Fixing Karting – Why we need to rescue international karting and how to do it

Oliver Oakes leading Marco Ardigo, Sauro Cesetti and Jonathan Thonon in 2005

The top level of the sport lost Super KF from the World, European and British Championships this year, and it is looking far from healthy in the WSK. With 18 competitors in the last round of the European Championship, KZ1 looks like it is next for the chop by the CIK-FIA for 2011 as the regulations say there must be 20 entries for a championship to go ahead.

There have been some incremental improvements in the Super One package but it has had little or no effect on the entry levels, and we’ve lost the top class for the first time ever. John Hoyle has been tireless in seeking the opinions of competitors, but as KF2 driver Jordan King’s father Justin says, “they need to talk to all the drivers who aren’t there, not just those who are”.

The racing is pretty poor at the moment too. In the World Championship at Cordoba, Argentina in 1994, there was 0.15s difference between 1st and 70th. In the first WSK World Series round this year there was 0.25s between Armand Convers and everyone else and there were less than a third of the drivers!

Mark Rose, who is perhaps the most dedicated of the team managers, is getting disillusioned for the first time.

“Super KF is finished,” he says. “Unless you are one of three people you aren’t going to win.”

FSA racing at Cordoba in 1994, with Michael Simpson leading

He is relatively happy with KF3. “If a young kid spins off they need to be able to get going again so they need a clutch. The only thing wrong is the carbs as everyone is running expensive carbs  and no one knows how to set them. It’s OK if you are a Super KF driver with 25 years experience.”

Rose’s opinion is that we should concentrate on saving KF2. It is already the World Championship for the first time this year at Zuera in September. “The brakes have got to go, the clutch has got to go,” he says. “There is a way of engaging the gear on the drive sprocket, CRG have got a prototype system, but I don’t see why we shouldn’t go back to push starting. 125cc is fine as there’s lots of power, and if they want to limit power there should be a maximum sprocket for a track.”

Front brakes first appeared in non-gearbox in 2004 on Sodikarts in the hands of Arnaud Sarrazin and Nelson Panciatici, and at first were only used in the rain. They are still banned from Rotax and KF3. In the next homologation period though everyone had a 100cc chassis with front brakes and they became de rigeur in Formula A and ICA, then in Super KF, KF1 and KF2.

Rose argues that the brakes have destroyed the racing that makes karting unique and valuable. “The braking distances are so short a muppet can get round the corner,” he contends. Personally, I haven’t seen a truly classic race since Oliver Oakes won the La Conca round of the European Championship in 2005.

In the last decade, the price of a rolling chassis has doubled to around £3000 for most of them. Paul Spencer of Strawberry Racing once told me that he thought he was pushing it when he raised the price above £1500 for the first time! He says he doesn’t make a great deal more on karts and parts though.

Electronics and wiring on a modern kart

The Tonykart factory team uses datalogging systems that are estimated to cost £8000 per kart including a system to adjust tyre pressures on the go. There is even reputed to be a message that pops up to tell the drivers to take it easy before they break something. How can your average driver with a bit of talent and an ordinary budget compete with that? No wonder European KF2 Champion Jordan Chamberlain has gone to the CIK’s U18 World Championship after a difficult few races in Super KF.

The wiring looms on the KFs are also prone to breaking down, and provide numerous opportunites to cheat which therefore means to spend a lot of money. With just one wire to the battery to the starter and no ECUs there would be far less scope.

Last year KZ1 looked as though it could be the new premier class with 80 entries for the World Cup, including F1 driver Jaime Alguersuari. There was a greater concentration of experienced and professional drivers and the mainly amateur KZ2 drivers moved up for the occasion. This year, the only engine to have is one tuned by Tec Sav and they cost £3000 a race, and the factories have divided themselves between the CIK races (Intrepid and Maranello) and the WSK (CRG and Tonykart) leaving entries in the teens in both. Hopefully things will improve for the World Cup.

I asked Mark Rose why ordinary karters should care if we lose the KF and KZ classes, after all Rotax Max makes up a huge proportion of British racers and they have a highly successful international racing scene.

Simplicity from 1994

He said “Rotax is going the same way, although the one good thing is that the engines do actually last 20 hours.” Of course Rotax, and TKM since the beginning of this year, uses the same karts as the KF classes so there are knock-on effects in terms of costs and you could argue that more damage is done to the equipment in Rotax during racing.

“Karting is in crisis, the KF classes are sadly uneconomical and other categories that run sealed engines have become vastly over expensive and chequebook racing has prevailed,” says Andy Cox, the organiser of the planned Kart Grand Prix class. It’s understandable that he says that, but the lack of power valve, front brakes and engine sealing could be argued to be a step forward. In Italy the class is aimed at drivers who are still hanging on to 100cc engines, of which there is still quite a healthy scene there.

So why should the average club or Super One driver should care about the mostly privileged drivers in Super KF and KF2? It’s hard to imagine a footballer on a pub scene being apathetic about the England football team’s useless World Cup and there are opinions being bandied about from the lack of home-grown players in the Premiership to the enforced separation from the WAGs.

It’s difficult to find racing to watch that is anywhere near as good as international karting at it’s best and I think it’s worth preserving on that basis alone, after all, most of us started off as racing fans.

If we don’t look after our home grown karters and their international karting opportunities, we won’t keep producing the best drivers in a sport that we do actually lead the world in. Even though I’m one of the biggest advocates of karting as it’s own sport and mutter in frustration when the head of the CIK implies our main purpose is to keep up the supply of talented youngsters to cars, it’s undeniable that that’s where many teenagers’ interests lie.

Lots of attention is being paid to Bambino and Super Cadet at the moment, good and bad, but just a few years after getting that foundation, it makes economic sense to go into Formula BMW at 15 before Super KF and often KF2, even though it’s far from clear whether cars at that age are at all helpful. The system certainly hasn’t yet produced a GP winner. KF2/Super KF and their predecessors brought us Hamilton, Button, Raikkonen, Alonso, Schumacher and Senna and many others.