Though reverting to its default mode of disappointingly predictable, the 2014 Formula One season starts its second half on Sunday with the German Grand Prix in Hockenheim.
To suggest the drivers’ championship is less than competitive might be sacrilegious in motorhead circles, though the fact remains that, excluding Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, the third favourite in this year’s title race, Daniel Ricciardo, is already quoted by bookies at 150/1 to undertake a comeback of Lazarus-like proportions and be crowned champion. Bear in mind, we’ve seen just nine of this season’s 19 contests.
Yet the knockabout comments swapped by Hamilton and Rosberg, often edgier than boyish banter, serve to indicate their respective – and deep-rooted – desire to win.
The pair have been at it since they first competed against each other as youngsters driving small-engine go-karts.
In an interview on the eve of the British Grand Prix at Silverstone a fortnight ago, Hamilton spoke of his first meeting with Rosberg as a boy in Italy.
“We were talking about how cool it would be, one day, if we were in Formula One, just how cool it would be to be team-mates. We said it several times,” says Hamilton.
“I can’t remember back then if I believed it. Nico would say ‘when I’m in Formula One’, and for me it was ‘if I ever get to Formula One’. Because obviously Nico’s dad was a Formula One driver – he knew he was going to make it. For us (Hamilton’s family), we never really knew what was going to happen, we just kept at it.”
Hamilton first went karting, at the Rye House Karting Circuit, more than a decade ago aged eight, winning races and Cadet class championships almost as soon as he sat behind the wheel.
Two years later, he famously approached Ron Dennis, McLaren’s F1 team boss, and, while asking for an autograph, said, “I’m Lewis Hamilton. I won the British Championship and one day I want to be racing your cars.”
Dennis wrote in his autograph book, “Phone me in nine years, we’ll sort something out then.”
From the Cadet ranks, Hamilton drove for Martin Hines’ Zip Young Guns Karting Team and, after he progressed through to Junior Yamaha levels, Dennis called him four years’ earlier than arranged. By 2000, following numerous karting successes, the British Racing Drivers’ Club installed him as a ‘rising star member’. The rest, they say, is history.
Hamilton, and to a lesser degree Rosberg, have successfully raised karting’s profile, which has resulted in this Cinderella sector of the sport-cum-leisure industry attracting serious interest from deep-pocketed venture capitalists.
Last year, for example, private equity firm Connection Capital backed a £9 million management buy-out of go-cart operator, TeamSport Racing.
The Guildford-based business has since opened three new sites (it now has 12) across the UK and plans to have 16 venues operational by 2016. Hamilton’s progress, from young boy racing go-karts to world F1 champion, has undoubtedly played a part in karting’s popularity.
Little wonder that TeamSport believes there is a growing demand to make motorsport more accessible to the public and corporate markets. To accommodate for this, the company’s growth strategy involves the acquisition of new and existing tracks from a stock of roughly 100, considerably smaller go-karting operators who could be lacking access to investment funding.
The injection of capital and projected openings could enable TeamSport to become the market’s dominant player – it’s a similar strategy to the one employed by Goals Soccer Centres, which began dominating the five-a-side football market a decade ago. Following flotation, Goals now has a market capitalisation of £130 million.
More than 300,000 people visit one of TeamSport’s tracks every year and the comparison with Goals and other forms of leisure activity are not lost on the company’s managing director, Dom Gaynor.
“If you think about what’s happened to bowling and going to the cinema in the last 20 years, we’re looking to make karting a bit more polished,” he says. The oily, messy, blokeish image the sport revelled in for years is slowly being replaced by one designed to appeal to a much wider audience than the one comprising young men with visions of becoming the next Lewis Hamilton – or Jenson Button, another who started out racing go-karts.
Not as though the link with Formula One has harmed the sector. David Nebb, a leisure industry consultant, believes TeamSport has the opportunity to build upon the association with high-profile F1 drivers, a large number of whom began their burgeoning careers racing 200cc karts.
“TeamSport’s turnover has increased steadily over the past few years,” he says. “It was £6 million in 2011, a figure that had grown by 50 per cent by this time last year and, with new sites opening, sales and profits appear likely to continue in similar vein for the foreseeable future.”
The fractured karting market remains dominated by owner-manager, one-venue operators who do everything themselves, a contrast to the offer available at TeamSports’ indoor centres, which boast proper changing facilities, showers and lounges in which to relax.
Daytona Racing, another karting operator, has three sites in Manchester, Sandown Park and Milton Keynes, two of which are outdoors. It’s 900-metre outdoor track at Sandown Park attracts everyone from wannabe Lewis Hamiltons to serious adult racers who can speed around the hairpin bends in either single-engine karts (for cadets and juniors) or twin-engine ‘prokarts’, the adult version.
Budding F1 superstars aged between 8-15 are offered practice sessions on the site’s ‘Indy’ circuit, while ‘Bambino Graduates’ aged 5-7 may drive on the ‘Club’ circuit. Weekends and school holidays are incredibly popular with youngsters keen to get behind the wheel.
“The karting market could double in size within the next four to five years,” says Mr Nebb, “as companies realise that the sport is not all about accommodating aspirational drivers. After all, not everyone who goes to the cinema wants to be a movie star.
“The corporate market remains virtually untouched, for example, and it’s here that karting operators could learn from companies such as Goals Soccer Centres, which has successfully developed this area of its business.”
Indeed it has. Goals’ interim figures, due to be published on September 3, are likely to show another sales increase and provide details of further expansion beyond its existing 44 UK sites. Karting is unlikely to ever match football’s popularity, but as Mr Gaynor points out: “Motorsport has become quite glamorous again and we’re trying to make go-karting more like that.”
Glamour and roaring engines is a traditionally heady combination that has worked its magic in more than one sport over the years, which suggests Mr Gaynor’s ambitions are on the right track.