Off Track

Wet tyre - IMG_74601

“Don’t ever allow another kart meeting to be televised live because it can cost a fortune!” The words belonged to Paul Fletcher, a man of no mean financial standing. He was speaking after live coverage of the European Championships for Formula A and ICA classes at Ampfing in Germany. It wasn’t the actual cost of hiring film crews that concerned Paul, but rather a £780 bill for wet tyres. Everyone had lined up for the first Formula “A” Final with wets, but it soon became clear that this race would actually be held under dry conditions. A strict TV timetable meant that no extra time could be set aside for wheel changes. Within 3 laps, the wets had been turned into slicks as lumps of rubber flew everywhere.  “The tyres were retailing at £195 a set and I had to buy two sets for each of my drivers,” grumbled Paul. “Even worse, because everyone had geared up for the wet, our motors were revving at 21,500 rpm and I blame this for Mark (Litchfield) eventually seizing.”

Although racing with wets under dry conditions will always be a very expensive business, at least it isn’t dangerous. That can’t be said of the ICA final at Ampfing, however, as this one went out in pouring rain with everyone on slicks. Race officials were obviously happy to send out drivers under adverse conditions so that television schedules could be met and this begs an important question. If a serious accident had taken place would the presence of TV cameras have affected any decision to stop or continue racing? Increased media coverage has undoubtedly provided very significant benefits, but karting is hardly the type of sport that needs to go out on live television. Certainly on this occasion, karts sliding everywhere at low speeds didn’t really make compulsive viewing either, so the experiment wasn’t much of a success. As Paul himself commented, “It turned the entire event into a lottery and I don’t believe that anything at all was gained by such an exercise.”

Forty years ago, Paul Fletcher joined the RAC Kart Committee as a driver representative. He was actually invited to join this august body rather than being elected onto it. Democracy was an alien concept in karting even back then. However, Paul had extensive knowledge having raced on all manners of circuits across Britain and Europe. He was ideally placed to offer a competitor’s perspective and I’ve little doubt that his opinions must have been invaluable. I hear on the grapevine that Mick Barrett is attempting to form an Association of drivers and team owners that will be able to influence important decisions. The MSA insists that there has been little change in karting’s popularity yet race entries across Britain tell a rather different story.  Falling numbers at ordinary race meetings are starting to be reflected in the major competitions and this affects the revenues of team owners. If Mick Barrett is successful in launching his group and manages to bring about measures to reverse this trend, then he’ll have done us all a favour. I wish him the very best of luck.   

Apart from two very brief spells with Taifun and Birel, Paul Fletcher spent most of his 26 years as a driver racing British built karts. As a team owner, however, he has favoured the Italian manufacturers up until now. An outstanding record over the last ten years has meant that many competitors tend to sit up and take notice of any new developments in the Fletcher camp. It will be interesting to see how much effect Mark Litchfield’s recent switch to an Octane chassis has on sales of this kart. At Rowrah during the final round of S1 Chris Rogers and Mark made sure that Octanes occupied the first two places in both Formula A finals. Litchfield’s fourth consecutive British title in Formula A might achieve the kind of sales figures for Nick Jest that Oliver Oakes managed for Tim Gillard. 25 years ago British built karts such as Sprint, Talko, Zip, Lane and Wright were predominant in 100cc classes. It would be nice to think that we are about to witness a revival along similar lines.

No matter what chassis you’re using in ICA or Formula A right now, it seems as if 4 wheel brakes are rapidly becoming a necessity. There’s nothing new about this idea. Frank Williams first incorporated all round brakes on the Fastakart back in 1960 and other Class 1V manufacturers were quick to imitate him. Seven years later, Jack Barlow introduced a similar system for Class 1 karts but the idea didn’t really catch on. In 2002, however, Arnaud Kozlinski produced some very impressive results with his Sodikart that utilised front and rear brakes working independently. It’s not a development I’m very enthusiastic about. Apart from adding around £400 to overall costs, there is also a significant weight increase to consider. Talk of an impending ban is rife but no-one can be sure if or when karting’s governing bodies will intervene, so most of the top drivers are leaving nothing to chance. Uncertainty is never good for the sport and we need a decision on this matter sooner rather than later.

Certainty is a commodity that has been distinctly lacking in the cadet classes this year. WTP numbers were decimated by a temporary ban on the B5 motor that was imposed in February and didn’t get lifted until July. Further uncertainty surrounded a proposal to raise the age limits for all cadets by 12 months. I first heard about this last December from a source close to the Zip Young Guns team who claimed that it was “definitely going to happen.” Then, in early March, the ABkC formally endorsed this idea and we waited patiently for their recommendation to be “rubber stamped”. It’s actually taken six months for this to happen. Has the hold up been caused by a shortage of rubber or is it simply the stamp of authority that’s in short supply? Such a delay might be understandable if the time had been used to carry out a proper consultation exercise. After all, any increase in age limits will have implications not just for cadet grids but also those of all junior classes too. However, I don’t know of anyone who has been consulted over this matter, be they competitor, kart trader or club official and it seems as though the 6 months wait has served no constructive purpose whatsoever.

All this must be extremely frustrating for those families who usually like to start making plans for the forthcoming season round about August or September. It may have made the lives of team owners, kart traders and championship organisers a little less certain also. Perhaps the MSA delayed a decision hoping that half of those due to move up under existing age limits would get tired of waiting and jump into another class anyway. This would have spread out the effects of such a change but there must be better and more reliable ways of phasing in new legislation to ensure an orderly transition. Whatever the reasons, I feel that cadet drivers and their parents were deserving of rather better consideration.

One effect of raising the age limit may be save the Cadet “O” Plate from extinction. This event has looked increasingly unhealthy ever since the ABkC decided to separate cadets from the Senior MSA classes several years ago. As a result, two out of the last three Senior “O” Plate meetings have been cancelled through lack of entries and the recent cadet event at Rye House only went ahead because it was run in conjunction with the London Cup. According to my information, the actual “O” Plate itself attracted just 20 entries in total and these were split between three classes, Comer, WTP and Honda. If the ABkC is serious about continuing with these championships, then an urgent rethink must surely be required. Rather than allocating four “O” Plate meetings for Rotax, TKM, Cadet and MSA Classes, why not simply stage two big events, one aimed at Seniors and the other one specifically for Junior/Cadets? As Del Boy Trotter himself might say, “You know it makes sense!”     

POSTSCRIPT

By the time this column gets into print, we’ll have a new world champion in Formula A to replace Britain’s Oliver Oakes. The way British drivers have been performing all year, there’s nothing to say he won’t come from these shores. I use the word he quite deliberately because it’s near enough certain that the new champion will be male. However, Suzy Raganelli once proved that nothing should be taken for granted in karting. This is the fortieth anniversary of her astonishing triumph in Rome and it’s one that should offer encouragement to Tiffany, Tamsin, Abigail, Amanda, Gemma and every other young female who refuses to accept male domination of our sport.