Bill Sisley has been plucking top racers from the UK karting scene since the 1970s. Here's how he does it
29 December 2015

If there were a world championship for spotting top driving talent, Bill Sisley would be a serial winner.

Drivers chosen by Sisley for their ability behind the wheel – often spotted before their 10th birthdays – have gone on to win multiple Formula 1 world titles and dozens of grands prix. Others have become IndyCar champions or reached the highest echelons of world sports car racing.

The parade of Sisley stars began in the 1970s with Johnny Herbert and then expanded through the 1980s and 1990s with Jenson Button, the late Dan Wheldon, Lewis Hamilton, Anthony Davidson, Gary Paffett and Bills’s own son Tom, who was as good as any. All came to prominence very young and many are still racing.

“You can see talent at the very beginning, if you know what you’re looking for,” Sisley says. “Driving ability doesn’t change. A star is a star from the beginning, but you’ll never make a slow driver fast. Of course, drivers learn to race better as they gain experience, and the clever ones – Nico Rosberg is a great example – learn to channel their talent. But it takes just one race to spot someone who’s really got it.”

So sure is Sisley’s judgement that even today, 62 years old and semi-retired, he is still approached by parents who believe he can help their kids join the greats. Sometimes they offer big money, but Bill always demurs. “I’ve only ever done it once,” he says, “when Bernie Ecclestone asked me and I did it for obvious reasons. But it didn’t work out too well; the guy couldn’t drive.”

Sisley believes his knack as a talent spotter has come about through a life-long immersion in the sport; time spent as a driver, mechanic, manager, dealer and promoter. It began in the 1960s when his father drove stock cars and introduced him to karting for fun. At the time, his parents were paying big money to send him to public school and hoped he’d go to university.

“My contemporaries went to Oxford and Cambridge, and I suppose I could have done,” he says. “But I was mad on motorsport and not very academic. So I left school and went to work for a family friend, John Brise, who had a karting and racing business. That caused some awkwardness, I can tell you.”

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By 18, Sisley was a Formula Ford mechanic working for John Brise’s son, Tony (later to die with Graham Hill in an aircraft accident). By 21, Sisley was married and still racing karts, but he had set up his own business selling spares around the country from a Transit van. It worked so well that after a couple of years he was able set up the nation’s first ‘smart-looking’ kart shop in Swanley, Kent, making good use of the head his wife, Penny, had for business.

Sisley started making his own karts – Kestrel and Cobra brands – and exporting them around the world. Production climbed to 500 in the best year, and Sisley karts won 10 British championships. During that time, Johnny Herbert came along. “His dad reckoned he was a future world champion – all parents say that – but he seemed a nice lad, so I asked to see him drive,” recalls Sisley. “They claimed he hadn’t driven before, but after a couple of laps you could see he had something special: no fear, good control, loads of speed. In races, he showed he could overtake without crashing. So I started running him and he won everything in sight.

“I had two motives for helping the Herberts. First, it helped sell karts. If a manufacturer wins races with an unknown driver, it looks good. Second, he was a good kid with huge talent and the right attitude.”

Soon, Herbert was a fixture at Sisley’s place, even working in the business. When he won the British 135cc championship – about as far as you could go – Bill used racing contacts to get him “looked at” by a top Formula Ford team. They liked him, and when he won for them his journey to F1 began in earnest. Today he and Sisley are firm friends.

When a good offer for the whole business came along in 1984, Sisley decided on a change of career. Now a father of two, he sold up and retired from racing (having done 400 events and been in the top three of the British championship no fewer than 10 times). He also accepted an offer to run Brands Hatch’s corporate karting business and began negotiating for a lease on Buckmore Park, then a short, undeveloped track used for fun by the local Scouts, with a view to building it into the fully fledged leisure business it has become today.

At Buckmore, Sisley began to build his band of post-Herbert protégés, the task aided by a change that lowered the driving age from 11 to eight and introduced a new Cadet class. He always had four or five good kids on the books but especially remembers the crop of 1988, which grew into a Class of ’91 that included a group so accomplished they became known as the Famous Five: Anthony Davidson, Jenson Button, Dan Wheldon, Gary Paffett and Tom Sisley.

It was always a ‘dads and lads’ affair: Jenson and John, Anthony and Dennis, Dan and Clive, Gary and Jim, plus the Sisleys. The other major player in the development of young talent at that time was the late Martin Hines, whose Zipkart team was in competition with Sisley – not that it stopped the pair from being friends.

“If a driver’s good,” says Sisley senior, “he’ll drive on the racing line from his very first lap. The best drivers, even the young ones, seem to understand what produces speed, whereas most have to be shown it. Smoothness is another component. And a lack of fear as they go faster.

“When they start racing, there are several key points. One is how they drive the first lap. You know how horrific karting first laps can look: 28 cars attack the first bend and 22 come out. The good drivers make up six places and hardly ever crash.

“Then there’s how they overtake. The best drivers find ways to overtake where others can’t, and if possible they put the following driver in a position where he has to back off. Lewis Hamilton was exceptional at overtaking even as an eight-year-old.

“Anthony Davidson was brilliant, the best of the ’91 group. He’s a tiger, so he always made up most places on the first lap. He’s one of those drivers who can make a poor car look good, to me the ultimate test of ability. It’s a crime that he never raced in F1 in good machinery. It’s a crying shame.

“Jenson Button always responded best to very well-prepared, balanced karts. If his kart was right and he got into the lead, the rest of us might as well pack up and go home because he never made a mistake. That’s how he is to this day. He was – and is – a very likeable person. He still has time for a chat whenever I see him.

“Dan Wheldon was Mr Super-Smooth. He always had good equipment and was very consistent once he got going. He tended to be more careful at the beginning than the likes of Davidson, but he had a good, economical driving style – and was obviously extremely quick. His skill was good enough to win him the Indy 500 twice, and he was a lovely guy. We were all absolutely shattered when he died.

“Gary Paffett was also very consistent. In karts he may slightly have lacked the first-lap aggression that characterises some of the others, but he was good and has proved it repeatedly by being McLaren’s F1 reserve and test driver until last year, and by racing DTM cars so well for the past nine years.

“Tom Sisley, my son, was as quick as the best of them. He was consistent, too. He won everything up to Formula Renault, but we moved to F3 on a cheap deal, because we lacked the money to pay for anything better. I always kick myself for not having done a better job with my own son’s career – his ability deserved it – but he’s happy in business these days and doing well.”

Sisley reserves a special mention for Hamilton, whom he knew as a cadet driver and watched a great deal, because he was son Tom’s main opposition in his Formula Renault days. “I saw him get into a kart for the very first time, I saw his first race and I was also there the day he met Ron Dennis for the first time, which led to his deal with McLaren.

“There’s no doubt he’s a fantastic driver. The first time he drove a kart, he took the racing line; it was obvious he was a natural. He started his first race at the back, as new drivers always do, and straight away he started passing people. It was obvious how good he was going to be. He was quick – could drive the wheels off anything – but in his younger years was a bit wild. If things weren’t right, he’d try so hard he could drive it right off the track.”

What about drivers who didn’t make the big time but should have? Sisley’s ultimate example is Terry Fullerton, named in the film Senna as the Brazilian’s greatest rival and nowadays a successful driver coach. He drove Buckmore just a few weeks ago, says Sisley, and though he hadn’t been on the circuit for 15 years, you could still see signs of greatness.

“Terry was phenomenal,” says Sisley. “I saw him race Senna at Nivelles, Belgium, and he was the best. Lots of natural flair and quick everywhere. He could drive anything and was the best overtaker I ever saw. He could beat Senna, and Senna knew it. The day I saw them, Senna just sat in the corner and sulked.

“Why didn’t Fullerton progress? Several reasons. People say he was a bit of a tricky character. His brother had been killed in a motorbike accident, so his family can’t have wanted him to progress to a big-time racing career. And his father was a teacher, so there probably wasn’t any money. But he was definitely the best I’ve ever seen.”

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