It’s a well-known fact that most (if not all) F1 drivers started their racing career in Karting. However, it’s hard to say who, of all those currently in the circus, was the best. So I tried to put some science behind it, and came up with a top-10 list of the best F1 driver on a go-kart. List that with the arrival of Max Verstappen on the F1 scene is bound to be revised.
But let’s see the findings of this article realized and published in February 2014.
(Article by S.Murtas)
As the saying goes, Karting is the purest form of motorsport (a now-recurring phrase introduced by the master himself, Ayrton Senna).
So here lies the dilemma: Of the drivers currently racing in F1, who was the best on a go-kart? Impossible to judge, you might think, if not by personally motivated opinions. Well not quite…
The thing is that the idea of finding out who was the best kart driver has always been quite intriguing, and stirred my curiosity to the point that I had to make some research!
To me, it made perfect sense to analyse some stats relative to the time Hamilton, Alonso etc. started to make their first steps up the motorsport ladder. But to make such analysis somewhat credible, I had to ensure no personal preference came into play, finding as impartial, ‘scientific’ a method as possible that could help judging each driver based on results and stats. Therefore, each result, win, podium and years of experience in karting was awarded a score.
And as happens at all levels of the motorsport ladder, also throughout their Karting career some drivers stood out more than others.
So guess what, the two-time F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso ended up topping the list, even if by a small margin, over his eternal rival Lewis Hamilton.
FERNANDO ALONSO (FERRARI)
Crisp talent already in the local races when he picks up his father’s passion for motorsport; the Spaniard’s history is similar to that of many others: couldn’t really afford a sport like this, but he has a rare talent and great determination for this sport. Nando, backed by Genis Marcò and his mentor Mauro Pozzi, soon shows his skill in international racing. After three national titles in the Junior class and one as vice-champion in the Cadet class, in 1995 he has a first taste of international karting at the Margutti and in the Cadet World Cup (then known as the Five Continents Cup) where he grabs 3rd, title won in the Junior class in 1996. In that same year, he takes another national title followed by those he won in 1997 and 1998, the year he has to settle for vice-champion in the FA European Championship, his last important result before moving to FSA class and car racing in 1999.
Total Points: 35 (a: 6; b: 0; c: 6; d: 14; e: 9)
- LEWIS HAMILTON (MERCEDES)
His British Cadet Championship title in 1996 and other wins, like the top finishes in the Junior class from 1995 to 1998 with Martin Hines’ Zip team, pushed him right in the international racing scene in Senior. 1996 was a very important season for him, as he gets spotted by McLaren boss Ron Dennis, who hands him over to mentor Dino Chiesa (Crg team manager back then) for the new MBM team at the end of 1999. Winning the FA European title in 2000 and the World Cup in Suzuka the same year on a Crg/Parilla – the year before he was on podium of the JICA European Championship and grabbed the win at the Industry Trophy – define his karting career at international level. Four years of top level international karting made him a winning driver, paving the way for success in single-seaters.
Total Points: 34 (a: 12; b: 4; c: 3; d: 8; e: 7)
- JULES BIANCHI (MARUSSIA)
Born in 1989 – and standing out in his Formula 1 debut season despite his car was anything but competitive – Jules is a born champion of the new generation who takes advantage of a very intense karting schedule. National French Champion and European Junior vice champion at his second international season (2004), 3rd twice at the Margutti Trophy (2003-2004), vice-champion (2004) and champion (2005) of the Copa Campeones ICA in Spain, and Asia-Pacific Championship winner that same year. He just missed podium at the 2005 World FA Championship due to a technical issue, and then a masterful race at the World Cup in Suzuka in 2006 cement his legacy after having grabbed 2nd place at the Winter Cup and 3rd place at the Italian Open Masters that same year. Absolute class, but lacks the European title Lewis can boast!
Total Points: 34 (a: 0; b: 4; c: 18; d: 6; e: 6)
KIMI RAIKKONEN (FERRARI)
You’re born “IceMan”, you don’t become “IceMan”. Already in his karting days, Kimi Raikkonen, under the watchful eye of 1980 World Champion Peter de Bruijn from 1997 on, was known to everyone as an introvert, but at karting tracks all over Europe he was fantastic. Clean driving style and his cool approach to racing left a mark, one that however hasn’t allowed him to enter the CIK-FIA Hall of Fame. Lots of good placements (2nd twice in the Junior Raket Cup, a 3rd place in the ICA Nordic Championship in 1995, two national titles in 1997 and 1998, European FSA vice-champion and Nordic Championship winner in 1998, 3rd at the Monaco Cup in FA, and a national vice championship title in 1999) enabled this “private” driver with no financial backing to stand out. Harald Huysman and David Robertson, two successful talent scouts spotted him and took him straight to Formula 1 in just two years from his last race in Karting.
Total Points: 30 (a: 0; b: 4; c: 9; d: 10; e: 7)
- JENSON BUTTON (MCLAREN)
Born in 1980, Jenson belongs to the older generation, he raced against real Karting legends like Danilo Rossi, Massimiliano Orsini and Davide Foré, not to mention Jarno Trulli and Giancarlo Fisichella who he was to challenge him later in Formula 1 too, beating them on several occasions. Like in his last season in Karting in 1997, when he won the European FSA Championship, which was considered the ‘university of karting’ back then, after having finished 2nd in the Winter Cup. He comes close to getting the FA World title in 1995, and grabs 3rd at the Suzuka World Cup and the North American Championship in ‘96. He too takes two national titles at the start of his career, completing his CV as a perfect kart driver, from Cadet to FSA class.
Total Points: 29 (a: 6; b: 0; c: 12; d: 4; e: 7)
- SEBASTIAN VETTEL (RED BULL)
A rather short history in Karting for the four-time F1 World Champion. His experience lasts only 5 seasons, three of which at international level, as he doesn’t even step up to Senior classes. Seb’s karting experience ends at 15, when in line with the new trend, he moves on to single-seaters. The karting record of the German star certainly isn’t anything like the others, but he does have a Junior European title to his credit won in 2001, a fantastic year when he also won the Monaco Kart Cup and the national title, also grabbing 3rd in JICA at the Winter Cup. Results that, together with a podium place in JICA at the 1999 Industry Trophy and several regional wins, make of Seb a worthy representative of this sport. Had he continued for another season (or two), he would have certainly achieved more success.
Total Points: 23 (a: 6; b: 4; c: 6; d: 2; e: 5)
- NICO HULKENBERG (FORCE INDIA)
Nico starts racing in Cadet class at national level in 1999; he makes his debut in the international circus in 2000 and stands out both in the Open Masters and the Green Helmet Trophy. The following year he wins the Open Masters in JICA class and then grabs 2nd place in the Green Helmet Trophy. In 2002 he retains the Open Masters title and gets his first German Championship, which he doubles the following year in FA. His long-term collaboration with Crg lasts until 2004, when he closes his experience in karting with a 2nd place in the national championship.
Total Points: 23 (a: 0; b: 8; c: 3; d: 6; e: 6)
VALTTERI BOTTAS (WILLIAMS)
Never under the international spotlight, the Finn is however a brilliant driver who stands out from the rest, but mainly in his country, where from 2001 he takes part in the national championship getting 3 titles and a 3rd place in ICA Junior, ICA and FA. To his credit, he also grabs a 2nd place (2004) and a title win (2005) in the Viking Trophy, followed by two rather unlucky participations in the World FA Championship.
Total Points: 22 (a: 0; b: 4; c: 3; d: 8; e: 7)
JEAN ERIC VERGNE (TORO ROSSO)
Six seasons in karting (two of which at international level) and five in single-seaters to reach F1. These are JEV’s numbers; he gets a title win in the national Minime in 2001 and after he has to settle for 3 national vice-champion titles in Minime, JICA and FA. He is European ICA vice champion in 2005, and boasts one participation in the World FA Championship the following year, ending his karting career to move to single-seaters.
Total Points: 17 (a: 0; b: 0; c: 3; d: 8; e: 6)
NICO ROSBERG (MERCEDES)
Nico inherited his passion for motorsport at a very young age from his dad Keke, F1 World Champion in 1982. He wants to follow in his father’s footsteps, and as a citizen of the world (he speaks five languages fluently and has lived in several European countries) in 1997 he starts his Karting adventure in Italy. In 1998 he grabs 3rd at the Open Masters in the Junior class, followed by a 2nd place the following year. From 2000, he races with his current team mate at Mercedes Lewis Hamilton, and to some degree he succumbs to Lewis’ personality, often finishing behind him. The peak of his Karting career is in 2000 when he gets the European FA vice-championship title behind – guess who? – Lewis… after just having missed on the Junior podium the previous year. The two World Championships (2000 and 2001), compromised by mechanical failures, are best forgotten…
Total Points: 14 (a: 0; b: 0; c: 9; d: 0; e: 5)
AND NOW… WHAT MENTORS HAVE TO SAY
To get a feel of what they were like in their karting days, we asked the opinion of those who nurtured their talent.
GENIS MARCÒ (Alonso) “Alonso’s main characteristic was his incredible adaptability to the vehicle he was racing with. Chassis, tyres and engine, you don’t always manage to find best set up which gives ideal balance. Alonso was good at feeling what the vehicle could offer and change his driving style accordingly by anticipating or delaying braking time before the corner for instance. But above all, he always kept a close eye on tyre wear.”
DINO CHIESA (Hamilton / Rosberg) “Both Hamilton and Rosberg were very fast, hardly any time difference in the lap times. However, Nico avoided taking risks, he was happy with the results he got while Hamilton was more determined and that’s what makes the difference in racing. Another thing in Hamilton’s favour was that he always had a trick up his sleeve, he used 90% of his potential and only when it was necessary did he give it all he had, and that was usually as the race was about to end. Rosberg was better at setting up his vehicle, he was a good tester, so good that Van de Grint, Bridgestone Europe manager at that time, chose him for testing their karting tyres.”
ARMANDO FILINI (Bianchi) “Jules was a real ace. It only took him about 3 laps to learn the circuit perfectly, he was never obsessive of details because he could adapt very well to all types of set-up. Also, he excelled on wet or damp conditions, and despite never showing extreme aggressiveness on the track, he used the kart at its full potential. One thing he didn’t appreciate? Fast circuits where the equipment counted for too much!”
PETER DE BRUIJN (Raikkonen) “Kimi was a very quick learner. He was good at making up for any fault his vehicle may have had. When there were any technical difficulties he was able to adapt his driving style accordingly, so he nearly always managed to complete the race. At the 4th round of the 1998 European FSA Championship in Mariembourg Kimi was behind the leader, not close enough to harass him, but lap time was much the same. Then, half way through the race he started dropping speed, he was having difficulty with his tyres, but after a few laps that he’d changed his racing line to prevent excessive tyre wear, lap-time picked up, he kept 2nd place and took home a fantastic 2nd place in the championship.”
PAUL LEMMENS (Button) “Always cool, smooth as silk. This was Jenson’s racing style in his karting days. Extremely skilled in clean, accurate overtaking, so much so that in the 4-round European FSA Championship he won in 1997 he bent only one sidepod. Always honest and professional, he never blamed a bad result on the equipment or the team, he always seemed to be in control and to know how to fix things. He was a fighter with a calculating mind, never over aggressive, a complete driver, also good on setting up the kart, and extremely dedicated to physical preparation.”
PETER KAISER (Vettel) “Sebastian has always been very humble, and he has always raced with one chassis and two engines. That was the material available to him, and he knew he had to get the most out of it. He was aware that he had to work on himself to improve. It has always been very important for Seb to work on his driving style… he wanted to win with the material he had! Seb has never stopped learning, because still today he knows that when a driver thinks he’s got nothing else to learn, he loses all hopes of success.”
GIANCARLO TININI (Hulkenberg) “Nico was always among the top drivers. He arrived at Crg through our satellite team Crg Holland, but even though he was very young, he excelled from day one. He had a great sensibility for setting up the equipment, his feedback was always very reliable, and his calm character was one of his strengths. Very good on both wet and dry, it took him few laps to learn a new track managing to be fast from the early sessions. He comes from a superb family, which has always been a very important asset in his upbringing.”
JUSSI KOHTALA (Bottas) “Valtteri was the easiest driver to work with I have ever had. He listened to what I said and he did exactly that. He was good in overtaking, he didn’t have many accidents as he always thought what he was doing without getting carried the way. He had a very good feeling for what different engine, carburettor and chassis set-up resulted on and it was quite easy for him to find the ideal set-up. He was also very humble, and he was superb in wet conditions, where he won most of his races.”
GILDAS MERIAN (Vergne) “JEV was a real professional already in Karting. He was very curious and interested in the technical aspect… not only did he take care of his driving style, he also looked at improving his set-up skills, he trained hard and conducted a disciplined lifestyle. Jean Eric has an excellent family behind him, always very supportive. He was aggressive, strong and constant, but he had a weaknesses in his height. After he left few difficult seasons in JICA behind him, he grabbed the European ICA vice championship title.”