Is 6 too young to start racing? F1 drivers have their say on the risks

Karting News

The death of a 9-year-old motorbike rider has highlighted the risks of children racing. We ask Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen, Fernando Alonso, and other F1 drivers who started young, whether junior karting should have a higher age limit

Lewis Hamilton with Ron Dennis on karting championship podium in 1996

Lewis Hamilton started karting aged 8. "Parents know the danger," he says

The tragic death of nine-year-old motorcycle racer Lorenzo Somaschini at Interlagos earlier this month has sparked a debate about the participation of children in motor sport.

As Matt Bishop pointed out in his recent column for Motor Sport the world of karting has grown inexorably younger in recent decades, and it is now standard for aspiring F1 drivers to start driving karts at the age of five or six, giving them perhaps a decade to hone their talents before moving into cars in F4.

That in turn has a knock-on effect further up the ladder, with guys of 20 contesting their second or third seasons in F2 and perhaps finding their careers running out of momentum at a ridiculously young age.

The recent reversal of the “Verstappen rule” by the FIA, knocking the F1 superlicence age back from 18 to 17, was another sign of how the sport is increasingly focused on youth.

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But has it gone too far in terms of the age at which kids are allowed to start racing karts, and do the youngsters and perhaps in some cases their parents really understand the risks involved?

Everyone on the F1 grid started young, in most cases guided in the direction of motor sport by parents, who in some cases were competitors, rather than discovering it for themselves.

So where do the current stars stand on the debate that Somaschini’s accident has triggered?

On Thursday at the Red Bull Ring we asked some of the sport’s biggest names. Some hadn’t yet heard about the Brazilian tragedy, and to be fair hadn’t had a chance to digest it, but others had.

“It’s their passion. That’s what they want to do. They want to become successful”

None was more vocal on the subject than current World Champion Max Verstappen, who first drove karts at age four.

“Then you can have the debate as well, are they allowed to travel by themselves to school?,” the Dutchman said when I asked.

“Because I think there are more accidents on the road than what happened in racing. I think in general, racing is quite safe. You’re on a closed track. Accidents happen, unfortunately, and of course, it’s very sad that these things happen. And of course, when you’re pushing to the limits, you run the risk of crashes.

“But I would feel way more unsafe with my child travelling to school in a busy city, crossing the road with a lot of idiots involved, than my son or daughter racing on a track.

“It’s their passion. That’s what they want to do. They want to become successful. And by becoming successful, you need to practice. And the earlier you can start, the more you can practice, and the more you learn.”

Max Verstappen raises his hand after karting win

Verstappen was winning from a young age


I chatted further with Verstappen later, and he revealed that he knew about Somaschini’s crash, pointing out that it had occurred at a slow corner and on bikes only capable of low speeds, comparing it to his early experiences in karting.

In general drivers acknowledge that any form of motor sport will involve risk, and that they were aware at an early age.

“What do you want us to say on that?,” said Lewis Hamilton. “I’m pretty sure parents do realise how dangerous it is. My dad didn’t want me to ride bikes, just knowing how dangerous it is. When you’re at go-kart race, your parents don’t have any nails left afterwards.

“But it’s how this the sport has always been. And it’s obviously devastating to hear that. I remember when I was racing, when I was nine and a kid, a nine-year-old, died – one of my friends. But I think the sport continues to move forwards. I think we always have to look at safety as always, which I think the FIA do a great job.”

Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg at 2000 karting championship

Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were karting team-mates in 2000


That ongoing pursuit of safety by the sport’s authorities was an ongoing theme in responses.

“It is a dangerous sport, and I think it will always remain a dangerous sport,” said Charles Leclerc. “I think there are lots of efforts and a lot of work to try and make this sport safer.

“And of course, I guess that whenever there’s an incident like this, everything is analysed and we try to do a step forward as a sport for the kids and for ourselves as well, even when you are older, to race in the safest conditions as possible.

“Whether you should limit the age, I think it’s already limited, to very young, but it’s limited. And obviously, with the power that you can race with, the categories now are limited with an age, which I think is good.

“I don’t know in which conditions the crash happened, and these are things that should be looked at to see whether as a sport we can do a step forward to put the kids and ourselves in the safest conditions possible.”

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Like others Leclerc’s Ferrari team mate Carlos Sainz noted that how important it is to have a passion for something. He also acknowledged specific safety improvements that have come into karting since he was racing.

“I think if that’s what your kid loves doing, I wouldn’t keep my kid away from playing football at nine years old, or racing go karts at nine years old, or motorbikes,” said the Spaniard.

“The only thing that we can do from the top of the ladder is to make sure we support and we back the respective federations to improve the safety at those ages, so we are not putting kids under unnecessary risks.

“I remember, since I was in go-karting, in the mini categories, they’ve added the roll hoop, they also running with HANS, or similar to a HANS device, which at my time wasn’t the case. And I’m pretty sure already those two things have helped to save a few lives out there.

“So I wouldn’t have liked that the federations or my parents banned me from doing what I love the most. Probably I wasn’t aware of the risks, but a kid is a kid, and you’re never going to be fully aware of it.”

Alpine’s Esteban Ocon also acknowledged the safety standards issue: “I don’t have much knowledge on motorbikes. We know in Europe, it’s mostly on go-kart tracks that the kids are running the motorbikes. For me, I’ve always been on small tracks as well, up until you drive in single-seaters.

“But I don’t think it is an age issue. I think if there are things on safety that needs to be looked at, it’s not on the age issue, you know, it’s more on the equipment and everything else that there is.”

Fernando Alonso owns a karting facility in his native Oviedo, and thus he actively encourages youngsters to compete.

He highlighted the issue of how much kids can benefit from taking part in a sport like karting.

“I just hate to be a dad watching my kids go quick on the racetrack.”

“Difficult topic, difficult question, difficult answer to be right or wrong,” said the Aston Martin star. “I don’t probably have any answer. There are many debates.

“Sport by nature is also kind of fun, and raising some values as well of teamwork and discipline and things.

“You cannot ban everything until you are 18, because there are many sports that any unlucky situations can happen.

“For sure, we need to improve safety. This is the thing that it has to be our priority, drivers, FIA, circuit promoters, everyone has to work, always harder on harder, and whatever thing happened, an unlucky situation happened, make sure that that will never happen again. But I don’t know the details of this exact situation, so I’m not the one to answer.”

Fernando Alonso with a go kart at his racing circuit

Fernando Alonso has his own kart brand and racing circuit

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Like so many other second-generation drivers Kevin Magnussen was encouraged into the sport by his dad, in his case Stewart GP driver Jan.

Now one of several fathers on the current grid he indicated that he isn’t keen on fostering another generation of Magnussen racers.

However, like others he acknowledged that it’s important that youngsters develop interests. If that happens to be racing, so be it.

“Motor sport has always been dangerous,” he said. “And I can say, certainly I hope my kids won’t go into racing, because I just hate to be a dad watching my kids go quick on the racetrack.

“On the other hand, I know how much I love racing, and how much it means to me. And if my kids had that kind of passion for something, I would be in a very tough spot.

“It’s a complex thing, I guess, a tough dilemma, because if you have something you’re passionate about in your life, then that’s also very valuable. So many people don’t have a passion, and I think it’s a great privilege in itself just to have something that you love that much. It can give you meaning in life.”

So is that a definite “no” on keeping his kids out of racing?

“I won’t be encouraging them,” he noted. “I hope they do something, but I really hope they find a passion. I hope they find their thing in life, but I hope it’s not racing.”

Lorenzo Somaschini on motorbike

Lorenzo Somaschini died after a practice accident at Interlagos

Magnussen was clearly touched by news of the Brazilian tragedy: “It breaks my heart so badly when I hear stuff like that, it’s such a young kid. It’s tragic. But hopefully these kids go into the sport by their own choice.

“And it’s tough, isn’t it? It’s not easy to give an answer whether it’s right or wrong. Because when you hear about a kid getting killed on a motorbike, you think that’s wrong. You know that can’t be right in any way.

“But then there’s the whole other side of it. If you, if you stop that kid from doing what he loves, then that’s also wrong. So it’s a real dilemma.”