“Adam, this is Lewis – he’s going to be a Formula One World Champion”.
I shook the 9-year old’s hand, smiled at the uncomfortable kid looking up at me and said “You’re going to be a Grand Prix champion, eh?”
“Yes, I am.” His smile was now broad and sincere – like the reply. ‘Yeah, right’, I thought to myself, ‘How can they possibly say that, he’s just a Cadet…’
The scene I’ve just described took place in 1994 at Playscape’s legendary indoor kart track at Clapham – and the man making the introductions was the circuit’s owner, Martin Howell.
Looking back now, I remember that what struck me most wasn’t Lewis’ steely determination but Martin’s tone – he wasn’t patronising Lewis or me, he meant what he said.
As Lewis swept to his third podium in as many GPs and into the history books, I remembered my response to Martin’s introduction. Instead of thinking, ‘Yeah right’, I should’ve run into the nearest bookies and put a month’s wages on Hamilton to make it into F1.
Nowadays, virtually every magazine or newspaper article about Lewis mentions his karting background – but what they fail to say is just how very good he was back in his karting days. Lewis hasn’t just crash-landed on the motor racing planet, he’s been around for a long while now.
I decided to go back and talk to the people who were instrumental in helping Lewis in his early career and ask them – did they always know that he’d take F1 by storm?
Kieran Crawley has no doubt whatsoever. “I’m not surprised at all. If anything, I thought he’d be doing better already. I’ve put money on him to win in his first 6 races. Lewis is a supreme talent.”
Now boss of M-Sport and the UK Zanardi importer, Kieran was then working with Nick Jest at Fullerton, when Terry Grant – a mutual friend of Anthony Hamilton (Lewis’ dad) and Kieran – recommended him to Hamilton senior.
On their first meeting, Crawley was struck by the Hamiltons’ businesslike approach. “Anthony and Lewis arrived at my front door in suits. He’d also done his homework and checked me out with Nick Jest. We got on immediately and Anthony said, ‘You start tomorrow’ and that was it. The following day we were at Rye House.”
Kieran is clearly full of pride at Lewis’ success and their friendship. “We just clicked straightaway. We did the Belgian Champs and came 4th and drove all over Europe together, testing and racing.” The catalogue of successes at this time is phenomenal – European Formula A Champion; World Cup Champion; officially ranked as karting’s World Number 1; winner of the Masters race at Bercy, Paris against superstar opposition, winner of the “Industrials” in ICA, Vice European Champion in JICA; winner of the Trofeo de Pomposa, 4th in the Italian Open and Belgian Champs.
And it’s an incident in Belgium that Crawley says indicates Lewis’ talent – “Back then in JICA, the karts would do a rolling lap, stop on the grid and do a standing start. Lewis was always stalling it but you were allowed to wait by the side of the track with a starter. Anyway, as they rolled onto the grid, I could see Lewis looking for me. I thought, ‘Oh no, he’s stalled it’. I got the starter into the side-pod just as the lights went to green. Lewis went off the back of the grid and was already half a lap down. He caught the pack and went through it like a hot knife through butter to finish 4th. He was up against some very good drivers, like Randy Bakker and (Robert) Kubica – and he beat them! In F1 we haven’t seen him come from the back and the commentators all say ‘Ah but Lewis hasn’t made a mistake’ but that’s when he’s going to be at his most dangerous. When he makes mistakes, just watch him go. That’s what happened in Belgium and if he starts making mistakes in F1, he’ll win the World Championship. I wanna see him make mistakes – then you’ll see just how good he is”.
I asked Kieran if he thought we’d soon be making comparisons with Schumacher, Senna or Prost. “There is no comparison! In 3 years time, there will be no comparison” he says with that haunting surety I first heard 13 years ago. “Remember, he had no experience of the first three tracks he raced on. When he gets onto the circuits he knows from his F3 and GP2 days – watch him go.”
Kieran also said something that struck me, “All he’s doing now, is what he was doing in karts”.
So I decided to go back to the beginning – although the Clapham circuit is now long gone, Martin Howell and Playscape are still very much around.
Martin has always supported kids with talent who want to go racing – Playscape actually came about when he helped children’s charity Kidscape take karting to kids who were otherwise unable to experience the sport. In 1994 Martin was sponsoring the hugely talented Nicky Richardson in Cadets. When he moved up a class, Martin was approached by Anthony Hamilton. “Nicky’s dad John was helping Anthony with Lewis’ racing and when the Richardsons moved out of Cadets, John recommended that Anthony talk to me. I sponsored Lewis by paying for his tyres.” So did Martin strike a canny deal that’s paying dividends now? “No” he laughs. “We did pull him in for events. If we had a big corporate event in or a charity do, we’d use him but no we didn’t do a deal as such.”
But was Martin genuinely convinced that Lewis was a future star, even back then? “Yeah, we all knew he was going places. Especially once Ron Dennis came in. Lewis has been very well managed and steered in the right direction. Having that cushion surely helped too. Lewis always drove for the best teams and had the best equipment.”
Martin’s also not surprised that Lewis has arrived in such a manner in F1. Indeed, with a package that includes the best kit, an F1 team boss as his mentor and patron, it’s like Kieran said – he’s just doing what he was in karts.
And it’s the quality of the kit that led me to talk to Martin Hines. Hines is rightfully proud of his association with many of British motorsports leading lights, including David Coulthard, Anthony Davidson, Gary Paffett and Mike Conway – what links them all, is Zip kart.
So how did Hines first spot Hamilton? “I went to Rye House – Gary (Paffett) and Luke (Hines) were racing in JICA, I think. Anyway, I went to watch the Cadet racing and there was this kid on black (novice) plates running at the front. In the final he came 3rd and I told him afterwards how impressive I thought he was. His dad told me that it was his first ever race, I said ‘Cor, you better come and see me’. They did and the following week, he was in a Zip.”
From there, Lewis joined the Young Guns squad and promptly won the McLaren Mercedes Champions of the Future series in 1996. It was at the series’ prize-giving that Lewis first met Ron Dennis and uttered the famous remark that so impressed the F1 supremo. Hines made a full introduction at the following Autosport Awards and “from there, Ron became involved.”
Despite Martin still being so heavily involved with running today’s Young Guns team and Zip, and with Lewis away for months at a time on Grand Prix duty, Hines and his former protégé are still in regular contact. “I speak to Anthony quite a bit and see Lewis at various races, functions and dinners. Anthony’s still interested in karting. He knows what goes on and still takes a keen interest in JICA.”
But does he echo the pundits’ amazement at Lewis level of success so early in his F1 career? “To be honest, at the time I thought his move into F1 was too premature. I thought he needed another 6 months testing but no, his maturity and ability is so good. I was talking with is father just after Melbourne and we were saying that what he’s doing is fantastic but we know he’s capable of doing better”. So by that, he means win a race sooner than later? “Yes, he’ll win this year. He made Alonso look pretty ordinary (in Bahrain) so yes, I’d put money on Lewis winning soon.” But has Martin visited a bookie’s yet? “No. Do you know I made enquiries about him making it into F1 and was amazed at how short the odds were – in 1996! But I have had a bet on Oliver Rowland…”
And that leads onto a discussion about how to be the next Hamilton. What qualities does a young karter need to make it to the top? “Enormous bravery (he does actually suggest certain dangly parts of the body). You’ve got to be able to drive quickly. Then we need talent, to feel the kart. You’ve got to be able to sit in it and drive it by the seat of your pants. If you’ve got ‘feel’, no matter where you go in motorsport, you take it with you. Focus – A good driver doesn’t have bad days or get distracted by other things because they’re always focused. And that means testing. Lots of kids just want to go racing and ignore testing. When karting becomes a chore, forget it. You should want to go testing. If you want to be the best, you’ve got to go testing. Kids should also go to the gym – only to do light stuff. You need to keep sharp because the fitter you are, the quicker you’ll go”.
Martin sounds a note of caution too, “to get to Formula One, you have to be very, very special”.
Lewis Hamilton certainly is that and (at the time of writing), we can only wait and see if he delivers on the faith and belief of Kieran and the two Martins – plus all the people around him and his legions of new fans around the world.
If I could get decent odds, I’d bet on it.