Round The Bend: Karting to Cars

Stock-FlagWhen the moment comes to leave karting and move to cars, it can feel just as poignant as Frankel’s farewell and as mind-bogglingly scary as Felix Baumgartner’s fall to earth.

Back in the heady summer of 1983, it all seemed so simple. I would graduate from Junior Britain into either Senior Britain or National, move into Formula Ford a year later, do a season of Formula 3 after that – possibly followed by F3000 – before arriving in F1. Easy.

The fact that you are reading this means the plan didn’t quite pan out.

When Senna quit karting, he came to Britain to learn the ropes – first with the Van Diemen works team in Ford 1600 and then Ford 2000 with Rushen Green Racing, before stepping up to Formula 3. Having beaten Martin Brundle to the title, the Brazilian genius was offered that momentous test in the Williams FW08C at Donington. The rest is history.

By contrast, Jenson Button made Ayrton’s route to the top look a little ponderous, taking just two years to go from karts to F1 (in FFord and F3). Kimi Raikkonen trumps the pair of them, having impressed Peter Sauber after barely more than a full season in Formula Renault, the self-styled Iceman and plastic inflatable troubler was given an F1 race seat.

However, modern kart racers arguably have Lewis Hamilton and McLaren to thank for laying down what has become the classic route from karts to F1; FRenault, F3, GP2 and finally, the Grand Prix grid itself.

Assuming that, having got this far down the page, you are an aspiring F1 driver or parent of one – and therefore considering making the leap into cars at a point in the not too distant future – choosing the right championship and team in which to make that first step out of karting is hugely important. If karting is all you’ve known since you, your son or daughter was eight and first starting out in Cadets, the chances are that karting may well be all the insider knowledge you have of motorsport. If that’s the case, making informed decisions will be tough and are made all the more so by the increasing number of series in which to spend your budget.

Jonathan Palmer’s latest championship – Formula 4 – has grabbed media headlines and a lot of interest from teams and prospective drivers.  On paper – because at the time of writing that’s all anyone had to go on – it looks very good. However, it will take much winter testing and at least a handful of races for us to fully understand just how good the new cars and race package are.

In an attempt to keep it relevant, Formula Ford has finally gone down the slicks and wings route, and has been added to the BTCC bill. The last serious choice to consider here in the UK, after the demise of the Intersteps series, has to be Formula Renault BARC. Despite the age of the Tatuus chassis – first introduced in 2000 and last updated in 2007 – this championship is in rude health.

With no one team dominating the championship, FR BARC offers a wider choice of teams to choose from and deals to be done. Until we really know just how good Palmer’s Formula 4 is, for me the BARC series is the best choice right now. The price of around £80,000 per season – including testing and racing – seems to be fairly standard and the cars are solid, well proven and effective teaching aids. The old FFords and FBMW’s had limited aero but good mechanical grip, making them easier for karters to get the hang of. However, the 2 litre Renault forces a youngster to get to grips with the dark arts of aerodynamics. Telling a young driver that the entry into Surtees on the Brands Hatch Indy circuit has to be taken ‘flat in fifth in order to make the aero work’ is one thing, getting them to do it is another but the key thing to note, is that a driver can do that right now in a BARC car but will have to wait until January before they can attempt it in an F4.

Testing different teams, as well as their machinery, is hugely important. Impressionable young karters can form very close, almost familial bonds with their teams – especially when they share a great deal of success together. Moving away from a cosy, supportive and nurturing environment into not just a new awning but whole category of motorsport can be a seismic shock to the system which makes it essential to look at how car teams work with their drivers.

We all respond to instruction and coaching in different ways and teams up and down the pit lane tend to reflect the team principal’s own personality. If he, or she, is a calm, quietly authoritative figure not given to rousing Henry V Saint Crispin’s Day speeches but you are best motivated by a mixture of Yosemite Sam-style shouting and Henry VIII’s threats of violence, then they might not extract the best from you.

Mark Godwin, owner of a highly successful team competing in Formula Renault BARC and one of those already committed to competing in Formula 4, advises parents and drivers to do their homework, talk to people in the paddock and learn the backgrounds of personnel: “You have to choose the individuals in a team, rather than make a decision based on the name because you need to make sure you get the best education. It’s easy to buy into past reputations, but is the experience and results of the people in the squad at the present time that matters most, not former glories. For newcomers, the hardest thing to know is who to trust and who not to, that’s why you have to do your research.”

Picking the team to suit the individual driver’s personality is also important. All the top BARC teams are close in terms of car performance, so it comes down to choosing who will give their customers the most rewarding experience and confidence.

These are the same reasons why Felix Baumgartner chose Joseph Kittinger as the only man he would communicate with prior to jumping from a balloon at the edge of space. Joe is the only man alive who had done it before.