. I’d like to race KF3 in Europe next year and we’ll be starting discussions with several teams quite soon. Obviously, I’m not going to be affected by the change in Cadet motor for 2012, although I still have an opinion about it. I believe that Comers should have been retained for drivers aged between 8 and 10 with the new engine available in Super Cadets for 10 to 13 year old competitors.”

At every race meeting Enaam makes a careful study of various competitors and their driving styles. He doesn’t confine his observations to Cadets, but is interested in any driver who might be able to teach him something. He also pays close attention to various F1 stars. “My favourites are Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and, of course, Lewis Hamilton,” he points out. “Apart from motor racing I’m interested in Cricket, Rugby and Basketball, all of which i play. I also like swimming and playing the piano.”

Shami insists on the importance of having a good education. “I wouldn’t like Enaam to grow up believing that a motor racing career is the only thing that matters,” he emphasises. “I know that many drivers racing at top level are out on their karts just about every weekend and probably during certain weekdays too. However, I believe that balance in all things is very important and so we confine his racing activities to a couple of weekends per month. That way he can maintain all those other interests without damaging his education.”

Certainly Enaam comes across as a very intelligent and well balanced person. Perhaps In another eight years time we might see him on a Formula One grid at Monaco, Valencia or the Nurburgring.  On rather less exotic kart circuits throughout Europe, meanwhile, he’ll surely be a force to be reckoned with.

Sahara Force India’s Driver Academy

Stock-FlagIt was launched in April 2011 under the title of “One in a Billion”. Its stated aim is to find and support promising young Indian drivers, developing their skills through a comprehensive training package centred upon European karting.

The cost of this programme is rumoured to be around £500,000, a figure that Force India’s Deputy Head Robert Fernley didn’t deny when I spoke to him recently. Robert devised this particular scheme along with Dr Vijay Mallya, although he insists that his boss deserves most of the credit. “Vijay is very passionate about the need to expand motorsport in India and we both saw this scheme as a way of increasing interest on the continent,” he remarks. “Various schools in seven different cities were visited and we conducted a fairly extensive advertising campaign. Initially we were interested in the age range 14-17. Anyone from this age group who was interested in taking up a motor racing career could attend one of the centres and be tested on a kart. The competition was open to everyone in that age range, irrespective of whether or not they had any previous karting experience”

Around 5,000 teenagers took part in these sessions from which 100 were invited to a shoot out in Goa, all expenses paid. At this stage Force India’s test driver Nico Hulkenburg acted as one of the judges. Nico’s karting experience was quite extensive, having started out at the age of 10. He’d won the German Junior Championships within five years and added the senior title 12 months later. After winning the 2009 GP2 Series he joined the Williams F1 team in 2010 but wasn’t retained for 2011, at which point Force India took him on as their reserve driver.

PULLQUOTE: “Realistically those who were already competing in kart races started with a considerable advantage”

It took several days for Nico and his fellow judges to test the candidates and carry out a proper analysis of their capabilities. The list of hopefuls was then reduced down to ten before a final selection was made in Britain. This included two days of karting at Daytona (Milton Keynes). Physical and psychological assessments were carried out in the Porsche Fitness Centre at Silverstone and media skills were practiced in front of journalists which accounted for another full day. At this stage Anthony Hamilton, Eddie Jordan, Niko Hulkenburg and Robert Fernley made up the panel of judges.

After very careful consideration, three names were announced at the inaugural Grand Prix of India in October. They were Arjun Maini, Tarun Reddy and Jehan Daruvala. Unsurprisingly, all three had previous karting experience. “Although our competition was open to everyone, I can’t pretend that we were using an entirely level playing field. We had to strike a balance between what was practical in the time scale and our own desire to uncover previously untapped raw talent. Realistically, those drivers who were already competing in kart races started with a considerable advantage and we didn’t have anything in place to counteract it. It’s an ongoing programme. Our first attempt didn’t go quite as deep as we’d have liked. I’d expect that the next one, probably in 2014, will be a little more searching.”

14-year-old Arjun Maini was the most experienced of those drivers selected. He had his first outing on a kart at the age of 5 and began racing less than two years later. All of his racing in India has been carried out on Rotax powered karts. Arjun’s parents Gautam and Saru are very supportive of him as is his younger brother Kush. “My ultimate goal is to get into F1 and this has given me the best possible chance,” he says. “I’m determined not to waste the opportunity. It means having to put in a lot of hard work, but I don’t mind that at all and the programme has been very enjoyable so far.”

Pullquote: “If you can think of two people better qualified for the task, then please let me know.”

After selecting three drivers, the next step was to put in place a comprehensive training and racing programme. At 25 years of age Paul Di Resta had already completed a full season’s racing with the Force India team, having previously been their test driver. He’d won the British Cadet championships in 1997 and took the JICA title four years later. The Di Resta family has strong karting connections Paul’s cousins Dario and Marino Franchitti were both heavily involved in the sport, while his brother Stefan still competes at karting’s highest level. Dad Louis started the ball rolling four decades earlier and earned a formidable reputation throughout northern circles. With his extensive knowledge of karting, Louis was asked for advice on setting up the programme.

“It didn’t require a great deal of thought, really,” Louis concedes. “We wanted to give these drivers the best possible opportunity, so obviously I looked for the top names currently involved in karting. I immediately thought of Ricky Flynn as team manager and Terry Fullerton for the coach. If you can think of two people better qualified for the task, then please let me know because I’ve yet to meet them. I was delighted when Rick and Terry both agreed to the terms offered. After that my job was more or less completed. It wasn’t the end of my interest, though, as I’m obviously keeping an eye on how things progress from here.”

Khurshed Daruvala was also keeping a watchful eye on the progress of his 13-year-old son, Jehan, when I spoke to him during a Super One round at Larkhall recently. Competing against some of Europe’s top KF3 contenders, Jehan had emerged from Qualifying as the fastest contender. Finishing his two heats in 6th and 8th positions had earned Jehan 5th place on the starting grid for Final 1. “Yes, I’m very pleased with Jehan’s progress under the scheme,” Khurshed agreed. “Although everyone went out on slicks for Qualifying the track was still quite cold and wet. As you can imagine we don’t often get those conditions back home. Although Jehan has been racing karts since the age of 10, it doesn’t amount to a lot of experience. In India we only have six race meetings a year, although he has done an occasional event in Malaysia.”

PULLQUOTE: Terry has been British karting’s outstanding product over the last half century.

Terry Fullerton was also expressing quiet satisfaction over Jehan’s performance. You can argue about the respective merits of Hamilton and Button but, for me, Terry has been British karting’s outstanding product over the last half century. Apart from equalling Mickey Allen’s record of eight 100cc British titles, he became Britain’s first ever world karting champion. He added four European crowns and won the Champion’s Cup on four separate occasions. He’s also pretty good at coaching other potential stars as his record proves. Paul Di Resta, Anthony Davidson, Daniel Wheldon, Riki Christodoulou, Michael Conway, Jake Dennis and New Zealand’s only world karting champion Wade Cunningham all achieved success under Terry’s expert guidance.

“These three relatively inexperienced drivers have been taken from an environment where karting is carried out at a fairly leisurely pace and suddenly introduced to Super One which, as you know, is one of Europe’s most competitive Championship Series,” Terry points out. “They’ve had to adjust very quickly to the demands placed upon them. Part of my job is to point out the pitfalls and help them along the way. Another, rather less enjoyable task is to prepare regular progress reports for Robert Fernley who analyses them and makes his decisions accordingly. Ricky Flynn has responsibility for almost all of the other stuff. He runs a very professional outfit and has made sure that these kids have the best equipment available. Each driver has a separate mechanic and they are all very experienced, highly competent people.”

Ricky Flynn first started karting almost 30 years ago as a junior competitor. He enjoyed a short career in cars, winning the British Formula Renault Championships before a lack of funding forced him into retirement. He now runs one of Europe’s most successful karting teams, having collected major championship titles every year from 2005 onwards. “I was approached at the end of January with a plan of action and the budget to make it all possible,” says Ricky. “Five days later we were testing with the three drivers at Garda. It’s been a big transition for them, but they appear to be making good progress so far. Force India’s management has set individual targets for them which aren’t confined to attainments out on the circuit, but include physical fitness levels.”

Tarun Reddy is certainly appreciative of the effort being made on his behalf. Tarun’s parents Anish and Gayatri had both visited Britain beforehand but his 10 year old sister Kavya was on her first trip to this country and remained very excited about it all. Tarun was in his 4th year of racing but readily confessed that he’d experienced nothing like Super One beforehand “The drivers over here are so much better than we’ve previously come up against and it’s quite difficult to get good results,” he conceded. “My aim is to get a top three finish before the end of this year and hopefully I might win one of them. We’re very fortunate to be receiving so much attention and my racing technique has improved greatly as a result of Terry’s instructions.”

I asked Terry why KF3 had been selected when Junior Rotax might have been a more logical choice. “That decision had already been made before my involvement, but I certainly don’t disagree with it,” he replied. “I realise that Rotax is the motor they’re all familiar with, but we’re subjecting these drivers to a whole new experience. At some point in their development they’d be racing KF3 anyway and so you might as well drop them in right from the start. I think it’s good that they should be coming up against the best drivers Europe has to offer and, in my view, KF3 is where you’ll find most of the top talent.”

Paul Di Resta is full of praise for the efforts that Force India has made so far. “From my own experience of the team, I’d expect nothing less than a fully professional approach,” he suggested. “They’ve certainly been a good team to drive for and they are very proficient in the art of developing young talent. The Academy offers a great chance for these young lads to demonstrate their potential. I think that Terry Fullerton is one of the very top coaches around and with Ricky Flynn’s expertise they are getting the best of everything. These opportunities weren’t available when I started out in karting as a Cadet, although I’ve definitely no regrets about the path my career has taken. Through karting I’ve achieved my life’s ambition to race in Formula One, so how can there be any regrets?”

Ricky Flynn and Terry Fullerton both believe that Force India has set an example that other F1 teams will eventually follow. “Half a million pounds seems a lot of money to put into karting, but for top F1 teams this kind of outlay isn’t such a big deal,” Terry claims. Robert Fernley sounds a more cautionary note. “Our team is quite unique insofar as we’re associated very much with India and are regarded as a flagship for the entire Continent,” he points out. “The task we’ve set ourselves is quite specific. We expect that the Academy will help to grow motorsport over there and produce a generation of Indian F1 drivers. Other F1 teams don’t necessarily have the same motivation. One thing that we have achieved so far is to highlight the vast gulf between India and Europe with regard to karting talent.”

From my own observations at Larkhall and Jehan Daruvala’s podium finish at Whilton Mill, I’d say that the gulf isn’t quite as wide as Robert suggests. Messrs Flynn, Fullerton and Di Resta will be working hard to ensure that it disappears altogether. With such an experienced team supporting them, this talented trio of drivers has certainly become a force to be reckoned with.

Round The Bend

George Russell_3824

An uphill struggle

On the same day that Bradley Wiggins made history as the first Briton to win the Tour de France, England’s George Russell retained his European KF3 title. The British media hailed just one of them and that is a crying shame.

Of course, Russell’s latest success should now set him on the road to greater recognition within motorsport and I suspect that he is firmly on the radar of the leading Formula One teams. However, this latest victory for a UK driver exposes a fundamental flaw in karting’s ability to promote itself. George’s triumph also came at a time when the eyes of our media are (at the time of writing, ‘were’ if you’re reading this after the Olympics’ closing ceremony) firmly focused on London and people in lycra.

Ironically, Wiggo’s team-mate, Mark Cavendish, was billed by everyone in the so-called know as the rider who was going to win Britain’s first gold on the opening day of action. As it was, he finished 29th but still managed to dominate the headlines the morning after his defeat. Was it the nine climbs of Box Hill? Was it sneaky and underhand tactics from Team GB’s rivals? Did we just get the tactics wrong?

Back in the Eighties, when I was a university student, I turned to cycling as I could not afford to study and continue racing karts. My interest was piqued and sustained by Channel Four’s excellent Tour de France coverage, which I’m sure inspired many more like me. However, cycling in the UK remained very much a minority sport until the likes of Chris Boardman started to make the crossover into mainstream consciousness and the British Cycling Federation created the superb velodrome in a run-down part of Gunchester, as Manchester was known at the time.

Nowadays, winning cyclists are household names, as are dozens of other elite sports men and women, and yet poor George would probably struggle to be recognised in Wisbech’s High Street. This is not his fault. After all, when Mike Wilson won his sixth World Karting Championship title in 1984, it was none other than Ayrton Senna who demanded that the Italian newspaper dedicated to all things sport – La Gazzetta dello Sport – write an article about the Englishman who famously raced with an Italian licence.

So who should be promoting our brightest prospects to the wider audience? The drivers themselves, the teams, the MSA, or the championship promoters of Super One and Formula Kart Stars? Of course, the most obvious answer is all of the above.

However, as all UK-based licence holders are customers of the MSA, perhaps the folks at Colnbrook should take the lead on promoting the next generation of superstars. Their press office did put out a congratulatory press release to karting journalists – but I would dearly like to know if the governing body’s contact list also includes newsdesks at the likes of Sky, the BBC, ITV and the national newspapers? If so, were these media powerhouses then given follow-up calls and lobbied to run a story on George? I suspect there is a very short answer to that, but would dearly enjoy being corrected.

Since 2006, the concept of PR has slowly been embraced by karting but this has largely come from the parents of ambitious drivers and team-owners who know that they are in a fiercely competitive market. Sponsors want to be associated with articulate, well-groomed and media-savvy brand ambassadors just as much as they do winners. If a driver ticks both boxes, then they will rise to the top of a firm’s wish list. This is how Nike became the world’s biggest sports brand, by paying the best proponents in a given sport to wear their products. It’s a very simple proposition and karting is beginning to see an increasing number of brand ambassadors. What the MSA needs to do is use its financial clout to support karting’s best exponents and propel them into the minds of journalists outside of karting. Furthermore, whoever makes the decision about awarding which tender wins the available MSA championships must make sure that a clear and dynamic media strategy exists to assist its competitors to become better known amongst the wider public.

The MSA must acknowledge that when we consistently produce winners of major international races and championships and are providing the next generation of Lewis’, Jensons and Pauls, in a bright, colourful and spectacular sport, but still not hitting the back pages of the tabloids and broadsheets, something is clearly missing.

It would be a very sad indictment indeed if a driver of George Russell’s obvious ability continues to perform at the very highest level, but remains less well known than the seemingly endless array of vapid, orange berks on TOWIE or Geordie Shore. Or indeed a bloke on a bike, who didn’t actually win.