Skids, slides, bumps and shunts

Alister Morgan goes karting and gets a taste of life in the F1 fast lane. But don't mock the 35mph top speed - it's how racing aces start out
NOW THAT the Formula 1 season has drawn to a close motor sport fans have been forced to look elsewhere for high-speed entertainment. Motor-racing commentator Murray Walker may have the contacts to arrange a quick spin in a Maclaren Mercedes F1 car but for mere mortals getting away first at traffic lights is the closest they will come to a real racing environment. While driving skill and gargantuan amounts of money are essential to earning a F1 ride there is a racing format available to the general public with a considerably more forgiving criteria - karting.

Before you dismiss the activity as child's play you should consider that former World F1 champions Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher were all kart champions before graduating to the grander make of car. Quite simply, this is where aspiring racing drivers of any age should begin.

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

Playscape provides indoor karting facilities and offers the perfect place to begin your serious karting education. In addition to being completely impervious to the changeable British weather, it has trained kart driving instructors on the staff and electronic timing equipment to detail your lap times.

"In the past karting was not such a popular leisure activity; there weren't circuits that you could go to before 1980," said Mr Howell. "Motor racing was difficult to get into and no one knew where to start. Now you can begin 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 Formula 1, but with the indoor track framed by old tyres coupled with the sound of engines buzzing it's easy to imagine that you're at Brands Hatch and not Battersea Bridge. In addition to providing a basis for young drivers to display their talents, prospective drivers should note that the most important thing about karting is that it's fun and accessible to all levels of expertise.

After donning racing overalls, helmet and receiving the obligatory safety lecture we're off - four drivers all heading for the same narrow corner. In the chaos that follows there are plenty of skids, slides, bumps and shunts into the tyre wall. F1 cars are so expensive that contact is avoided at all costs. But karts are built with hefty bars at the front and the rear to prevent widespread damage.

Mercifully, the Playscape karts are considerably slower than their F1 cousins. They can reach speeds of around 35mph while F1 cars can top 200mph, but they share the same basic design principles with short chassis, slick tyres, positive steering and low suspension. Anyone can drive a kart. With no gears (just an accelerator and an all-important brake pedal) it's a simple matter of pressing the pedal and steering. The kart's low suspension keeps you close to the floor which has the effect of heightening your sense of speed.

Behind the steering wheel 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 during a turn will send you into an ignominious spin. A speed of 35mph may not trouble the sound barrier but on this miniature circuit you're driving to your limits - absolutely flat out. After my first few laps I'm struggling to maintain a consistent speed, and an overwhelming feeling of frustration builds up as I'm overtaken time after time by other drivers.

Enyer, one of the instructors, stops me and advises me to brake before I start to turn into a corner and to try to avoid pressing the accelerator a nd brake at the same time. Since he holds the current lap record on this circuit I decide his advice may be worth heeding. He walks the drivers around the course marking the driving line that we should be following in addition to when and where we should be braking.

The technical side of racing becomes my main focus when I climb back into my kart. A considerable amount of skill is required to hold the driving line and it's essentially a mental battle between yourself and the other drivers.

Even within the small confines of the indoor track there are some hairpin corners, narrow chicanes and fast straights. You can instantly feel when you've made a flying lap but just when you think that you have mastered the intricacies of the course you completely lose the driving line, brake a fraction too late into a hairpin and lose all your momentum.

When trying to overtake you drive the kart aggressively, waiting for the car ahead to make a mistake but when the boot is on the other foot and you realise that a kart is right behind you, driving becomes quite pressured. The end result is very exhilarating and, more surprisingly, it is extremely tiring.

"Over the years we have seen guys who drive a Porsche 911 come in here but they have no idea what happens to a car as you go through a corner or how your tyres grip," said Mr Howell. "Hopefully, they go away with a 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."

After familiarising yourself with indoor circuits the next challenge can be found on outdoor tracks. There are more than 30 permanent kart circuits in the UK offering bigger, more demanding tracks and the chance to test your skills in all kinds of weather conditions.

Karts may all look alike to the uninitiated but there are many racing classifications for individuals who like to race: beginning at 60cc Cadets through to the 4-stroke engine 160mph Formula Es; the power and speed of kart racing increase as drivers become more experienced.

Any parents hoping to nurture the next F1 champion should start as early as possible. There are plenty of driving schools that specialise in kart racing in addition to race classifications that restrict the amount of funding that can be spent on racing; that way you won't have to re-mortgage your house to give little Damon a headstart to the chequered flag.

For more information on kart racing, contact the RAC Motor Sports Association (tel: 01753 681736) or the Association of British Kart Clubs (tel: 01926 812177). Playscape Pro Racing, Battersea Raceway, Hester Road, Battersea, London SW11 and 390 Streatham High Road, London SW16 (tel: 0171-801 0110) - pounds 18 for 30 minutes.