SIMPLY THE BEST: Mike Wilson interview

The dialect was distinctly South Yorkshire and his appearance could only be described as nondescript. He was there beside the Delta Karting stand in his Parka jacket, looking like a market stall trader who had perhaps strayed into Donington Park by accident. One or two eminent personalities, including Paul Carr and Ricky Grice engaged him in animated conversation. However, 90% of visitors to the International Kart Show at the end of November didn’t spare him so much as a second glance. Their attitudes may have altered if they’d known something of his background. For ten years he totally dominated the international karting scene, setting a record of six world title wins that is never likely to be equalled. Fernando Alonso acknowledges that his expert tutelage was responsible for setting him on the path towards F1 glory. Ayrton Senna reputedly called him the best driver he had ever raced against. Pablo Montoya praises him for the valuable advice which he eventually passed on to his son Juan. His name is Mike Wilson, the karting champion whom Senna, Schumacher, Hakkinen and many other top F1 stars all failed to match in serious competition. This is his story. The place was Shenington on a crisp and clear day back in September 1974.

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Catching up with Michael Simpson at Donington

The young teenager hobbled painfully away from his kart, managing a brave smile in response to the expressions of condolence from various supporters and friends. It should have been a triumphal occasion, the biggest in his life so far. Several weeks earlier he’d been a hot favourite to win this particular event and become the British Junior Champion. However, a bad smash during an international event at Rye House had left him with a broken leg. Determined not to miss out on the action he’d arrived at Shenington with his leg in plaster and required permission from the medics before he could race. Mechanical failure in an earlier heat had further compounded his problems. From a lowly grid position, however, he’d managed to gain 4th spot before colliding with Bryce Wilson in the final. Unable to restart his kart, Mike watched rather disconsolately as Martin Smart claimed the title. Move the calendar forward 8 years and there’s a familiar figure limping around the paddock once again. The occasion is rather more important. It’s the 1982 World Championships at Kalmar, Sweden and Mike is now the reigning champion having won this title at Parma 12 months earlier. Just two weeks earlier he’d removed a plaster cast from his ankle before walking down the aisle with his new bride Nicoletta. Racing under a handicap has now become almost second nature to him and he wins his first final quite convincingly from pole position. The main event proves rather more difficult as his teammate, Lars Forsman, has a clear power advantage. However, he manages to keep the rapid Swede at bay for 28 gruelling laps and comes home to win his second consecutive world title. His road to fame and fortune had begun in modest surroundings 11 years earlier. “I was on a week’s camping holiday at Prestatyn with some mates from school,” he recalls. “On the second or third day we came across a track running rental karts.

It was owned by Graham Liddle who had won the World Cup at Morecambe a few years earlier. I spent the entire day there and blew all my money on these karts. I had to ring my dad and ask him if he could come to Wales with some more money. He wasn’t very pleased and demanded to know what I’d spent it all on. When I told him, he went with me to the kart track and we both had a few goes together. He actually had a kart of his own at that time, but I’d never shown the slightest interest in it, preferring football instead. After arriving back home, he went out and bought me a secondhand Blow Gnat with a Komet K77 motor. I remember my first outing at Wombwell with this kart. I oiled the plug up three times going so slowly. Dad came up to me and said, “Look Mike, this is a racing kart, not a toy. You’ll have to put your foot down.” I did exactly what he said and promptly finished up in the tyres.” Despite such an inauspicious start, Mike was well and truly bitten by the karting bug. “We were soon spending every weekend racing at Wombwell, Fulbeck, Rye House and any other circuit that happened to be holding a meeting” he claims. “I was lucky to have parents who loved the sport even more than I did myself. It occupied every spare moment of our time. Each week we’d spend until Wednesday discussing the previous race and then three days would be taken up planning for the following Sunday’s event. Mum and dad were working class people and they must have made enormous personal sacrifices to finance my karting activities. Winning my first world title at Parma gave me enormous satisfaction because I felt that I’d repaid their dedication in some way.” Mike’s breakthrough occurred early in 1977 when he joined the Zip team and immediately made a big impression in domestic karting. His reputation took on international dimensions later that year when John Mills took him to Parma for the World Championships, running with factory backing from DAP. His performance was good enough to catch the eye of Bruno Grana who promptly offered him a 12 months contract with IAME. “It was a difficult decision for me because DAP had given me my first real opportunity at international level” confesses Mike. “However, I was 17 years old at that time and the chance to join the world’s biggest team was too good for me to turn down. It was a contract I kept renewing every year until my retirement from active karting. Mr Grana obviously preferred to keep his drivers on short term contracts and they suited me also because I could keep my options open. The downside was that I had no real security and this put me under lots of pressure when things weren’t going particularly well.”

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Kalmar, Sweden, 1982 and a second World title for Mike ahead of teammate Lars Forsman

Indeed there was immense pressure placed upon a young lad barely out of school. He’d come from a very close knit family and suddenly found himself living in a strange country trying to cope with an unfamiliar language. “It took me six months to learn very basic Italian and another year until I could hold a proper conversation” he says. “I did feel homesick on many occasions but there was a job to do and I simply had to knuckle down. The relationship I had with Mr Grana was always very businesslike. He could be very kind but even after I’d become world champion, he’d make sure that I knew who was the boss. Angelo Parrilla (head of DAP) was an engineer at heart, whereas I’d say that Mr Grana was strictly a businessman. I broke my ankle shortly before getting married to Nicoletta. There was no way that I intended walking up the aisle with a plaster cast on my leg, so I had it removed. When Mr Grana found out, he went ballistic. He said I’d jeopardised my World Championship prospects but I was able to calm him down by pointing out that the plaster had been hindering all of our testing.” Mike’s early association with IAME had been fraught with problems. He failed to make much of an impact at Le Mans during the 1978 World Championships won by American driver Lake Speed. The following year’s event at Estoril was dominated by Peter Koene and an unknown Brazilian driver called Ayrton Senna Da Silva, both of whom had been taken on by his old DAP team. 1980 ought to have been Mike’s year, but a sudden bout of pneumonia prevented him from contesting the World Championships at Nivelles in Belgium. Peter De Bruijn won this one ahead of Senna and Terry Fullerton. At Parma the following year, Mike was unstoppable. This particular event was run with the best of three finals to count. With two wins under his belt, he’d secured his first world title before the third final took place and was able to cruise home in this one behind his teammate Forsman. Another IAME backed driver Ruggero Melgrati beat Senna for 3rd. Then came the 1982 victory over Forsman which gave him a famous championship “double”. He was on top form again at Le Mans in 1983 to win his third world title, despite intense pressure from Forsman who appeared to be several tenths quicker. This hat trick had been achieved by only one other driver, François Goldstein and so there was cause for special celebration. The following year he went over to Liedolsheim in Germany determined to make it four in a row.

Things certainly looked good after he’d built up a massive lead over Jorn Haase and Guiseppe Bugatti. With less than two laps remaining, however, his Komet engine expired leaving Haase to claim victory. Money had never been an important factor in his career but, with a young child to support, it suddenly assumed greater significance. “I asked Mr Grana for an increase in salary and he told me to speak with Oscar Sala from Birel” Mike recalls. “Oscar told me that it wasn’t company policy to pay their drivers, but he offered me six karts which I could sell. That wasn’t really satisfactory and so I switched over to Kali karts with Mr Grana’s approval. They paid me very well, but it took quite a while before I could develop this kart to my satisfaction.” The 1985 World Championships were held once again at Parma. Mike emerged a convincing winner with Bugatti this time finishing ahead of Haase to claim 2nd place. Goldstein’s record of 5 world titles was looking under threat as they moved to Jacksonville in Florida for the 1986 event. This meeting turned into a total farce when all the European drivers staged a boycott. “The circuit was a complete joke and wouldn’t even have been fit for a club meeting back in the sixties,” Mike recalls. Along with all the other competitors who had boycotted this event, Mike had to serve a six month ban which excluded him from most of the 1987 European rounds. This severely hampered his prospects in the World Championships at Jesolo, won by Giamperi Simoni. He recovered the following year, however, to take his 5th world title at Laval after a classic tussle with Simoni. The following year at Valence he broke Goldstein’s long standing record by winning world title number 6. This put the lid on a truly fantastic karting career and Mike immediately retired to concentrate on manufacturing his own karts. He also ran his own team and could count Fernando Alonso among the many talented young stars to benefit from his expert guidance. As a competitor, he’d taken on and beaten many top personalities who would eventually win fame and fortune in F1. Included in this list are Senna, Schumacher, Hakkinen, Fisichella, Magnussen, Capelli, Zanardi, Coulthard and Herbert. The record books and anyone who attended world championship events throughout the eighties will confirm that Mike Wilson was ‘Simply the Best’. There’s no doubt that Mike Wilson could claim to be the top driver of his era, but his last world title was won 17 years ago and even 17 months is a long time in karting. I wondered how one of today’s rising young stars might react to him. Kalvin Quinn is thirteen years old, around the same age as Mike when he first arrived on the national junior scene. In 2006 Kalvin will contest the S1 Series in Minimax under the guidance of former British Champion Rob Jenkinson. He arrived at Donington armed with lots of questions and, during an interview lasting for almost two hours, received some interesting replies. The gist of their discussion is reproduced here, along with Kalvin’s observations. Quinn: Which performance do you rate as your best of all time? Wilson: That’s a difficult question to answer because I had so many memorable races. I’d probably choose the 1988 World Championships at Laval because I won this one against all the odds.

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Laval, France, 1988 and title number five, his second for Kali

I was the old man in the IAME camp by then and attention was focused on the younger drivers. From a purely business perspective, I understand why this happened, although it hurt me at the time. I had an excellent battle with Giamperi Simoni who had a power advantage, particularly in the later stages. Winning this one gave me lots of satisfaction and I went home believing that I’d proved a point. Quinn: Did you ever feel nervous? Wilson: Yes! I’d get butterflies before every race, no matter how big or small. They disappeared once I’d got my helmet on and I could concentrate on the task ahead. Quinn: Did you ever do any special fitness training leading up to an important race? Wilson: No, never! I’ve always believed that the best preparation for racing is time spent in the seat and nothing I’ve experienced so far has altered my opinion. My brother in law is a weight lifting fanatic and, after trying out one of our karts for ten laps, he had to come in suffering from fatigue. The muscles he’d developed were completely wrong for karting. So working with weights or whatever won’t make you a better driver I’m afraid. Quinn: Do you think of yourself as being English or Italian? Wilson: That’s quite difficult to answer. I made my home in Italy 28 years ago and obviously my wife and children are all Italian. My own roots are in Yorkshire though, and every time I arrive in England it feels like I’ve come back home. When I won my world titles I believed that I’d captured them for Britain as much as for the IAME team. Quinn: Have you always had the support of your family during your karting career? Wilson: Yes, absolutely! I also believe that karting brought us much closer together as a family. Quinn: Were you disappointed when your son chose soccer instead of karting? Wilson: A little bit at first, perhaps, but I could understand his reasons. Alex is 22 years old now and currently on loan to Monza having previously played for Atalanta.

He puts in a lot of effort which I’m sure will be repaid. Soccer is more of a team sport than karting, but the dedication required at top level is similar. I always believed in encouraging children to take up sport in one form or another and it’s a bonus if you can get paid for something you enjoy doing. Quinn: As a Junior, did you ever imagine being employed by a factory like IAME? Wilson: No! That sort of thing never happened back then, at least not to British drivers. I did get some help from Jack Barlow (Barlotti) and Martin Hines (Zip), but it was very limited. Quinn: How confident were you in your own ability as a driver? Wilson: Very confident. That may sound big headed, but you’ve got to believe totally in yourself if you’re aiming for the top. It’s like two boxers entering the ring. Sometimes you already know which one will lose because he’s psyched himself out even before a blow’s been struck. I never allowed myself to feel beaten before any race even when I knew that my equipment wasn’t quite quick enough. Quinn: Who do you think was the best kart driver you ever raced against? Wilson: There’s no doubt in my mind that Terry Fullerton was the best driver I ever encountered. Senna was obviously pretty exceptional too, but Terry always managed to squeeze the maximum from every kart he ever drove. My old teammate Lars Forsman could count himself very unlucky not to have been a world champion himself. He was very rapid and also a remarkably clean driver. Perhaps that was part of his problem. I always felt very comfortable having Lars alongside me, whereas I’d have been nervous with Terry as a teammate. At Kalmar, for example, Lars was definitely quicker than I was but couldn’t get past me. If it had been Fullerton behind, then I know he’d have tried to come through and we might both have ended up in the tyres. Hakkinen was another driver who greatly impressed me during the short time I knew him in karting. It wasn’t a great surprise to me when he went into F1 and eventually became the champion. Quinn: Who amongst today’s drivers have particularly impressed you? Wilson: There’s a very long list and it’s too long to go through right now. If we stick with the Brits, then Mark Litchfield, Jon Lancaster, Martin Plowman and Jason Parrott all strike me as being capable of winning the world championships. I don’t have to mention Oliver Oakes because he’s already achieved that distinction. Until he moved into cars 12 months ago Ben Hanley was obviously a world beater too.

It’s great that Britain is producing so many top quality drivers. Back in the sixties we had just one or maybe two drivers who could genuinely be classed as world beaters. It’s a well known saying that success breeds success and you need lots of strong competition to bring out the best in yourself. I was fortunate to enter karting when we had a lot of very good British drivers so I cut my teeth racing against the likes of Terry Fullerton, Mickey Allen, Paul Fletcher, Roger Mills, Terry Edgar and Ricky Grice. Quinn: Did you ever think about moving into cars yourself. Wilson: Yes. In fact I did test an F3 car about 20 years ago but I didn’t have the budget available to do a full season. Whereas karting was providing me with a good wage, even just a few races in F3 would have taken up every penny I had. For some that isn’t a problem but it certainly would have been for me as I had a young child to support. In my last year of karting I earned around £30,000. That’s small beer compared to the salaries commanded by today’s F1 stars but still enough to provide my family with a comfortable lifestyle. Quinn: What was Alonso like as a kart driver? Wilson: He was pretty exceptional as you might expect. Like many young karting stars he wanted to make the move into cars as quickly as possible, immediately he’d reached the age of 16 in fact. I talked him into remaining on karts for another two years and I think he benefited from this advice. Quinn: Was there anything in karting you wanted to achieve but didn’t? Wilson: I’d have loved to have won a British title, whether in Juniors or Seniors, but somehow it never happened. Even after a few years with IAME I still retained my RAC licence and went to Felton for the 1979 British Championships hoping to lift this prize. Mickey (Allen) was very quick in that race but I still thought that I’d beat him until my engine seized. It was quite a crushing blow for me at the time. If someone told me that I could have a British title in exchange for one of my world championship wins then I’m not sure what my reaction would be. It’s the one thing missing from my karting CV and something I regret not achieving. Quinn: How many hours did you spend each day as an IAME contracted driver? Wilson: A lot more than most people would imagine. It was definitely a full time job, especially in the early years of my contract with IAME.

Valence 1989
Mike takes his record breaking sixth title at Valence in 1989

The hours would vary a lot but test sessions often involved 8 hours of solid driving in which I’d be setting up motors for myself and other competitors associated with the factory That was on top of kart preparation working alongside my mechanic Giulio Rabaglio. It could be pretty exhausting work but came as part and parcel of being a professional driver. Quinn: If you could change one thing in karting today, what would it be? Wilson: I think I’d like to make it simpler and more affordable. Thirty years ago I was able to race successfully because my parents made all sorts of sacrifices themselves. Lots of kids don’t have that advantage and karting’s probably even more expensive in real terms than it was back then. Quinn: I’ve been racing for 5 years and would like to do well at national level. What advice could you give me so that I might achieve my full potential? Wilson: I’d tell you to do your best in every race and never give in no matter what obstacles you might encounter. If at the end of a race you know in your own mind that you’ve done the best job possible, then the actual result is of secondary importance because next time out you’ll be racing with that little bit extra confidence. Remember what I said about the two boxers. it’s very important that you start a race believing in your own ability. I’d also advise you not to have too many options with regard to equipment. It’s quality rather than quantity that matters. If you’re trying to choose from half a dozen motors, or even numerous setups, then it can become very confusing and 9 times out of 10 you’ll finish up making the wrong choice. Be decisive, select the equipment and set-up you think is best and then have confidence in your own judgement. The same principles apply to your tactics out on the circuit. Don’t make half moves, if you attempt to overtake then make sure it’s going to stick.

That way you’ll gain the respect of other drivers, however grudgingly given. But above all else, make sure you enjoy your racing because once it becomes more of a pain than a pleasure then it’s time to get out.

KALVIN’S COMMENTS “Before carrying out this interview I didn’t know all that much about Mike Wilson, although I’d heard his name mentioned at a few race meetings. I looked on the internet and found an interview that had been carried out a few years ago by Gordon Kirby. I also had copies of a few articles in Karting magazine that had been written at the time of his world championship successes. I realised that he’d been a great driver and was very nervous about meeting him. When we met I was really surprised at how easy it was to talk with him. He answered all of my questions honestly and the whole interview was very enjoyable. I came away hoping that I could become just like him. I don’t mean by winning a world championship or anything like that. I’d just like to copy his attitude towards racing because I think he had the right approach. That’s why he was six times world champion and it’s what made him better than all the rest.”