Thursday, November 03, 2005

T#3: Juan Pablo's got everything on me

Ever wondered if you could’ve made it as a racing driver? If only you’d been given the opportunity, had wealthy parents with an affliction for seeing their kids with their limbs in plaster, etc, etc. Well, there’s an easy way to find out: get a bunch of mates together and book a session of karting. It could be better if none of you have been karting before, but obviously if you have true hidden talent as a wheel-smith then what difference will it make – you’ll beat them all anyway, right?

Riiiight. It’s not quite so simple as that. I’ll admit, I did have a couple of two second fantasies about the possibility of me being really good at it, but to be honest even I didn’t take these very seriously. For starters, there’s a difference between never having been karting before and going karting for the first time in twin-engined prokarts on a kilometre-long outdoor circuit. Then there’s the fact we were going as a group of auto journalism students. Most of them had done some sort of karting before, including one – the guy who suggested it, funnily enough. I’ll call him Ayrton [thanks P.J.] – who used to do endurance karting with his dad. And if this is starting to look like a series of gaming excuses, I haven’t finished yet: we were booked in for the first half-hour race of the day at 9.30am on a Sunday morning, so not only was the track greasy with dew, but the slicks were freezing cold as well…

Still, how hard can it be?

Well, putting aside the dodgy track conditions and frigid tires, there’s the way these things are rear-engined, rear-wheel drive, have a wheel-base shorter than I am tall, and brakes – activated with all the finesse of your left foot – that only operate on the back end. Twitchy isn’t the word. The others were full of stories of dead arms after fifteen minutes from the weight of the steering, too. As if this all wasn’t intimidating enough the karts were also fitted with data-logging equipment so I’d get to see just how slow I actually was, and when we turned up there were other people in our 25-slot race wearing their own fire-proof overalls rather than the rentals. It was starting to look like I’d be nothing more than the archetypal mobile chicane. [Racing clichés ahoy…!]

At this point I’d love to be able to tell you that this wasn’t the case – that I made out ok, that I wasn’t fodder for the fast-boys (and girls). But after the five minute “warm-up” that allocated our grid position, the appearance of the numerals two and five on my digital display tended to suggest that I was on as steep a learning curve as I suspected. Yup, dead last on the grid.

On the other hand, my first five minutes of miniature motorsport had been fun – with a capital f-f-f-flippin' heck! The track was a bastard; I’d been determined to take it slowly in an attempt to remain on the proverbial blackstuff, but it was so slippery in places that just nudging the brake on the wrong line saw you spinning off into the crowd…I mean grass. The steering was pretty heavy, as advertised, but the kart wasn’t as quick as the twin-engines suggested – but then nor was it very progressive over the limit. Any sideshows in the circus tent of dreams about drifting through the highspeed turns like a flattened-out motorised ballet dancer were quickly dispelled – and this was while the track was still relatively friction free from the damp.

It wasn’t really necessary, but my spirits were never-the-less lifted when someone had an “off” on the parade lap. (I was later informed by my more closely positioned colleagues that he was trying to warm up his tires in proper – and ineffective – Formula 1 side-to-side swerving style.) So I’d already gained a place by the time I made the start. I even picked up a couple more in the opening laps when people more ambitious than me span. This usually happened under braking – the karts being ridiculously easy to tweak into a backwards=forwards position if you locked them up, a rotation that took about half a second less than it took to realise your mistake. But that was as good as it got. I ran 23rd for a spell. Out of 25. Question and answer over: I was never cut out to be a racing driver.

However, it was such a laugh. I was grinning so much my rosy cheeks risked popping out the visor. Getting overtaken by one of the chaps in personalised racing attire meant all the fun of trying to keep up – from which I gathered not only was I being murdered by stopping distance, but also that they knew how to carry far more speed through the corners. I got better though, I think, as the race went on – leaning harder and harder my micro-McLaren, and learning just how many liberties you could take with the track, cutting chicanes, running the curbs. And there were times when I became so immersed in the interaction between kart and circuit that racing myself became a very intense experience. It’s telling that these were only moments, the difference between me and the hardcore who are actually good at it. But by the end of our half-hour I was getting use to my little machine, which – once the slicks were up to temperature and the track drying out – was more than capable of blurring vision and performing seemingly impossible acts of direction change and adhesion. I passed under the chequered flag wanting to go half an hour again.

I finished a happy last. Hands up anyone who’s surprised? I apparently provided plenty of entertainment for the others, though – having picked a helmet with a distinctive sticker on the back meant that everyone knew exactly who it was exiting the track stage-left in front of them. I spent the majority of my time facing clockwise on an anti-clockwise circuit with a bunch of maniacal wannabe racing drivers bearing down on me, waiting for a) the accident, and b) the marshal (read: 15 year old karting ace earning pocket money) to come to my rescue.

But my fellow ajs did a great job of making up for my deficiencies. Ayrton finished a non-too shabby sixth (behind all the guys with their own overalls), only a second off the quickest laptime set by the quickest driver – who not incidentally beat second place by quite a margin. He was the only one of us on the same lap as the leader at the end. But even Aryton was fallible: passing one of my colleagues for the first time he waved cheerfully as he sailed by – and then promptly span out at the next corner.

We were karting at Daytona in Milton Keynes:


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