Wednesday, 9 March 2016

A long hard look at the Elite Karting League

Round 1. Whilton Mill, 6 March 2016

Mothering Sunday, 7.55am. In a leafy corner of Northamptonshire, Mother's Day seems to have been cancelled - or at least postponed. More than a hundred sons and daughters have forsaken their elders to spend the day tearing around a greasy strip of tarmac in a fleet of even greasier four-wheeled rollerskates. There are a few long-suffering mothers about; I imagine an outing to Whilton Mill wouldn't have been their first choice of Mother's Day treat.

I'm keeping my guilt in check. I've sent her a card.

Perhaps Mother Nature is punishing us all for our transgression: the sun is shining - for now - but the cold is trying to bite through two layers of thermal underwear. The pitlane tarmac sparkles; every surface on the twin rows of silent karts looks dusted in icing sugar. 

This feels like my debut in the Elite Karting League, the pan-UK championship run by Bob Pope and his Teesside Karting team. But it isn't; I joined the Newmarket Hornets team last September for the round at Clay Pigeon in Somerset. I have never written about that day and never will, not because of the karting - which I remember little about - but because 5 September 2015 ended horribly, with my newly pregnant wife and a friend seriously injured in a freak road accident. Six months later, she is on the mend; while I race outdoors for the first time since, she has strict instructions not to leave the house.

So for me, this is a reset. EKL day 1. In the paddock, it takes me all of ten seconds to spot familiar faces, though - my British 24 Hours team, Corporate Chauffeurs, effectively joins the EKL for one weekend a year at Teesside. And there's a scattering of British Rental Kart Championship refugees about - Matt Curtis, Jordan Donegan, Connor Marsh, Rhianna Purcocks, my Hornets teammate Kyle Power... I'm pleasantly surprised to run into Ryan Smith and dad Neil, who have made the long journey down from Dunbar.

The EKL format is unusual in that it combines sprint and endurance races into one event. Teams of three or four drivers share an hour's practice, twelve sprint heats and a two hour endurance race between them; points from all the races are added together.

The teams are named for their home towns - Bristol Bandits, Coseley Cougars, Northampton Maidens, and so on. The Newmarket Hornets, run by Carl Vella, is one of the founder EKL teams and has morphed into a behemoth: today, seven driver crews will race under the yellow and black banner.

I met several of the regulars last year: Kyle, Steve Dodds, Dan Hemmings - but many of the faces are new to me. As the typical race morning flurry - signing-on, briefing, changing and (most important) acquisition of coffee and bacon butties - begins to settle, I'm united with my teammates for the day. I'll be racing with Tim Marangon and Jonathon Seekings, neither of whom I've met before. We're the Mighty Hornets, number 59, the least experienced of the Hornet crews. Tim is a circuit local, but I've only raced here once before and Jonathon will be turning his first ever laps here in practice. 

In classic sprint event style, every team is allocated a range of grid slots from front to back over the 12 heats, giving everyone an equal shot at glory. For simplicity we elect to rotate our drivers through the heats. I'm third in the lineup, meaning I will race in heats 3, 6, 9 and 12.

By 9.30am, the engines are clattering; we find number 59, load it up with a perfectly-formed 2kg lead disc (one of dozens smelted by the multi-talented Kyle Powers) and send Tim on his way. We'll each have 20 minutes to dial ourselves in before the mayhem begins.

Although the weather is dry, the circuit is cold and damp; it's a voyage of discovery for those first out. By the time I take over from Jonathan for the final 20 minutes, the laptimes have come down to around the one minute mark - still several seconds away from fully dry pace.

My only previous experience of Whilton Mill is a soaking wet day in Club100 2-stroke karts. I know which way the corners go, but that's about it. In 20 laps I learn the basics: hold on tight and take turn 1 flat; brake late and hard for Christmas corner, the highest point on the circuit; brake early and gently for the downhill right-hander at Ashby; turn in late for the tricky left-right at Chapman; turn in ridiculously early for the Boot, which leads into the final two corners.

At Teesside, the failings of the cumbersome EKL karts are partially masked by its fast, flowing layout. But they're brutally exposed here. Within two laps I find myself reminiscing about the (relatively) balletic old EKL fleet used until 2014.

The engines and brakes are strong, but the extra 25kg in this newer chassis makes itself felt in a front end that stubbornly refuses to go where it's aimed, and a rear that snaps into oversteer if you try and pivot the kart into slower corners with a rapid flick of steering input. It's as if the front and rear halves of the kart weren't designed to be attached to each other. Cold tarmac is a contributing factor, but the balance is poor.

When I return to the pits I'm shocked at the reading on the weighbridge - over 245kg with a quarter of a tank of fuel. My seat insert is still set up for the BRKC, so I'm a little over the 85kg minimum limit for drivers - but the maths doesn't add up. My understanding of the EKL rules is that driver and kart combined must be over 235kg at all times, and drivers must weigh 85kg. But if I took all the lead out of my seat and stripped naked, I'd still be over 235kg in the kart - while weighing significantly less than 85kg on my own. So which rule applies? When I query it, nobody seems to have an answer.

As the heats get underway, I'm forcibly reminded of the lack of downtime on an EKL race day. Contrary to something like the BRKC, where you often wait for hours between heats, here there's barely time to ingest calories. And in a three-man team, all of us need to be on hand at the end of each race, to move our numbered Nassau panel to the correct kart on the grid for the next heat. It's chaotic, but it works: the Teesside staff are efficient and faffing is kept to a minimum. I'm pleased to see karts being swapped from front to back, to stop the inevitable migration of the fastest machines towards the sharp end.

I'll be starting 4th, 5th, 18th and 19th (out of 25) in my heats. I'd prefer to save the higher grid positions for later heats, but no matter. As the race director - whom I recognise from the British 24 Hours - blows his whistle to get heat 3 rolling, things nearly go pear-shaped for me straight away. The right engine stalls, the field streaming by as I stutter towards turn 1 on the formation lap. I manage to reach the pullcord without stopping, coax the engine into life, and regain my position on the rolling grid before we exit the final corner. The drivers to my left seem to bolt a moment before the lights on the gantry blink green, taking several others with them - but the driver in front of me hesitates. Stuck behind him, I lose three places instantly. I spend eight laps chasing hard and take the chequered flag in 7th place, less than a second behind the driver in 3rd and slightly annoyed at the baulked start. 

There's barely time to gulp half a bottle of water before I'm on again, starting 5th in heat 6. This time I'm luckier at the start and nick a place on the run up the hill. But there the luck runs out. I'm struggling for pace, dropping half a second to the leaders and vulnerable to attack from behind. I hang on until halfway around the final lap, but am powerless to stop a three kart train streaming past. 7th again. But I'm not actually driving too badly, and the racing so far has been much cleaner than my hazy memories of Clay Pigeon last year.

So far.

In my final two heats I learn that there are two mindsets in EKL. If you start in the top eight, you drive with commitment and respect for your fellow driver and the rules. If you start any further back, you drive like a red-misted loon on a stag do. From 18th on the grid I spend a very long 8 laps being shoved, rammed and squeezed; drivers barrel into non-existent gaps, brake-test each other and generally ignore the basic rules and etiquette. I'm not sure what the marshals and stewards are doing, but they certainly aren't paying any attention. It's a sad excuse for a race.

Heat 12 gets underway in a hailstorm, which is a first for me. Not surprisingly, it's like driving on ball bearings. People spin off on the formation lap. My left engine stalls and I'm forced to jump out. But it won't fire; a marshal comes to my aid and gets it going after 10 or so attempts, by which time the field is almost at the final corner. I have no chance to take up my 19th position on the grid, and am 10 metres from the back of the field as the lights go green. 

Still, I keep it on the road when many others don't, pick my way through the carnage, and have made up around 10 places before somebody either runs out of talent or decides to use me (rather than the left pedal) to slow down for Ashby. I'm hit hard from behind, the kart pirouetting through ten metres of grass and mud, and bouncing off the tyrewall. It takes me and a marshal more than a minute to haul it back to the circuit, by which time I'm a lap down. 

My teammates have had a similarly mixed time in the heats - including a disqualification for Jonathan, for being 0.1kg underweight (but over 235kg in the kart). We're a glum threesome as we prepare for the endurance race - which, we learn, has been extended to 2 hours 20 minutes. The Race of Champions (a 20 minute race for a cash prize) has been scrapped, and the time added on to the endurance.

Our spirits are lifted when Jonathon qualifies a good 7th; at last, a chance of a decent result. But we fall victim to another EKL oddity: the karts are not refuelled before the race start, which means everybody starts with differing amounts of fuel. And when you arbitrarily lengthen the race, it's quite likely that any team with less than half a tank of fuel at the start will have to make an extra fuel stop.

In the end, we lose a whopping 8 laps to the leaders. We're far from the fastest team in the field, but more than half of our deficit is the result of a second stop for fuel, plus a litany of misfortunes in the pits. Stalling engines, lead weights that weld themselves to the chassis, and my personal favourite - the sight of our kart jammed in the tight fuel bay exit. By the time I take to the circuit for the final 45 minutes there's little left to fight for, but at least the circuit is dry. I concentrate on extracting some sort of pace and consistency from our unwieldy beast, whose sloth-like handling is further hobbled by a steering wheel that looks big enough for a Transit van. Given the way it corners, that's probably apt.

By the time the chequered flag falls, I've managed to set our team's fastest lap of the day and bank some useful mileage for the British 24 Hours, so it isn't a total loss. The Newmarket Hornets are a friendly, welcoming bunch and it's a pleasure to have joined them again. In fact, the EKL as a whole is better natured than you might expect, given some of the antics on track.

But it's a difficult championship to take seriously. Some of the rules are inconsistently applied or downright unfair, kart parity is less than brilliant and driving standards are shoddy. At nearly £140 for a total of just over 90 minutes on track it isn't conspicuously cheap, either. It's a friendly day's racing with good variety, but for serious rental karters it leaves a lot to be desired.

Photo: Connor Marsh Racing

Photo: Connor Marsh Racing

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