Putting the kart before the horsepower

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Stirling Moss, Jackie Stewart, James Hunt, Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill - every one a British Formula 1 World Champion. So why shouldn't I give it a go?

Well, after a few phone calls, I discovered that you have to have a track record of success before they let you drive a vehicle worth pounds 500,000 at 200mph.

So what's the next best thing? For someone who thinks they have the stuff, but not the experience, of a champion, there's only one thing to do - get behind the wheel at your nearest karting circuit.

"If you look at the current F1 grid, around 60 per cent of the drivers started their careers in karts, including Michael Schumacher," explains Martin Howell, managing director of PlayScape Pro-Racing in Battersea.

"In the past, karting wasn't so much of a leisure activity and, before about 1980, there weren't even circuits that you could go to. This entry level to motor racing was so difficult to get into and no one knew where to start. But now you can start here and take it all the way through - if you've got the talent."

Admittedly, the world of karting is far removed from the glamour of F1, but on the Battersea indoor track, surrounded by banks of old tyres and with the engine buzzing, it's not so hard to imagine that you're at Silverstone.

Though considerably slower (these karts reach speeds of around 35mph, high-performance machines which race outdoors about twice that), the design of the karts is similar in principle to F1 cars. They have the same short and wide chassis, slick tyres, positive steering, and low, hard-riding suspension.

Enyer Maya (who holds the Battersea track record) explains how everything works. The kart has no gears (handy if you've never got around to actually taking your driving test) - just an accelerator and the all-important brake pedal.

I had lured my mate Dominic along because I wanted someone to beat. But things didn't quite go to plan. When driving, the first thing you notice is just how quickly the kart picks up speed. The second thing you discover is that a hard stamp on the brakes through a corner will send you into a spin.

I struggle for a few laps trying to get the feel of the vehicle while Dominic laps me at regular intervals. In nearby Battersea Park there are toddlers in prams travelling faster than me. Enyer stops me and advises me to brake before I start to turn into a corner and not to accelerate and brake at the same time. Right.

After 20 minutes, we take a breather. Studying my lap times (averaging 1.5 seconds slower than Dominic's), I wonder whether my F1 calling should be limited to listening to Murray Walker.

Enyer walks us around the course, marking out the driving line we should be following and where and when we should be braking.

The technical side of racing becomes my main focus when we climb back into the karts. Skill and concentration are required to hold the driving line. When trying to overtake, you drive aggressively and wait for the car in front to make a mistake. But when you know that a kart is right behind, you feel the pressure.

The result of all this struggle is pure exhilaration and, surprisingly, extreme fatigue. By the end of the session, I've improved my lap times and even managed to overtake Dominic a couple of times (I even ran him off the track, Michael Schumacher-style).

"Over the years we see guys with Porsche 911s come in here, but they have no idea what happens to a car when you go through a corner or how your tyres grip," says Martin Howell. "Hopefully they go away with bit more knowledge about what happens when you try to go quickly on four wheels - it's a steep learning curve but it's also addictive." And safer than a 911.

PlayScape Pro-Racing, Hester Road, Battersea, SW11 and 390 Streatham High Road, SW16 (0171-801 0110 for both venues) pounds 18 for 30 minutes' driving

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