Byline: JOHN HIND
It's a frosty early morning in the car park of an activity centre situated off the M2 near Chatham, Kent. Unshaven men stumble out of caravans in greasy clothes. Gloves are pulled on frozen fingers. Kettles boil in Bedford vans. Nine-year-old boys kick shingle. Mothers unwrap sandwiches. Fathers flip open tool kits and lug their sons' little go-kart chassis out from under awnings. Down the 5mph lane, passing through the Strood Scout camp, comes a sleek Mercedes E320 driven by a multi-millionaire advertising guru who is the world's leading collector of contemporary art. Charles Saatchi has journeyed from his wisteria-covered townhouse in Chelsea in order to register by 8am . . . for Buckmore's local kart-club race.
`You must have heard of Charles Saatchi, ex of Saatchi & Saatchi,' says Tim Folkard, who has camped overnight and is here to aid young Ross. `Rolling in it,' notes 14-year-old David Morris, a karter from Bromley.
Saatchi - the `flame' behind what became the world's top advertising agency, and the man who once tried to buy Midland Bank - is greeted by his two full-time kart
mechanics. From the back of his transporter truck marked `BP Ricard', the walls of which are bedecked with six miniature chassis and 20 engines, Saatchi's mechanics, plus John Wellstead, his personal `team manager' and engine-tuner, have already brought out a 100cc go-kart.
At 8.30am, Saatchi gets in near the front of a queue of 100-odd karters, aged eight upwards, and watches his vehicle being checked by trained adults.
Then he jumps into the back of his truck to await the adrenaline rush of the circuit. He sits silently on a stool, turned in at a defensive angle, earnestly musing over a cigarette and a jumbo crossword as his mechanics adjust his bottom end.
`Saatchi is a recluse,' says Tim Swadkin, who is acting as mechanic for Joanne
Mason, his girlfriend's daughter. `On TV there was a show about his gallery, and the only sign of the bloke was a mugshot.'
Alan Smallman, who's here today to commentate over the Tannoy and to present the winners with little plastic cups, says, `He's frowned on a bit by club organisers, who think he's stuck-up. But he's a very professional guy who's in love with karts. He's absolutely obsessed. He's karting crackers.'
Kitted out in colourful gear, Saatchi positions himself in his kart on the dummy grid, revving his engine among the youngsters. When the whistle blows, they roar off for the day's first heat, Saatchi aided by a push from his mechanics. Vroom. Vroooomm. Vrrrrrrooommmm.
He sweeps Sisley Sweep, careers around the S-bends, attacks the bottom hairpin and rips up to Cafe Curve. Round and round he chases, but ultimately he cannot overtake
Simon Frost, the 21-year-old son of a Vauxhall dealer, who observes after the race, `I love bad weather and Charlie doesn't.'
`My kart's fine for the second heat and I'm not playing around with it,' explains Frost. `But Saatchi's guys have taken a wheel off. It's getting pretty tense. I'm first in points at this club this season and he's second.'
`Charles is pretty good actually, but he doesn't half put some effort in,' says John Rich, lying in third. `It's only for a plastic cup at the end of the day.' Rich runs an engineering company and karts, he says, `because my son is besotted. I'm a dad along for the ride. The average karter is 13. I'm the other oldie here - I'm 54. …