x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

It takes a family to get to Formula 1

The road is long, and expensive, for youngsters who dream of becoming an F1 driver, needing a coach, mechanic, financier and chauffeur - who often goes by another name: Dad.

Paul Healy helps his son Finn prepare his kart. Paul has two more sons who want to take up karting.
Paul Healy helps his son Finn prepare his kart. Paul has two more sons who want to take up karting.
Kart racing at an early age is the first step to the top levels of motorsport. All the top drivers, such as Lewis Hamilton, Michael Schumacher, and Sebastien Vettel, got their start in karts before the age of 10. But to get even a whiff of the top levels takes an incredible amount of sacrifice and, at this stage, most of it is borne not so much by the young drivers, but by their parents.

Here in the UAE, that road is starting for some on the dusty outskirts of Al Ain. Under a beautifully sunny, Friday morning sky, small tents, trucks and karts litter the paddock area of Al Ain Raceway. Young kart drivers, some not much taller than a metre, wander about in packs, dressed in multicoloured overalls and looking like parodies of adult race drivers. Their parents - mostly fathers - and others are busy bending over the karts, readying them for the children's first practice of the day.

Paul Healy used to race his own Rotax kart in the Seniors class, but today his focus is on tuning the kart of his son Finn. Healy, who works in the oil exploration sector and is based in Dubai, is standing underneath a small tarp tent; his pickup truck is backed up to it and a host of tools on tables surround him. The kart sits on a stand with wheels, making it easier for Healy to perform all of his adjustments and repairs. While impressive enough, Healy's set-up pales in comparison with those of others at the track, who have trailers and even large trucks dedicated to their children's kart racing.

"There are varying levels of expenses here," says Healy as he turns a wrench. "We're close to the bottom."

Finn, 8, is in the Cadet class, the youngest competitive karting class and open for kids eight to 12 years old. He is off with his friends while Healy continues talking and working. "The kart itself is about 14,000 dirhams; a set of tyres is around 850 dirhams. I'm not giving Finn a new set of tyres every race; this is his second set of the season. Some of the other boys are getting a new set every race."

These are the larger expenses; competitors also have to spend money on fuel and oil, practice and entry fees of about Dh600 and the occasional hotel room, as well as all the safety equipment needed - a helmet, shoes, gloves and a pair of overalls, which in total can be more than Dh4,000 at the lower end of the scale.

In all, Healy muses he spends about Dh40,000 a season. But he says there are ways to save money. "If you know what you're doing, you can save a lot of money on the tools. If you're clever, you'll go to the shop with someone with experience and you know you'll need to get these wrenches, and this size for the plug, and just the stuff that you need. But I worked it out the hard way."

Compounding his expenses are the fact that Healy's two other sons, Rory, 6, and Ronan, 4, also have their own Rotax karts. They are too young for official racing, but Healy not only works on all their karts himself, but he also takes them out for practice and lessons; sometimes, with a little help.

"I had Scott Latham, a three-times Rotax champion here, give them lessons. He teaches at the Autodrome; and, of course, to the kids, he's an older boy [19], someone to look up to."

Shane Sewell is standing beside Healy's setup, fixing the kart of his own son, Dixon, who is 9 years old. As the two boys flit around the pits like mosquitos, Sewell says he tries to keep the expenses within reason. "There's a cost to it; you just have to budget for it. It's not too bad, but when he gets older and if he gets more serious, the cost will get higher. But if he's got a mind for it, and if he gets better, well, our intentions are to keep going with it."

Antonio Kekati is the managing director of Al Ain Raceway. The complex is the official organiser for the national karting championships (known as the UAE Rotax Max Challenge); in fact, it hosted the world championships in 2007 and will host them again in October.

In his role, Kekati sees many degrees of talent in young drivers, and a wide range of spending on them.

"You could get away with about Dh40,000 or Dh50,000 in a season, with limited success as a hobby driver. But there are people here spending Dh400,000 or more, because they want to practice, they want new tyres; and in practice, you can break chassis, you can ruin engines, anything can happen.

"And the other factor is that the top drivers here are going to Europe to race. A round in the Euro Challenge series costs anywhere between ?9,000 to ?12,000 a weekend. So, it's 'how much do you want to spend'?"

Kekati says the Al Ain series tries to have a level playing field for all drivers, with policies such as mandating sealed engines to avoid competitors spending money tweaking them. But it's still an unwritten rule that money is what it takes to get a driver to the top level, no matter how fast they are.

"In karting, there's always talent. Unfortunately, it's not just talent that gets you there, it's the package behind it; the money behind it. A lot of these kids could make it, but will they make it? It depends. It's sad because you see great talents that just fade away and have nothing to do with motorsports because they don't have the money.

"It's very difficult unless Mercedes or McLaren comes along and says 'we're keeping an eye on you' and they give you a contract."

Edward Jones is a 15-year-old karter based in Dubai. He's lived in the UAE all his life and has been karting for the past 10 years; in that time, he's become one of the best kart racers in the world. In his Junior class (12-16 years old) races later this day, he will easily qualify on pole and take the chequered flags. He is a six-time champion in the UAE and has raced all over Europe, and he has his sights set firmly on Formula One.

But he also enjoys a healthy budget with his father, Russel. The senior Jones estimates he spends more than Dh700,000 a season, which includes hiring Keiran Crawley, a professional race instructor and mechanic who used to take care of Lewis Hamilton's kart. Crawley flies in from the UK on race weekends and for other sessions with Edward.

But from an early age, Edward showed real talent, and his father felt justified in the spending. And he's found benefits for his investment that reach far beyond the track.

"I used to do all the mechanics when Edward was in the Cadets, and he was winning everything there. Then he went to the Juniors, and I found it got beyond what I can do. That's when I contacted Keiran. And that just took it to a different level.

"Edward has developed and matured; not just as a driver, but as a person. His schooling is improved, he's much fitter, and he's interfaced with people all over the world, he's interfaced with his team on a higher level, and has improved these different aspects of his life.

"So there is that dream, but even if he never gets there, he's collected a huge amount of capabilities and experiences; the travel, the meetings, the attitude to his work, learning how to manage people. It has its benefits."

For those who can't afford to hire mechanics, time is another currency spent on their children's sport. With 12 rounds this season in Al Ain, Dubai's Kartdrome and the newly opened Al Forsan complex in Abu Dhabi, parents have to juggle their own schedules around those of their racing children. And it's not just a few hours on a Friday, either.

"I spend quite a bit of time for him," says Luc Bauwmans, a Dubai resident from South Africa. His son, Alain, is 9 years old, but both father and son have their own karts this weekend, with Luc racing in the DD2 shifter kart class. "I think I spend about anything between two and five hours before a race weekend, then we try to get some practice between race weekends as well. And then, it starts all over again for the races.

"He gets the occasional coaching, too; it's always good to learn from other people."

With three sons with karts, Healy certainly feels the stretch for time. "The reason I stopped karting myself is that, with the three boys, I just don't have the time. Last season, I finished second in the championship, and at the same time I was maintaining his kart and mine and driving.

"I had a day off last Sunday, so I spent most of that day preparing Finn's kart and cleaning it. So for each race day, there are either one or two days prep, including practice. And in the evening you might do something, too. And then there's the travel time, so it all adds up."

But even for someone like Jones, there are no guarantees that these investments of time and money will pay off. "The idea is to get to the highest level of racing, but there are no guarantees," says the senior Jones. "Even if someone is really, really good, there could be a myriad of reasons why they would be dropped; maybe his face doesn't fit the brand, maybe his backing isn't good enough. At the very end, it's a lottery; it's brutal."

So why go through with the cost at all? There are many obvious reasons, ranging from the simple thrills of racing to the dreams of one day moving to top-level motorsport. But spending time in the pits during this race day reveals other draws. That time invested is not just with the kart, but between the families that gather for their children; between the kids that run around the pits in packs, playing; and, ultimately, between father and son. It's a very social atmosphere.

Later, during practice, Finn pushes another competitor off the track with an ill thought-out passing move; in the pits afterward, his father pulls him aside and talks quietly and patiently about what he did wrong and what he has to do the next time, and has his son apologise to the other racer. The two pint-sized drivers shake hands like adults and walk off into the paddock area, chatting about school, karts and whatever else eight-year-old aspiring F1 drivers talk about.

nvorano@thenational.ae