Podium finish gets Whitworth’s national campaign off to stylish start

Luke Whitworth proved that his searing pre-season pace was very genuine indeed with an impressively combative performance that yielded a podium finish in the 2012 curtain-raiser for the national, Lewis Hamilton and Bernie Ecclestone-backed Formula Kart Stars (FKS) Championship at Kimbolton.

Having been consistently impressive throughout the winter months, Luke headed to Cambridgeshire feeling quietly confident about his prospects for a successful weekend – and ready to pit himself against 22 of the fiercest Junior Rotax class competitors in the country.

“We’d had a good build-up in terms of results, so that showed we had the pace and gave us a timely boost,” revealed the talented young Rotherham karting star. “We’d also been quick at Kimbolton before and had established a decent set-up round there. It’s got a nice mix of fast and slow corners and is an enjoyable track to drive; it’s quite physical, and you have to know how to handle the kerbs to get the best out of the lap time.

“There are a lot of good drivers at Junior Rotax level in FKS this year; it was a strong grid at Kimbolton, and the whole field was extremely closely-matched all weekend. I’d say there are at least five potential title contenders out there, so it’s definitely going to be tough.”

Luke’s diligent pre-season preparations paid off handsomely in Saturday’s qualifying session, as the highly-rated Wickersley-based speed demon set the fourth-fastest time, barely a tenth of a second adrift of the outright benchmark. The opening heat race would then take place in just the kind of treacherously tricky conditions in which he invariably excels – enabling him to pull off some superbly incisive overtaking moves.

“The only worry was starting on the outside line,” he opined. “There’s practically no chance of getting across at Kimbolton because the drivers on the inside box you out and there are always casualties at Turn One. It becomes a case of just trying to get through the corner without being hit. It was wet-but-drying in heat one and I lost a little ground at the beginning, but we knew we were fast and consistent in those conditions after Friday practice.

“I ended the first lap in fifth, and then set about moving forward; with everybody being on such a similar pace, when you overtake someone you need to try to force them out of their rhythm a little bit so they fall back from your slipstream, but my kart felt really good and I was able to work my way into second.

“The leader had established a sizeable advantage by that stage, but I pushed as hard as I could to catch him until it started raining again towards the end. That made the circuit quite slippery and we were all on slick tyres, and I had a little sideways ‘moment’ over one of the kerbs which gave me a bit of a reality check; we were on for really good points and I didn’t want to throw that away, so I backed off after that and settled for second.”

Heat two, sadly, would transpire to be rather more frustrating, as the MSA Academy member found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time at the start and helplessly hung out to dry around the outside of Turn One. Thereafter, with all the front-runners lapping within a tenth of a second of each other and coming up against some particularly defensive rivals, despite Luke’s evident raw pace and overtaking prowess, tenth position was as good as it would get. He was pleasantly surprised, after that, to begin the final in P3.

“That was a real dogfight!” he confessed. “I gained a place at the start to run second, and just tried to keep it all neat and tidy and consistent, but Sam Marsh came past me a few laps in and then took the lead. Oliver Myers ahead of me began defending quite heavily, which allowed Marsh to escape; that was a shame, as I’m convinced we had the speed to genuinely take the fight to him.

“Because Oli and I were battling, some other drivers were able to close onto the back of us as the race progressed – there were nine people fighting over second place at one stage! It did get pretty tense and ‘lively’ towards the end and I briefly dropped down to fifth, but I just tried to keep my cool and not panic.

“I got back up into third, but was then passed at the end of the penultimate lap. I was determined not to miss out on the podium, though, and it all went a bit crazy going into the last lap. I got pushed from behind into the driver ahead of me – my back wheels were lifted fully up into the air – and I was lucky to keep control of the kart, but I came out of Turn One in third again and held it to the end. It was a great start to the season to get a podium in the first round.”

That it indubitably was, but the following day, Luke’s qualifying efforts were stymied by traffic, and with the track getting faster by the minute, being one of the first drivers to take the chequered flag at the end of the session severely counted against him. That meant the Wickersley School and Sports College student would again begin both of his heats on the unenviable outside line – in eighth place – and he duly found himself unceremoniously spun around at the beginning of the day’s opening encounter.

With the weather remaining unpredictable, however, and the heavens opening midway through, he fairly scythed his way through the field, and in a tremendous fightback, his speed and determination were rewarded with an excellent fifth place. Unfortunately, a first corner mêlée and engine issues in heat two dropped the 17-year-old half-a-lap behind the pack, leaving him with little option but to treat the rest of the race as a test session, whilst judiciously trying to find the quickest lines in those conditions ahead of the final, which he would begin 14th.

“I actually managed to get across to the inside this time at the start,” he recounted, “and although there was the usual chaos into Turn One, I was able to thread my way through it and gain some ground. We were really quick in the wet, and even if our kart set-up was not quite right, I still had the confidence to fight my way through and we ended up sixth. I was really happy with that given where we had started.”

Concluding the weekend sixth in the title standings – a mere six points adrift of third – Luke will head next to Ellough Park Raceway in Suffolk, scene of his breakthrough national podium in karting at the end of his first full campaign in the sport in 2010. Mentally, physically and psychologically now every bit a match for his adversaries despite his comparative inexperience, the P1 Racing hotshot has no doubts that he will once more be a leading contender.

“It was a good weekend overall,” he summarised of Kimbolton. “Ok, Sunday wasn’t the greatest day in terms of results, but we salvaged some solid points and I’m really encouraged by the pace we showed. Some of our main rivals had difficulties, too, and we’re well-placed in the championship. We’re up there in the mix, so we’ll give it our best shot at Ellough and see where we shake out.”