29 Nov 2013

Show Me The Money - The Giant Leap From Karting to Cars

Sam Sheehan takes a look at the ladder that goes from karting to F1, and the big hindrance to progression - money.

Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton; the list goes on for the number of F1 drivers who started out in karts. In fact the list includes the entire grid of F1’s current drivers, because every single one of them first cut their teeth on the kart track. It’s no surprise then that thousands of aspiring racers flock to tracks across the globe all year long, thrashing these simple machines around miniature race-tracks in the hopes of being noticed as an upcoming talent. But unfortunately for them it’s not so simple, talent is only a small part of what junior car racing teams require from a top-level karter. Instead it seems for many there is a bigger, more foreboding requirement that dictates their jump into cars. Money.

Something that no doubt had already played a major part in their careers as karters, entering car racing often requires such large sums of money, that racing drivers have to give up on the dream before they’d even got started. Even the very best can fall at this cash hurdle; take a British Champion for example. At just 19 years of age, Will van Es, the 2013 TKM Extreme Champion, only finished off the podium of one of the UK’s premier karting classes twice during the whole year, with poles, fastest laps and dominant wins gifting him a season not too dissimilar to that of a certain German F1 driver. A display of such skill and talent would surely provide him with a CV weighted enough to draw in the scouts of racing car teams, and open the doors to a long, illustrious professional racing career. But instead of sprinting up the ladder towards the world of high performance single seaters, Will has chosen to stay put in karts.

“Unless you’ve got millions to spend, what’s the point in trying something that is slower but far more expensive?” Will has a point, his decision to move into the UK’s top karting class, KZ1, a class where karts can accelerate to 60 in under three-seconds and pull mini wheelies off the line, sees him piloting machinery far quicker (and scarier) than many forms of much more expensive racing cars. A KZ1 kart can be bought for £6,000 too, where as an entry-level single seater race-car will often cost more than 10 times that. A wise decision it may be, there’s still no doubting Will would love to flaunt his talent in cars.

He tells me how many of his rivals have managed to progress up the motorsport ladder and do “surprisingly well” despite showing less promise early on. The unfortunate thing for Will is the surprise in these drivers’ success, was due to the fact he was often quicker than them. Yet when they jumped into the more expensive car classes, with their stronger financial backing they were able to achieve great things. Not fair.

This highlights a major issue in junior motorsport, an issue that has no doubt been around for many years but tragically is only just reaching the headlines. Thanks to the recent outcry at the wealth of pay drivers in F1, even less hardcore racing fans are becoming aware of the importance of cash in a racing driver’s career. I like the way Will sees it, “it seems to me that the driving is becoming a bit of a distraction from the PR.” Blunt as it may be, you can’t deny there’s a lot of evidence to back Will’s opinion; Kimi Raikkonen’s latest money related protests provide good example for this.

Instead of complaining about the unjust ways of modern motorsport however, Will has chosen to focus his time out of the kart on gaining a degree in Economics, aiming to craft a career that will allow him to fund his racing habit as a hobby. Good news that motorsport won’t lose Will entirely as he aims to win in KZ1 then.

But what about karting, what lies ahead for the formula that provides the first stepping-stone onto the motorsport rung for future stars? The class Will has shown such dominance in is also the class that provides much hope for the future of affordable racing. Having given 2009 F1 World Champion Jenson Button, 2005 DTM Champion Gary Paffet and a raft of other big racing names their breaks in the racing scene, Formula TKM is a class that boasts much pedigree.

Nevertheless TKM founder, Alan Turney, explains how it is also thanks to the class’ affordability that it is so invaluable. He describes TKM as “a class with low costs which produces the closest racing to be seen in the UK; throwing money at it will not make you go faster.” This is largely thanks to the controlled tyres, controlled 100cc and 115cc engines and limited tuning capacity of the formula, enabling drivers on limited budgets like Will, to perform so well against those with substantially more cash.

Positive news then that Alan is confident TKM can provide a long-term solution to those wanting to race at a professional level on a budget, with expectations for “a strong future” based around simply keeping “the heart of the class exactly as it has always been.” Alternative classes that use the TKM engine such as the arrive and drive Championship, Club100, and low cost owner-driver Clubman Championship, also ensure racers on very limited budgets with varying experience levels can enjoy the scream of a TKM engine without breaking the bank.

So problem solved; TKM has the answer. Not exactly. TKM is certainly an important class not just in karting, but also British motorsport as a whole. It provides racers with the chance to race wheel-to-wheel with top-level drivers, all under a fairly controlled budget. But unfortunately it does not provide an answer for drivers hoping to race for a living.

This problem and its lack of publicity was recently emphasised during a BBC F1 broadcast when 1996 F1 World Champion, Damon Hill, said that the current motorsport system in Europe was effective at filtering down the talent to the very best. To some respects this is true, as there is no doubting that the drivers currently at the top of motorsport are all very good. But it is no doubt a massive shame that even someone as in touch with motorsport as an F1 World Champion, would be so unaware of the unfortunate truth: that as well as filtering out the less talented, motorsport is doing just as good a job of filtering out the less rich.

Article by Sam Sheehan