The North East has been a hotbed of sport at the highest level, producing elite talent across different formats. Look no further than football and England’s 1966 World Cup triumph, featuring the Charlton brothers, reared in Ashington. Former Sunderland players Jordan Pickford and Jordan Henderson were in the England squad that reached the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup.
The region has sparked the Three Lions’ ultimate victories in cricket. Durham’s Ben Stokes and Mark Wood were an essential part of England’s World Cup victory over New Zealand in a breathtaking final before Stokes took centre stage in the Ashes to salvage a draw for Joe Root’s team.
Athletics, swimming and other Olympic competitions have seen the region represented on the world stage. However, there is one sport that the North East has not produced talent to rise through to the top of the ranks.
Formula One racing is a narrow field of work, with only the true elite competing on a weekly basis, but in the history of the sport, there has not been one driver from the region to make a mark. However, it has not been isolated to the North East as there are not many drivers capable of making the step up to become the next Lewis Hamilton.
At the age of 33, Hamilton remains the leading driver in the sport, having won his sixth Drivers’ Championship crown in the 2019 season. He shows no signs of slowing down in the future, being backed in the latest F1 odds for next term as the 4/7 favourite to win the title for a record seventh time – tying Michael Schumacher’s all-time record.
Although it’s good for the sport in Britain to see Hamilton dominate, there are concerns over who will replace him when he decides to call it a day. There’s seemingly no heir apparent as the difficulties in developing the next array of talent are not restricted to the North East.
It’s not a sport that you can teach in schools or for regular clubs to attend after school to integrate into contention. Karting centres are more of a hobby for a weekend or a rare day out – it’s not something that will attract large numbers of youngsters on a regular basis.
There will be some that are enthusiasts and will pick up an affinity for the sport as many millions do across the country and the world. However, in the North East and beyond, there is so much competition from the leading sports in the country – notably football, with thriving academies at Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough, while Durham has a production line of talent in cricket.
Even if youngsters are keen to take up racing, it can be an expensive proposition. In the case of former driver Peter Dumbreck, his family had to spend £3,000 for him to attend an elite driving school, while he then had to sink £30,000 of his own professional wealth. However, he failed to make the breakthrough beyond Formula 3, and although there are riches to be found even in the lower depths of the sport, it’s a gamble that few can afford to make.
As a result, it could be a long time before we see a driver from the North East or elsewhere in the country rise to the levels of Hamilton.