LEWIS Hamilton's Formula One heroics have triggered a karting boom across the region.

Throughout Cheshire, young people are hoping to emulate F1 phenomenon and former kart star Hamilton by taking up the daredevil sport.

Hooton Park Raceway, which lies between Ellesmere Port and Eastham, had just 40 entrants to its first race when it opened four months ago. At the last race meeting there were 80, while around 2,000 test sessions have been booked at the track.

The increased interest the sport has been credited to Stevenage sensation Hamilton, who was identified by McLaren team boss Ron Dennis aged 10 and funded to the tune of an estimated £4m through karting, single-seater racing categories and GP2 before he burst onto the F1 scene this year.

The 22-year-old currently leads the drivers' world championship after claiming successive victories in Canada on June 10 and at the US Grand Prix on Sunday.

Hooton Park boss Bob Wilson, who is also chairman of Cheshire Kart Racing Club, said: 'Lewis really is exceptional, but it was not so long ago he was still karting at Three Sisters Raceway in Wigan. His progress has been rapid.

'Since he started in F1 we have noticed a rise in enquiries about the sport and how youngsters can get involved.

'Wirral Borough Council have been enlightened where other councils are trapped in the dark ages. They saw the potential for karting as a sport for young people and allowed us to build a track.

'You can compete from the age of eight and we also help people who want to compete seriously get their race licences.'

Hamilton is not the first F1 driver to make the leap from karting. Fellow stars David Coulthard, Jenson Button, Anthony Davidson and Hamilton's double world champion team-mate Fernando Alonso all came from karts, as did Michael Schumacher and the late Ayrton Senna.

'It is the number one way to get into F1,' said Bob. 'But it requires dedication because it is very tough.

'Getting into karting can cost as little as £1,000 but you can spend a lot more.'

An affordable way to get into karting is offered by Tarporley High School, which has a proud karting heritage stretching back to 1987.

An after-school club allows adult privateers to become members and teaches engine and kart maintenance as well as race skills.

Tarporley Karting Club's team leader Richard Percival said: 'Every time Lewis is on TV his karting is mentioned, either by commentators or the man himself, so we have seen more pupils taking an interest as a result.'

Hamilton is the ideal role model for youngsters wanting to get into karting, according to Percival.

He said: 'Many of them want to end up in Formula One, but (when they're karting) none emulate the aggressive style of Schumacher or the attitude of Alonso. Instead they display sensible race strategies and demonstrate impeccable sportsmanship - rather like Lewis Hamilton.'

For further information on Cheshire Kart Racing Club contact Bob Wilson on 0151 355 7513 or 07738 718686. To read more about Tarporley High School's karting team, visit: www.tarporleykarting.co.uk/

Get in gear to drive like Lewis at Sandycroft

YOUNGSTERS wanting to emulate Lewis Hamilton have been heading for The Circuit in Sandycroft.

The 900m indoor circuit offers a pay-as-you-go method of recreating the thrills and spills of motor racing.

The Circuit's duty manager Simon Davies said: 'We have noticed more youngster coming down talking about Lewis Hamilton and wanting to have a go.

'We are always busy, but since the Formula One season started there has been more people coming

down wanting to talk about Lewis and the races. The kids really love it.'

For details of how to book a visit to The Circuit visit www.thecircuit.co.uk/

'I have faced F1 race ace!'

CHRIS Taylor knows a thing or two about taking on Britain's latest Formula One sensation.

The 23-year-old from Little Sutton competed against Lewis Hamilton when the pair were both kart racing in the Cadet class in 1995.

'It is only later on when people become big you think 'oh yeah, I remember racing against him,' said Chris. 'At the time we were kids and we were just thinking about getting past the person in front.'

Chris, who took a break from karting in his mid-teens to concentrate on his studies and football (he had a trial with Tranmere Rovers), also raced against Hamilton's test driver at McLaren, Gary Paffett, and British Touring Car racer Luke Hines.

'I follow all the people I have raced against who make it,' said Chris, whose dad Dave - a former saloon car racer - has just taken up karting. 'It is weird paying and watching thousands of other people paying to see people I raced against as a youngster.

'There is nothing different about these guys on the track. certainly when I was karting against them they didn't do anything special. They just raced and when it came to making big financial decisions on progress in motorsport, they got the breaks.

'None of them ever walked around the circuits with a chip on their shoulder, even when they had got factory deals and were blowing us all away in their better machines.

'Karting is not like that. We all share set-up data and have a laugh, that is why we do it. Some are lucky and get the megabucks you need to get on in motorsport, the rest keep doing it for fun.'

Teen star O'Sullivan on track for future success

RACE ace Alex O'Sullivan is riding the crest of the current karting wave.

The 14-year-old from Chester is one of the leading kart drivers in the country for his age and lies third in the UK's premier kart racing series - the Junior Rotax British Super 1 Championship.

Dad John said: 'Alex has been dedicated to karting since he was 10. It has been difficult at times because of the amount of travelling his success has brought, but it is that success that makes it worthwhile.'

Kart racing is very different from the holiday pastime many of us have taken part in.

It is a serious proving ground for professional racing drivers, most of whom start aged eight.

The karts themselves have highly tuned racing engines, aerodynamic bodywork, slick

tyres for dry conditions and wet tyres for the rain and speeds can exceed 80mph.

Many F1 drivers have come from karting but O'Sullivan's ambition is to move into North American racing in either NASCAR or Indycars.

John added: 'Alex is third at the halfway point in the Junior Rotax British Championship. This is his first season in the class and he is looking to win it.

'In October he turns 15 and then he must decide where he goes next.

'He can either move into international karting or try Formula BMW single seater car racing.

'His decision will be based on whether he can get enough sponsorship to raise the £150,000 to get a seat in Formula BMW.

'Alex sorts out most of his own sponsorship. He contacts people, meets them and is responsible for his own commitments to them.'

Ron Dennis, of McLaren, may have opened doors financially for Lewis Hamilton, but what ultimately separates good drivers from bad is dedication.

Alex's team manager, John Hoyle, of the Manley-based JKH Racing team, says that this season the teenager has been demonstrating that dedication.

'This year he has shown a greater maturity than ever before,' said Mr Hoyle.

'When he makes a mistake now he recognises where it was his fault and he has put in the hours to iron out those errors.'

Alex, who is originally from Upton, now lives in Northop Hall, Flintshire. He is a pupil of Caldy Grange Grammar School on Wirral.