Motorsport commentator Jake Sanson gives Feeder Series his insights into how to become addicted to karting – a sport which is much more important than most motorsport fans actually realise.
By Jake Sanson
The sport of karting is quite unique to any other discipline of motorsport. It’s not only where many drivers start your motorsport journey from as young as 6 years old, but it can also be where they to choose to spend the following six decades competing in.
Some drivers see it as the stepping stone to Formula One, others as a thrilling hobby and others still as the true pinnacle of the sport. It is the very fact that all three of these schools of thought are correct that makes the sport so enthralling to watch.
Ayrton Senna once named his karting rival Terry Fullerton as his greatest ever competitor in racing, and similarly Lewis Hamilton named his karting opponent Niki Richardson as his.
Karting the only form of racing that has Formula One junior academy competitors racing alongside amateurs and veterans, sometimes 2 or 3 times their age. Every week, there is always a race meeting of some kind going on somewhere in the world, as drivers hope to climb the ladder and be talent spotted.
In light of this, Feeder Series has decided to publish a guide to karting – the races to watch, the drivers to focus on, the classes that will guide a champion to the best car route possible and where you will likely find Formula One’s stars of tomorrow.
FIA Karting Championship
This is the Formula 1 of karting. There are two categories of racing at the pinnacle of karting: direct drive and gearbox – also known as OK and KZ.
Lando Norris became OK world champion in 2014, whilst Max Verstappen had been a KZ world champion the year before. It was the first stepping stone for both men to progress to Formula One.
As the FIA title suggests, it is the highest accolade in the sport and racing here means you are amongst the best of the best. Winning a championship in the FIA paddock makes you part of motorsport history forever.
In fact, 18 of the current 20 Formula One drivers came through FIA Karting, with several of them winning either a European or World title in junior or senior.
FIA Karting championships are promoted by RGMMC and broadcasted live on Motorsport.TV and on the FIA Karting YouTube and Facebook channels.
OK is the current premier direct-drive category of karting – where the term ‘direct drive’ refers to the kart being driven solely by a throttle and a brake pedal. OK has a junior category for drivers aged 11-14 (OKJ) and a senior category which racers can jump into in the year they turn 14.
Most of the competitors that want to move on to F1, IndyCar, Formula E and Le Mans will choose to race in both of these categories. They will be particularly determined to win the European Championship, which takes place over four weekends, and the World Championship, which is a one-weekend stand out event that is very similar in format to the Indy 500.
Drivers can race for a team or independently, but the teams will always have more strength – not only in numbers, but also in experience. In fact, 2023 will be the first time there will be a team prize awarded at the end of the season.
OK replaced the KF classes, which themselves were known as Intercontinental A (ICA), for which there was also a junior category. ICA was the era of Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel, highlighting the strong correlation between this category of racing and Formula One.
In gearbox or KZ, the driver will also change gear and reach a higher top speed with a higher rev limit for the engines. It is arguably the scariest and most brutal form of racing at this level, but it is also the ultimate karting prize – if you win here, you are the best in the world.
Drivers may opt to race in the KZ or KZ2 categories (the latter for drivers 5kg lighter than the KZ elite) for a year or two before stepping up to cars. This is a strategy that has worked for both Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc.
Most drivers who race in KZ are perfectly capable of handling a Grand Prix car, but the realities of climbing the ladder can often prove to be intense. At this stage, a lot of racers decide that karting is their permanent home, and KZ really is their Formula One.
KZ teams and manufacturers are largely based in Italy, but there are also others from Scandinavia, the UK and elsewhere in Europe. Some F1 drivers even have their own karting product which drivers often choose to race with, such as the Lando Norris, Ricciardo, Kubica and Leclerc karts in recent years.
Starting in 2023 there are also OK-N and OKJ-N classes, which are aimed at encouraging new talent for an affordable budget to an OK-N/OKJ-N World Cup debuting in 2024. Several nations have already signed up to a nationwide campaign, including Italy, France, Australia, Spain, Poland and Denmark.
Drivers will also usually have two karts at their disposal in case of a dramatic change in weather or a big accident damaging the chassis, in a similar manner to MotoGP.
Prior to 2007, KZ was called the Super ICC class in 2007; this in turn replaced the Formula C category, which traces its roots back to 1974 at FIA level.
Champions of the Future
At the request of the karting teams, RGMMC – the promoters of FIA Karting and the IAME Euro Series – elected to run Champions of the Future (COTF), a series that ran two weeks before the FIA event at the same venue.
Since 2020, COTF has been populated by FIA drivers in OK and OKJ who use the weekend as a training tool. Drivers run in the same equipment, same category and in the same teams as they would in the FIA weekends.
Imagine the Formula One drivers are allowed to do a non-championship points scoring event at Bahrain two weeks before the Grand Prix, so that they can gain extra practice; this is precisely how the drivers and teams treat COTF.
The term was originally coined back in the 1990s in Britain when McLaren were boosting the profile of their new karting sensation Lewis Hamilton by running a series called the McLaren Mercedes Champions of the Future – nowadays, COTF events run across Europe.
This year’s events will be particularly interesting to watch as the European Championship rounds will take place at four circuits that have not been used before. Drivers will be itching to race here in order to gain the upper hand over their counterparts.
Due to the nature of karting’s home nation – Italy – WSK Promotion have the largest non-international grid of OK, OKJ and KZ2 racers anywhere. With the teams and manufacturers largely based in Italy, it was never unreasonable to assume that Italy would have the best and fastest national grid of OK and KZ drivers.
There is a full calendar of events with all races taking place in Italy. With five different competitions starting in January and ending in November, you never have to wait too long for a race in WSK!
Whilst WSK is not an official World or European title, the drivers know that in reality, this is a proving ground for drivers at OK and KZ level wanting to work towards their ambition as a Formula One driver. The pressure may not be as intense on the driver as on the FIA Karting weekends, but the quality of the racing and the level of competition is fairly similar, if not identical.
WSK also runs a Mini 60 category for the youngest competitors in Europe, aged 8-12, to get their first taste of international competition. This is permitted because the WSK Promotion is based in Italy and can therefore run the series as a national event. Drivers will often move to Italy to be closer to the teams, allowing them to pursue a WSK season in full.
IAME and ROTAX
One level down from OK and KZ, there is a massive debate as to whether IAME or Rotax is the better path to take. The best way to describe this is like choosing between racing Ferrari Challenge or Porsche Supercup.
In theory, if you race in X30 (IAME) or in Rotax Max classes, you can attain good driving skills at national level and then race the same equipment overseas too. With an X30 Senior chassis, a driver can race in local, regional, national and international events; the only thing that changes will be the level of competition.
Both IAME and Rotax have a world final in the autumn, which is formed by awarding tickets to standout drivers in regional and continental events. For example, a driver who wins the IAME Winter Cup or the Dubai O Plate in Rotax will win a golden ticket to the grand finals in the autumn.
Drivers can start here from the age of 8 at national level, and from the age of 6 in Bambino and Micro categories in local and regional events. IAME and Rotax are more affordable alternatives to OK and KZ, with drivers able to make a strong career racing here and potentially bypass the European Championships altogether.
Recent examples include Ferrari Driver Academy member Oliver Bearman and recent Formula Regional Middle East race winner Mari Boya, who both stepped up to cars after winning in IAME instead of finding the budget to compete for the FIA Karting titles. Choosing which series to race can often come down simply to how comfortable drivers are in the machinery or how affordable it is to compete.
IAME and Rotax refers to the brand of engine. The classes – Mini, Inter, Junior, Senior and Masters – are usually denoted by the age of the competitors. Drivers race in IAME and Rotax across Europe, North and South America, the Middle East, Africa and across Asia and Australasia. Simply put, you’ll find IAME and Rotax racing on every continent.
There are also other engine builders on a smaller scale running categories on similar platform such as ROK, Tillotson and TKM in various areas of the world.
Of course, there are plenty of karting categories at national and regional level – too many for us to keep on top of them all – but I can assure you that most karting paddocks of organised race events have at least 12 Formula One worthy drivers that did not have the funding to make it all the way to the top.
Watching the events
Here’s a quick crash course in how a karting weekend works. Thursday is usually given over completely for practice, with drivers often out on track for 4 to 5 sessions over the day. These usually last from 10 to 15 minutes.
Then comes qualifying. The first qualifying sessions, which are rarely televised, usually last between 6 to 8 minutes, with drivers will be separated into their own qualifying groups.
Each driver will have anywhere between 3 to 6 qualifying races where they add points to their tally based on finishing positions. Where you finish is how many points you score. Like in the world of golf, the competitor with the fewest points is the one with the greatest advantage heading into the finals.
The final will be a thrilling combination of tyre strategy – as drivers have to look after their new set for often twice the length of the qualifying heats – and thrilling race craft.
There will often be as many overtakes in one final as you’ll see in an entire race weekend in Formula One, with every driver on the grid hoping to show the world that the Grand Prix paddock is where they truly belong!
There are also occasional one-off events worth keeping an eye on, such as the Trofeo Ayrton Senna in Brazil, the Supernats in Las Vegas, the Trophee Kartmag in France and the Trofeo Delle Industrie and Andrea Margutti at Lonato – but that’s when you risk delving into the addict realms of watching the sport, where the true hardcore geeks like me dwell.
Getting involved in karting
For those who are wanting to race themselves and want to do so on an affordable budget, your best bet is to look at the Tillotson T4 Series or head to your local karting circuit. There will almost certainly be details for where to go to compete, or who to speak to in your local area about getting into karting.
Don’t forget that it’s never too late to get started. I have just acquired my first official competitors licence – and if I can start now, so can anyone!
2023 karting calendar
Below is a calendar of major karting events to look out for this year. The most notable of these are the FIA World Karting Championship finals, which take place from September 7-10 (KZ) and October 5-8 (OK).
Header photo credit: FIA Karting