Why do parents and teams spend so much time, effort and money on equipment but not on the driver?
I recently watched Toby Sowery absolutely tonk his Easykart rivals at Clay Pigeon. Throughout the day, Sowery was never bettered and in the main final it became obvious as to why. His hands.
Sowery held his steering wheel at the classic ten to two position, whilst virtually the entire rest of the field held theirs much lower, at twenty to four. Tellingly, he won by over two seconds. I was reminded of a remark Mike Wilson made after fellow Easykart star Barnaby Pittingale had so emphatically won the 2007 World Finals: I just wish some people could’ve seen that drive. To turn up, build a brand new kart out of a box and win – it shows that you don’t need to go racing with loads of engines. You should just learn how to drive in the first place.
People often forget that motor sport is a physical activity. If you spectate at an indoor karting circuit, you’ll see plenty of first-time karters complaining of how much arm pump they’ve got and how their forearms have had a real work out. These karts run on rock hard tyres and are often sliding around a semi-glazed surface. So when you have quite a bit of grip in a machine that is much faster and more responsive to the driver’s input, it is important to understand what you need to do with the steering wheel.
I discovered this when I came back to racing some years ago. I complained that the kart was understeering and that I couldn’t place it where I wanted to. My team boss Dannie Pennell informed me in no uncertain terms that I was doing everything wrong with my hands. To get the front end to turn in more effectively, he told me that I had to press on the steering wheel. I tried this and it worked. My times improved, but I ended the day absolutely knackered.
An angled boss on the back of the steering also helped me with the positioning of my arms and, with a combination of time spent training and testing, things began to improve as the season progressed. However, when I went to Jesolo in 2006 to contest the Easykart World Finals, much of my preparations came to nought when I experienced for the first time in my life proper grip.
It was agony. I remember begging my mechanic to loosen the kart up. Everything hurt, with my hands and arms feeling like the tendons – and indeed bones – had been stretched by wild horses. I was fit, but nowhere near fit enough. In that long Final, my hands began to drop lower on the wheel just for some respite but this only created more problems. Because I couldn’t hold the wheel properly, my entry speed into the corners dropped dramatically. The kart understeered and began Ôwonging through the apexes.
Admittedly, this was happening at a circuit where the karts would lift up onto two wheels through the faster bends because of the grip levels – this would be a relatively rare occurrence in most UK classes today, but the increasing preference for longer finals requires greater endurance and strength.
I know there is a theory that youngsters should not be encouraged to train with weights because their young bones and bodies could become damaged. Lifting heavy weights will almost certainly increase this risk but kart racers and putative racing drivers don’t need bulky, short fast-twitch muscle fibres, quite the opposite. If you compare an Olympic sprinter with a distance runner, you’ll see what I mean. Jenson Button is quite possibly the fittest man on the Grand Prix grid and look how slim he is. But he trains obsessively.
Aerobic exercise, such as swimming is an ideal way to build up stamina and good strength. Complimenting this with exercises to develop upper body strength, using anything from hand weights to flexible rubber tubing, is ideal for younger competitors (from 12-years old and upwards) and will add to their natural fitness. Of course, seeking the advice of a qualified professional and developing an effective programme is the best course of action.
However, developing strength and stamina is one thing, but taking your innate skills to the next level is another. In every sport in the world, coaches are seen as essential to turn talented sports people into world-beaters. In karting, using a driver coach is an all too rare thing. As Mike Wilson observed, parents will often spend fortunes on engines, carburettors and new chassis whilst investing nothing in their child’s ability.
If you imagine junior level karting being like a school, you’ll have a certain percentage of very gifted kids and some with little or no academic ability. In the middle you’ll have a group that is often described in school reports as average or above average and it is they who, if coached properly, can improve immeasurably.
I believe it is Martin Hines whom contests that no one is born a racing driver, but with a combination of certain factors such as intellect, a will to win, physical ability and training, a winner can be made. I dont disagree. Now a driver coach himself, Terry Fullerton was commenting on last month’s front cover of this magazine.Look at how we’re both sitting in the karts. We’re mirroring each other’s bodies perfectly. Look at our shoulders and the way our hands are holding the steering wheels. Perfect.
One of Senna’s other great rivals from his formative years is Martin Brundle. As you will know from his F1 commentaries and columns in the Sunday Times, he is an eloquent, intelligent and thoughtful man. Tellingly, his autobiographys is called Working the Wheel.