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Off Track – What value can be placed on an ‘O’ Plate title?

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O’ Plates for the MSA classes can be well supported like this one at Three Sisters in February 2005, but the date of the event in particular has to be right

What value can be placed on an ‘O’ Plate title? Ask any of today’s competitors in the 100cc MSA classes and the answer would probably be ‘not very much!’ Officials at Larkhall would almost certainly agree, as they had to cancel this year’s event through lack of driver interest. I understand that just 40 entries in total had been received with 100 National actually attracting only three contenders. Less than 18 months earlier, Rowrah had cancelled its meeting with even less entries on the table. In between these two events, Three Sisters had staged a very successful affair attracting around 120 competitors in the four ‘O’ Plate classes with an additional thirty Cadets turning out for a support race. The reasons why Wigan succeeded where the other two failed are numerous. Wigan is more easily accessible for most competitors than either of the other two venues, although I’m not sure that this was a crucial factor. More importantly, the Wigan ‘O’ Plate was staged two weeks before the S1 championship season kicked off. Even better, the opening round of this competition was being held there and no serious contender could turn down such an opportunity to get in a few practice laps. Another successful event was organised at Clay Pigeon in 2003. This was held immediately after the S1 championships had been concluded when perhaps several disappointed contenders had a point to prove.

The signs have been there to read for a long time. This event has always struggled for support when scheduled halfway through the season. It doesn’t require a planning genius to choose a more judicious time so that what support remains can be maximised. Selecting a rather more centralised venue might also help. Another way of gaining additional support would be to include Cadets once again. I never really understood why this class was taken out of the equation anyway. Instead of having one fairly well supported event we finished up with two meetings, both of which are struggling for survival. Alternatively, the ‘O’ Plate titles themselves could be given more status, perhaps with prize presentations arranged at the Autosport show. There’s another way of looking at this problem of course. Supporters of free market economics will claim that if an event attracts such little interest, then any efforts to prop it up will be doomed from the outset. As we probably have far too many titles in karting anyway, they argue, it’s far better to let this one die a natural death. Formula A, ICA, 100 National and JICA classes are confined to S1 entrants simply because, with one or two exceptions, these categories don’t tend to exist at club level. As S1 also adds around 40 Cadets to the total entry at each round, it doesn’t require a mathematics degree to calculate that ‘O’ Plate entries will always fall well below S1 targets.

It’s entirely different in the commercial categories of course. Here, Rotax and TKM competitors who could never afford the costs associated with a full S1 season are happy to race in one event each year when they can test their skills against the top drivers. Last month I attended an excellent ‘O’ Plate meeting at Rowrah when 137 Rotax entrants turned up. This would have compared favourably with a S1 round, held in the latter stages at least. All of the big teams were there together with lots of privateers operating on a ‘lad and his dad’ basis. At a rough guess, I’d say that the entry was made up of no more than 50% S1 regulars. David Simpson was one local driver in particular who saw this event as a chance to mingle with the ‘big guns’. Competing in Senior Rotax, David was bubbling with enthusiasm as he talked about following such noted stars as Benjy Russell and David Bellchambers. In his opening heat he shocked everyone, including himself very probably, by recording the fastest lap. “It’s been a fantastic experience for me,” David confessed afterwards. This is only my second season in the sport and it’s the first opportunity I’ve had to see how the top drivers operate. My speed has improved all weekend so that I’m now a good second per lap quicker than I was just a week ago. I’ve learned so much from this meeting that it’s just unbelievable.” For the sake of drivers such as David, I hope that this event continues as an important fixture on the Rotax calendar. Simpson wasn’t the only one enjoying a good weekend at Rowrah. Officials of Cumbria KRC must have also been pleased as an excellent meeting unfolded, one that would no doubt expand the club’s coffers. They’ll obviously be keen to have another crack at the whip in future years but might react with less enthusiasm to the prospect of staging an ‘O’ Plate for MSA classes.

Participants in other sports might well be slightly bemused at a situation whereby commercial categories have supplanted the official classes. I think it says a lot about the MSA that they’ve actually allowed this situation to come about. Discussing the current debacle over WTP Cadets, I was told that the MSA would never allow a commercial class to become bigger than the officially supported version. I don’t see why not. After all, they never showed the slightest concern when TKM and Rotax took over from the existing MSA classes. With income from Friday and Saturday practice sessions included, plus entry fees and restaurant receipts, I’d guess that CKRC would have taken well over £20,000 from last month’s event. However the tyre company, Vega, did much better. Most competitors went through at least three sets of tyres over the weekend, spending around £50,000 on rubber alone. That’s no different to a S1 round but it demonstrates the huge significance of tyre contracts today. When competitors are parting with so much money, you’d think that they’d be entitled to ask for a degree of consistency in return. At Rowrah and again a week later at Lydd during the S1 round, drivers complained bitterly about being allocated tyres they claimed were up to a full second per lap off the pace. No doubt some of these claims were exaggerated but there can be very real differences in tyre performance that threaten to make important events little more than a lottery. My answer is simple and has at least remained consistent throughout the years. I don’t believe it should be left for commercial interests to determine which tyres are used in each class. In economy classes, if no other, the choice of tyre should be determined by three main factors, consistency, durability and price. If the MSA wants to make a deep and lasting impact upon karting, it should start by addressing this particular issue as soon as possible.

Dave Bewley