Forget The Track, Head to the Go-Kart
By James Wong
Ever since I got my driving licence, I aimed to improve my driving abilities by getting into motorsports. But as I’ve realised from my dwindling savings account, this is by no means a cheap hobby, especially when it involves a road-going car of your own. I have been to the Sepang International Circuit (SIC) in Malaysia for a few times now, but I have to cut down because of the prohibitive costs involved. I signed up for various driving courses but I am limited by two things – my age and again, money. Most driving courses require a minimum age because of insurance issues, and since they’ll be providing the cars (assuming that they do in the first place), you’re paying for the wear and tear of their cars as well. Where does that lead me, an enthusiast who just wants to learn how to drive a car fast, properly?
Well, for those who haven’t had a dose of go-karting, don’t dismiss it just yet as child’s play. I have to admit that I adopted this attitude when I first head about it. Go-karting? Isn’t it the same as those bumper car rides that we go for at theme parks? Fortunately, with an open mind I went for my first karting session at Singapore’s first purpose-built go-kart facility at Kartright Speedway and never looked back. Firstly, I stand corrected – it is definitely no child’s play. And secondly, go-karting gives first-class, VIP access to the sort of driving sensations and situations that you can only get in something close to a race car. And you know what, because karts are so lightweight, simple to service and serves the sole purpose of racing on the track (negating any need for fattening itself for road use), they are wicked fun. And, if you go for the faster karts which I had the privilege to do, you’re certainly in for an exhilation that is akin to a drugged-induced state (not that I ever took drugs). I really feel a tinge of regret that I did not get into this sport at an earlier age when I had more time to hone my skills.
Singapore’s go-karting scene did not really take off only until recently. Unlike in the US or other countries where they are huge indoor go-kart tracks, we had no such thing. There are facilities for go-karting but it never did catch on because of the poorly-maintained backyard tracks as well as the limited karts available. With the advent of Formula 1 hitting our streets in recent years, interest in motorsports blossomed. The recipe concocted proved to be sizzling. Expensive taxes on road cars meant people were looking for an alternative means to enjoy driving. More and more folks were interested in getting behind the wheel of something – anything – but they had little means to do so. The influx of wealth and expertise from the F1 influence also made motorsports a more widespread phenomenon. That led to the permanent go-kart track and now, we’re building a Grade 2 world-class track circuit that can host MotoGP and Japan’s Super GT races. Schools are incorporating go-karting into the curriculum. It’s amazing how quickly we’ve progressed.
Just recently, I drove up to Johor Bahru in Malaysia to the Plentong International Karting Circuit to try out what is touted as the country’s longest go-kart circuit. The full circuit measures 1.433km and allows speeds of up to 160km/h (99 mph) to be achieved. However, what was available to us on that day was ‘Track B,’ which is a shorter version of the full thing, which measures a total of 1.035km. Apparently, the full track is not opened to the public because of its dangerous layout which often catches novices off-guard.
I went several rounds in the slowest kart (and also the cheapest) but cheap does not mean you cannot have fun. Even at a relatively leisurely pace the base karts felt really fun to drive round the track because driving sensations are magnified as compared to road cars. You sit really low to the ground, so there is a low centre of gravity. There is no power steering, nor any electronics for that matter, to corrupt the relationship between you and the tarmac. Brakes are as primitive as they can get, with only the rear wheels getting some bite, so you have to be disciplined with your braking. Throttle response is poor but I don’t really care as I tried to wring out as speed as possible in the corners to keep the engine on boil. Steering is heavy, but you get a feeling that this is probably what it feels like back when cars were a lot simpler and – consequently – more raw. It is all these things that make go-karting as raw an experience as it can be. Best of all, it is not the cost that keeps you from going more and more rounds – it is the exhaustion from all the excitement that will wear you down at the end of the day.
Plentong is a wonderful track to learn driving on, but I couldn’t help but feel I was going slower than I really should be. I suppose I still have a lot to learn, because like on the track with a car, the fear of spinning out or crashing is still there. But at least on the go-kart track, doing so is less costly. Although, I must admit that the safety aspect of go-karting is always overlooked. Before I went out to the track I was made to sign an indemnity form that relieved the owners of the track from any responsibilities should anything unfortunate happen to me. On the same day, someone also crashed and had to be brought to the hospital. Crashes on the go-kart track happen more often than people think, although common sense will ususally ensure that damages will be minimal and non-fatal. For instance, do not follow too closely to the kart in front and be wary of your surroundings. But sometimes, even observing such good habits might not help correct a driver error, which was what happened to me when I brought a good friend’s kart out to try.
First up, let’s talk about his prized kart. It is the Zanardi KZ2 – Zanardi is an Italian kart builder and the KZ2 runs a Rotax Max 125cc engine that is good for 28.5hp. That may not sound like much but believe me when I say the kart is flippin’ fast. The kart was used by its former owner to race in the Rotax Max Grand Finals 2008 in Italy, La Conca. When I heard that I had the opportunity to try it out on the Plentong circuit, I had to ask my friend several times just to make sure. It was a dream come true, especially when all the karts I ever tried before were the slowest rental karts. The KZ2, upon closer observation, showed itself to be a true racer. From its disc brakes front and rear, lap timer, radiator to cool the engine and one big exhaust pipe snaking to the rear it is plain to see that this is no ordinary kart. I am not too familiar with karts but even I can tell that this is something special. I slipped my helmet on and sat into the seemingly small seat, which after some contortion grabbed the body like in a roller-coaster seat. Except, in this instance my ribs had a real possibility of breaking so I wore a rib protector. After a short briefing and familiarisation of the controls I was off with a start of the engine (it starts with a push button).
The KZ2 has a peculiar procedure (to me at least) in that its accelerator and brakes cannot be depressed at the same time. It would damage the clutch, so throughout the laps I was conscientiously making sure that I did exactly that. Once I got that sorted out, I realised that the front brakes were activated with an additional paddle shifter-like lever on the steering rack. Since on the normal karts I was only using the rear brakes, I thought it was sufficient for the KZ2. But oh boy, I was so wrong. But more on that later.
The KZ2 sat a lot lower than the rental karts, so when it moved off from the pit I had to go at a crawl but the bottom of the seat still scrapped the floor. Once on the track a long straight was presented to me and like anybody who has a lot of power on tap, I floored it to get a feel of what 28.5hp feels like. And to be honest? Before the second wave of power came at the higher rpms, the kart already felt insanely quick. Lighter and more agile on its feet, the kart felt like a true weapon, one honed to attack the track and is merciless. Once hitting the power band where an extra surge of power brought the car into a frenzy, the car simply flew into the horizon with a mix of its superbike-like noise and raw power pulling close to nothing. It is so quick that you don’t have much time to plan your next move on the track, you just have to do it instinctively. That sort of power is awesome, but also scary when put into the hands of an inexperienced driver. Corrupted with the power, I happily entered a hairpin at speed but then somebody in a slow kart was going into it at a crushingly slow pace. Afraid that I would hit the kart, I braked moderately but the rear instantly snapped. I released the brakes but within the split second I decided that it was better for me to spin off than to hit the kart, so I hit the rear brakes again while I conveniently forgot about my front brakes. So, as a natural progression of things, The rear brakes bit and the car went sideways, coming into a forgettable stop along the grass at the side of the track. There was no drama and I am glad nothing worse happened. It happened so quickly that I didn’t have much time to think about what to do. After that I retired back to the pits afraid that I went above my capabilities, but I am thankful that certainly taught me a lesson. At that point, I realised that every minute on the track, you learn something new. So there’s no shame in making mistakes. I certainly have to thank my friend greatly for the opportunity to try a competition-standard kart, and then being all accommodating about it after I spun off in it (he never spun off before, by the way).
In conclusion, go-karting seems to be the stepping stone to competitive driving and is an excellent starting point for any car enthusiast. The fact that F1 heavyweights like Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton all got their start from karting speaks volumes. It is a reasonably affordable sport that I would encourage anyone to try. Who knows, maybe you might find your inner Hamilton that might just be the tip of an iceberg to a illustrious motorsport career.