Kart before the horsepower

Some of the world’s greatest drivers first honed their skills in go-karting – one of the most financially accessible forms of motorsport

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Kart before the horsepower

Great racing drivers are fortunate in the combination of physical strengths and hand-eye coordination that they are born with. But they also need to develop those abilities. And in the fiercely-competitive world of top-flight motorsport, that means starting early in life.

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So how does one get from parent-propelled hopeful to Formula One cockpit? Very often, via the thrills and spills of racing go-karts.

These tiny four-wheel machines offer speed, fun and adrenaline – just like the bigger open-wheel classes in racing – only much more cheaply.

Kart racing began in the 1950s in California and its combination of low cost and simple machinery instantly won it a following. Before long the GoKart Manufacturing Company in America had become the first firm to set up a kart production line, using an adapted McCulloch chainsaw motor for power. To drive one of these no-frills machines was easy, but to drive one well was a challenge. And to win races against other closely-matched karts required a mastery of vehicle control – such as how to control slides – as well as a good grasp of race tactics.

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The winning ingredient
In a little more than half a century, kart racing has grown into a global sport, with a wide variety of machines catering for everyone from children aged eight, or even younger, to adults – and the fastest classes seeing speeds of more than 155mph (250kmph). But tight regulations governing how karts are built mean that the focus has stayed on driver skill as the key winning ingredient.

Regulations have kept the machines simple, too. A typical kart has a tubular chassis, a single engine behind or alongside the driver and a chain drive to the rear axle. There’s no suspension. Only the most sophisticated karts have bodywork. And, unlike cars, there's no mechanism to allow the driven wheels to rotate at different rates – so when rounding corners, a kart's inside wheel has to slip over the road surface. 

At first engines were adapted from other uses – such as generators or pumps. But over the years an increasing number of motors have been built specifically for karting, and motorcycle engines from manufacturers including Yamaha and Honda of Japan have become mainstays of some classes of racing. 

A kart start
Low costs compared with other forms of four-wheel motorsport mean that karting has blossomed into a hobby that nurtures and develops young driving talent. Formula One racers who started in karts include Lewis Hamilton, Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel. 

As such it’s similar to motorcycle racing, where many of the most talented riders of road circuits came from a background of racing motocross bikes as kids – and used the skills they learnt on loose surfaces to go faster on Tarmac.

Karts, because of their size, can use scaled-down tracks – meaning that a raceway need take up little space, and all-weather racing is possible using indoor kart tracks in old bus garages or former warehouses. 

Internal-combustion engines – two-strokes that use premixed gasoline and oil for fuel, as well as four strokes – are not the only option. Electric karts are popular for inner-city and indoor road courses, many of which do triple duty as serious raceways, entertainment centres for groups of people who see an opportunity for some friendly rivalry and places where children can learn about driving before they take to the road. 

Youngsters who find that they have an aptitude for this brand of close-to-the-ground, tyre-squealing motorsport can find a number of junior racing leagues that keep the speeds down and the safety high by restricting engine power outputs.

Superkart power
If they are good enough, they can progress to high-speed machines powered by two-stroke geared engines putting out 100 horsepower – such Superkarts, which have fearsome power-to-weight ratios, and can challenge Formula 3 racing cars for lap records around some full-size circuits.

Kart racing’s main event is the Karting World Championship run by the Commission Internationale de Karting (CIK) which joined with the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). There are CIK-FIA world titles for two classes of engines – the OK and the KZ – and in 2016 these were won by Spain’s Pedro Hiltbrand and Italy’s Paolo de Conto respectively, with finals taking place in Bahrain and Sweden. The world OK Junior title went to France’s Victor Martins.

But karting is not only about racing and high performance. Leisure go-karts, often with plenty of safety features such as remote engine cut-outs, are a staple of amusement parks and offer children a first experience of driving in a safe setting.

So in just a few steps, petrolhead kids can go from pretending to be their parents at the wheel of the family car to following in the tyre tracks of their motor racing heroes. At a cost that just possibly may not cripple their parents’ finances.

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