Karting: Back to basics, but not really going a step back
Last week, I drove a kart. It was something I haven’t done for many years. Nothing exceptional in that, I’m sure you’re thinking. And you’d be right, were it not for the overwhelming impression it left on me. In fact I’d go so far as to say it was a bit of an epiphany.
I used to do a bit of indoor and outdoor karting back in the day, but never too seriously as it was always for a bit of amusement with a bunch of mates. Since then I’ve been utterly spoilt by having lots of fast road cars to set lap times in for evo, not to mention testing and racing all kinds of historic cars. Factor in a creaky back and a bit of pie-related success ballast and I’ve had plenty of excuses for steering clear of karts. What a fool I’ve been. All the big, sexy, noisy kit is utterly seductive and a massive ego trip, but as I recently rediscovered, the most enjoyable and rewarding thing with four wheels and an internal combustion engine is a kart. If this moment of revelation seems like an odd one, not to say a bit obvious, all I can say is sometimes it’s the best things that you totally take for granted or simply overlook.
Put another way, if you’re reading evo (at least the printed version) then you’re probably a thirty or forty-something. You’ve earned a bit of money and chased a certain dream. That might be buying a 911 to enjoy on the road, or honing a hot hatch or Elise or whatever to use as a weekend/trackday toy.
Kart’s the step up
There’s nothing wrong in aspiring to something you couldn’t afford when you were cutting your teeth in car ownership. We’ve all done it. But, for the price of a set of tyres and brake pads on your GT3 you could do years of arrive-and-drive karting, or maybe even buy a second-hand one and take it a bit more seriously. How ever you approach it I’ll guarantee you’ll be completely seduced by the driving experience, while not spending a packet on consumables will be a weight off your shoulders.
What I can also guarantee is that whatever you own, driving a kart is next-level stuff for sheer enjoyment. Not only that, but it will also massively improve your feel, technique and speed. This, too, may seem like stating the bleeding obvious, especially as the biggest cliché in automotive journalism is the phrase ‘kart-like handling’, but honest to God I’d forgotten just how good it is to spend some time driving your heart out in a kart.
My opportunity to rediscover the original thrill of driving came at the end of a media track test of a really rather serious race car. It was an impromptu decision, born largely from the fact the tests were done, the mechanics and other team personnel were bored and the circuit owner suggested we all blow off some steam at the adjacent outdoor kart circuit. We didn’t need asking twice.
Go-Kart-ing back in time
From the moment I stepped up to the kart and did that slightly awkward waddle as you grab the steering wheel and drop yourself into the seat I was wondering why I’d left it so long. The driving position is perfect and two pedals means you have to left foot brake, and no gears means you focus solely on your line and feeling the speed.
For the first few laps I was overdriving; big stabs on the brake pedal and too much steering input sending the little, low-slung machine zigging and zagging wildly, squandering precious forward momentum. Annoyed at my ham-fistedness I did what I should have done from the start and listened to what the kart was telling me, which was to let it do the work, but be ultra-precise and truly committed, on the brakes and on the power.
The process was so absorbing that the first session (I think it must have been 20 minutes) went in a flash, so I went straight back out for another go. With every lap I formed a tighter and tighter bond with the kart and the track, sniffing for grip and feeling for the sweetest line that presented the path of least resistance and maximum forward momentum. No road car comes close to the level of connection, nor the satisfaction from stringing a perfect sequence of corners together, no braking and flat on the throttle, perhaps save for the slightest lift just to induce a direction change. It was without question the simplest, purest and most magical time I’ve spent behind the wheel for many years.
We have reached a point in automotive history where the Aston Martin Valkyrie could realistically raise the bar for road car performance so high that it will never be surpassed. We’ve also reached a point where more people sit at home in their spare bedrooms racing online than have ever gone out and actually experienced what it is to drive a car (or kart) on an actual track.
Nothing against sim racing, or indeed Adrian Newey-designed hypercars, but I think there’s something rather wonderful about the fact something so simple as a glorified lawnmower engine mounted to a basic welded tube frame can still deliver the best driving experience you’ll ever have.