Head Start in Karts

6 minute read

On the grid, minutes before the start of a British Grand Prix in August, the drivers’ faces are grim with concentration. The pre-race interviews are over, and the glamour models in hotpants are tottering off the circuit. Fans are screaming from a packed grandstand. Squeezed into his driving seat, wearing a red, white and yellow jumpsuit and white helmet, Trevyn-Jay Nelson is pulling on a pair of tight black gloves. No question where he’s expecting to finish: “First,” he says before flicking down his gold visor. At the start signal, with a burst of engine noise, the drivers dart down to the first turn.

It all sounds a lot like Formula One, but there’s a difference: Nelson is all of 8 years old. It isn’t the throaty whine of motor sport’s biggest competition you hear as he and the other drivers power around this neat, twisting circuit in rural Lincolnshire, but the higher-pitched buzz of karting.

What could be seen as child’s play is in fact a proving ground for the pros. The current leader in the Formula One drivers’ championship, rookie Lewis Hamilton, 22, first picked up speed piloting karts as an 8-year-old. And he’s not alone, even on his Vodafone McLaren Mercedes team. Hamilton’s teammate and rival at McLaren, current world champion Fernando Alonso, started out racing the mini machines too. In fact, almost all of today’s Formula One drivers, as well as past greats like Brazilian Ayrton Senna and Germany’s Michael Schumacher, owe a debt to the experience first gained in a small plastic bucket seat.

That track record makes karting a must for youngsters keen to copy their heroes. After Schumacher picked up the first of his seven Formula One titles in 1994, Germany’s domestic karting championship took off, says Vincent Caro, executive secretary of the International Karting Commission, which is part of the FIA, world motor sport’s governing body. Successive world championships for Alonso have inspired a karting boom in Spain, Caro says, and now traffic is building on the U.K.’s kart tracks too. Hamilton’s record-breaking season — he’s won three of the 14 races so far, becoming the youngest-ever driver to lead the world championship — has left circuits reporting a “surge in demand,” says Graham Smith, secretary of the Association of British Kart Clubs. In the race to become the next Hamilton, karting is “fundamental to any young driver,” says Christian Horner, team principal at Formula One’s Red Bull Racing team.

The machines have come a long way from the first karts pieced together from steel tubing and lawnmower engines in late 1950s California. Sure, karts typically lack gears, and there’s no suspension to speak of. But there’s often a push-button starter, a hydraulic disk brake, and a tiny onboard computer that measures everything from average speed to G-force. In the cadet class for the youngest competitive drivers like Nelson, the karts’ 60-cc engines clock speeds of around 50 m.p.h. (80 km/h). The junior classes — open to racers from around 12 — have 100-cc to 125-cc motors that top 75 m.p.h. (120 km/h) on a typical 1-km circuit. Engines get even faster in the senior classes for older teenagers.

And just as in Formula One, there’s “a black art to getting it all set up,” says Smith. Depending on the weather or track conditions, mechanics will tinker with the transmission, or slide the wheels in or out along the axle to adjust a kart’s handling. They can soften the ride with torsion bars, support the driver’s seat to alter the load going into a corner, and switch between slick and treaded tires. Early exposure to those details “explains why people like [Hamilton] are that good,” says Martin Hines, boss of the Hertfordshire-based Zip Kart Young Guns team, which backed Hamilton when he was 8 years old and now does the same for Nelson. “They’ve had 10 years of this before they get in a car.”

And, more important, a decade of honing their race craft. “There is no better place to learn how to read your competitors, how to pressurize them at Turn 2 so that at Turn 4 they make a mistake,” says Jason Plato, 39, the Seat team driver currently leading the British Touring Car Championship, and a kart racer from the age of 11. “All those subtle skills you learn in karting.”

It also offers an early lesson in how costly motor sport can be: a decent second-hand kart costs around $3,000, and racing in a national championship season can add anything from $10,000-$30,000 on top of that. For parents, that’s hardly pocket money. “I knew the financial commitment they were making,” remembers Plato. “Every time your bum hits the seat, you’ve got to perform.”

Specialist teams can help, and few have a better record than Hines’ Young Guns. The team’s past charges include not just Hamilton and Plato, but also F1 drivers Anthony Davidson and David Coulthard, and McLaren test driver Gary Paffett. Hines is no less pumped about his current crop: Young Gun Oliver Rowland, 15, clinched the British title in his class in mid-September. His gritty style — after being relegated to the back of the grid at a recent race, Rowland sliced his way through the field to win — prompted McLaren to sign him to the Formula One team’s Young Driver Support Program earlier this year. (One of its first recruits in 1998: a 13-year-old Hamilton.) As with similar schemes run by racing’s top teams — Horner’s Red Bull backs 16 young drivers of its own, all of whom cut their teeth in karting — McLaren offers its juniors technical, management and fitness advice, as well as cash.

For a teenager like Rowland, that’s some pretty adult stuff. But it’s impossible to forget these are still just kids. And kids don’t always behave. At the PF International circuit in Lincolnshire, Rowland forced his way to the front from third spot only to swipe a couple of chasing karts off the track and earn a disqualification. “The next three to four years,” says Hines, looking on at the bust-up, “are about getting that out of him.” For Rowland’s fellow Young Gun Nelson, these are still early days. He trailed home 13th in his Grand Prix final, but as an 8-year-old competing with drivers four years his senior, did well even to make the cut. “Lewis was this good at 8,” Hines remembers, likening Nelson to Hamilton. “In four years’ time,” Hines says, runners-up will be “sick of his face.” And that may be just the beginning.

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