Formula One has exploded in popularity Since the premiere of Drive to Survive, a Netflix docudrama centered around the sport.
The 2022 Miami Grand Prix was the most-viewed live F1 telecast ever in the United States, and an impressive 12 races set all-time viewership records.
However, many of these fans are new to the sport and might not understand its inner workings. Let’s look at how drivers get their start and evaluate the importance and value of youth karting.
What is Karting?
Most non-Formula One fans know what karting is. However, they likely know it as a leisure or recreational activity that people might participate in on a free Saturday afternoon. New Formula One fans will quickly learn that the youth karting circuit has been Formula One’s talent funnel for decades.
These programs are intense, but you won’t see online sports betting on these races. Karting is an amateur sport where drivers must pay their way to participate. Many, if not most, of your favorite Formula One drivers began racing at that level.
While guys like Max Verstappen entered karting with a strong racing pedigree, others like Lewis Hamilton represent rags-to-riches stories of talented drivers who made it on their own.
How Do Karting Drivers Get Started?
As noted, most drivers start on their own. Hamilton has spoken often about his background, starting when his father bought him a radio-controlled car as a five-year-old. When he finished second in a national British Radio Car Association championship the following year against adult competition, his father bought him a kart and began entering Lewis in races.
Most drivers get their start this way. They either build or purchase their kart and begin entering races. As they win, they garner the attention of team bosses who watch youth karting looking for talent.
The first time Hamilton met his future team boss, Ron Dennis of McLaren, he introduced himself, asked for his autograph, and told Dennis that he had just won the British cadet championship and wanted to race for McLaren someday.
How Do Drivers Take The Next Step?
Hamilton won his first kart championship at 10, but by the time he was 12, bets were already being placed on him to win a Formula One race in the future. It was clear to many that he was a supreme talent. However, most drivers are not like Hamilton, who is arguably the greatest Formula One driver of all time.
Most drivers work consistently in the youth karting ranks, hoping to be seen by the right person. The goal, ultimately, is to get a seat in one of Formula One’s feeder series. In 2014, The Federation Internationale de L’Automobile started the FIA Global Pathway from Karting to Formula One, a program designed to help drivers move from Karting to Formula One.
From this, Formula One teams developed driver development programs to find skilled kart drivers and help them grow by either funding them or giving them a seat in their feeder series teams. Haas is currently the only team without such a program.
Kart drivers can sign a contract with teams through these programs. The contracts don’t guarantee a future F1 seat but give them access to the team’s facilities and seat opportunities in Formula 3, Formula 2, and IndyCar.
Why Is Karting Still Important?
With the emergence of these driver programs, it might seem like karting is less necessary. However, driver programs have flaws. Many have criticized teams for low wages and unfair long-term contracts that are hard for drivers to get out of when a seat with another team opens up. Oscar Piastri’s drama with Alpine is one example of this in real time.
They are also criticized for favouring specific drivers and not giving equal funding, which is why kart remains important. karting is one of the most expensive, if not the most, among youth sports. In years past, drivers moving up the ranks thanks to their sponsorships and not their skill has become more prevalent. It is also the great equalizer, allowing drivers such as Hamilton or Esteban Ocon the opportunity to make it to Formula One without the funding of other drivers.
Karting is a true test of driver skill, unlike in Formula One, where the worst car on the grid couldn’t dream of competing with the best car. Some karts are better than others, to be sure, and drivers with more funding have access to better equipment. The difference in karting is less profound, allowing the most talented drivers to rise to the top.
The Future of Karting
Despite criticisms of the system, karting is working to be more equitable to all drivers and is still the best way to get involved in open-wheel racing. Drivers like Hamilton or Michael Schumacher are two examples of guys who moved up the ranks through sheer talent without extra funding.Karting is almost always where the most talented drivers prove themselves and find opportunities at the highest levels of motorsport.