Amid the usual convoy of interviews conducted before the British Grand Prix at Silverstone last weekend, it was of some interest to listen to Lewis Hamilton discuss the merits of Jenson Button, his fellow Briton and the man who is likely to replace him as the Formula One world champion before the year is out.
Hamilton explained how Button had been on the button since his formative years, a status that owed much to his sport's introductory sphere of karting. Hamilton was speeding through the elite levels of karting when Button was debuting for the Williams F1 team a decade or so ago. Hamilton last year became world champion in his McLaren, but suddenly the world championship leader Button, a combination of brain and brawn for Brawn GP, is the man he is again pursuing. It is a chase he may have relished more in karting.
Hamilton and Button are drivers whose place in Formula One is borne out of the karting scene. "It all starts in karts" is a savoury little soundbite of one English karting firm, whose graduates include that lantern-jawed Scot and winner of 13 F1 races, David Coulthard. It does not all end in Formula One for most aspiring drivers. Not when trying to get a ride in Formula One seems about as likely as predicting the butterfly effect.
In listening to the stories of figures on the periphery of F1, one learns there are different chicanes to get one's self into gear in a fast car. Luca Badoer drove in F1 in the early 1990s. He apparently burst into tears when he was among the points at the European Grand Prix in 1999 only to see his Minardi conk out. He is now the third driver with Ferrari, at times sounding in conversation like a testy test driver, behind the chosen ones of Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen. He has an assured gait that one would associate with an F1 driver, but seems happy enough with his lot and, one guesses, his lolly.
Visiting the Emirates recently to promote "Karting in the community", which was sponsored by Mubadala, on a makeshift track at Abu Dhabi's exhibition centre, Badoer outlined the importance of karting as the origins of F1. With testing in F1 banned during the season by the powers that be, Badoer seems like a guy with time on his hands, even if the PR people who run such events would rather stick tape over his mouth when the thorny issue of F1 budget caps and Ferrari's future in the sport rears its head.
"The test driver in this year has a lot of holiday time because the tests are forbidden. I don't know if this will be the future," says Badoer. "Karting has been vital to so many drivers, so this is a chance to give something back to the community. As an Italian, I am very proud to represent Ferrari." Formula One is not as simple as football, so getting strapped into a kart does not seem like a bad place to start for an aspiring F1 driver wanting to be seen and heard in selling the finer points of one's self to a wider audience. Or at least in the past when there was not the danger of the sport splitting down the middle, and heading in the same direction as darts or Kerry Packer's cricket series.
Karting seems like a million miles from the FIA and the FOTA squabbles, the scratching over who owns what in F1, and the threat of the wealthier teams making a permanent pitstop and veering off in a different direction. There is no need for political positioning in karts, apart from on the track. There is a famous tale about Hamilton, then aged 10, speaking to Ron Dennis, the McLaren team head, and telling him he wanted to race for him before he was out of karts. The rest is history. Hamilton, now 24, carted off last year's F1 world championship.
Michael Schumacher won seven F1 world titles, but keeps in touch with his roots by racing karts. His dad built him a kart at the age of four and he was able to get a licence to race them at 14. BMW's Polish driver, Robert Kubica, owns a karting firm. Like Schumacher, he was initiated into the ways of racing at the age of four and won the Italian Junior Karting championship in 1998. Brawn's Rubens Barrichello probably felt as much of a sensation when he held off Massa and Schumacher at a charity karting event in Brazil last year.
Such men start out as boy racers and undergo a gradual transformation, honing their skills and moving on to Formula One. And then there are the adult boy racers, men like Christophe Hissette. The Belgian Hissette is a UAE karting champ several times over, and is competing successfully in the Radical Euro Masters with his Canadian co-driver Bassam Kronfli. Hissette is a firm believer in the karting to F1 learning curve.
"I think karting is very important," he says. "It teaches people the basics, stuff like how you pass people on a track. You are always going to get people who will try to block you in any race. When you look at a guy like Hamilton, you see a driver who sees a chance to pass and just goes for it. That is something he learned in karting. Not many F1 drivers of recent years actually do that. Schumacher used to do it, but Raikkonen just seems to sit there, and waits for pitstops before making his move.
"You don't have to do karting to get into F1. You look at Bruno Senna [the nephew of the late Ayrton]. I think he started four or five years ago now. He was in Formula Renault, and moved up to F3 and into Le Mans. He had the name, but he still had to prove himself. There are exceptions to the rule, but most of it comes down to talent. Karting is a good place to learn." Badoer echoes those views. "Karting is very important to develop drivers in F1, because when you are less than 18 years, you can drive only the karts," says Badoer. "Every child who wants to try to become involved in motorsports must start with the go-kart. It's a perfect formula to improve, for normal life, not only for the race.
"I had a special time when I was go-kart driving. It's still a very nice experience to step into karts, and spend some time. I started with the go-karts when I was 14, and when I was 18 I went to Formula Three before I did one year in Formula 3000 where I won the championship." When asked about Button's season, he does not offer the most hospitable of answers. "Last year, Button was finished, but this year he is going to be champion. That means the car is everything. If you have the car, you can be world champion, " says Badoer. "If you are a good driver and you have the car, you have the opportunity. This is the case with Jenson."
Karting has no such issues. Formula One may be going to hell in a handcart, but the sport at ground level has plenty of room to manoeuvre. email@example.com