By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - Lewis Hamilton's father knew something had to be done about the soaring costs of karting and the huge financial risks being taken, when his son was first crowned Formula One world champion.
"Back in 2008 we were getting letters and emails from people who wanted their kids to be like Lewis. Numerous people were selling their houses to go karting and taking their kids out of school," Anthony Hamilton told Reuters.
"One or two British families sold what sounded like great houses to move to Italy to go karting. I have no idea where they are now.
"I remember I didn’t really want the responsibility of young kids and their parents losing their livelihoods or believing that if you do a little bit of racing, you get into a top team race car," he added.
Competitive karting is the first step on the motorsport ladder, taking youngsters from eight years old to the threshold of single-seater car racing, for almost all of today's grand prix hopefuls.
But costs at the top level have escalated to the point where some parents are reportedly spending six figure sums annually to ensure their 13 or 14-year-olds get the best equipment, opportunities and testing.
In Europe, where youngsters pay fees to professional teams, it can cost 10,000 pounds ($15,171) to compete at a four-day meeting.
There is, however, an alternative whose organizers hope will become increasingly attractive with the support of Formula One Management and F1 teams, themselves no strangers to enormous expenditure.
Formula Kart Stars (FKS), which has Lewis Hamilton as its patron and Anthony as president while Ayrton Senna's old team mate Terry Fullerton is 'head guru', promises a level playing field for all entrants for a fixed cost.
The Cadet class entry price for 2015 is 25,000 pounds, still a hefty amount but all inclusive for a season of 12 rounds, rising to 35,000 a year for Juniors.
OUT OF HAND
"I was very concerned at the cost of karting. You will hear some horrendous figures; kids of nine, 10 and 11 whose parents are spending over 100,000 pounds a year. It’s ridiculous," said FKS chairman and former racer Carolynn Hoy.
"What we wanted to do was provide a championship that had all the razamatazz, all the connections, all the support, all the endorsements but it’s a fixed price...so there’s absolutely nothing you can buy to make that kart better or go faster.
"The idea is that dad can come along with his son and daughter, their crash helmet and suit and a small toolbox and that’s it. They don’t have to buy a truck, or awnings. Everything is paid, there is nothing they can pay extra."
The winner of each class gets free entry to the next stage, meaning that a youngster with more talent than money can still hope to emulate Hamilton.
"In this day and age, I wouldn’t have lasted one or two years in karting," former McLaren test driver and ex-kart champion Gary Paffett told Reuters.
"It has got out of hand and there needs to be something done. What Carolynn has done with Formula Kart Stars is definitely a massive step in the right direction".
The series boasts that it represents "the road to Formula One through racing and education" and a mobile classroom, complete with a teacher and 20 desks, is housed in an articulated truck on site to ensure studies are not neglected. Schools are closely involved.
"I made Lewis go to school. It was part of the deal," Anthony Hamilton said.
"We might have been funded by Mercedes and McLaren but there are no guarantees in life, so you still need your education. This is why I am a big fan of this series."
Initially focusing on Britain, the plan is to expand to other countries on the F1 calendar with race winners invited to their home grands prix by commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone.
"There could be an Indian championship, a Malaysian championship and they will be self-contained but with the same format," Hoy said.
Ecclestone, who caused controversy last year by suggesting he was more interested in older fans who bought expensive watches and banked with sponsors, said he was concerned the costs of karting were "out of control" and is supportive.
"He’s incredibly forward thinking for a man of his age," said Hoy of the 84-year-old. "He’s also aware that the demographics are not good for Formula One. They tend to be older people watching and he wants young people in the sport.
"He’s also very strong about the educational side of things."
Ecclestone indicated he was likely to get more involved. "We'll have to fund it," he told Reuters. "I'm in the middle of trying to do something."
(The author was one of six judges, including Anthony Hamilton, Paffett and Fullerton, in a competition at the Autosport International Show to award a fully-funded FKS drive. It was won by nine-year-old Olivier Algieri)
($1 = 0.6559 British Pounds)
(Editing by Ed Osmond)