Track test: superkarts

Back to basics

There’s a gulf between a GT Aston and a flat-on-the-track Superkart, as sports car star Darren Turner discovers. But at heart racing is the same game

he regulations are pretty simple,” explains Superkarter Kevin Busby while Aston Martin works driver Darren Turner is poring over his 140mph six-speed Division 1 Superkart. Pointing at the nose he continues: “You need to have a gap there so that they can get to your feet when they’re all smashed up.” Silence falls over the Donington pit before Busby starts laughing. Turner and I nervously follow suit. 

Having agreed to test a range of Superkarts our track tester Turner emailed us saying “Massively looking forward to it. I am slightly apprehensive because when I watched these things as a kid they looked mental!” Busby’s jokes aren’t helping. And neither is the fact we’d organised a test which was full of the top drivers from the European Championship and the British Superkart Grand Prix. 

“You’ll be OK,” I half-heartedly promise. 

“I’ll be tickety boo… To be fair to… No, hang on, to be unfair to Motor Sport you’re throwing me in at the deep end! ‘Come and have a go in some proper Superkarts,’ you said and you’re firing me out with all the top guys on a busy test day!” We can only reiterate our apologies, Darren… 

* * *

There are five classes in Superkarts: Formula 125 KZ, Formula 125 Open, Formula 450 National, Formula 250 National and then the top-level Division 1 Superkarts (for an explanation of what each entails see sidebar). The plan for Turner is to try out the 125 Open, the 250 National and then the Division 1 rocket. However, the first hurdle is finding him some leathers to wear as the only ones he owns have a hump on the back (great for better aerodynamics on a motorcycle, not so good when you’re squeezing into a Superkart). Busby comes to the rescue and Turner is soon donning a particularly retro set. There’s none of the usual panic about sponsors on overalls here. 

“So who is this guy?” enquires one seasoned Superkarter. I explain Turner’s credentials (two Le Mans 24 Hours class wins, a brace of BTCC wins etc) and he seems impressed. Within a few minutes everyone’s friends when the regulars realise he’s genuinely interested in their world. Briefed, Turner squeezes himself into the 125 Open, which is no small task even when you’re a svelte racing driver, and once bump-started he disappears into a cloud of two-stroke smoke and out onto Donington’s asphalt with 25 other Superkarters. 

Turner has raced karts before, but the last time he did it properly was 24 years ago and even then it was “club-level stuff with Dad and a Transit van”. He’s occasionally raced them for fun since then – most notably as part of the elite Motor Sport team in the 2013 Henry Surtees Foundation Karting Challenge – but this is a step into the unknown. 

Ten minutes of track action later he peels back into the pitlane and after the usual excited discussion with the driver and owner of the Superkart – father-and-son team of John and Joe Dickinson – I grab him. “The cornering performance is impressive,” he says, hunting for water. “The straightline speed is… OK. It does feel fast because you’re an inch off the ground and you’re bouncing all over the place. The compliance comes from tyre deflection and whatever you get in the chassis and on the bumps that’s absolutely nothing. It’s physically quite challenging…”

Water found, he continues: “It’s also bloody hard getting in and out of the thing! That was quite interesting. It’s so tight getting around the steering column and because this one has a foot clutch rather than a hand clutch the brake pedal is in the middle. You have to bend your leg around the fuel tank and column to brake and a couple of times I found myself bouncing over so that my foot was covering the clutch. It was a case of ‘Hang on, that’s not great!’

“The other problem I had was with the sequential ’box because it’s backwards to my mind. They go forward to go up the gears and backwards to come down them. Everything I’ve raced has been the opposite and I had to really slow down the process to make sure I didn’t make a mistake. In terms of the handling it is really direct; it feels like it’s all on the front end. You get to the first turn and it’s great going in, but I think I struggled on exit because I am at a speed which is just a little bit low so the rpm is down and the engine is not running as sweetly as it should be. You don’t have the power you get at higher revs so you can’t make it yaw and you end up with understeer. With more laps you’d get a better feeling for the entry speed and you’d get quicker and consequently have fewer issues on exit” 

The biggest difference between his usual GT machinery and today, though, is the view. He hasn’t actually raced at Donington since 2008 (when he won in his Seat León TDI touring car) and the track seems very different today. “From the height you are in that thing everything looks different. Everything looks farther away and you have so much track width to play with. For the first few laps I was getting used to things and when the quick guys came past me it was like ‘woah, woah, woah!’ There’s a big jump to get to their speed and commitment.”

* * *

The plan is to get Turner into the 250cc National before he gets into the bells-and-whistles Division 1 machine but, as is so often the case with back-to-back tests, mechanical gremlins mean the end of the day draws ever nearer with no more on-track action for the GT driver. With only one session left it’s decided that Turner should get in the Division 1 Superkart in order to get a taste of what it’s like at the top. He’d already done an extra session in the 125cc so how hard could it be? 

The start of the session doesn’t go smoothly as bump starting doesn’t initially work. Once the ignition is turned on, though, he’s off but he comes back in after a very slow lap with a misfiring Superkart. “It was interesting,” he comments, “because I was in first gear coughing and spluttering and these guys were coming past me flat out. Obviously you’ve got no mirrors and you don’t always know when they’re coming. It was a bit ‘Argh! I’m not enjoying this right now!’

Busby explains how to clear it – pull in the clutch and rev it a few times – and Turner is off for the final part of the last session of the day. 

“F**k me, that’s fast,” are his first words after pulling into the pitlane. “That is really quick. I mean proper quick. It’s almost like a Grand Prix car in terms of acceleration, maybe more like a F3000 car. The difference is that it’s so raw. I had no idea how bumpy Donington was! Now I’ve done it in a Superkart it is actually really bumpy. God knows what a bumpy circuit feels like in a 250cc twin-cylinder kart. 

“The cornering capabilities were way above what I was expecting, but in hindsight the 250s do have more aero. The mechanical grip on both the 125 and 250 is pretty good. In the medium- to high-speed corners, though, the 250 is on another level. Being low to the ground really changes your perception of speed and the Craner Curves are flat – I did that on my third lap, the grip gave me that amount of confidence. When you get to Old Hairpin you pop it down a gear, throw it in and away you go again.”

Like any professional driver Turner is soon lamenting where he lost time. “The braking and low-speed corners are where I’d find the biggest gains. You do need a full day to acclimatise yourself, but even after three laps I felt comfortable and the proper drivers weren’t pulling away too much in the fast stuff. Like any racing, if you’re good at one discipline and try another one and do it regularly you’ll get there. They’re cracking bits of kit,” he says with a smile. “I really enjoyed them.” 

Can we persuade you to come and try them again? “Yes, definitely. Somewhere quiet would be good, though.”

Steps to the top

A beginner’s guide to superkarting’s class structure

Formula 125 KZ (UK)

Powered by a 125cc single-cylinder engine with reed-valve induction. It’s the same engine as the 125 Open class, but there is a limit on the amount of tuning to help keep costs down. It’s the only class with short-circuit bodywork. 

Formula 125 Open

Seen as a good place to start long-circuit karting, the single-cylinder engine has fewer tuning restrictions than the 125 KZ class and they produce between 45 and 50bhp. Karts usually use long-circuit bodywork. 

Formula 450 National

A recent addition to the Superkart world, these run a four-stroke engine which is taken from the Moto X/Super Moto Hondas, KTMs and Yamahas. They usually run alongside the 250cc class, but are gathering momentum. 

Formula 250 National

Competing for the MSA British Superkart Championship, engines are restricted 250cc single-cylinder units with five-speed ’box. They produce somewhere between 65 and 70bhp.  

Division 1 Superkarts

The fastest of the lot with 100bhp and top speeds in the region of an eye-watering 140mph. They still use 250cc engines, but they have twin cylinders and there’s more aero from the nose and rear wing.