Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Those who can, do....

....And those who can't, write about those who can. Or perhaps they teach.... I've been writing about motorsport here for nearly three years, and I've been following the sport since I was a small boy in the mid 1980s. From time to time, though, I'm forced to confront a slightly awkward question. How much do I, or any of my fellow armchair critics really know about the nuts and bolts of actually driving a racing car?

If I'm honest, the answer in my case, is not very much. Only what I've been able to pick up from observation alone over the years. For reasons that needn't detain us here, I've reached my 30s without so much as possessing a driving licence. Many of the big name F1 journalists are much the same, at least in so far as they have little or no first hand experience of motor racing. Nigel Roebuck, to my knowledge, has never raced, and the one time he drove an F1 car, he spun it in a straight line. Koen Vergeer, the Dutch racing journalist, admits that he was terrified out of his wits the one time he tried karting, while Autosport Grand Prix editor Edd Straw's efforts in the clubman Ginetta G20 championship have (at least when I've seen him in action) involved his trundling around at the very back, several seconds off the pace.

Of course, this isn't true of every racing journalist. Denis Jenkinson co-drove Stirling Moss to victory on the Mille Miglia in 1955 and was a pretty decent motorbike racer in his own right. Mark Hughes, Autosport's F1 writer, was a handy club racer and once got to test a Leyton House F1 car. The late Paul Frere was successful both as a journalist and as a racing driver, picking up a podium at Spa for Ferrari back in the mid 1950s though it could be argued he was a driver first and a journalist second. Nonetheless, it remains true that an awful lot of people writing about motorsport have very little experience, if any of actually racing themselves.

My own racing experience is limited to occasional racing of hired karts - the most serious of which were a couple of races in a local open-entry series for Honda Pro Karts based near Edinburgh. I'm sure it doesn't in any way compare to driving a powerful single seater, but I do think that racing karts, of any description, can help to give a lay person some insight into the racing driver's art.

For one thing, it gives you some understanding of why overtaking is so difficult. In a kart, there's no problem with turbulence, or dirty air, yet still it is no easy task to pass someone who is even a second or two slower a lap. Why? Because the guy in front can stick to the racing line - the fastest way around the track and being 2 seconds a lap quicker might equate to being only a couple of tenths quicker round any given corner, which is not usually going to be enough to get past if you're forced to go the long way around.

On the flip side, karting can give you a real feel for the pressure situation of having someone faster breathing down your neck, and looking for a way past. Now it seems to be turned around. Passing might seem very difficult when you're the one following, but when you're the one being hunted, it doesn't feel quite the same. Do you focus solely on the track ahead? Or do you keep an eye on where your pursuer is? Do you keep to the fastest line, or do you cover the inside line into slow corners, trying to block off the obvious passing opportunities? Again, when you have only 12BHP and are doing 50mph, it's all a lot easier than it is for an F1 driver, but it does give you an impression of why, even at somewhere like Monaco where passing is all but impossible in a modern single seater, having a faster car behind can put a driver under immense pressure. Mind you, I would say that, having twice spun out of the lead of a karting final with a quicker guy following close behind...

It is also possible to get some insight into what is often called racecraft from karting. Related to the point about overtaking, it is possible to unnerve whoever is in front of you by - as it used to be called - "selling a dummy" to him. Take a corner where the only way past is down the inside under braking. It often (but not always) pays off to try a couple of attempts down the outside on preceding laps to fool the driver in front in to staying out wide, leaving you free to take the preferred, inside line into the corner and take the position. It's a trick which I've pulled off myself, and one which I now recognise when I see it in racing (it tends not to work at F1 level, where all the drivers are wise to this sort of thing, but I've seen people pull it off in other categories of racing).

Another way in which karting can give an understanding of the world of the racing driver is in how physically exhausting it can be. I've heard more than a few people question whether racing drivers really need to be physically fit. How hard can driving a car for a couple of hours be? they ask. After twenty minutes in a kart, my arms were pretty much finished, last time I raced, and I felt shattered. Perhaps I'm just unfit? Maybe, but my team mate in that race, a keen triathlete and former Cambridge University athletics team member looked nearly as tired. Contrary to the opinion of the man in the pub, racing drivers do need to be in good physical condition.

Karting endurance races, too, have their own challenges which are in a way common to all forms of long distance racing. I took part in my first team endurance race last month (this in rather dull single engined karts). Our team did not have the quickest drivers, but we put our heads together early on and the most experienced guys on the team impressed upon the others the need to avoid losing time through spins or collisions. We were also careful to time our driver changes to avoid getting caught up in traffic where we could. In short, consistency was more important than outright one-lap pace. The result? We won by 209 laps to our nearest rivals' 207.

Kart 4

Indoor karting (actually one of my team mates during a recent 2 1/4 hour enduro race.)

In what other ways can karting give you an insight into motor racing? Well, one thing I learned the hard way was how much tyre temperature affects the level of grip you have. A few years back, after working up to taking a fast right hander flat out in a Honda Senior ProKart in the heats, I tried to do the same on the opening lap of the final, and slammed backwards into the tyrewall with considerable force (enough, as it happened, to break the kart's back axle). Which led to another little insight which anyone who has ever been in a car accident will likely already know. Crashes Hurt.

I'm not going to pretend that racing hired karts helps you understand what life for an F1 driver is like any more than playing knockabout football at the local park helps you understand the ins and outs of international level soccer, or entering a local fun-run gives you insight into what life for professional marathon runners is like. On the other hand, in the same way that someone who has played a bit of amateur football will have a deeper understanding of the game than someone who has never done more than sit on the couch in front of the TV with a beer on a Saturday afternoon, karting does give you more of an insight into the life of a racing driver than simply tuning in to the ITV coverage. With that in mind, I'm most intrigued by Alianora's recent moves to set up a motorsport bloggers' kart meet in January...

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Anonymous Alianora La Canta said...

Thank you very much for the insight into what racing a kart is likely to feel like. It's probably worth pointing out at this juncture that not only do I not have a driving license either (a long story of paperwork and money), but my sum total experience of racing is two and a half minutes karting at the American Adventure Theme Park...

Also, thank you for the link :)

4:40 PM  
Anonymous donwatters said...

Well put. Especially the awareness of just how inshape drives must be. As a long ago Formula Jr competitor, I find that's one of the things most "civilans" don't understand about the sport.

8:47 AM  

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