Colin Chapman was the man to blame for it all. 42 years ago, he ditched the fabulous looking British Racing Green livery, painted his cars in ghastly red and white colours and “Gold Leaf Team Lotus” was born. Other teams were quick to jump on the bandwagon and F1 cars suddenly started to resemble mobile advertising hoardings, usually promoting various brands of cigarettes. Karters generally missed out on the tobacco money that subsequently became available for all kinds of sport. There was a simple reason for this. With the exception of long circuit machines, karts didn’t have any bodywork on which to display brightly coloured adverts.
It’s different today, of course. Plastic side pods and front bumpers have now become mandatory and they do have the benefit of offering limited advertising space for sponsors. They’re also an essential aid to scribes like me. Without them it would be difficult to differentiate between a Birel and a BRM to say nothing about recognising a Tony from a Tecno. Of course, our governing bodies will claim that plastic bodywork serves a much more important function. Statistics prove that karting has become much safer since the introduction of shock absorbing plastic. At least that’s what they claim although I for one remain extremely sceptical about such assertions.
I don’t have any relevant accident statistics with which to back up my argument and nor, it seems, does anyone else. Yet the glib assumptions about dramatic reductions in accidents have been aired so frequently that they are now universally accepted as absolute gospel. All I know is that serious karting accidents throughout the sixties and seventies were extremely rare occurrences. At Rowrah, for example, the times when an ambulance had to be deployed could be counted on the fingers of a man with no arms. Nowadays, it seems as though medical treatment of some description is required several times during a single race meeting. 40 years ago the number of licence holders was at least equal to today’s figure, although it may be true that modern karters attend more meetings. Even so, I believe it’s a complete fallacy to claim that karting is safer today than it was in the days when we ran without any bodywork at all.
There’s no denying that a tremendous amount of safety features have been incorporated over the years. These range from better protective clothing to much improved crash barriers. So, those who argue that the sport is now a lot safer must find it rather surprising when someone actually challenges their assertion. Perhaps you could argue that the sport is too safety conscious for its own good insofar as the deterrence factor has been removed. Crossing a motorway on foot is extremely hazardous and only a fool would actually attempt it. Conversely, walking across a quiet country road doesn’t seem very dangerous at all, yet many pedestrians are seriously injured or killed each year carrying out this activity. In the days when karts had narrow rear bumpers and no plastic surrounds anyone bashing another driver from behind was likely to come worse off. Class 1 karts didn’t have clutches and any off track excursion meant that your race was effectively ruined. That’s no longer the case and there has been a consequential drop in driving standards.
One consequence of all the plastic sidepods and extended rear bumpers has been an inevitable increase in weight. Today’s karts are tipping the scales at approximately twice the weight of their earlier counterparts. Conversely, the average driver today is much younger and lighter. Put the two together and it’s easy to see why an upturned kart can have more serious consequences for its occupant. Like that famous loaf of bread once advertised regularly on TV, karts were always supposed to be light and Nimble, but I fear that we’ve somehow lost our way. I’ve no doubt there are many convincing arguments that can be made in favour of plastic bodywork but we shouldn’t stifle the opposing voices by quoting fantasy statistics. The next time anyone starts a sentence with the words “Statistics prove”, it might be worthwhile to ask for supporting documentary evidence. Somehow, I doubt that it will be available.
Iain Blair, Dave Wetherell, Richard Brett, Jim Coulthard, Paul Brighton, Jenny Philpotts, Timothy Field and Darrell Smith all correctly identified Riccardo Patrese as the driver from last month’s poser. Darrell informs me that he actually drove Riccardo’s Birel/Komet in the historic parade held during the 2007 World Championships at Mariembourg.
From 1971 up until 1980 Mickey Allen and Terry Fullerton shared nine out of ten British titles in karting’s premier class, 100 International. At Shenington in 1974 one driver intervened to prevent their absolute monopoly. He is pictured a year earlier leading Francois Goldstein during the world championships at Nivelles where he eventually finished 16th. If you can name him please send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or give me a bell on 01946 861355.