Some time during last year’s Edinburgh Festival, I agreed to take part in a go-karting championship. With two fellow old boys from Edinburgh University Motor Sport Club, hereafter referred to as Scott and Steven, I was to tackle a series of monthly races in which the three of us would share the driving over the course of five ninety-minute endurance events. The championship was open to all and sundry, and would be held at an outdoor track in East Lothian. I say I ‘agreed’ to take part as if doing so risked some kind of hardship, but in light of my enjoyment of driving and the potential for banter, it would be disingenuous to claim that much coercion was required to secure my participation at the time.
I was keen enough to throw my hat into the ring from the off, but as the first round drew nearer apprehension built. I had been a respectable enough karter back in the day, but that had been six years previous against a bunch of weighty rallyists who preferred driving on gravel and got spooked out by smooth surfaces. What if I was slower than everyone else? What if I kept spinning off? What if the other drivers were nutcases that wanted to ram me off the road and then start a fist-fight in the paddock?
Arriving for the first race, I could see this was in essence the karting equivalent of Sunday League football. Variations on all the key elements were there. There were the folk with excessive gear – personalised helmet designs and hundred-quid race gloves, the Adidas Predator boots and luminous tape of racing. There were the people who could clearly compete at a much higher level – drivers who had ‘raced at Knockhill’, the karting equivalent of the guy who used to be on the books at Hearts. And there were the pros with a whiff of the corporate about them, the ones who have exactly matching uniforms and jackets whilst everyone else settles for something vaguely the same shape and colour as their crewmates. It rapidly became clear we were the guys who, if we were a football team, would train by kicking a ball around the Meadows once a fortnight and would all take a turn in goals during the games.
We might not have started with the mindset of serious competitors, but the Sunday League mentality soon dictated otherwise. As anyone who’s ever played amateur football will know, all of this business about talking yourselves down and saying it’s all about the banter and having fun doesn’t last. You get out there and you immediately start to believe you could be the greatest player ever, given the chances. In the pit lane, the second the visor goes down you become the most naturally talented driver there’s ever been – it’s just that the circumstances you’re faced with never allow you to show your true potential. There have been times when people have gotten so wrapped up in this mindset that they actually start to feel sorry for Fernando Alonso and his plight at Ferrari. It is therefore only natural that as soon as you get out the kart, you have to make sure your teammates know why you aren’t leading the race by twenty seconds. In the case of our team, the list of unfortunate circumstances preventing us from winning was very long. The sun was too low in the sky. It rained for a few laps when the tyres were still cold. The guy in front was taking a really weird line. There were two slow karts blocking the track. The brakes are rubbish. There’s something not right with this kart. Etcetera. Etcetera.
As it happened, we finished our first race a respectable fifth, and somewhat fortuitously got onto the podium in a frantic second race. On the whole we were in the mixer, which allowed me to relax a bit and enjoy the whole racing spectacle. Three drivers sharing one car is something I love seeing in motor racing, with the tactics over who’s going to do which stint, the changes in pace and the variations in driving style. Whenever it got near to my turn to get into the kart, I fancied I could hear the Mackem tones of John Hindhaugh from Radio Le Mans in my head, the muted drone of high-revving engines coming over the airwaves behind him. “And we’ve got a driver change for the number seventy six Porsche coming up. It’s Scott Doo-glas getting out of the car, and Leslie Mah-bon who’s getting in I think”. In the spirit of the mid-grid teams that do Le Mans, our team had two quick drivers and one less quick driver. I, unsurprisingly, was the less quick driver – except that unlike most of the slower drivers at Le Mans, I wasn’t bringing any sponsorship to be there. I wasn’t even bringing anything useful to the team in terms of logistics and sustenance, Steven eschewing my bottled water and cashew nuts in favour of a polystyrene tray of chips from the grill indoors.
One thing I and my teammates took a while to get used to was the nature of the racecraft in these open events. All of us were graduates of the Edinburgh University Motor Sport Club school of driving, which in terms of wildness lies somewhere between the British Touring Car Championship and the dodgems at Kirkcaldy Links Market. As such, we were used to a style of racing – and I use the term ‘style’ loosely here – whereby if someone had a chance to punt you off, they would. At EUMSC events, if you tried to outbrake someone slower than you into a corner, they’d turn in to force you onto the grass. Likewise, we’d collectively spent the best part of twenty years believing it was perfectly reasonable to prepare at every bend for the eventuality of a karter coming spearing down the inside to t-bone you into the boondash. Here, by contrast, folk were much more sensible. It took a good few races to realise that if you had the run on someone down to a hairpin, they’d leave space to let you make your move; or that if a faster racer was coming up behind, they’d bide their time and get past when it was safe for everyone to do so. I even had a rival racer put his hand up to apologise – yes, apologise – after nudging me into the final hairpin. So shocked was I that I backed off thinking he had a problem, and ended up letting someone else through as well.
Whilst my outright pace and overtaking ability weren’t up to much, it turned out I did have one highly-developed racing attribute – spotting things that were happening off the track. Just like Formula One drivers who sometimes find out about things happening during the course of a race by watching the big trackside screens as they whizz past, I became very adept at looking out for things going on in the environs around the circuit. On one occasion I surprised my teammates by coming in a lap early during qualifying on account of the fact that, whilst negotiating a hairpin and driving up a straight, I’d watched one of them emerge from the Portakabin and walk round to the pit wall with the lap board tucked under his arm to flag me in the following lap. This over-alertness did, however, nearly cause me to come a cropper in a subsequent race. With the sun low in the sky, I came round the final bend to see the silhouette of Scott standing atop the banking to my left, his arm waving up and down in what appeared to be the international motorsport symbol for ‘slow down, there’s been a crash!’ As I moved for the brake pedal, Scott stopped waving up and down and began to flap his arms uncontrollably, which only made things worse because it convinced me there was some kind of disaster and I had to stop immediately. I stomped on the pedal and the kart skidded forwards, pitching itself towards the perfectly kart-sized gap between the tyres at the edge of the track. Regaining control centimeters before I shot off into the grass, the kart hauled itself round the corner to find a completely clear and safe track. Scott had been talking to Steven about the need for Manchester United to keep the ball low and make the best use of their creative midfield talent.
As the races wore on, I adjusted to proper racing and was able to commit to overtaking with a bit more confidence. Occasionally with too much confidence, as when I held my line through a fast left-hander and ran one of the Kartforce chaps into the tyres, but confidence nonetheless. Another side-effect of racing with quicker teammates and concentrating on keeping good lines rather than outright speed was that I became very adept at building – and maintaining – Trulli Trains. The culmination of this was an epic four-kart train that lasted the entirety of my final half-hour stint in the last race of the calendar, during which time I did in my knees and my back to hang on to third place and bring our wee team its second podium of the season. In true Jarno Trulli spirit, I wasn’t even trying to keep people behind me either, just pottering round the track at my own mundane pace in a manner that prevented anyone whatsoever from getting past.
We finished the season fourth in the championship, missing out on a top three finish by a solitary point. Although we didn’t win a round outright, we did come in the top-three on two occasions, coincidentally both times our ‘reserve’ driver Finn was standing in for Scott. From a purely personal point of view, it was rather satisfying to be able to jump in a kart having barely driven at speed in the last few years and perform respectably against folk that are spending a lot of time – and in some cases a fair bit of money – on their racing. It hammered home to me just what a big difference seat time pure and simple makes to one’s driving performance – even after only a few races, I saw my times coming down as my confidence increased. Will I be back next year? I’d love to if I can make the logistics work. Do I think I’m getting more serious about this racing lark? I hope not, but perhaps subconsciously I am. Will I be buying my own helmet? No chance. Well, not until I’ve perfected my repertoire of excuses at least.
The KartForce guys we were up against were a seriously impressive bunch, racing as part of a very worthy cause. I wholeheartedly recommend you have a look at their website to find out more about their work – http://www.kartforce.org/