Everyone wants to be the first to know about the Next Big Thing: to eat at a celebrated chef’s first restaurant, see a global megastar’s first gig, or wear a print from a top designer when they’re still at art college. You tell anyone who’ll listen: ‘They’re going to be huge.’ And when they make it, you smugly slip in a few ‘told you so’s. Well, here’s a name that you’ll be dropping for years: Enaam Ahmed.
Last year, West Londoner Ahmed won the British Formula 3 title. Sure, someone wins it every year, but they don’t win it aged 17, break the points record, become the youngest ever champion, and beat Ayrton Senna’s record for the number of wins in a season (the great Brazilian was an ancient 23 when he triumphed). This is after, aged 14, becoming the youngest driver to win both the European and World junior KR3 karting championships in the same year – erasing the 15-year-old Lewis Hamilton from the record books. Ahmed, now 18, has been dubbed ‘the new Hamilton’.
He, however, is not getting carried away. ‘I didn’t think I was at a high enough level to be compared,’ he says sitting in a Shoreditch café. ‘A lot of UK drivers get compared to Lewis – everyone’s looking for the next young hotshot.’
‘I don’t like the losing. For me, it’s very personal.’
One reason for the comparison is that he’s a non-white British driver in an almost exclusively white world (although Ahmed insists he’s never encountered racism). When I mention Hamilton as a role model for kids from ethnic minority backgrounds, and that he could be the same, especially for British-Asians, he admits it’s ‘added motivation’.
It was Hamilton’s 2008 Formula 1 driver’s title that inspired Ahmed to try karting. His parents (his dad is Pakistani, his mum Kenyan-Indian) had no interest in racing and didn’t want him to go into it. But it was the one thing he was good at. ‘There are so many ups and downs,’ he says. ‘I think I’ve cried more times than I’ve been happy in racing. That brings the family closer, because they go through it with you.’
Ahmed mostly sounds older than his years. He’s charming and faultlessly polite, but you can tell there’s a steel-edged will to win in him (‘I don’t like the losing. For me, it’s very personal’). But then he says something like that and you remember that he’s barely out of school.
Ahmed is now battling with, and often beating, the big boys of European F3 – names like Ferrari and Red Bull. At the time of our chat, he’s fourth in the drivers’ table after a solid weekend at Silverstone; in with a shout of the title, which will be settled on 14 October at Hockenheim. This is despite racing for Hitech, a small and relatively young British team.
The road to this point hasn’t been entirely smooth. When he was dropped by major F3 team Carlin this year, despite his record-breaking 2017 with them, he wrote over 1,000 letters to potential sponsors. His parents even put their house on the market, in case that didn’t work. Thankfully, the sponsorship came in and he got the ride with Hitech.
This lack of a silver dipstick has instilled some valuable humility. ‘I learned to do everything myself,’ he says. ‘How to tune my engine, my carburettors. I think I’m one of the only drivers who spends time with the team in the workshop. It’s a good discipline. To stay focused on the sport, you have to spend time with the people that make it possible for you.’
‘All the best drivers are nutters. Everyone’s got a screw loose.’
He certainly doesn’t lack guts. He admits he was reckless at the start of the season, trying to prove himself after the step up from British to European F3. A few bumps cost him points, but he’s not the only hothead to have raced in F3: Hamilton and Senna were no shrinking violets when it came to taking on an opponent. It seems to go with the territory.
‘I find all the best drivers are nutters,’ he says. ‘You can’t intimidate them. No matter how hard you go, they’ll keep their foot in. That’s why they always crash with each other. It’s like war. Everyone’s got a screw loose.’
But while he’s brave, he’s not fearless. ‘I’ve fears for my career. My family sacrificed a lot for me to be here, so fear about where it’ll lead. I fear losing. I’ve fears about life in general. People who say they’re not scared of anything, that’s not true. I’m scared of a lot of things, I just don’t show it.’
Only F2 sits between Ahmed and F1. If, no, when he gets there, he’ll be scrutinised by the press, fans and internet warriors the world over. If he maintains half the charm and humility he’s shown today, he’ll be a popular addition to the circus, but like any true racer, he’s not bothered about all that: ‘People only really want to know winners.’
Ahmed is already a winner, but his main goal is to race against his hero Hamilton in F1 before he retires. ‘He has something that’s very special, that I don’t know if I have yet,’ he says. ‘I’ve got to wait a few years before I find out.’
Something tells me it will happen sooner than he thinks. And we’ll all be there to say, ‘I told you so.’