Niki Richardson

Hamilton’s first karting rival: “I must be one of few people he’s never beaten”


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Shortly after clinching his fifth Formula 1 world championship in Mexico last week, Lewis Hamilton revealed the name of a little-known rival from his past – and the lengths he went to beat him.

Recalling his karting days near his Stevenage birthplace, Hamilton described how his father Anthony singled out the “quickest” of their rivals and used him as a reference point for his eight-year-old son.

“He would go and stand where the quickest kid was [braking],” said Hamilton, “and at the time it was a kid called Niki Richardson.”

The pair fought on-track on the mid-nineties. But while Hamilton was on a career path which eventually took him to McLaren, Formula 1 and multiple world championships, the huge cost of racing forced Richardson out of karting – after it cost his family their home.

“As an eight-year-old I looked up to Niki,” said Hamilton. “He was so quick and I was like ‘I’ve got to be better than him somehow’. My dad would go and stand where he was braking and he would move several metres down and say ‘this is where you have to brake’. No other father was doing that.”

Hamilton persevered at trying to beat that benchmark. “I would go around and try to brake at that point and I would spin off and crash, and spin off and crash. Eventually I could do it.”

Speaking to RaceFans in an exclusive interview, Richardson explained why few who saw Hamilton’s first go-kart races might have imagined he would grow up to become Britain’s most successful F1 driver. The pair first shared a track when Hamilton made his karting debut in 1993.

But Hamilton found the learning curve steep to begin with. “As per his interview he was spinning off a lot, causing a lot of mayhem on the circuit,” recalled Richardson, who was a championship front-runner at the time.

“In ’94, the year I was Super One British champion, Lewis was doing the British championships, but I don’t think he came anywhere near the top 20 or 30. He was quite a way down really.”

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So was nailing those braking points really the key to Hamilton’s success? Richardson isn’t convinced. “I remember one of the other drivers’ dads went to have a word with Anthony because Lewis kept flying off at the hairpin, nearly wiping us all out,” he said.

“Lewis eventually started braking in the same place as us and the rest is history.”

Late in 1994 Hamilton began to show signs of the progress he was making. The following year Richardson moved up a category and although he kept an eye on Hamilton’s progress he admitted “I don’t know how he got so good so quickly.”

Lewis Hamilton karting
Tragedy overshadowed Hamilton’s breakthrough win
“Just out of the blue in 1995 when I moved up to juniors – and about 10 of the top 15 [did], which created a bit of a gap for the up-and-coming drivers in cadet class at the time – he started winning races.”

Hamilton and rival Mike Conway – a future IndyCar and World Endurance Championship racer – bought some of Richardson’s old engines. “Conway bought the best one,” Richardson remembers, but Hamilton took the title after Conway lost a wheel in the rain-hit final race at Shenington.

“He won the championship at the end of the season after a tight decider with Mike Conway. Which was quite out of the blue because he literally had barely won a race by the end of 1994.”

Hamilton’s breakthrough win the year before came in what he later described as “traumatic” circumstances. His victory at Kimbolton was overshadowed by a crash in which a kart flipped over, and the boys’ nine-year-old rival Daniel Spence suffered fatal injuries.

“I went to his funeral, it was just before Christmas,” said Richardson. “His advent calendar was still on the wall. It was horrible.” Hamilton accompanied Richardson to the funeral.

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The pair were friends away from the track despite being rivals on it. “We went to each others’ houses and we played laser tag together,” remembers Richardson. “I stayed at his house once. He introduced me to peanut butter! It was the first time I ever tasted it and I still eat it now.”

Niki Richardson
“I didn’t make it to F1 but I think I did alright”
You have to wonder whether that would have held true had they gone on racing each other much longer. Not least because, as Richardson recalls, “I must be one of the few people he’s never beaten – although of course I was older than him.”

It’s clear from our chat Richardson has not one iota of bitterness about missing out on the success his former rival went on to enjoy. His social media accounts have been buzzing since Hamilton name-checked him in Mexico, and two days later he posted the following on Facebook:

“I would like to say a huge thanks to my family for the support in those years (especially my dad, the greatest mechanic to grace a karting paddock… period), dragging the family around the country none stop for over six years and with all the tens of thousands of pounds spent, karting eventually cost us our home.

“Lastly a big thanks to all the kart manufactures that gave me works drives, Sprint Karts, Wright Karts and that year we had at ZipKart in ’94 was truly memorable and of course a huge thanks to the late John Button for literally giving me rocket engines!

“I know I didn’t make it to F1 but looking back… I think I did alright.”

Lewis Hamilton and Niki Richardson racing at Kimbolton

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Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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40 comments on “Hamilton’s first karting rival: “I must be one of few people he’s never beaten””

  1. He’s never beaten me either.

    1. beats me; he’s never beaten me either ;)

    2. It counts only if you drove against Lewis .. like me but i drove against Senna (carting) and was always in front of him.

      1. being a backmarker isn’t in front. ;)

        1. Lol no he was behind me but a fellow countrymen was in front of me and became a worldchampion. I dropped carting i couldn’t afford it anymore.

  2. Nice story.

    1. Dino (@dinodoubledown)
      5th November 2018, 18:38

      I know, we need more stories like this.

  3. Great article! Love these obscure insights into the F1 world, really helps flesh out something of a story for the drivers.

  4. A good reminder of the humble roots most F1 champions grow from.
    Nice that Hamilton still remembers Richardson after all this time.

    1. Also a great reminder of how much of an elitist game this is. Even at the very bottom of motorsports you need huge, huge funding and even if you’re top of your class, you’re out of it if those funds run empty.

      1. Yep! That’s why my nephew will stop with karting, because it will be too expensive to step up the ladder even though he has a chance of becoming champion.

      2. Indeed. That’s a bit sad really. It’s such an exciting sport.

      3. Indeed Krxx

  5. Whenever I’ve raced in the British Universities Karting Championship, I’ve seen Niki testing the Club 100 go-karts to make sure they’re raceable. Needless to say, he is a rather quick driver!

  6. Ayrton Senna had Terry Fullerton.
    Lewis Hamilton had Niki Richardson.

    Maybe he’ll get a mention when someone does a film about Lewis …

  7. I like the idea of Lewis dad saying “Don’t brake till you reach where I am standing” and Lewis losing control due too late braking.
    You can just imagine all the other teams saying,
    “Oh no – look where he standing for this one – this isn’t going to end well”

  8. Goes to show how many talented, potential winners are left behind for whatever reason… money, bad luck, injuries or whatever. Ocon not getting a drive next year is just another one on that looong list. At least Esteban could return the year after.

    I knew a guy that played in River Plate as a starter in their youth squads. He was ahead of Santiago Solari, the current coach of Real Madrid, but injured his right knee and Solari got to the team. I guess for every guy that makes it (not even the sucessful ones), there are hundred of rivals left behind, guys who could beat the stars we admire fair and square…

    1. @fer-no65

      Goes to show how many talented, potential winners are left behind for whatever reason… money, bad luck, injuries or whatever. Ocon not getting a drive next year is just another one on that looong list. At least Esteban could return the year after.

      To be completely fair… Ocon made it to the grand stage. Once he’s driving an F1 car, you can no longer compare him to drivers with immense talent who’ve had to drop out of motorsport because they didn’t have the financial backing or the luck involved to get there.

      I rate Ocon higher than some drivers who have a drive for 2019, but he still hasn’t proved himself to be that super special talent that is being completely shafted by pay driver culture. If he had smashed Perez, then he would have had a drive for next year. He’s a good driver, but nothing that special to be honest.

      Kind of getting tired of the people constantly talking up Ocon like he’s something phenomenal. He’s not as good as a Verstappen or a Leclerc to be honest.

      1. Spot on! Ocon is good but quite why so many rate him SO highly is beyond me. Perez is not a top notch driver and he’s come up short of him. He deserves a seat in F1 but he hasn’t done enough to be talked up for a merc 2020 drive. Still…there it is.

    2. I guess for every guy that makes it (not even the sucessful ones), there are hundred of rivals left behind, guys who could beat the stars we admire fair and square…

      Very much so @fer-no65. And still people keep wondering why F1 would like to appeal to a broader fanbase (by enticing more Women, more people in the USA and more Asian people). Surely with the success rate as it is, broadening the base would boost the chance of finding that next ace multiple times.

  9. Nice to see he’s got a Gilles inspired helmet:)

  10. Same story as “the guy Senna has never beaten’.
    Who cares?

    1. The guys who never got beaten I assume.
      Would be a nice thing to be able to say that a five times world champion used to admire your driving skills and never managed to beat you … I think that might put a smile on my face if it were me ;)

    2. Care to share your stories of never being beaten by a 5 x world champion?

    3. @jeff1s: What an utterly pointless “contribution” to make.

      There are clearly many readers of RaceFans who find stories like these rather interesting, myself included. No one is forcing you to read it.

      1. No one is forcing you to take to me this way. This site is not FT or Paradise Papers, it’s just for racing fans, mate – calm down.

        I comment once every two weeks in this place but I should rather stop and stop visiting the site.
        Some guys ’round here are like Trump supporters, they think their only view counts and f… the freedom of speech.

        @justrhysism or just racism @keithcollantine

  11. RIP Daniel Spence. That must have been a terrible Christmas for everyone who knew the lad. That must have been an eye opener for those kids who went to that funeral.

    1. i think JB speaks about it in his book. Very sad

  12. I’d say Colin Brown was a better representation of his ‘Rival’ in karts

  13. Have also seen Nikki in a kart many times at club100… tried to follow him a few times during testing. Other-worldly” is about right !

    Anthony Davidson gave him a mention a few years back at the British GP I recall as well. A reminder talent is just one of the 4 ingredients you need to make it to F1 (others being money, luck, and money again :))

  14. Luke Longnecker
    5th November 2018, 18:40

    I think it would be great if Lewis funded a season of racing for Niki Richardson.

  15. It’d be kinda neat if Lewis sent him a check without any kind of publicity. Lord knows he’s got enough cash now :P .

    Doesn’t sound like Niki’d be the sort of guy to accept it… But he’d be crazy not to.

    1. I think a karting event where they can race it out would be much better.

      1. That would be awesome.

        1. A Karting event instead of an engineering development excercise posing as F1 would be far more entertaining and spring surprises.

  16. I recently read about the McLaren youth development driver just behind Hamilton, Wesley Graves, who was dropped from the program, and it was pretty harrowing. His family lost their business and their home trying to continue his racing career, which came to naught. They seemed quite bitter about it, even saying that Dennis chose Hamilton only because he is black.

    1. @dmw
      I read the article, if he had those thoughts back then that tells me there’s a lot more to the story. It’s sad what became of him and unfortunately it happens a lot in all sports, whether or not we get to hear the stories is another thing.

    2. That guy… all kinds of bitter, blaming everyone but himself. Lewis Hamilton at 11 plucked up the courage to pitch himself to Ron Dennis. Everything Lewis got from McLaren after that was conditional upon him winning. He was even dropped by McLaren at he end of ’04! It’s only after the Bahrain Superprix where Lewis drove his tail off (11th on the grid to a win, 20 laps, no pit stops) that Dennis had second thoughts & gave Ham another punt. Meanwhile, Graves got dropped, quit doing his school work, became a troublemaker & at the time of that writing had never held down a real job… but Lewis Hamilton stole his life, somehow… or rather, Ron Dennis gave away his rightful success to Lewis because he’s black…

  17. Yes his blackness won him 5 world championship titles…

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