Off Track – Emerson Fittipaldi

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On October 4th 1970 a young Brazilian driver called Emerson Fittipaldi won the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. Fittipaldi had been drafted into the Lotus team as a replacement for Jochen Rindt who’d been tragically killed at Monza four weeks earlier. Very few of us realised it at the time but Emerson’s victory would be another of those defining moments in our sport. In June, Sweden’s Ronnie Peterson had become the first ex-karter to race in an F1 Grand Prix. Ronnie was well known in European karting circles and had finished 3rd in the world championships four years earlier. Fittipaldi also had lots of kart wins to his credit but they’d all been achieved in South America and it wasn’t until many months later that we learned about his karting roots. In 1972 he became world motor racing champion and, along with many other Press Officers, I was soon dashing off articles to the local newspapers about this young phenomenon who’d learned all his skills on karts. Ten other former karters, Piquet, Scheckter, Rosberg, Prost, Senna, Mansell, Schumacher, Villeneuve, Hakkinen and Alonso would follow Fittipaldi as world champions, sharing 26 titles between them. Damon Hill in 1996 was the last non-karter to achieve a world title, rather surprising considering that his father won Britain’s first official kart race almost 47 years ago. Ex-karters have won over 370 GPs since 1970 and in recent years they have accounted for the entire grid at every Grand Prix. It’s no wonder then, that parents with motor racing ambitions are getting their kids into karting. This is wonderful for the sport’s public image but, as always, there’s a down side.

Wealthy parents have contributed towards spiralling costs, possibly deterring others with more modest incomes from getting involved. A few years ago we invited parents of prospective new starters to a S1 round at Rowrah. Some of them were impressed by the highly charged atmosphere. Others took one look at the expensive motorhomes on display, decided that their kids couldn’t compete against such ostentation and disappeared never to be seen again. Because there’s now so much at stake, kart races have become very serious affairs, particularly when championships are involved. It’s not unusual today for major titles to be decided at an MSA Tribunal rather than out on the circuit. Recently I attended an MSA Tribunal on behalf of Kalvin Quinn, a young driver from my own area whose licence had been suspended under the totting up procedure. This particular appeal had been based on fairly solid ground and it was vindicated by a favourable outcome. Talking to members of the panel afterwards though, it was clear that they were pretty fed up with the amount of appeals coming before them, mainly from kart competitors. It cost Kalvin’s father £310 in a non-refundable fee plus travelling costs which at least matched this figure. For many competitors, that in itself is a sufficient disincentive against pursuing frivolous appeals, whereas it might simply be regarded as loose change by others. Money talks both on and off the circuit so it would seem. The RAC took karting under its wing back in September 1959 following a demonstration run at Silverstone. Even back in those days, senior figures at Belgrave Square seemed to regard karting as an irritation rather than a valuable asset.

I’m sure any suggestion that such attitudes are still prevalent today would be vigorously denied by today’s MSA hierarchy. Nevertheless, it might explain their reticence in coming forward with plans to celebrate our 50th anniversary. The CIK has produced a very impressive leaflet showing photographs of Guido Sala, François Goldstein, Peter de Bruijn, Mike Wilson, Kimi Raikkonen, Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso and our most recent karting world champion, Ollie Oakes. Also pictured centrefold is a shot of Art Ingels and his wife Ruth with one of the world’s first karts. The CIK are clearly making an effort to promote the sport, yet from our own governing body we hear not a dickybird. This has become a hobby horse of mine in recent months and I’ve no doubt that readers will be getting tired of me standing on my soap box beating the same old drum. Yet, with numbers of new starters gradually diminishing, the 50th anniversary represents a golden opportunity to increase public awareness and actually bring more people into the sport. It’s now 100 years since the first Grand Prix cars were built but none of these have survived. However, the original Ingels kart is still with us and looking almost as good as new after 50 years.

Just as the Ashes have assumed mythical status in cricket, I don’t believe the importance of this kart can ever be overestimated. Indirectly, it’s been responsible for bringing eleven world champions and more than a hundred other drivers into F1. You’d think this in itself would be sufficient to capture media interest but there’s no evidence to suggest that sports journalists have even been made aware of its existence. What about showing off the kart at Silverstone in June? The MSA, with so many useful contacts, could easily make this happen. It has a vested interest in karting’s continued growth as our sport currently provides a large slice of their income. I can’t for the life of me understand why they’re not seizing such an opportunity with both hands. Good publicity is a prerequisite of any plan to increase numbers. Even more important though is the establishment of an economical category capable of attracting strong support. Steve Chapman’s plans for an entry level class based on TKM BT82 motors ticked most of the right boxes for me. Running this class in the lunch break at race meetings might not however be quite as easy as it seems on paper. Officials need feeding and watering just like anyone else and, with most of the entrants being comparatively new starters, marshals will be in even greater demand. As you are talking about just one race, grid positions will presumably be by ballot and this could cause a few arguments. It’s alright suggesting that in a half hour race there’ll be plenty of time for drivers to come through from the back but it’s often possible for the leaders to open out a 50 metre lead on the first lap and this could be difficult to claw back, however long a race goes on for.

There are more positives than negatives though. For one thing, there’ll be a plentiful supply of cheap secondhand equipment available and no expensive ARKS test or licensing fees to pay. Fixed size sprockets and hard tyres should also help to keep costs down. If clubs are encouraged to push this class, then I’m sure it will be a winner. Ultimately, it will be the MSA that decides the fate of Steve Chapman’s proposals. I’m not merely talking about whether or not they agree to dispense with the ARKS test and licensing fees. The problem for prospective new starters isn’t so much finding an economy class but rather deciding which one to choose. We’ve got World Formula, Honda Pro-Kart, Subaru, F6, TKM, Biland, Rotax, Formula Blue and now the Birel Easykart to name but a few. Ask me to decide which of these represents the best option and, quite frankly, I wouldn’t have a clue. I strongly believe though that such a choice ought to be made by our governing body sooner rather than later. It’s one of those rare occasions when getting the right answer is far less important than actually making a decision with minimum delay. We need a firm steer from the MSA as to which category is their preferred option and this can then be ‘sold’ to new entrants as the official clubman’s class. I’d like to see a consultative process take place involving members of the kart trade and interested clubs. If Chapman’s ideas are taken on board, then so much the better, but we really need to see action taken now!

Dave Bewley