Daytona’s state-of-the-art outdoor karting facility in Milton Keynes once again played host to the National Final of the British Schools Karting Championship on Saturday 27th March 2010. Barely a few hours after Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button had taken to the Australian Grand Prix circuit on the other side of the world, this year’s BSKC finalists were preparing to line up on the grid for a high-stakes race of their own. Over 1,700 students from almost 200 schools and colleges across the UK had taken part in the qualifying rounds - including, for the first time, teams from Northern Ireland - and those numbers had been whittled down through regional finals to leave the 34 fastest schools to duke it out for overall honours in the National Final. Students would be racing against one another in identical 60mph pro-karts, on Daytona’s challenging 1360m International circuit. Each team would contest six heats – with each of its three drivers competing in two of those heats – and the squad with the highest points tally at the end of the day would be crowned champions. Randomly generated grids ensured that the results would be as unpredictable as the weather.
Sure enough, as the rain began to fall it was two of last year’s finalists, Gilberd School and the Hurstmere Sports College, who stole an early march on the competition with one win a piece. Hurstmere, in fact, had already tasted a victory of sorts in the London and South East England regional final at Buckmore Park a few weeks earlier. Not only had the Sidcup-based school won the event to graduate through to the final, their PE tutor Anthony Davis also trounced the opposition in the inaugural BSKC teachers’ race. Needless to say, this novelty race was a hit with the students, whose turn it was to cheer on (and laugh at) their coaches from the pitwall for a change.
By the midpoint in proceedings Hurstmere looked set to replicate their winning ways from the regional final, topping the points table as they were with two victories and a third place. Pre-event favourites the Winterbourne International Academy – whose driver line-up featured multiple British kart champion Sam Jenkins – had endured a difficult first few heats, with one wheel-banging moment while dicing for the lead being deemed a little too forceful on their part, and the black flag duly shown. It was a similarly frustrating affair for last year’s third-placed team, Wellacre Technology College, who started off strongly with an impressive victory in the third heat – when the track was at its wettest – but faded in the latter stages.
Amid all the action and drama resulting from the ever-changing track conditions, it was Hutchesons’ Grammar School from Glasgow who had crept stealthily up the points table to threaten Hurstmere’s early superiority. They had yet to win a race, but a strong and consistent run of top four finishes meant they were just 15 points shy of the leader’s total with just one heat remaining. Hurstmere’s drivers, having already completed their six heats, could only watch from the sidelines as their rivals geared up for the start. From thirteenth on the grid, it was up to Hutchesons’ David Wagner, in kart number 22, to finish in fifth position or better – a task with more than a few echoes of Hamilton’s and Button’s recent title-deciding exploits in Formula One! The tension was palpable as teachers, parents and friends crowded the pitwall for the best view. Although the track was still damp, umbrellas had long since been cast aside and the sun was poking through as the lights went green.
The Hutchesons’ kart was quick off the mark and darted to the inside for turn one – the best place to be to stay out of trouble. As several karts ran wide on the greasy surface, Wagner once again found the way opening up at the second corner and didn’t need a second invitation to nip through and past his competitors. The pack disappeared over the crest and down to the bottom end of the circuit, and by the time the leaders re-emerged at the top of the back straight and into the fearsomely quick turn nine, the 22 kart was already up into an impressive fifth position and tucked up behind Bruntcliffe school’s Danny Harwood. The biggest stop on the circuit is into the hairpin at turn ten, where it’s difficult to pick a braking point from 60mph at the best of times. On cold, slick tyres in damp conditions, however, it’s a real challenge, and third-placed Stuart Coey of Regent House School was over-ambitious, carrying too much speed towards the apex and running wide. Harwood and Wagner were through in a flash.
In the meantime there was a battle raging at the front between pole-sitter Tom Baker of The Brunts School Racing Team and WIA’s Sam Jenkins. Baker, whose helmet design bore a conspicuous resemblance to that of Jenson Button, had led from the start, but as the pair began their third lap Jenkins was alongside and took the lead into the first corner. Clearly not wishing to be outdone while wearing the colours of Britain’s reigning World Champion, Baker went slithering back up the inside at turn two to reclaim first spot. It was clear that their fight was costing them time, and as they plunged out of sight around the back end of the circuit, Harwood and Wagner had closed up and were right on their tails. When the lead pack appeared again it was Jenkins who led from Wagner, Baker and Harwood – Coey and ACLC’s Ryan Hewitt diced for fifth position in the background. The Hutchesons’ School driver, though, was a man on a mission: on lap five he made his move, scything past Jenkins and into a commanding lead which he wouldn’t lose.
It was a convincing performance in tricky conditions, and one which had come at just the right time – Wagner took the chequered flag to score the 20 points his team needed to become the British Schools Karting Champions of 2010. A disappointed Hurstmere squad nevertheless hung on to second position overall, from Newcastle’s Ponteland High School in third.
“It’s good to win,” said Wagner after the podium celebrations had calmed down. “Especially having come all the way from Scotland. There was some very close racing, and the wet and greasy conditions were challenging for all the drivers. It’s a great event, so I’d like to say thanks to the BSKC!”
Team-mate Greg Barnard believed consistency was the key to their success: “It’s our first time in the championship as we only found out about it this year. We got through to the final, and we just tried to keep scoring top five finishes, and that seemed to pay off in the end.”
For championship organiser Will Tew, the hard work of the past year has certainly paid off: “Today has gone really well, both logistically and with the racing out on the track. We’ve had rain, we’ve had it dry, we’ve had changeable weather, so the drivers have had to deal with a lot of tricky conditions and I think they’ve all done fantastically well. Some of the drivers from the top three teams don’t have a great deal of experience, so even just getting to the final is an incredible achievement. It’s very gratifying to see that we’re introducing this sport to these young people and they’re finding that they’re pretty good at it! It makes it all worthwhile.”
Words and photos by Alex Roache