Practically every F1 driver on the grid today has his roots in karting. This is a well-known fact. But the kind of karting these drivers have learnt the ropes on is something that most Indians are, unfortunately, oblivious of.
Almost all commercial karting facilities in India run four-stroke karts. Cheap to run, low speeds and safety is what makes this format of karting hugely popular all over the country. However, the real stuff is two-stroke karting. Extremely powerful, light in weight, these are pure thoroughbred racing machines. All F1 drivers have come up the ladder, with their foundations laid in miles and miles of track time in such machines.
There is no doubt that if one wants to make it big in racing, two-stroke karting is the place to be. India now has a very competitive two-stroke series — the JK Tyre FMSCI National Rotax Karting Championship.
Now in its 10th successive years, all international racers coming out of India since Armaan Ebrahim, have their roots in this series.
While India needs to catch up on numerous fronts, there are many things we have done right over the years. To begin with, the JK Tyre National Karting Championship (four-stroke) ran for five years from 2000.
It created enormous hype for racing and, importantly, it happened in major cities. This brought the sport to the masses in a way never witnessed before.
The very cheap participation cost — Rs. 300 — put it well within the reach of the common man.
This laid the seed for countless families getting involved with the sport and that popularity of karting carries on even today in India. While it did a lot for the sport, its biggest limitation was that no driver could really jump from there to international karting (two-stroke) and be successful.
Thanks to the National Rotax Championship, today we have a good two-stroke series and this is the reason why we have more Indians racing abroad than ever before.
The karts, engines, tyres, regulations, etc. are all exactly the same as abroad. This makes it very easy for an Indian driver to start karting in India, train in India, gain experience here and then, once ready, go international. This very approach has been the reason why drivers like Jehan Daruvala and Khush Maini have been impressive at very competitive levels of karting in Europe.
Cheap operating costs, is the biggest advantage for Indians at the moment. While equipment and spares cost much more in India thanks to high import duties, two-stroke karting in India is still probably the cheapest in the world.
This also makes good training in India possible, and drivers who lay their foundations in the current system, find it easy to race abroad at least in terms of speeds and equipment, which is practically the same.
Some catching up needed
The most catching up that Indians need to do is in terms of handling high-grip tracks. Due to the large entries in races abroad, a lot of rubber is laid down on their track during an event.
This creates a lot of grip on the circuit and Indians (and Asians) typically find it hard to adjust to this high grip, because Indian tracks rarely ever have rubber laid down due to much smaller grids. Indians have never lacked the talent or ability.
Proof of this is that whenever Asian-level karting races have been held in India, an Indian has always won the senior category race, beating top Asian drivers. Lack of good karting infrastructure and facilities, is the biggest drawback we face today.
The writer is eight-time national champion in Formula racing and go-karting and owner of Team Rayo Racing.