Go-karting thrills at Daytona Sandown Park, Esher with Damon Hill
PUBLISHED: 17:29 08 October 2013 | UPDATED: 15:49 25 June 2014
When an invitation arrived at Surrey Life asking if we'd be interested in assembling a karting team to share a charity track day with Damon Hill, Heston Blumenthal and a host of professional racers, it was too good to resist. Ade Holder took on the challenge at Daytona Sandown Park, Esher
For many people, the thought of adult go-karting would seem odd at best; however, the world of karting is as far from a child-only sport as shark fishing is to pond dipping.
Karting is the proving ground for most racing drivers – for instance, it’s where current British F1 drivers Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button both learnt their craft – but it also offers the rest of us the chance to engage in a fantastically intense and thrilling racing experience.
Nestled in the middle of Sandown Park racecourse in Esher, you’ll find Daytona’s 900m tarmac circuit and it was here that I found myself kitted up and ready to go head-to-head against a host of celebs and pro-drivers at Damon Hill’s annual charity karting event in aid of the Halow Project.
The Formula 1 legend was one of the founding members of the Surrey-based charity, which supports young people with learning disabilities on their journey into and through adult life.
He remains an active patron today and the reason Surrey Life assembled a ragtag team for the occasion. Joining me were young karting whizz Harry Law, Paul Williams (production executive for Top Gear), Pete Young (our wildcard) and John Manning (Top Gear production assistant).
Under starter’s orders
I was really rather nervous as we pulled into Sandown Park. The car park was full and it was hard not to notice the larger than usual number of expensive and rather fast cars.
As we wandered around the viewing area, there were quite a number of people in racing suits festooned in sponsorship badges and I didn’t think they were there in fancy dress.
I’m a big motor racing fan, so I couldn’t help but notice Surrey-based racing driver Sam Bird’s presence – this year, he is a test driver for the Mercedes F1 team as well as driving in GP2 for Time Russia. Next to him, the small matter of Josh Hill (Damon’s son and a successful driver in his own right) and Rick Parfitt Jr (yes, son of that Rick Parfitt). Oh, and there was Heston Blumenthal. Hot in the kitchen perhaps, but could he match it on the track, I wondered?
As the pre-practice tension built, there was a bidding frenzy for pro-drivers to join teams as guest members. Nerves disappeared for some as they smugly had photos taken with their newly acquired and rather fast teammates.
Ahead of us we had two-and-a-half hours of racing, which had to include one fuel stop. Strategy decisions are key to motorsport success these days and fortunately Team Surrey Life had the addition of a team manager and supportive dad of Harry, Ken Law.
Our best driver, Harry, was duly sent out for qualifying and after a fine drive placed Surrey Life in the top ten. Things were looking good.
After a parade lap lead by a rather stunning Mercedes AMG SLS, the green lights flared and the race began in earnest. As we hoped, Harry had a great session
but now, with a screeching of brakes, it was my turn.
Getting in and out of a kart can lead to some ungainly slips and stumbles – a little disconcerting when you feel the heat from the engines and are currently attempting to maintain some sort of dignity among pro drivers – but the change-over, luckily, was smooth.
Harry jumped out athletically and I “jumped” in, settled down and pressed the throttle pedal. I made my way to the end of the pits… glanced to the right… spotted a kart speed by and… a gap… right foot down! Go, go, go!
I fought hard to maintain position but, as many people had already made their first stops, it was tricky to tell who you were racing. In this instance, I fell back on the plan to race everyone, and it seemed to work.
Seemingly just moments later, I saw my number being enthusiastically waved by Paul on a pit board, so I headed in. Had I performed that badly? No, it turns out. I was stunned to discover I had not only maintained our position but, in fact, gained a place! Perhaps time for that career change after all?
At this point, some of the leading drivers were now, for no apparent reason, getting the dreaded black flag – penalties dispensed for dangerous conduct and resulting in the agonising penance of sitting in the pit lane for a lap while your competitors get ahead.
After some quizzing, it came to light that for a large donation Halow PR supremo Di Bird was willing to goad the race director into falsely black flagging the teams of your choice. With a new strategy possible, we began digging around our bags for loose change…
In the thick of it
Back on the track, John’s laps for Team Surrey Life were clean and uneventful but, after missing my terrible gestures from the pit wall to re-fuel, he came in for his swap with Paul. This meant Paul could only complete one lap before heading straight back into the pits; the pressure clearly got to him as he managed to miss the pit lane and bump into the barrier of the fuel lane. Caught there, in front of the crowd, Paul eventually wrestled the kart into the right lane, with much mirth from some quarters. If only the Top Gear cameras had been there. Pete took his turn and kept the pressure up until the final swap. Who would be the chosen man?
I was given the honour and had it all to drive for – all the other teams had sent out their pros. To say I held my own would be generous, but I fought for every place I lost and I enjoyed every second.
In the end, Team Surrey Life managed to secure 17th place and a very proud place it was too. Not only had we sweated, struggled, laughed and worried, we had also enjoyed an amazing day. The ensuing pats on the back, pro-driver photos and charity auction raised a total of over £19,000. Here’s to next year; let’s make that £25,000!
For more information about the Halow Project, visit their website at halowproject.org.uk