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When Nicolas Deschaux stood down as the CIK President last year, he was succeeded by His Highness Sheikh Abdulla bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain. Not a lot of people know that.
The Commission Internationale de Karting was established in 1961 as an FIA sub-committee. Its first president was Jean-Marie Balestre who sprang to prominence 17 years later as head of FISA. His battle with the Formula One Constructors Association (FOCA) headed by Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley will long be remembered in motor racing circles. Balestre did, at least, come into the job with strong karting credentials. In February 1960 hed set up the French National Karting Committee and actually built a circuit in Nevers. It was arguably due to his organisational ability that French drivers, rather than Italians, were able to dominate European karting during those very early years.
Jean-Marie had what might be diplomatically described as a colourful past. In 1940 hed joined Robert Hersants right wing Juene Front Party that published a rabidly pro-Nazi newspaper. During the years of occupation, he was a member of the French SS although later claimed to have been working undercover for the Resistance. No evidence emerged either to support or repudiate this claim. His friend Hersant fared less well. He was found guilty of collaboration in 1947 and sentenced to 10 years of national indignity. This didnt prevent Balestre and Hersant from establishing a successful motoring magazine called LAuto Journal just after the war ended. One thing you could always say about Balestre is that he remained a larger than life figure. Some of the other CIK presidents have been rather more nondescript.
The latest CIK president may well prove to be just as controversial as the first one. Aged 35, Sheikh Abdulla is a leading member of the dynasty that has ruled in Bahrain for more than 200 years. Bahrain was one of the first Gulf States to discover oil and you might expect that the 800,000 inhabitants would be prosperous as a result. Today, foreign nationals account for around 25% of the population. In February this year, three months after Sheikh Abdullahs elevation to the CIK presidency, excessive force was used to crush a series of protests. This action understandably aroused worldwide public opinion. At least 30 protestors are known to have been killed and many more seriously injured. Furthermore, doctors and nurses offering medical attention to these people were subsequently arrested and now face long gaol sentences for collaboration. Its worth noting that thirty deaths in such a small country would be equivalent to around 2,400 over here.
Having come to Britain as an invited guest at the Royal Wedding two days earlier, Shekh Abdulla paid a short visit to PFI for the CIK North European Trophy meeting on 1st May. Once there, he was accorded all of the deference that his status demanded. His attendance at Westminster Abbey was a matter for Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street to decide. However, you dont need to be ultra left wing to raise concerns about events in Bahrain and question whether we really do need such a figure at the head of world karting. To those who immediately cry that you shouldnt bring politics into karting, Id answer that theyve already become an integral part of just about every sport It is legitimate to argue that subsequent events in Bahrain have made the Sheikhs position as CIK president untenable.
PULLQUOTE Had competitors at PFI been asked to name the current CIK President, then youd probably have been able to count correct answers on the fingers of a man with no arms.
Had competitors at PFI been asked to name the current CIK President, then youd probably have been able to count correct answers on the fingers of a man with no arms. The same applies, in fairness, to just about all of his predecessors. How these people are chosen, and what their job actually entails, remains a mystery to the vast majority of karters whose interest in such matters is minimal. Yet, their influence for good or bad can be enormous. 10 years ago, a close associate of Jean Marie Balestre, Yvon Leon was appointed as the CIK President. Leon had already enjoyed high office as Secretary General of FISA and later became head of the FIAs Manufacturers Commission. Leon wanted to turn karting away from its 2 stroke origins and make 4 strokes the motors of choice. His plans were fiercely resisted by the engine manufacturers and just about everyone else associated with the sport. The present KF classes were eventually introduced as a compromise and havent really succeeded in pleasing anyone.
The problem with appointing FIA bureaucrats, or even royal dignitaries, is that they possess no great feel for the sport. As a result karting has developed along lines predetermined by other motor sporting interests. Thirty years ago karts were breaking lap records previously established by F1 cars. Those drivers who moved out of karting faced several seasons of racing at slower speeds than theyd previously been used to. Whether they acted consciously or not, successive CIK officials have introduced measures that succeeded in reducing kart speeds and associated skills. When Ayrton Sennas 1979 DAP was tested against a modern KF2 machine, it came as no surprise that the older version proved to be considerably quicker and placed more emphasis on individual driving skill.
PULLQUOTE When Ayrton Sennas 1979 DAP was tested against a KF2, it came as no surprise that the older version proved to be considerably quicker
Almost 48 years have elapsed since the first CIK European Championships were concluded on the Thiverval circuit near Paris. Earlier rounds had taken place at Bergamo and Vevey. The British Team was represented by Paul Fletcher, Roger Mills, Bruno Ferrari and Bobby Day. Fletchers homemade Bitsatube/Montesa had dominated the Heats which were all run in hot conditions. He looked to be in with an excellent chance of winning the individual title ahead of Frenchman Jean-Michel Guillard. Arrangements had been made for the final to be televised. However, the TV crew arrived late and competitors were kept waiting on the grid for almost an hour before this race finally got going.
Rain arrived along with the TV crew and Fletcher discovered that his kart wasnt quite so good in wet conditions as he slipped back to 3rd spot behind Day and Guillard. It meant that Guillard narrowly beat him on points for the European title. As the race winner, Bobby Day received a set of car keys along with his trophy presented to him by Jean Marie Balestre. The keys accompanied a brand new Fiat 500. Bobby was able to sell this car in France and generously shared the proceeds with his team-mates. I think we all received over £100 which was a small fortune to me in those days, Roger Mills recalls. It rather made up for us scoring less points than the French Team who were declared as European Champions.
Paul Fletcher has clear memories of this event and will undoubtedly have cursed the French TV crew for their tardiness. Subconsciously, perhaps, this incident might have influenced Pauls decision to donate a brand new Fiat Panda as the winners prize in this years British Championships for KF2. Whether or not theyve been attracted by such a generous prize, many drivers are expressing interest in this one off championship race to be staged at PFI in October. This has led to frantic requests for hired engines. For Paul Flechers sake, if nothing else, I sincerely hope that the meeting is a big success, but my reservations about it being accorded full British Championship status still remain.