For young drivers hoping to build a career in motor racing, karting is the first step on the ladder.
Every current member of the Formula 1 grid started out in karts. The same is true for most professional drivers across the globe.
It is the sport at its purest: no energy recovery systems, no DRS, just flat-out racing a few inches off the ground.
For young competitors, this is no game. It is an essential part of their racing education, the foundation for everything they will do later on.
But while karting has long provided a proving ground for future Formula 1 talent, in the past there were other routes to the top. Gilles Villeneuve developed his incredible control aboard snowmobiles, James Hunt cut his teeth in Mini racing, while Damon Hill’s early exploits were on a motorcycle.
Today, the path to F1 has become increasingly streamlined. Most drivers start in karting between the ages of eight and 10 and are racing entry-level single-seaters by their mid-teens. If they’re ever going to reach F1, they’ve done so by their early twenties.
There are exceptions. Max Verstappen was an F1 driver by the age of 17, but he’d managed to complete an extensive karting career and a season of Formula 3 beforehand. Brendon Hartley entered F1 via sportscars at the grand old age of 27, but he raced karts and junior single-seaters just like everyone else. These are mere variations on a theme. It’s hard to imagine a Villeneuve or a Hill making it to F1 in the 21st century.
“CAN’T YOU FIND A CHEAPER HOBBY?”
There is no disputing that karting provides a fantastic grounding in motorsport, but it is the start of a hugely expensive process.
To simply get up and running you need thousands of pounds. To be competitive you’ll be looking at spending tens of thousands. Advancing into single-seaters means spending six-figure sums, and if a driver gets all the way to Formula 2 they’ll need to bring a budget in the millions. At no point in this process are they being paid and there is zero guarantee of any kind of return.
These costs create near-insurmountable barriers to progressing up the ladder. The bills are often paid using family money: Lance Stroll’s father is estimated to have sunk $80 million into his son’s career, and while that’s at the high end of the scale, he’s by no means alone in spending huge sums on his child’s racing. At least Stroll Snr. saw a return on his investment when Lance reached F1 this season. Many never do.
Some young drivers find sponsors to fund their development, but these tend to yield relatively small amounts of money. It is extremely rare for a company with no personal connection to the driver to spend millions on helping them reach the top. Family links are required, which again reduces the talent pool.
Then there are driver development schemes – Red Bull’s is the most famous and successful – but the spots on these are few and far between. More to the point, it still requires a major investment to show them that you’re good enough. Red Bull typically pick up drivers once they’re in single-seaters, meaning huge sums have already been spent. It is extremely rare that this initial investment would come from anyone but the driver’s family.
What other sport costs so much to simply start out in, before you even know if you’re any good at it? Anyone can play football. All you need is something resembling a ball and a surface – preferably flat – on which to kick it.
But to begin a career in racing requires expensive equipment and trips to specialist circuits. The sport is extremely complex and daunting for parents, who need only read up on the potential costs of their child’s new hobby to be put off for life.
And so the drivers vying to break into F1 today represent a tiny fraction of those who might possess the skills to do so. There’s no denying that they’re talented, determined and brave. But they are a small group who came from the right background and had parents willing to invest in them.
As a talent pool, this one’s on the shallow side. Might there be an alternative way to uncover the next big thing?
VIRTUAL RACING, REAL ABILITY
One potential proving ground that has been championed in recent years is the ever-expanding virtual world.
Sim racing is immensely popular. With the rapid development of software and the popularity of online competition, it is only getting bigger.
And while the kit required to race online is not as cheap as a ball and a pair of boots, it can be done at a fraction of the cost required to make an impression in karting.
We already know that the gamer-to-racer transition works following the success of GT Academy. Using the Gran Turismo series of games as a proving ground, this Nissan-backed programme selected talented virtual racers to develop into real-world drivers.
Several of its graduates continue to race at a high level, with Jann Mardenborough the best known. The Brit showed such ability that he was placed on the F1 development ladder, winning in the GP3 Series and competing against future grand prix drivers along the way. He’s currently racing in Japan’s high-performance Super Formula category.
This year F1 heavyweights McLaren have embarked on a similar experiment with the help of Darren Cox, the man who led the GT Academy project. Together they launched World’s Fastest Gamer, a talent search that brought together top drivers from the sim racing world with the promise of an incredible prize: a contract as McLaren’s simulator driver in 2018.
From 30,000 entrants, a final 12 gamers got the chance to impress a panel of judges that included Cox, McLaren boss Zak Brown, and the team’s test driver Oliver Turvey. On Tuesday, Rudy van Buren, a 25-year-old sales manager from the Netherlands, was unveiled as the winner. He’ll work alongside Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne throughout the 2018 season.
McLaren aren’t messing around for a bit of extra publicity. Driving their simulator is a major job and they’ll demand professional standards from Van Buren.
If one of F1’s biggest teams is willing to use sim racing as a talent identifier, getting a gamer on to a grand prix starting grid is the next logical step.
Cox is a firm believer that there is genuine talent in the virtual world. Given his experience with GT Academy, you can see why.
Mardenborough in particular shows what can be achieved. That his ability was first spotted in a video game is no longer relevant: he’s a pro like the guys he races against each weekend. He has never looked out of his depth in top series like GP3 or European F3 and has been able to compete against and beat drivers who have been racing since they were eight years old.
The problem was not talent, but age. Mardenborough was 20 by the time he won GT Academy and 22 when he debuted in GP3. Many of his rivals were still in their teens with five years of single-seater experience behind them.
So let’s be realistic: we’re not going to see a twenty-something gamer taken straight from rFactor to a spot on the F1 grid. This is about using the virtual world to identify talent, then developing it on a real race circuit.
For such a transition to work, a driver would need to be discovered young. These days most will make the switch to single-seaters in their mid-teens so ideally a gamer would be unearthed by the age of 17. Remember that Villeneuve had done no racing whatsoever at the same age.
They could then be schooled in entry-level single-seaters, put on a rigorous fitness programme, and developed into a professional. If they performed on-track they’d move through the same series as any other driver.
Now 26, Mardenborough competes against drivers who had a 15-year head-start in the sport. Had he begun his development a few years earlier, perhaps he could have gone even further. That should be the target.
Of course, you can’t learn everything in the virtual world.
Discussing this with a few professional drivers, all saw karting as essential. For them, it was where they learned to race. Everything since has been a case of refinement, of honing skills that were forged on kart tracks.
Perhaps some of that could be caught up on. But there are some things that just can’t be simulated.
Even as an eight-year-old, drivers will work as part of a team. It doesn’t matter if that means a skilled mechanic or their dad looking clueless with a spanner in his hand – it teaches a fundamental interaction between them as a driver and the people who work on their machinery.
The human element is crucial. You meet people at kart circuits – racing people, the very same kind you’ll meet again and again at every level of the sport. You learn that some are to be trusted, others to be treated with caution.
And karting isn’t always fun. Try getting drenched by a sudden downpour in first practice and having no spare overalls to change into for the rest of the day’s racing. Try driving eight hours to a circuit only to be shunted off on lap one.
The fundamental understanding of the sport that karting develops can’t be replaced. Any driver discovered in the virtual world would need to overcome this.
AN ALTERNATIVE ROUTE
Karting will rightly remain the bedrock of motor racing. It’s where kids fall in love with the sport and develop countless essential skills.
But as you climb the ladder it becomes prohibitively expensive. Talented young racers drop out and those who progress are not necessarily the best, but the best who can afford it.
So why not use the virtual world to identify talent? After all, it would provide F1 teams with a significantly bigger pool from which young drivers could be discovered. There’d be no obligation to hire anyone and if they managed to find a new Hamilton or Vettel it would pay for itself.
Motor racing is about innovation. Much of what we consider normal today was once a bold new idea that only a handful of people believed could work. Perhaps it’s time to try something new in driver development.
Gaming should not replace karting as the first step into motor racing. But as an alternative, it is certainly worth exploring.