HOWAY THE LAD!

A PROFILE OF MATTHEW GRAHAM, THE 2009 LITTLE GREEN MAN CHAMPION & FORMULA KART STARS RUNNER UP

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Compared to many other cadets, he was a late entrant into the sport. Matthew was ten years old when his parents took him for a birthday treat at the Karting North East indoor circuit in Newcastle. “I was amazed at how much skill he demonstrated that day,” recalls his dad, Les. “Four months earlier, we’d bought him a quad-bike for Christmas and he took to it very quickly. Prior to that, though, he’d had absolutely no experience of any motorised vehicle. After the indoor karting session, I decided to take matters a bit further and made some enquiries about the sport itself. After visiting the Warden Law circuit we purchased a second-hand Zip Puma/Comer. A pull start WTP B1 engine came as part of the package and we found that these motors were quite popular in none MSA events at Warden Law. Racing in MSA meetings was a totally different ball game compared to indoor karting but Matthew adapted very well.  We were sufficiently heartened by his early results to enter him for the 2007 Motors TV Challenge, racing in both Comer and WTP classes. Even though he was still in his first full season of karting, he gave a good account of himself and managed to upset a few big names. That persuaded us to step up our efforts in 2008 and we entered all three national championships, namely S1, Stars and the Little Green Man.”

For a newcomer, Matthew’s performance in each competition was impressive to say the least. In Stars he finished 15th and bettered this with an outstanding 6th spot in S1. The Little Green Man Championships were fiercely contested that year, but he still managed to claim 5th place behind Messrs Barnicoat, Russell, Line and Pay. In the Kartmasters GP at PF he finished an excellent runner up to George Russell and went one better by winning the London Cup at Rye House against stern opposition. By this stage Matthew was racing virtually every weekend. “Our biggest outlay was on the diesel we were using getting to circuits all over Britain,” Les insisted. “Many of the tracks we visited were totally new to us but fortunately Matthew’s a quick learner and it didn’t take many laps for him to start returning fast times. That allowed me to concentrate on getting the set up right. I bought a couple of brand new WTP motors in January and we raced all that season without requiring a rebuild. I know of some competitors who religiously send their motors back for rebuilding after every race meeting, but my philosophy is that if it’s not broken don’t try to fix it.”

Les talks with the confidence of someone who has experienced motor-sport himself. He’d emigrated to New Zealand as a young man and became involved in the rallying scene over there. On returning to this country he enjoyed a three year sabbatical before taking up the sport once again. Now that he’s retired from running a foundry there’s more time to concentrate on karting. “We’ve got planning permission for 150 homes on the foundry site and I’ll probably be building a couple of houses myself,” he suggests. “Also my wife Val runs a pub and restaurant in Ponteland that’s just been refurbished, so I’ve spent a bit of time on that project, but you could say that karting occupies most of my time.” Val is equally enthusiastic about her son’s karting activities. “Matthew has matured an awful lot since taking up the sport,” she remarks. “He’s very level headed and never seems to get over excited when things are going wrong. I have to say that he doesn’t take after his dad in this respect. Les hates to be beaten by a problem and can get quite frustrated if he doesn’t find the solution. As there was an official British title at stake we decided to run with Tooley Motorsport in the Formula Kart Stars Series for 2009. I’m sure it made life a lot easier both for Les and Matthew as they were able to work in a more relaxed atmosphere. For most other events, though, the mechanical side of things was left to Les. As with many other father and son relationships in karting, it could get pretty tense at times.”

Last year, Matthew contested the three major cadet championships once again, albeit with rather higher goals. His assault on the Formula Kart Stars title began in April at Kimbolton. A broken exhaust spoiled his chances for Saturday’s final but he bounced back the following day to take 5th place. He could count himself unlucky not to have finished even higher in the running order after leading this race until the last lap. He followed this up with another 5th place at Glan Y Gors, but by now George Russell was beginning to pull out a convincing points lead on the championship contest. The turning point came at Rowrah six weeks later. Strong performances in his Heats gave him a front row position alongside Max Vaughan for the Final. Heavy rain some 15 minutes before this race started had made conditions very slippery and many drivers found it difficult simply to remain on the track. However, Matthew remained unfazed by it all, proceeding serenely on his way to a very comfortable victory over Vaughan, with 250 yards or more separating them. “I’ve always regarded Rowrah as my home circuit and so I know how to drive it in the wet,” he explained. “After I’d passed Max at around half distance it was simply a case of concentrating hard and lapping as quickly as possible without making any mistakes.”

14George Russell couldn’t manage a top ten finish at Rowrah and so his claim on the title suddenly began to look vulnerable. Matthew was determined to take full advantage and produced a strong performance at PF as he finished 2nd behind Harry Webb with Russell having to settle for 4th place. He then travelled overseas to Genk for what would be an important Double Header counting as rounds 6 and 7. Saturday’s Heats went off well and Matthew lined up 3rd on the “A” Final grid. However a number of incidents relegated him down the running order before a good recovery brought him back up to 7th spot. Sunday’s final produced an exciting four man battle that went down to the very last lap.  Matthew pulled off a breathtaking manoeuvre by overtaking three karts on one corner to take a well earned victory. “I got a really good tow up the main straight and then left my braking very late,” he explained afterwards. “I was delighted with the win at Rowrah, but I think this one will go down as my best performance in cadets.” There was a double celebration within the Tooley Motorsport camp. Earlier, Andrew Tooley had been a member of the winning “Old Joes” team in a special event for mechanics. Matthew was now lying 2nd in the championship standings, but an eventful weekend at Whilton Mill played into George Russell’s hands. In Saturday’s final, Matthew was involved in a collision with Alex Gill but still managed to claim 7th place. Unfortunately, Russell finished two spots higher. Sunday got off to a bad start when Matthew broke down three laps into the timed qualifying session. This meant that he had to qualify via the “B” Final. A fighting performance earned him 12th spot, but Russell in 5th place was able to claim the title.”

“I thought 2nd position in the FKS Championships was an outstanding result even though we were aiming one place higher,” commented Dave Tooley. “I recognised from an early stage that Matthew had lots of potential as a driver. What I particularly like about him is that he always uses his head out on the track. The reason why he avoids a lot of incidents that others get involved in isn’t entirely due to luck. If there’s traffic to get through, he’ll think carefully about every manoeuvre and when the move comes it’s almost always decisive. It’s much the same in between races when we’re preparing the kart. No matter what’s been going on out on the track, he’s always very calm and relaxed, planning for what might lie ahead. I’d have to agree with his mother, though. He definitely doesn’t take after Les in that particular respect. We looked after Matthew for all of the Formula Kart stars rounds but weren’t formally involved in other races. I was able to offer Les advice over the phone, though. I remember at a Little Green Man round, these calls had to be directed through our works telephone as the race coincided with my shift pattern. Les rang that number so many times over the weekend that my work colleagues placed a notice on the telephone marked TOOLEY MOTORSPORT. I have to say, though, that it’s been a pleasure helping Mattie throughout last season and I’m very happy that it turned out to be such a successful one for him.”

Things didn’t go quite so smoothly in the Super One Series. His hopes of making a flying start to this competition were dashed when he failed to set a time during the official Timed Qualifying session at PF.  He completed the first final lying in 9th place although his 4th position in the second one provided some useful points. Things got even worse at Shenington when he failed to claim a top ten finish in either final, but the Rowrah round boosted his points tally with 4th and 6th positions. He was on fire at Whilton Mill four weeks later, winning his first final and finishing 3rd in the other one. The round at Nutts Corner was abandoned after just one final had been completed and Matthew came home in 8th spot. He enjoyed another good round at Larkhall finishing 3rd and 4th, but Fulbeck wasn’t quite so rewarding. 9th and 7th place finishes here meant that he’d equalled his 2008 championship position of 6th, some 42 points behind the eventual winner Alex Gill. By that stage, though, he’d already achieved his main objectives of capturing the Little Green Man title and securing a good position in Formula Kart Stars.

Luke Stapleford, Jack Harvey, Jordon Lennox-Lamb, Max Goff, Andy King, Sennan Fielding and Ben Barnicoat were all previous holders of the massive LGM cup that Matthew had set out his stall to win. Fierce opposition was expected from various likely contenders but his previous form certainly placed him amongst the favourites. “When Matthew first started racing in the WTP class I thought that he was a very cunning little driver,” says Mike Mills, organiser of the Little Green Man Series. “You can be watching a race without even noticing him and suddenly he’ll be up there amongst the front runners. I think he’s very clever at moving through the pack without any great drama. For that reason, I started calling him the Silver Fox and the name appears to have stuck. We knew that he’d be a favourite for the title in 2009 and he proved us right on that score by producing some excellent performances. Although my main interest was obviously focused on the Little Green Man competition, I also noticed him in various Stars events and found him equally impressive. He established an excellent record, although I think that his size was beginning to work against him in cadets. It will be very interesting to see how he performs as a junior competitor.”

Matthew’s Little Green Man title bid got off to an excellent start at PF where he was able to hold off strong challenges from Jordan Baines, Philip Rawson and Aaron Coleman, winning with just half a metre to spare. Rawson actually beat him across the line at Shenington but was subsequently handed a five place penalty for his overtaking manoeuvre on the final bend. Matthew claimed the race win and with it he established a handsome championship lead. He looked like making it a hat trick of victories after hitting the front at Kimbolton. However Brad Shaw tried to overtake and this incident resulted in Matthew spinning off. He recovered sufficiently to capture 3rd place and actually strengthened his grip on the championship trophy. At the Teesside round he had to accept 3rd place, even though just 0.06 seconds separated him from the race winner Shaw. This result placed him a comfortable 18 points ahead of his closest championship challenger, Hannah Pym. Shaw repeated his Teesside success at Ellough Park five weeks later but Matthew followed him home in 2nd spot. He won Sunday’s final at Rowrah and took 2nd place 24 hours later. Just like Jack Harvey six years earlier he’d wrapped up the title with a round to spare.

“Becoming the Little Green Man Champion was very important for me but now I want to concentrate on KF3,” Matthew declares. “It’s totally different to cadet racing but I really enjoy the extra speed. I’m now using an RK chassis that seems to be very quick in the wet. It’s taking us quite a while to find the right dry weather settings and because there aren’t many others using this kart, we have to do quite a lot of testing ourselves. Mostly we test at PF with occasional visits to Shenington. I think testing on Saturday’s prior to a race meeting can sometimes be frustrating because there are so many different classes, each with their own sessions and you can never find enough track time. My immediate aim is to get some good results in KF3. In the long term, of course, I’d love to be a professional racing driver and my dream is to race Touring Cars. Jason Plato is a particular hero of mine and of course Lewis Hamilton in F1. In karting I admire Jake Dennis who really is an excellent driver. I’d like to think that I could match his achievements in KF3 some day. This year, I’m hoping to compete in Formula Kart Stars and Super 1. Dad says that if we can attract some sponsorship then we’ll also have a crack at some European events, probably in WSK rounds.”

In preparation for what he acknowledges will be a tough season, Matthew has embarked upon a rigorous fitness training programme under the guidance of Paul Martinson. This is paid for by Devere Hotels at Slaley Hall Northumberland.  “Matthew enjoys the sessions even though they are very exacting,” claims Val. ”He’s definitely showing the benefits of all the hard work. We’re delighted that Slaley Hall has been able to help out by sponsoring the programme. Obviously, we’d like to find more sponsors but to do that you need good publicity. I’m a little bit disappointed that his results haven’t attracted more media attention because others with less race wins to their name seem to make the headlines. It may have something to do with not running in a big team or maybe living in a fairly remote part of Northumberland. Karting magazine has always given us good coverage and I’ve taken out a subscription for my mother, Margaret Nichol, who follows Matthew’s progress with great interest. She’s a motor-sport enthusiast and long time friend of Charlie Harrison who used to race against Jim Clark and Andrew Cowan at Charterhall. Charlie won the Scottish National Speed Championships back in 1960 and became friendly with a certain Jackie Stewart. He has also taken a close interest in Matthew’s karting activities, which I think is very nice.”

Matthew comes from a relatively large family. His brother Daniel is 23 years old. Rachelle3, aged 18, adds a touch of glamour at Super 1 meetings where she can be seen as one of the Grid Girls. 14 year old Emma is the closest to Matthew’s age. With his obvious talent backed by such so much family commitment, it’s difficult to see how he can possibly fail in KF3 this year.