Creche Course - They start 'em young these days

MF goes racing with the fastest 8-year olds in the country as we go looking for the next generation of MotoGP talent




Forsyth leads - for half a lap

Bradley Smith, at the ripe old age of 16, is currently something of an ambassador for British motorcycle racing. His 3rd place finish at the French Grand Prix lit a beacon of hope for hundreds of other British kids who until that weekend had considered the route to MotoGP too rocky to be considered as a viable career path. Or rather, their fathers had. Nobody has ever doubted that Britain wasn't capable of producing fresh talent, it's just that up until now precious little of that young talent has found its way past the huge financial hurdles and out onto the racetrack.

And it's just in bike racing that this happens. In other forms of motorsport, most notably Formula One, there's a proven system of kart racing and sponsorship in place to bring young drivers up through the ranks. A certain Lewis Hamilton has, all of a sudden, catapulted F1 back into the British public's imagination at a time when the sport seemed to be on its knees in terms of general interest. Every tabloid or broadsheet editor, every programme producer and station controller understands the desirability of British winners at world level. Get a winner on international television and space will be devoted, air time increased and up-up-up goes the value. It isn't rocket science.

So things are looking up. Bradley's doing his bit in the 125 Grands Prix, there's Eugene Laverty learning his craft and all the new circuits in the 250 class and riders like Leon Camier and Johnny Rea in British Superbike allegedly being closely scrutinised to make the jump to world level. But who's behind them, when he's fed further up the system who will be the next Bradley Smith? It's no good having a one-hit wonder, for Britain to be taken seriously again in bikesport we need to be grooming the next generation of racers now, when they're young enough and willing enough to learn. So TWO went to Lydd circuit in Kent to a round of the British Minimoto Championship to find out.

It's been a few years since I last visited a British Championship mini-moto event. 10, in fact. And that's also 10 years since I last broke my left ankle. The two events are not entirely unconnected. So, with a barely noticeable limp, I trudge intoo the paddock at Lydd to sign on. It's packed to the gunnels with motorhomes, vans, caravans and race trucks and for 8am on a Saturday morning it's unhealthily busy. It's here we meet Roger from FAB-Racing - our genial host for the day. Roger is the UK importer for Metrakit and it's one of his bikes I'll be riding today in the 'Fun' class. A Spanish-built half-way house between the most vicious mini-moto and a full blown GP125 race bike, Metrakits may be tiny but they've got six gears, a proper clutch, front and rear suspension and front and rear disc brakes. And they sound more evil than an angry Texan chainsaw. After some paper signing and the emptying of what was left in my wallet from the night before, I'm given two transponders. One for me and my Metrakit 70 and one for my son, Adam (10 years old) who is just about to lose his racing virginity on his aged Polini mini-moto.

I foolishly ask what all the different race classes mean and struggle to understand the answer as there are about 12 different categories. It's bewildering when your brain's as small as mine. But suffice to say that the Metrakit classes are 50cc and 70cc for the kids, and the 'Fun' class is for grown ups not yet fed up of hurting themselves on vicious, overpowered toys. As we walk back to our Transit van I'm still not entirely sure which class Adam's supposed to be in and when he's supposed to be out on track. The situation's not helped by the fact we've had to park up outside the paddock (completely full at 8am) and we're out of earshot from the PA system.
My organisational issues evaporate when the first kids go out on track on the Metrakit 50s. It's absolutely, utterly mad and quite terrifying to watch. These dwarves with oversized crash helmets are attacking the final double apex right hander next to our van like their lives depend on it. It's like something out of Star Wars, and Oli the photographer goads them further by pointing £9,000 quid's worth of Canon zoom lens at them. As if on cue, we have our first 10 year-old highsider right in front of us. Wallop! But, being children, the kids bounce like rubber and this lad is straight up on his feet and running for safety, nappy intact and completely clean I would wager.

If the 50cc Metrakits were an eye-opener for us junior racing virgins the 70ccs are biblically insane. We stare, slack-jawed, at the deep braking, knee-down cornering and ferocious, tyre-squirming exit speeds offered by our nearby corner. These eleven and twelve year olds are setting each other up for a pass three corners previous and using proper race craft in this first timed practice session like adults. And make no mistake, when you're just a wee nipper these Metrakits are big enough to make the ground an awful long way away - especially over the side.

I busy myself with fettling the gearing on Adam's Polini. Paddock advice (free flowing and copious - it's a friendly place) says we should run a seven-tooth front which means a load of pissing about with watchmaker's-sized Allen keys, 7mm spanners and the horrible and inaccurate issue of chain alignment. When your fingers are the size of Cumberland sausages (hello) these bikes are just shit to work on - make no mistake. I'm too cack handed for this kind of precision work. Gearing suitably altered, Adam heads out with the mini-moto equivalent of BSB and suddenly both he and I realise the gulf in ability between quick track day kids and a full-on British series. Oh well, there's nowt like chucking 'em in at the deep end. Thankfully my precious son returns with a big grin, undaunted. The cheeky little sod even has the audacity to complain about his clutch and says it's biting too late.

The level of riding throughout all the confusingly complex minimoto classes is equally spellbinding. Watching the fastest kids through left/right/left complexes is incredible. Their inputs are so precise and so forceful that it all seems to be happening in a speeded-up film. Are they fast? They're rude fast. Filthy rude. Anyone who doesn't believe that Britain hasn't got talent should come to one of these events. It's just the system that stops them going all the way - that, and the big-money lure from karting. The hot money seems to be on riding both classes for the extra track time and the experience that offers, so we decide to scour the paddock to meet the hard chargin' culprits.

It's a bit odd interviewing 10 year-olds. And doesn't photographing them have all sorts of complex issues surrounding the subject? Regardless, we press on in the interests of journalistic endeavour. Some take to the 'I'm being interviewed' scenario better than others. When most of us at 10 were quite happy to be doing skids on our push bikes or ringing people's door bells and legging it, these kids are actually being exposed to dealing with the media and it all seems slightly surreal - for both me
and them.

"So what do you enjoy about racing then?" I ask a pint-sized racer, trying not to tower over him or block the sky with my considerable bulk. "It's dead good. I really like it," comes the answer from somewhere near my feet. "What do you want to do when you're older?,' I ask, clearly at the bottom of my stockpile of questions for 10 year-olds. The kid in question, a lad called Bradley Ray, looks me in the eye through spectacularly spectacular spectacles (his, not mine) and simply says. "MotoGP."

Perhaps it was the lack of hesitation that caught me slightly off guard, or even the way he looked so relaxed about his chosen path at such a precious age. Either way, it really hit me. But Bradley's focus and determination isn't totally unique in this travelling circus. Amongst the younger competitors (and ignoring the adults competing on mini-motos which, lets face it, is fun but a bit dead-end) it's a common thread. Hunger, dazzling ability and appetite for success is everywhere in this paddock.

For a clue to this just watch them in the holding area - they're like microscopic caged fleas desperate to be let loose onto the tundra of unexplored tarmac beyond the fence. Adding to this amusing sight, you can occasionally spot a dad in the holding area coming to administer a proper bollocking for getting a bit giddy with the throttle.

But sod them, it's time for my second session on the Metrakit 70cc in the fun class. The irony is that these 21bhp (!) fun bikes are fast enough to cause at least several fractures if you get it wrong. And what's fun about that? But fun it is - by the skip full. Anyone who's ever ridden a KX65 Kawasaki or an RM80 Suzuki will know what I'm talking about. Light-switch power delivery, nervous but accurate steering and six gears so close together that you'd swear the revs didn't drop between up-changes. It's competitive, too. Five of us are all lapping within a few 10ths. These bikes come with super-sticky Sava semi-slick tyres, wide motocross bars and rear set footrests. My son is impressed but not enough to stop him taking the piss. "You look really big on that bike" he says, in a masterful stroke of understated fattist put-down. I qualify fifth. Okay for a big bastard, I thought.

But the fun class is just a way for the dads who travel the length and breadth of the UK to let the kids race, go racing themselves. Racing can be a slog - and the fun class is a great way of letting off steam.

As I drive away from the meeting one thing really hits home. Where is all the backing and sponsorship? It just doesn't exist. Ron Dennis would be mortified to see the lack of investment in the MMRA paddock. These kids are bike racing's future. Such talent, unadulterated bravery and incredible commitment needs more than just financial support. It needs nurturing, coaxing and educating. It gets no help from governing bodies - clearly we'll have to do something about it ourselves. Anyone got any bright ideas?

RACING FOR BUTTONS

PF International kart track in Lincolnshire runs a program called 'Racing for Buttons' to encourage fresh talent onto the karting scene. Every Monday after school, for just £2 kids are coached through the karting ropes until they're ready to master a two-stroke kart. The kids who show genuine ability are fully sponsored to compete in six races. Paul Fletcher, the wealthy owner of PF International, has a bee in his bonnet about offering opportunity to kids who might never normally get the break. He also hates football and cricket. Good man. www.kartsport-racing.co.uk

METRAKIT

Originally specialising in hop-up parts for twist and go scooters, Barcelona based Metrakit first took the plunge into bike manufacturing in 2003 with their Minarelli engined 50cc racer. Then followed the Derbi Senda engined 70cc version and now there follows an 80cc (bored out 70) and a 32bhp 125cc miniGP bike. www.fab-racing.co.uk

50cc - £2850

With 10bhp and six gears it's the perfect way to cut your racing teeth. Package come with spare wheels fitted with Sava racing wets and fitted discs

70cc - £3,500

The serious business of 15-16bhp is for riders who already have experience of racing the fifty - a natural progression.

Fun bike - £2,750

Strip the fairing off the kid's 70 racer, fit some motocross bars and you have a Fun bike. Plenty of pre-load adjustment on rear shock to accommodate heftier pilots like, er, myself.




One to watch - Bradley Ray

TIPPED FOR THE TOP

Any kid - at nine - who lies about his date of birth to be able to jump on a bigger bike before his time is worthy of consideration. Just ask Ron Haslam. The MMRA were rightly disgruntled when they rumbled the cheeky little monkey but after careful consideration allowed him dispensation based on his ability. Remember the name - he'll go far. He may look like the Milky Bar kid, but rides like Damian from The Omen.

Bradley Smith, at the ripe old age of 16, is currently something of an ambassador for British motorcycle racing. His 3rd place finish at the French Grand Prix lit a beacon of hope for hundreds of other British kids who until that weekend had considered the route to MotoGP too rocky to be considered as a viable career path. Or rather, their fathers had. Nobody has ever doubted that Britain wasn't capable of producing fresh talent, it's just that up until now precious little of that young talent has found its way past the huge financial hurdles and out onto the racetrack.

And it's just in bike racing that this happens. In other forms of motorsport, most notably Formula One, there's a proven system of kart racing and sponsorship in place to bring young drivers up through the ranks. A certain Lewis Hamilton has, all of a sudden, catapulted F1 back into the British public's imagination at a time when the sport seemed to be on its knees in terms of general interest. Every tabloid or broadsheet editor, every programme producer and station controller understands the desirability of British winners at world level. Get a winner on international television and space will be devoted, air time increased and up-up-up goes the value. It isn't rocket science.

So things are looking up. Bradley's doing his bit in the 125 Grands Prix, there's Eugene Laverty learning his craft and all the new circuits in the 250 class and riders like Leon Camier and Johnny Rea in British Superbike allegedly being closely scrutinised to make the jump to world level. But who's behind them, when he's fed further up the system who will be the next Bradley Smith? It's no good having a one-hit wonder, for Britain to be taken seriously again in bikesport we need to be grooming the next generation of racers now, when they're young enough and willing enough to learn. So TWO went to Lydd circuit in Kent to a round of the British Minimoto Championship to find out.

It's been a few years since I last visited a British Championship mini-moto event. 10, in fact. And that's also 10 years since I last broke my left ankle. The two events are not entirely unconnected. So, with a barely noticeable limp, I trudge into the paddock at Lydd to sign on. It's packed to the gunnels with motorhomes, vans, caravans and race trucks and for 8am on a Saturday morning it's unhealthily busy. It's here we meet Roger from FAB-Racing - our genial host for the day. Roger is the UK importer for Metrakit and it's one of his bikes I'll be riding today in the 'Fun' class. A Spanish-built half-way house between the most vicious mini-moto and a full blown GP125 race bike, Metrakits may be tiny but they've got six gears, a proper clutch, front and rear suspension and  front and rear disc brakes. And they sound more evil than an angry Texan chainsaw. After some paper signing and the emptying of what was left in my wallet from the night before, I'm given two transponders. One for me and my Metrakit 70 and one for my son, Adam (10 years old) who is just about to lose his racing virginity on his aged Polini mini-moto.

I foolishly ask what all the different race classes mean and struggle to understand the answer as there are about 12 different categories. It's bewildering when your brain's as small as mine. But suffice to say that the Metrakit classes are 50cc and 70cc for the kids, and the 'Fun' class is for grown ups not yet fed up of hurting themselves on vicious, overpowered toys. As we walk back to our Transit van I'm still not entirely sure which class Adam's supposed to be in and when he's supposed to be out on track. The situation's not helped by the fact we've had to park up outside the paddock (completely full at 8am) and we're out of earshot from the PA system.

My organisational issues evaporate when the first kids go out on track on the Metrakit 50s. It's absolutely, utterly mad and quite terrifying to watch. These dwarves with oversized crash helmets are attacking the final double apex right hander next to our van like their lives depend on it. It's like something out of Star Wars, and Oli the photographer goads them further by pointing £9,000 quid's worth of Canon zoom lens at them. As if on cue, we have our first 10 year-old highsider right in front of us. Wallop! But, being children, the kids bounce like rubber and this lad is straight up on his feet and running for safety, nappy intact and completely clean I would wager.

If the 50cc Metrakits were an eye-opener for us junior racing virgins the 70ccs are biblically insane. We stare, slack-jawed, at the deep braking, knee-down cornering and ferocious, tyre-squirming exit speeds offered by our nearby corner. These eleven and twelve year olds are setting each other up for a pass three corners previous and using proper race craft in this first timed practice session like adults. And make no mistake, when you're just a wee nipper these Metrakits are big enough to make the ground an awful long way away - especially over the  side.

I busy myself with fettling the gearing on Adam's Polini. Paddock advice (free flowing and copious - it's a friendly place) says we should run a seven-tooth front which means a load of pissing about with watchmaker's-sized Allen keys, 7mm spanners and the horrible and inaccurate issue of chain alignment. When your fingers are the size of Cumberland sausages (hello) these bikes are just shit to work on - make no mistake. I'm too cack handed for this kind of precision work. Gearing suitably altered, Adam heads out with the mini-moto equivalent of BSB and suddenly both he and I realise the gulf in ability between quick track day kids and a full-on British series. Oh well, there's nowt like chucking 'em in at the deep end. Thankfully my precious son returns with a big grin, undaunted. The cheeky little sod even has the audacity to complain about his clutch and says it's biting too late.

The level of riding throughout all the confusingly complex minimoto classes is equally spellbinding. Watching the fastest kids through left/right/left complexes is incredible. Their inputs are so precise and so forceful that it all seems to be happening in a speeded-up film. Are they fast? They're rude fast. Filthy rude. Anyone who doesn't believe that Britain hasn't got talent should come to one of these events. It's just the system that stops them going all the way - that, and the big-money lure from karting. The hot money seems to be on riding both classes for the extra track time and the experience that offers, so we decide to scour the paddock to meet the hard chargin' culprits.

It's a bit odd interviewing 10 year-olds. And doesn't photographing them have all sorts of complex issues surrounding the subject? Regardless, we press on in the interests of journalistic endeavour. Some take to the 'I'm being interviewed' scenario better than others. When most of us at 10 were quite happy to be doing skids on our push bikes or ringing people's door bells and legging it, these kids are actually being exposed to dealing with the media and it all seems slightly surreal - for both me
and them.

"So what do you enjoy about racing then?" I ask a pint-sized racer, trying not to tower over him or block the sky with my considerable bulk. "It's dead good. I really like it," comes the answer from somewhere near my feet. "What do you want to do when you're older?,' I ask, clearly at the bottom of my stockpile of questions for 10 year-olds.  The kid in question, a lad called Bradley Ray, looks me in the eye through spectacularly spectacular spectacles (his, not mine) and simply says. "MotoGP."

Perhaps it was the lack of hesitation that caught me slightly off guard, or even the way he looked so relaxed about his chosen path at such a precious age. Either way, it really hit me. But Bradley's focus and determination isn't totally unique in this travelling circus. Amongst the younger competitors (and ignoring the adults competing on mini-motos which, lets face it, is fun but a bit dead-end) it's a common thread. Hunger, dazzling ability and appetite for success is everywhere in this paddock.

For a clue to this just watch them in the holding area - they're like microscopic caged fleas desperate to be let loose onto the tundra of unexplored tarmac beyond the fence. Adding to this amusing sight, you can occasionally spot a dad in the holding area coming to administer a proper bollocking for getting a bit giddy with the throttle.

But sod them, it's time for my second session on the Metrakit 70cc in the fun class. The irony is that these 21bhp (!) fun bikes are fast enough to cause at least several fractures if you get it wrong. And what's fun about that? But fun it is - by the skip full. Anyone who's ever ridden a KX65 Kawasaki or an RM80 Suzuki will know what I'm talking about. Light-switch power delivery, nervous but accurate steering and six gears so close together that you'd swear the revs didn't drop between up-changes. It's  competitive, too. Five of us are all lapping within a few 10ths. These bikes come with super-sticky Sava semi-slick tyres, wide motocross bars and rear set footrests. My son is impressed but not enough to stop him taking the piss. "You look really big on that bike" he says, in a masterful stroke of understated fattist put-down. I qualify fifth. Okay for a big bastard, I thought.

But the fun class is just a way for the dads who travel the length and breadth of the UK  to let the kids race, go racing themselves. Racing can be a  slog - and the fun class is a great way of letting off steam.
As I drive away from the meeting one thing really hits home. Where is all the backing and sponsorship? It just doesn't exist. Ron Dennis would be mortified to see the lack of investment in the MMRA paddock. These kids are bike racing's future. Such talent, unadulterated bravery and incredible commitment needs more than just financial support. It needs nurturing, coaxing and educating. It gets no help from governing bodies - clearly we'll have to do something about it ourselves. Anyone got any bright ideas?

METRAKIT

Originally specialising in hop-up parts for twist and go scooters, Barcelona based Metrakit first took the plunge into bike manufacturing in 2003 with their Minarelli engined 50cc racer. Then followed the Derbi Senda engined 70cc version and now there follows an 80cc (bored out 70) and a 32bhp 125cc miniGP bike. www.fab-racing.co.uk

50cc - £2850
With 10bhp and six gears it's the perfect way to cut your racing teeth. Package come with spare wheels fitted with Sava racing wets and fitted discs

70cc - £3,500
The serious business of 15-16bhp is for riders who already have experience of racing the fifty - a natural progression.

Fun bike - £2,750
Strip the fairing off the kid's 70 racer, fit some motocross bars and you have a Fun bike. Plenty of pre-load adjustment on rear shock to accommodate heftier pilots like, er, myself.

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