It might seem rather odd to contemplate that Luke Whitworth’s maiden top ten finish in national competition came on international shores, but when the budding young Rotherham karting star took the chequered flag a superb eighth in torrential conditions in the Formula Kart Stars (FKS) Championship at Genk, that is precisely what he accomplished.
FKS is the same series as first set a certain Lewis Hamilton, no less, on the fast track towards F1 superstardom a little over a decade ago, and it now boasts the prestigious official backing of both the sport’s youngest-ever world champion and also its highly-influential ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone.
It is an arena into which Luke tentatively ventured for the first time earlier this year, to pit himself – with scarcely any experience under his belt – up against the very crčme de la crčme of British talent and opposition at Junior Max level. His Belgian performance demonstrated that he is rapidly finding his feet and going from strength-to-strength with every outing.
“I had been told it was quite a flowing track, with a racing line you really had to stick to as it’s very slippery off-line,” the 15-year-old mused of his European Odyssey. “They were right, too, because whenever I went off-line in practice the back end would always step out!
“I enjoyed the track a lot; it’s really fast, and it didn’t take too long to get used to – it came to me pretty quickly, and by the last session in practice I was up in the top five. That was a real confidence boost; I knew I had the pace after that, so it was just a question of keeping on working hard and chipping away at it and continually setting myself targets to aim at.”
If anything, that assessment is to do himself something of a disservice, as Luke was the quickest of anyone in the first sector come the end of practice, and eager indeed for the racing to commence. Well aware that he would still be up against it somewhat being a Genk ‘virgin’, the Wickersley-based hotshot gave himself the goal of a top 15 finish amongst the 23-strong field – though secretly he was hoping for the top ten.
Unfortunately, an unexpectedly bad set of tyres on Saturday significantly hampered his challenge, as could be clearly seen from the results sheets – and having hauled himself gutsily into the top ten in the all-important final, the P1 Racing ace then slipped back seven places when a minor error briefly cost him momentum and enabled his pursuers to pounce.
“We had to put as much grip on the kart as we could and just get on with it,” Luke confessed of his trials and tribulations. “In the final I made a few small mistakes which allowed the others to catch up, and when I got overtaken by one driver I got pushed out onto the dirt, which left me with dust on my tyres and made them less grippy, so I then lost time for the next half-a-lap cleaning them up again.
“I’ve still not been racing that long, so when I’m in close battles I’m perhaps not aggressive enough yet; I need to hold my line better in those situations, but that all comes with more experience and I’m learning all the time. At the end of the day, I just had to try to put that behind me and treat Sunday as a completely new day.”
Indeed it was, and what’s more an overnight downpour meant Luke could discard his rogue batch of slick tyres for a fresh set of wet boots instead. Though he admitted to finding the circuit an altogether different proposition in such a scenario – given that it was the first time it had rained all weekend – 13th spot in qualifying was well within his stated objective.
“The track was greasy and very slippery in the morning,” he reported. “That was quite difficult to get used to, and you really need to control the throttle well in the rain and stay off the rubber on the outside. I kept losing time in certain corners because it was the first time I’d ever been round Genk in the wet – I was at a bit of a disadvantage compared to the others in that respect, but I kept working at it and trying out different lines, and that helped me to improve.”
There would be further improvements in both of his heat races, in the first of which the Wickersley School and Sports College pupil made an excellent start – something of a feature of his Genk adventure – to rise to sixth, before a handful of mistakes in the tricky climatic conditions caused him to slip back to 13th at the chequered flag.
He found himself similarly delayed by a multiple-kart accident at the beginning of heat two, but a brilliant recovery drive netted ninth spot at the close, leaving him buoyed up for a strong result in the final, which he would begin from 11th on the grid, on the theoretically favourable inside line…
“I had been told to keep to the inside at the start where there isn’t much grip, and to just try to stay on,” he explained. “I did that, but in the process I hit another kart, which cost me time and dropped me all the way down to 19th. I was angry at first, but I soon calmed down and after that I just had to keep at it, settle into my rhythm and work my way forwards.
“It was really good fun fighting my way through the pack; there are three or four decent overtaking opportunities round the lap at Genk, but with so much spray about, whenever I got up behind another driver it was tough to make out my braking-point.”
Though he had scarcely anticipated coming through as far as eighth position in the end, Luke impressively never let himself get discouraged and didn’t put so much as a wheel out-of-place as he admirably kept his cool and kept his head on a treacherous track surface to produce a genuinely eye-catching charge back up the order.
Overtaking might have hitherto been something of an Achilles’ heel for him as he slowly built up his confidence levels in what is indisputably one of the most hard-fought championships in the country, but on the basis of his late-braking exploits in Belgium to progressively gain ground, it is palpably no longer an issue.
Having determinedly taken the battle to the big guns – belying his status as by some margin the least experienced driver in the field – the Yorkshire speed demon is now bidding for a similar outcome in the next FKS meeting at Three Sisters near Wigan, where he has already finished inside the top ten in a club meeting.
“It was a really good weekend overall,” he concluded. “Eighth is my best-ever finish in FKS, and it came at a track I didn’t know before and in really difficult circumstances with the weather – and having to come back from a long way down to be able to achieve it has left me much more confident for upcoming races, too.”