By Karting1 ~ February 6th, 2012. Filed under: Kart Racing News, Karting Philosophy.
The MSA describe karting to be ‘widely regarded as the first step on the motor racing ladder and is the starting point for many young aspiring racing drivers’. No less than 4 UK championships this year will be offering tests in race cars as prizes and various teams/championships around the world have integrated car programs. You would be forgiven for thinking karting was exclusively a sport for those under the age of 16 aiming for car stardom. But is karting’s apparent ’stepping-stone’ role to car racing exposing several vulnerabilities that could be exploited in an ever evolving market?
Being the stepping stone for future motor racing stars certainly has had its benefits for karting over the years. It has ensured a steady flow of new young drivers into the sport to off-set those that leave and no one could begrudge any kid who dreams of being an F1 star. However, as the focus of the sport concentrates on drivers whose aim is to eventually leave the sport, has it meant attention has drifted away from drivers above the age of 16 who may want to stay? Carolynn Hoy, Formula Kart Stars, thinks trying to hold onto drivers is harder than it sounds. She said “My philosophy is I will provide the best possible championship for competitors, and I will offer them as many opportunities and as much information as they wish. As far as I am concerned karting is a terrific sport in its own right, but if you get drivers who set up residence in a particular class and championship, the championship will die because people don’t want to come in.”
Carolynn continued “If you try the term ‘hanging on to drivers’, it doesn’t work. That’s not the idea. You have to provide the best possible championship with opportunities and if your providing opportunities and drivers are going on and up, well that encourages people to come into the sport. People come into motor racing because they watch Formula One…they have to have that dream and they want to aspire to that, and they start off in cadet, which is light years away from F1, but you have to dream. So I think it’s our job to making karting as exciting as possible. But if drivers are moving on and up, that’s not failing as long as we are bringing them in at the bottom.”
But bringing new drivers into karting on the premise of being a stepping-stone to greater things is coming under a greater threat from online simulators. As reported by Karting1 in 2007, simulator racing is offering a real alternative to those who wish to get into motorsport. Carolynn agrees “It is lurking in the back of my mind that you brought up about simulators and it’s like a brave new world but it’s knocking on a door as well. We are entitled to be a little concerned about that.”
So what’s the deal with simulators then, surely it’s nothing like real racing, it has a reset button and it can’t offer anybody real opportunities? Wrong! In 2011, iRacing (popular online simulator) recently gave Greger Huttu (world famous sim racer) the chance to drive a Formula Mazda – his first experience ever of real motorsport ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0p_sCrM1CcI ). With a few days training he hopped in the Mazda and performed at a level that surprised many. While his times weren’t lap record pace (largely due to illness/fitness/experience), it suggested there was at least some positive correlation between simulator performance and real life racing.
Gran Turismo and Nissan have taken that a step further with the GT Academy which is a competition that pits Gran Turismo simmers against each other to win a prize racing a Nissan GT car. The winner of the first GT Academy Lucas Ordinez has gone on to race GT cars winning races and championships. January also witnessed the first 4 winners of GT Academy racing in an all ’simmer’ team at the Dubai 24 hours placing 3rd in class. While these programs are still in embryonic phases their potential is massive, and they are already offering drivers real stepping-stones to professional opportunities – ‘from sofa to pro’ as it were.
Rob Barff, head coach of the GT Academy still sees the virtues of combining both simulator work and real life karting experience however. He explained “It’s a very interesting field. Clearly the guys who we find, for want of a better adjective, through GT Academy, Bob and RJN put them through a very intensive training program where they do an awful lot of seat time in a racing car prior to their prize drive at the 24hrs of Dubai. But the basics of GT5 prepare them well in terms of geometry of corner i.e how to discover the quickest racing line and in terms of the basics of acceleration and deceleration and balanced throttle.”
He stills sees the virtues in karting “But I think they’ll always be a place in the market place for karting. Karting to me teaches drivers that instinctive feel for what a slick tyre is doing on the face of a surface, and the implications of making a mistake racing for real are more serious, and that will give you a better grounding in decision making I feel.”
Is the level of talent high coming out of online simulator racing to challenge what karting produces? Rob answered “Yeah, very much so. Even though they’ve got no (real experience), by the time I get to meet the gamers they are all at a very high level, a very very high level. They are in the top percentile of the gaming community and they are successful. They are intelligent & successful individuals in their chosen skills. And the skills that made them intelligent and successful i.e their ability to make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and not make them mistakes again on a regular basis, makes them very easy pupils to coach when your working in the world of real racing cars. It’s quite interesting, I think a lot of people underestimate how competitive the online gaming community is.”
He concluded “I’ve been at the forefront of GT Academy in terms of looking at the guys when they come to Silverstone and I’ve been very impressed, but I think there’ll will always be a place for karting, always….I also think the combination of the two (simulators and karting) can prove to be extremely successful.”
Jann Mardenborough, winner of the 2011 GT Academy, has simulators to thank for his success. Despite some indoor karting sessions as a child, it was simulators, not karts, which was spring-boarded him to success “As for karting, my first go in one was when I was 7 in Ibiza. For my 8th birthday, my parents go me go-karting lessons. Every 2 months I’d have a session in Cardiff in a indoor arena. I loved it. Ever since then I wanted to be a racing driver, didn’t know exactly how I was going to achieve that, but I had the bug. I didn’t know the required route at that age anyway to F1, neither the different karting levels! I stopped when I was 11 as the place shut down, plus it was getting quite expensive for my parents too. So I’m hugely grateful for GT Academy, allowing me to pursue a childhood dream and I get to do some Rotax Max, which it mega! (which Jann has raced at Whilton Mill)“
Jann also described his transition from sims to cars “Going from Sim to reality was went a lot smoother than I expected. You hear from other people how the G forces are a big hurdle to over come compared to a game, but for me I was completely at ease in my first race at Pembrey in the Group N 370z’s with competitors around me. The biggest difference I found was my vision. On GT5 or any racing game for that matter, your eyes are almost always fixated on the Tv screen, they hardly never move. So transferring into reality, I found myself looking down at kerbs for too long, and generally my vision was low. But the Silverstone instructors soon knocked that out of me. The game GT5 really teaches you a lot in the terms of car control especially if you have a wheel/pedal combo.”
The rise of simulators, whichever way you look at it, leaves karting in a tricky position. If karting does lose at least some of its ’stepping-stone’ status while continuing to push drivers into cars then it could see a shortfall in new drivers. Why spend so much time karting when you can invest time & money into simulators? Do the odd kart race to stay sharp, for sure, but spend years in it? Maybe the whole ‘karts to cars’ needs to be flip reversed… maybe we need to focus on attracting drivers from cars to karts. Kai Attwood is one of those very examples. He used to race cars before eventually finding karting. He has now become a staple of the Aixro scene.
He recognises marketing is challenging when your competition is Ferraris and Porsches “The lack of ‘glamour’ in karting will of course always be a barrier to some extent. Karting will never be an option to those for whom it is more important to tell their friends in the pub on a Friday night that “I drive my/a Ferrari/Porsche/take-your-pick at Silverstone etc.” than what they’re actually doing there when said friends aren’t watching.”
So what kart product on the market right now can karting promote to break in to car driver market? Kai said “Also, although most people in karting now acknowledge that Rotax has earned its place for good reason, I wouldn’t see this as the right product with which to lead the charge at the car driver/racer market. Gearbox karts (Michael Schumacher again!) are much better placed for that; electric start and paddle shifting would help. Around that you could package other stuff like Aixro – for its driving experience and technological uniqueness – and other kit more potent than Rotax.”
Mark Rose, karting guru & mechanic to the late Dan Wheldon, believes karting first needs to get its own house in order before it goes about trying to keep drivers in or attracting them from car racing. He fumed “…the problem at the moment is that, there’s two problems actually, one is the motor racing thing, the (other) problem is that what we’ve got at the higher level of karting now is also s**t. So there is no point staying. Like a few years ago when you had Formula A and Formula Super A it was fantastic racing. Now, what’s the point in staying because it’s s**t. KF1 is a disease and KF2 is a bit better. That’s it.”
“We can blame it all on the car thing, but until karting get its house in order, they’re own house in order we’re all f*****d. The truth is until they make it fixed at the top end of karting then people are just going to go to cars. If I had a young kid now I’d tell him to go to cars, why stay in karting?”
“It’s a really simple element that people don’t get. We bolted all this s**t onto these go-karts right, and all we’ve done is triple the cost of a go-kart and gone much slower. Did you see the recent test when they got the old Senna kart out from 1979? They dropped it on the floor and it was seconds quicker than a KF2! We’ve actually achieved nothing. We all are all paying more money and going slower than we ever had… everything on the kart is s***e so consequently people stop racing. It’s not rocket science. Until they, the infinitive wisdom people who haven’t got a clue, fix it we’re all in the shit.”
The strong words from Mark reflect a growing frustration that is evident through karting. Long-term karters are regularly asking themselves ‘why stay if karting is just a stepping-stone to greater things and not any cheaper than cars’? There is a plethora of other options for drivers who want to go racing like Caterhams, Ginettas, Fiestas, Clios, Radicals, Jedis, Renaults, BMWs, Vees, MR2s, Minis, simulators and the list goes on. This is karting’s competition.
Maybe Mark is right, karting does need to be better, but despite being masked in all the conjecture, when it’s done properly, karting is probably the most exuberant and beautiful forms of motorsport in existence today. Nothing can match its relative simplicity, and raw action. It’s not a hard sell.
Whether we call karting a ’stepping-stone’ or ‘grassroots motorsport’ doesn’t really matter because they both get walked over either way. Why not aim to be the top-step, why not aim to be the glorious tree rather than the humble grassroot. Karting is simply better than most other motorsports, full stop. Maybe it’s time to act like it.
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