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.
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.
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.
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