“Pronto…?” The voice at the end of the phone beckoned in a relaxed, Italian accent.
“Mike?” I asked. “Oh hi – how are you?” The accent seamlessly changed to the warm, distinctive tones of Barnsley.
I was talking to Mike Wilson – six time World Kart Champion, hero and former favourite son of the Birel factory. Mike won three of his World titles with Birel before moving on and ultimately starting to manufacture his own ‘MW’ karts and chassis for another legendary motor racing name – Fittipaldi.
But now he’s back full-time at Lissone to share his massive experience to the factory, the team and Birel’s network of distributors and customers…
Karting: Mike, tell me about your new role. What does it mean?
MW: (Chuckles) My new job means going all over the place! I’ve just come back from America and I’m going to England next. I’ll be at Paul Fletcher’s Kart Masters too for technical consolidation – I’ll give the necessary support and information to make the kart work. Plus I’ll be developing the sales side of things, beyond the normal categories [JICA, ICA and Formula A].
Karting: Like chassis for the Rotax class?
MW: Yeah. Obviously my job is to sell more chassis into all karting classes. But for example, in Britain you’ll have a grid full of Rotaxes and only one Birel – and that’s not normal! I think over there, you have someone testing one chassis against another and they say ‘Oh, this one’s half a second slower than the other one”, so everyone jumps onto the supposedly quicker chassis. More often than not, it’s down to the set-up. So yes, I’ll be there to dispel certain myths.
Having said that though, it goes beyond words. We can’t just say, ‘Our karts are great’ we have to give drivers a good kart. I’m there to help make sure that we do – in whatever category you race in. Birel are going to develop a good, basic kart that will be competitive wherever you’re racing – something that’s easy for everyone to set-up. I think Tony Kart has that at the moment and we’re looking for that. There are more chassis to come, and there will be more choice.
Karting: When can we expect to see these new karts?
MW: There’s no set date at the moment, but we’re working on the project now for the coming season.
Karting: Given your experience will you be testing the karts yourself?
MW: (Laughs) Probably not! I broke seven ribs during a race in America back in February. To test a kart you have to be physically fit and after what happened in America – and of course my heart-attack – I think I’ll let someone else do it.
Karting: Talking of fitness, you once told me that you didn’t think that training in the gym was a substitute for being in the kart…?
MW: That’s right. Driving a kart at least once a week will give you that fitness but not everyone, yourself included, can do that. When I raced for Birel [in the 80’s] I could drive a kart every day. But if you can’t do that, then yes, you do need to exercise.
Karting: How does it feel being back to Birel after all these years?
MW: It feels good. The factory’s now ten times bigger than it was before -when I raced it was just one or two drivers in the team, now the awning can easily take ten to fifteen drivers! But there’s still a lot of people here that I knew from before, so it’s great to see them all again.
Karting: So apart from your sales and technical support brief, will you be getting more involved with the racing department?
MW: Yes. I’ve been to Parma a couple of times already, testing. I’ve got a really good relationship with Ronni (Sala, Birel Vice-President and race team boss). If I have an idea that I think can work then I can make the suggestion. This year, I’m going to all the major European races and I’ll be at the World Championships. Ronni will continue with the official drivers and I’ll look after the semi-official drivers 9like Ollie Millroy).
It’s important that people don’t feel alone. I’m there to give Birel drivers set-up support, technical advice and of course, pass on my knowledge as a driver – like how to focus on getting through the heats, the pre-final and then winning the final. I’ll say “This is how we’ll do this” and explain about getting the best from the materials around you and yourself. I’ll definitely be passing on my knowledge and making the drivers feel confident.
Karting: Including your old recipe for success?
MW: Yeah – attack from the start! Drive as hard as you can for the first five or six laps. Then look at your tyres to see what they’re doing, are they graining, are they OK?
Karting: So why did he give up producing chassis for Fittipaldi and yourself?
MW: I’ve been making my own karts for sixteen years but the market’s just so difficult now. The costs are getting higher and I couldn’t compete with the big manufacturers. I was going through so much stress and didn’t want another heart-attack. MW and Fittipaldi will continue to be made until the end of the year. After that, I have no idea…
Karting: I’ve got to say, Mike you sound really pumped about everything.
MW: I am.
Karting: So let me summarise, we can expect new karts and a greater level of support – not just to the dealers and factory drivers, but to the club driver who races a Birel?
MW: That’s right.
Karting: What, so if I’m struggling with my kart’s set-up I can e-mail you for advice?
This is incredible news for Birel drivers. You can get support and advice from the most successful kart racer ever, straight to your laptop or PC.
I mean, can you imagine ringing Michael Schumacher and saying – “Hiya Schumi, how do I take that roundabout near Tesco’s in my FIAT?”
Mike says that you’re welcome to e-mail him direct at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I wonder if he does driver coaching too…?!