The name Mike Wilson may not mean much to modern day karters with no real knowledge of racing back in the 1970s and ‘80s. However, let me educate you for a moment. Mike was top of the shop as a driver and a very competitive personality as well. A formidable mixture that netted two European and six World Championship titles. Mike was born in 1959 in Barnsley, West Yorkshire. With Wombwell almost on the doorstep it was no surprise that karting was in the family blood. His father Brian was a competitor in the early years of karting during the 1960s and went on to run a successful kart business building engines and ultimately making a range of karts, the Wilson Premier. Mike started his racing career in 1972, he enjoyed a good level of success here in the UK but the big break came in 1978 with the invitation to go to Italy to work for IAME. The Italian lifestyle certainly suited the young Wilson.
He became very close to Mr Grana of IAME and raced almost exclusively for the Birel team. Mike also spent some of his successful years driving for Kali Kart, better known today as CRG. IAME and Birel were certainly his spiritual home and success followed the move to Italy with a win in the European team championships the very next year. Having made his home in Italy, Mike raced for the rest of his career with an Italian licence until his retirement from competition at the end of the 1989 season at which point he moved into manufacturing his own make of karts. As Mike was coming over to the UK to visit his British distributor, Delta Karting, Karting magazine had the idea of reuniting him with a replica of his 1981 World Championship winning kart. Through Jon Pearce it was possible to obtain such an animal in the shape of a Birel T12 chassis with an appropriate 135cc Komet K29 mounted and ready for action. I was able to sneak a preview of the outfit when I was invited by Jon to go down to Clay Pigeon to run it in. In as near showroom condition as I have seen for any historic machine, it even had the correct wheels, stickers and colour scheme. The main chassis rails are so similar to those of a modern design that it is easy to be fooled into believing that things have not changed very much in the past 25 years or so. There, however, is where the similarity ends.
The lack of bodywork is a pretty obvious difference. The steering geometry is completely different with plenty of negative camber and only a very narrow track width available. With stepped 17mm stub axles on the inside and 15mm on the outside, the whole stub is cast with the drag link welded to the back. Standard type track rods and only one choice of pick-up on the steering column spade highlight this kart as being from way before the advent of ‘Ackerman’ type columns. Only 10mm of adjustment is available on the stubs although, even at this early date, the front wheels were supported on magnesium hubs. The seat would be considered as a hard model by today’s standards, made from several layers of woven mat glass fibre and still very comfortable in totally unpadded form. The seat washers were original Birel equipment, quite heavy and standing proud of the seat surface. When running and jumping in to the seat in proper 100cc fashion I managed to catch the toe of my boot behind the washer and was stuck, choking, accelerating and riding side saddle! I couldn’t help thinking how funny this accident was going to look! Two regular front stays underneath and two of the bolt-on variety at the sides support the seat. On this kart there were two additional stays from the bearing hangers up to the top of the seat in traditional fashion. The axle was also very interesting. 30mm through the middle supported by two bearings and stepped to 25mm at the ends. A standard short loop rear bumper completing the package. A lot of the fittings were magnesium alloy and in amazingly good condition.
The engine had been recently rebuilt with modern bearings and a new piston. Running in time on these older rotary valve engines was long and laborious with a fairly high risk of piston seizure along the way. The problem was that the big bore carburettors were more than inclined to load up with fuel and then deliver it all at once, all but drowning the engine and then running lean through the mid range. I have to confess that I was not too happy with the carburettor at all but we struggled through and finished the day with the kart running well and a best lap time, still four stroking, of 37s. I happen to remember the British Champs round at Clay in 1981. The 100 Britain race winner’s time was 40.01s. So the 135 was fast in those days make no mistake. The most impressive area of power was bottom and middle but in spite of this the engine would still rev on to 18,000rpm. The day for Mike to meet up with this fine old machine dawned with driving rain and a pretty iffy forecast. Luck was on our side however, the rain stopped and although the clouds threatened, the rest of the day remained fine. Mike looked the kart over and had clearly lost none of his competitive attitude, he immediately identified that the seat was in the wrong position for him and for the best handling of the kart. However rather than move it he was happy to have a charge round to see how it went.
At this point it is worth mentioning that Mike had not driven a kart to any real extent for ten years and not at all for six. He insists that he kept himself fit for racing by spending as much time in a kart as possible and sees that as the best way for any serious young driver to train. He was suitably derogatory about the modern couch potato kids who expect their wealth to buy them success. When Mike stopped racing at the end of 1989 his fitness training also came to a natural halt. Perhaps without realising it his lifestyle continued but the very thing that had kept him fit was about to turn the tables on him. In 1990 Mike founded the Rakama Company building the MW range of karts. The usual pressures of business and having smoked from an early age culminated in a major health scare with a heart attack in the heat of the Italian summer of 2004.
This forced Mike to take a fresh look at life and now also to get back in a kart for the good of his health. I think everyone was fairly confident that the Birel/Komet would stay together and we were more concerned that Mike would be comfortable to do the test from a personal and physical point of view. So I guess it was with some trepidation that he was pushed out of the pits. No one need have worried. On the first lap he was straight onto the carburettor jets while sliding into the pit corner. His style that has not been seen in this magazine for 25 years was there immediately. Mike completed about a dozen laps having managed to sort out the carburation that had baffled me for a day. He enjoyed his retro drive and said it brought back some great memories. It was certainly a privilege to see the master at work and, as with any great driver, it is a must watch situation. Having driven this kart myself the previous week I know how much more difficult they were than today’s very user-friendly models. A big thank you to all concerned for making this happen and an even bigger thank you to Mike Wilson.