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The Age of Assent

Oulton Park Cars December 2010You’ve got to love Sebastian Vettel. As he crossed the line to win the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – and consequently become the youngest F1 World Champion in history – he cried like a girl.

Inside his Arai helmet, the young German dissolved into a weepy mess of snot, tears and sheer joy. Unbelievable. I love you guys, he told his pit crew in a barely decipherable breathless mumble.

At 23 years and 135 days old, Vettels success was not only historic, it could also prove to be a game-changer.

Over the years, the age of former karters reaching Formula One has become progressively younger. The late, great Senna (born in 1960) first contested the World Championships in 1978 and only started racing Formula Ford in 1981. Much as his rise up the order was meteoric he was in Alex Hawkridges Toleman by 1984 Ayrton left karting very late by todays standards.

So too did Alain Prost, who arrived on the GP scene when he was 25. If Sennas progression was rapid, just look at Jenson Buttons. In little more than three seasons, he went from karts to Formula Ford, Formula Three and then F1. He was 20 years and 67 days old when he signed for Williams.

Ironically, Lewis Hamilton was the next driver to cause a stir. He made the grade at 22-years old and became World Champion a year later, aged 23.

Then came Vettel, who although he made his debut at the age of 19 was only the sixth-youngest driver in the sports history to do so. The honour of being the youngest is currently held by Jaime Alguersuari. The Spaniard may not have the same reputation as Little Schumi but his route to the top has been every bit as impressive. He started racing cars in 2005, won the British F3 title in 2008 and, at 18, was the youngest ever to do so -he then eclipsed Mike Thackwells (19 years 182 days) record as the youngest man into F1, at 19 years 125 days.

However, it was Hamiltons success that really started the scramble for younger drivers. Vettels recent triumph has simply reaffirmed the validity of doing this for many. Naturally, this has had a direct effect on karting and raises the question, what is the right age to graduate from karts to cars?

Curiously, opinion is divided.

The enormously well-respected and successful Ricky Flynn, owner of the eponymous Ricky Flynn Motorsport team,urges caution in the current climate. Aware of the impressive impact that Vettel, Hamilton and to an extent Alguersuari have all made, Flynn nevertheless argues that drivers and their parents should not be counting the candles on the birthday cake but assessing whether or not they are truly ready.

If you leave [karts] at 17, youre not going to get an F1 contract. If you go at 15, its a total disaster. You can do senior racing at 15 and I think its best to do a minimum of one year in say, something like KF2.

Flynn cites the arrival of increasing numbers of driver managers in the karting paddocks as a destabilizing influence. Its horrendous. At the last Super 1 round it was like vulture city. Scary. Theyre trying to poach everybody and for those that sign with a manger, youve just got to hope that theyre sensible.

He regards managers with some suspicion, believing that many have their own bank balances and not the long-term careers of their clients at heart. With many youngsters in karting stating that they want to become F1 drivers, and the excitement created by the likes of Hamilton and Vettel, Ricky suggest that some overlook their lack of knowledge about the karters real ability and sell them the dream of F1 too soon.

There have got to be stricter controls. We (team owners) have to have an entrants licence but to be a manager, theres nothing. Ten years ago it wasnt so bad, there were no shark-infested waters. Today, its a pretty hideous world to be in. The key advice I would say for those looking to make the move from karts to cars and build a professional career – or even aim at Formula One – is that you need to be mentally ready, very strong in your mind and mature.

As the first ever British Formula Renault champion, Flynn is wholly familiar with the world of car racing and says sometimes youre only in the car for a total of 40 minutes all day. The racing is almost easy, its how you stay focused whilst youre waiting that is important.

Other factors rather than age should also guide your career path. If you have a tall lad and hes 6 3, go down the saloon route. You have to be realistic and in most cases forget the F1 dream. Only six drivers are not paying out of twenty two on the grid. Dont be blinkered to the reality of the situation. Think How can I have a career in world motorsport? If you end up in the DTM earning 400,000 euros a year, its not a bad life. Dont disregard any options. You can make a nice living and enjoy it.

Unsurprisingly, Chris Harfield of Williams Harfield Sports Group, disagrees.

I think it has changed quite drastically over the course of the past few years. It used to be guys of 17 or 18 going to FFord (from karts). Now theres a saturation of classes and teams wanting younger drivers. Look at Tom Blomqvist (at 16 the youngest ever British Formula Renault Champion) and Nyck de Vries people want drivers like them, real head-turners.

Lack of high profile success in karting should not be a reason to remain in the sport, Chris argues. Being a good karter doesnt automatically constitute being a good racing driver. You have to ask yourself, Do I want to be a Formula Renault champion at 16 or a kart champion at the same age? You have to be in a car at 15!

When asked if he thinks motor racing managers are more open minded about potential drivers than are given credit for, he responds with an emphatic yeah. Far from dismissing karting, Harfield says it is an important building block in the creation of a drivers career.

It teaches you that you need to be competitive, to know and deal with pressure. You show your mettle when youre racing wheel to wheel and if you come out on top that shows me something. Some drivers are ruthless and would rather crash than finish 2nd. I know it sounds ridiculous, but car teams like that.

For managers such as Chris, who monitor developments in karting and follows the sport, showing rapid development is something that excites their attention. You look at how quickly people pick things up. Take Callan OKeeffe for example. He went from Bayford Meadow to World number three in one year. Thats really impressive.

To starkly illustrate his point about why drivers should graduate from karts to cars at 15, he recounts the experience of talking to Kris Nissen VWs Head of Motorsport whilst at a DTM race in Germany. He was talking to a 19-year old F3 driver and he said You didnt win the championship, youre done. You wont make it to F1. You have to be a bit of a freak if you want to make it in the conventional sense. Jack Hawksworth could be one hes been staggering (in his first two FRenault meetings).

According to Harfield, with only 24 potential opportunities as a driver in F1 each year, you have to be spectacular. But which car classes should be considered? It would be a no-brainer to put a karter in a Formula Ford, he says bluntly. Renault is a massive step from karting but if you do an intermediate class, which I consider Ford to be, youll learn a lot.

After his trip to Germany, he also says that series like the ADAC Masters can play a vital role. Ultimately, youve got to be around the manufacturers. If you take the Formula 3 Euroseries, its looked at by the manufacturers in the DTM. British F3 isnt. Youve got to position yourself in front of the right people. ADAC Masters has effectively taken over from Formula BMW and can put you in touch with influential teams like Mucke Motorsport. Furthermore, ADAC is only 150,000 euros a season and VW, who power the cars, are making a massive push in motorsport. Whats more, VW are able to offer guys in the F3 Euroseries a drive for not much more than teams are charging in British Formula Renault.

Porsche and Audi are also starting young driver programmes, as is their parent company, VW itself. With a DTM car actually being of monocoque construction like a single-seater, rather than a true touring car, and with huge amounts of power on tap, the premier German series is now a holding bay for F1 drivers.

That said, he also suggests that America remains the land of opportunity. The States are where Id send young drivers. Teams will find, and share, sponsorship if youre good enough and if you win Indy Lights, youre racing in Indy car. If you win in GP2 youre not automatically in F1. How old do you have to be? Id say how old can you be to make headlines that no one else has done?

Mark Godwin, regarded as the engineers engineer when it comes to Formula Renault, responds to my question about when is the right time and age to move to cars with some caution. Its a bit of a minefield, he says choosing his words carefully before speaking again. It depends on which championship and formula you go into. The age of the driver as well. There are different levels of maturity between 15 and 16-years old and 17 and 18. It also depends on how mentally strong you are.

15 is okay but dont bite off more than you can chew, he warns. You might be big in karting, but youll be at the bottom of the pile when you start car racing. The earlier you make the transition, the easier it is to cope. However, an 18-year old will be better equipped as an individual.

Although he now runs his own Formula Renault team, MGR, Godwin hints that the Intersteps Championship should be considered by drivers aged 15 or younger.

You can stay in karts too long and become institutionalized. Some drivers, when they finally cross into cars, find that they cant afford to spend too much time in the different formulae, as time is against them. This puts pressure on them to perform and affects the time in which they have to learn but also their confidence.

A kart racer who only knows how to set a kart up will often try to set their car up in a similar manner, which is counter productive. As Mark confirms, There is such a big gap between Formula Renault and karts.

Prompted for an insight into what team owners look for from kart racers considering the next stage of their career, he delivers a valuable insiders guide as to what to do – and not do.

Id say do whatever championship gives you the best value for money, and remember that all formulae teach you different things. If you want to discuss what a team can do for you, ring up and say wed like to come and see you and have a chat. Dont just ask how much? Cost is important, but if you do your homework, youll know what the costs are going to be anyway. Besides, anyone can bullshit over the phone about how good they are or what they charge. Similarly, dads ring up and tell you how good their kid is. I need to talk to their son or daughter and see what theyre actually like. Personal contact is important.

In motor racing, just as in any other sport, results are what matter. Mark, like all team bosses will quietly look at a drivers track record beforehand, but he says he doesnt draw conclusions from what theyve done in karting. You cant dismiss people who finished 10th. Naturally, you do look for winners but sometimes you unearth little gems who are not all winning kart races. There can be reasons why theyre not, so you have to keep an open mind because you never know what you might find.

Which of course leads to the acid test – and the perfect answer to the original question – we get them out in the car and see from there.