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Ten ways to spot a future F1 champ aged eight

Lewis Hamilton aged 10

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

When Lewis Hamilton was eight and winning his first karting races he was tipped as a future Formula One champion, a prediction that came to glorious fruition on Sunday in Brazil. So what marks an eight-year-old as a potential champion?

A top footballer or tennis player was probably scoring spectacular goals or hitting cross-court winners when a child.

But eight-year-olds who aspire to be motor racing champions are still nine years away from a driving licence.

However, they can still race. Like most Formula One drivers, Lewis Hamilton cut his teeth on the karting circuit, starting at the tender age of eight in 60cc karts travelling up to 55mph.

He was among a handful picked out as showing great promise. But what are talent scouts looking for in someone whose school chums are probably still role playing Power Rangers?

1. THE RACING LINES

"It's all about learning the racing lines first," says Chris Pullman, operations director at Buckmore Park Kart Circuit, where Hamilton caught the attention of McLaren as a child.

Graphic showing the racing line

"You might drive fast but without the racing lines then you'll go off at some speed. Racing lines are the best way to drive round the circuit.

"The straightest line out of the corner is the best line to take. A mistake novices make is that they think the shortest route is the quickest route and they hold the inside line but that's the slowest line. At most corners, you turn in late and get a straight line to get the power down."

2. OVERTAKING

Hamilton's overtaking skills were "very, very good," says Mr Pullman. There are three heats in karting and each driver takes turns in starting at the front, the back and the middle.

"So even the best drivers have to start at the back and have to learn to overtake. The race may only be eight laps so they have to get from the back to the front.

Youngsters on karts
Karting has boomed since Hamilton rose to prominence

"You have to come off the racing line and overtake left or right and sometimes you have to think about overtaking three or four laps ahead because you want the maximum speed coming off your corner.

It's about having the confidence to make a decision and "going with it straight away".

Eight-year-olds who drive with speed, consistency and accuracy stand out, he says. It's no good putting on one very good lap if you are slow on the next five, so the good drivers like Hamilton put in consistent laps and are able to overtake at the same time.

3. RACING SAVVY

"Hamilton had speed but it was a racing craft you don't normally see in a youngster," says Kevin O'Malley, whose son Joshua was Hamilton's contemporary at Rye House karting track in Hertfordshire.

"They do their lap times and you can find a driver who can go quickly but putting them in a race is very different," says Mr O'Malley. "He was on Blue Peter driving remote controlled cars [aged seven] and I think it was his hand-eye coordination. His was exceptional. You get children of eight or younger who can drive quite quickly but to have that extra racing skill is a gift."

4. THE SPECIAL MANOEUVRE

Hamilton's trademark manoeuvre is to brake as late as possible approaching a bend - a skill that was honed as a child in karts, says Mr O'Malley.

HAMILTON THE PRODIGY
1985: Born in Stevenage, Herts
1991: First ride on a go-kart on holiday in Spain
1992: Beats Blue Peter presenter John Leslie in a race of remote control cars
1993: Father buys him a 1,000 kart and he begins racing
1996: Wins McLaren's Champions of the Future karting series
1998: Joins McLaren's young driver programme

"Normally children that brake late go off the track but he could get an extra yard. If you're coming to a corner there's always a racing line and normally when you come to that racing line the only way to go past them is to go inside them, off the racing line, you're late on the brakes and get in front of them.

"You would tend to go off the circuit but he does that manoeuvre and still makes the corner. It almost defies belief. Somehow he gets inside, turns in and still gets the power back on and that balance between hands, eyes and feet and get everything perfect to get into the corner and out of the corner. He made it look easy and he was exceptional, outstanding, especially as he was a novice driver."

5. GOOD REACTIONS

It's a depressing thought for most of us, but our reactions probably peak aged 10 or 11, says Mr O'Malley.

"Some are better than others. You can just tell. That's racing craft. They can go round and put in a good lap time but in races someone might spin or brake extra early and it's the reaction of the driver to that incident that matters.

"My son [who was National Karting Champion at 21] was good at that and whenever there was an accident he would miss it. You can't teach them that.

The more experience a driver amasses, the more they learn. But you can't teach reaction times and "that's what separates the super drivers from the good ones".

6. ADAPTABILITY

Drivers have to prove themselves in wet weather as well as dry and Hamilton's steering was "very good" in both conditions, says Mr Pullman. "Sometimes you would take a different line to get round the corner and you have to know the ability of the kart, how far you can push the kart to the limit in the wet.

"Probably the worst conditions are when it's just starting to rain because muck gets washed to the top of the surface and it's like an ice rink."

7. FOCUS

"After his first race aged eight, I introduced myself to [Lewis's father] Anthony and Lewis," says Martin Hines, a former world karting champion and owner of the Zip Kart racing company.

"I said: 'Come to my [kart] factory and see me tomorrow and have a chat and see if we can help you.' And when we started chatting I realised how incredibly focused he was. He was determined that he was going to be the best, not that he wanted to be but that he was going to be, and he said it in such a way that I believed him."

Later Mr Hines introduced the Hamiltons to McLaren boss Ron Dennis, who was similarly impressed by the youngster's focus.

8. EXCITEMENT

"Everyone is saying he's an exciting driver to watch. That's how he's always been," says Mr Hines. "The way he sat in the kart and moved the kart. He moved the back of the kart."

It's a technique Hamilton still uses today. "In F1 he has the back [of the car] sliding about but others don't do that. It allows him to drive that much quicker... it gives him the edge."

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9. PARENTAL COMMITMENT

Unlike most schoolboy sports, natural talent isn't enough in motor racing. There's also got to be money and for eight year olds that means the Bank of Mum and Dad. But the Hamiltons are by no means from the super rich stock that is common in Formula One. Lewis' father worked hard to pay 1,000 for his son's first kart and five years later he was in the hands of McLaren on their young driver programme.

Today, an eight-year-old's kart costs about 2,300, plus about 5,000 on maintenance, engine repairs and tyres during each season. Some parents have been known to spend 20,000 a year.

"They have to be very committed because the karting season lasts all year round," says Mr Pullman. "Some are racing every weekend.

10. AND WHAT THE KIDS LEARN LATER

The step up to racing cars is a big one and not just in terms of the driving.

No eight-year-old will have the necessary media skills they may need later as Formula One drivers, although some do already have sponsorship deals.

McLaren took Hamilton under their wing and kept him away from the media until they had taught him how to handle press conferences and interviews.

And while youngsters develop a natural fitness as they are thrown around the karts, the specialist training in the gym comes later, to build their strength and stamina to withstand G-force in a two-hour race.

The karts are fitted with data-logging software to record a raft of statistics like speed, pressure, oversteering and gear ratio. Young drivers get to know their karts intimately, which is a learning process that prepares them for the greater complexities ahead.

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