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What Age Do F1 Drivers Start Kart Racing?

Formula 1 puts 20 of the best drivers in the world up against one another. Each Formula 1 driver has a unique journey, but the one thing that they all have in common is the start of their racing careers. All Formula 1 drivers start in karting, but you may be wondering what age they start at.

F1 drivers start kart racing from an early age, often between the ages of 4 and 7. Each driver is different and started racing at a different time. Karting is vital to developing the driver’s skills from a young age, allowing them to progress in their career before they enter the junior formulas.

Many drivers still look back fondly on their karting careers, with it providing the first opportunity to race for many of them. Below, we’ll take a closer look at why kart racing is so important for F1 drivers, and we’ll tell you when each driver started.

Do All F1 Drivers Start In Karting?

All F1 drivers usually start their careers in karting. In order to make it into Formula 1, drivers need to start their careers as early as possible. Unfortunately, it’s not possible for someone to get into the driver’s seat of a car at the ages of 4-7, which is why karting is so popular.

Go-karts are much smaller than cars, making them much safer and more compatible for younger drivers. Moreover, karts are divided into different categories, and drivers as young as the age of three can get into them and are able to drive them without any problems.

Karting is the most basic form of motorsport. It’s essentially a frame with four wheels and an engine. This gives the drivers a good feeling of how to control a car from a young age. Without a suspension system, there is no interference between the tires on the tarmac and the driver’s feeling through their seat and steering wheel.

F1 Drivers With Unusual Career Starts

Lewis Hamilton is one driver who technically didn’t start in karting. Hamilton’s first motorsport experience was remote control cars. The Brit raced RC cars at his local RC race track before eventually jumping into a go-kart of his own at the age of just 8 years old. Hamilton quickly impressed and started winning races in one of the most competitive karting scenes in the world.

Lando Norris was initially drawn to race in MotoGP following in the footsteps of his hero Valentino Rossi. But once he got into karts, he decided to stick with four wheels and make his way into Formula 1. This shows that all drivers have a unique path into Formula 1, but all of them have had a stint in karting at some point.

Why Do So Many F1 Drivers Start Off Karting?

F1 drivers usually start off karting because it’s the most accessible form of 4-wheeled motorsport. While it’s still expensive, it’s much cheaper than car racing, and drivers can get started with karting at the age of 3 or 4. Some karting competitions may allow entrants as young as 6.

Karting has always been the first stepping stone for any F1 driver. It has proven to be a popular choice amongst any motorsports fans and aspiring racing drivers even if they are not aiming for Formula 1. Even the Binder brothers who are currently in MotoGP started in karting.

Costs

The first reason karting is the perfect first step for an aspiring young racing driver is because it’s the cheapest form of 4-wheeled motorsport. Despite being the “cheapest form” of motorsport though, karting still carries a huge amount of costs that the parents of the driver usually need to cover. This is the first barrier to entry that the driver will experience.

Starting with nothing, you can expect to spend at least $10,000 to get up and running in karting. From buying a kart and safety gear to paying for consumables and race fees, karting can become incredibly expensive very quickly. It’s important to keep costs down in karting if a driver wants to make their way past the first stepping stone.

Even at the karting level, it’s rare to find drivers who come from an underprivileged background. The majority of drivers are either middle or upper class because of the immense amount of money involved in getting started and staying in karting. Many drivers fail at this first stepping stone because they lack the budget needed to continue in motorsport.

This proves that motorsport in general, not just Formula 1, really is a rich person’s sport – a theme that will carry all throughout a driver’s career. The problem with these costs is that a parent will need to invest massive amounts of money without knowing if their child will enjoy motorsport or be good enough to make a living from it (at least until sponsors begin to appear).

Tiers

Karting is a sport that has a wide range of competitions. Drivers can start with no experience, but they can spend years in the sport as they progress. The great thing about karting is the fact that drivers can still race competitively even beyond the age of 20. Even drivers in their 40s can still race in karting and take part in challenging competitions!

Bambino

Competitive races can start from the age of 6. The Bambino class karts are usually designed for drivers who are under the age of eight. These karts are much smaller and much slower than normal racing karts, but it still allows the drivers to get a sense of what they’re up against. The basic skills needed to race are still required in Bambino karts.

Cadet

From there, drivers can progress to the slightly faster Cadet karts. While still small, these karts can be used in races, and there are some international competitions that kids can start taking part in at this age. Cadet karts are suitable for kids up to the age of 12, from which point they need to progress to the junior class.

Junior

Junior class karting is the most popular category because of the age range of the drivers. To qualify for junior class karting, the driver needs to be between 12 and 15 years old. This is a crucial point in a driver’s career. Oftentimes the drivers will progress into single seater race cars at the age of 15 or slightly older.

This means that they likely won’t be racing in the senior class of karts. If a driver is successful in their junior karting career and they have the budget needed to progress into cars, they will likely be racing in Formula 4 or a similar junior single seater series by the time they are 16, which is also the age that drivers need to be to qualify for the senior category of karting.

Senior

The senior class of karting is open for any drivers over the age of 15. Drivers can choose to progress into the senior class when they turn 15, but there is also the possibility of participating in the junior class for another year. At the end of the day, it’s completely up to the driver and the budget they have available to them.

Junior and senior karts are often exactly the same in every way apart from the engine. The senior class engine has a power valve added to it, which gives the engine an additional seven horsepower. While it might not sound like much, it adds an extra 20 kilometers an hour (12 miles per hour) to the top speed and boosts acceleration.

Other Classes

Karting tires don’t have to stop at the senior class either. There are several other categories that drivers can race in. This adds even more to the appeal that karting has for young drivers. If utilized properly, karting can build an excellent foundation for any young driver on their journey to Formula 1.

DD2 is a different category, but drivers can start racing in DD2 from the age of 15. DD2 karts have two gears. These karts are very similar to junior and senior class karts apart from the fact that they are faster and can shift between one of two gears to adjust for faster acceleration or a higher top speed. 

Drivers can also move on to shifter karts, which have six gears. These are the karts that racing drivers and Formula 1 drivers will most likely use to practice during their off season. Shifter karts are some of the fastest karts that you can find, and there are some incredibly competitive shifter kart championships.

International Reach

As the most basic form of motorsport, karting has a wide reach. Just about every country around the world has karting of some form available. While not every country has professional race tracks and Rotax karts, the majority of countries will feature karting in some form, whether it’s indoor or outdoor, four-stroke or two-stroke.

International reach is incredibly important for young drivers who are aspiring to race in Formula 1. If they get there, they will be tasked with going up against 19 of the best drivers in the world, so they need to use every opportunity they can get to sharpen their skills against other drivers.

Putting Your Skills To The Test

Being able to put your skills to the test against drivers from other countries with different levels of skill and experience is an excellent way to test yourself and to learn how you need to adapt as a racing driver. The karting world championships have some of the fiercest motorsport competition in the world, and it’s a great place to get some exposure.

But it’s important to remember that it’s not just about winning. Charles Leclerc, for example, took part in the 2012 Under 18 Karting World Championships. He didn’t win the tournament, but it was a learning experience that played a large role in helping him to reach Formula 1. The driver who did win is no longer racing, which shows that it’s not just about winning races.

Driving Experience

All Formula 1 drivers have years of experience in motorsport. With the modern generation of drivers reaching the pinnacle of motorsport at the age of around 20, drivers need to start as early as possible to gain as much experience as they possibly can before they become “too old.”

Formula 1 features 20 of the best drivers in the world, and it’s not possible to become one of these 20 drivers if you only have two years of racing experience. Karting is the best way for drivers to build up this driving experience and develop their driving skills and their ability to feel the car from a very early age.

Gaining Experience

Because of the wide range of tiers that karting offers, drivers can get involved in the sport from as young as the age of three. The more time they get to spend in a kart, the better their skills will develop and the more potential they will have as a racing driver one day.

Karting is a safe way for drivers to gain experience from a young age. It’s not normally possible for drivers to get their driving experience in cars, even single seater race cars, until they are at least 15 years old. Drivers can’t start racing at all as late as 15 as they would be behind the rest of their group who may have ten years of additional experience in karting.

Motorsport Experience 

Formula 1 drivers need to have experience in motorsport. This is not the same as driving experience. Motorsport experience involves the driver’s racecraft and their ability to stay calm under the pressures that racing drivers need to withstand. But it also involves adapting to the lifestyle of a racing driver.

Racing Driver Lifestyle

Modern Formula 1 drivers are superstars, and from the moment they land a new contract they need to attend sponsorship events, interviews, team meetings, and much more. All of this adds an additional element of mental and physical fatigue to a driver’s plate that they need to deal with while performing to the best of their abilities in the car.

Karting will slowly introduce a driver to this element, especially when they reach an international level and need to attend interviews and have to start thinking about their potential sponsors. While it might be on a much smaller scale, the PR element is something that drivers need to learn and adapt to from a young age.

Race Weekend Formats

In addition, drivers need to learn how a race weekend works. While it might look simple enough from the outside, there’s a lot that drivers do behind the scenes. Every driver is unique and has to develop their own routines and traditions that they follow during a race weekend. This helps them to focus and get into the zone.

Some drivers like to relax before getting into the car, while others prefer to listen to music. Some drivers even prefer to do a warm up to distract themselves and calm their nerves. Drivers get into this rhythm from a young age, and they often develop these traditions and habits while they’re still in karting.

Mechanical Knowledge

Karting is a unique sport. While there is a team aspect, drivers are very much fending for themselves. Unless they pay lots of money and join a well-known team, it’s highly likely that the drivers and their family members will be working on their karts themselves. It’s a steep learning curve for everyone involved.

Because of how expensive karting is, it’s not always easy to hire a mechanic to help you out. But it’s also not recommended to hire a mechanic even if you have the budget for it. Racing in karting helps a driver build critical mechanical knowledge if they’re working on their own kart and dealing with the parts that need to be serviced and maintained.

Understanding The Cars

While it might take some time for a driver to learn everything they need to know, the mechanical skills and knowledge that they learn from a young age in karting can carry them a long way in motorsport. If a driver doesn’t pay attention to this element, they won’t have a good understanding of their cars if they go beyond karting.

Formula 1 drivers need to understand every aspect of their cars. They need to be able to give their mechanics feedback to get the setups tailored to their needs. The more a driver can perfect their setup, the better they will perform while they are in the car. There are a lot of setup elements that a driver can learn just from their time in karting.

KEY POINTS

• Karting is usually the earliest opportunity for a future F1 driver to gain racing experience

• Drivers might start competitive karting from as young as 6 years old

• There are lots of karting classes, which serve as stepping stones into the junior formulas

• Karting is also the best way for young drivers to adapt to the lifestyle and attitudes of a racing driver

How Old Are F1 Drivers When They Start Racing?

Most F1 drivers start racing around the age of 5. Drivers who aim to reach Formula 1 need to start young. While each driver has a unique journey in motorsport, most of them start racing under the age of 10, although they might start driving karts from as young as 3 years old.

Drivers usually aren’t allowed to participate in a karting race unless they have driven a kart and got a decent amount of practice beforehand. Just like in Formula 1, safety is incredibly important in karting, and it’s not as simple as letting any kid jump into a go-kart and race against a grid full of other young drivers.

Difference Between Starting Racing And Starting Driving

There’s somewhat of a blurred line when it comes to identifying when a driver started their racing career. For example, Kevin Magnussen started driving go-karts at the age of two, but he didn’t start racing until much later. This is because karting competitions don’t open up for drivers under the age of 6 in most cases. 

Other drivers started their racing careers much later than others. Former F1 driver Nico Hulkenberg, for example, is one driver who started their career much later at the age of ten. None of the current drivers started their careers in motorsport after the age of 13, but in past eras it was common for drivers to be in their teens before they started racing.

Why Do F1 Drivers Have To Start Young?

The current generation of Formula 1 drivers are the youngest that the sport has ever seen. At the age of just 17 years old, Max Verstappen became the youngest ever Formula 1 driver to participate in a Grand Prix. The main reason for this is that drivers start racing karts and cars much younger than before.

In order to reach Formula 1, drivers need to have the skills and the experience to beat thousands of other drivers. In modern Formula 1, racing teams will look for drivers who are young and show a lot of potential. The ideal age range for a Formula 1 driver entering the sport is between 19 and 24.

Getting An F1 Team’s Attention

It’s impossible to get onto a Formula 1 team’s radar without having enough skills and experience, so it’s essential to get as much karting experience as young as possible. Drivers can learn a lot more and develop faster when they start racing from a younger age, and this is something that the majority of Formula 1 drivers use to their advantage.

The level of competition that drivers face when making their way up the motorsport ladder is extreme. The majority of drivers who are fighting their way up the motorsport ladder have several years of racing experience under their belt, and if a driver starts too late, it’s unlikely that they will be able to get the better of their opponents in junior series.

When Do F1 Drivers Move Out Of Karting?

Moving out of karting is just as important as getting into karting for Formula 1 drivers. Aspiring racing drivers need to understand when it’s time to take the next step in their career. Moving on is a daunting task though. Drivers tend to become comfortable in karting, making it difficult to make the step up to cars.

For the majority of drivers, the perfect age to move up into single seater race cars is 15. While it might still seem incredibly young, drivers will need as much time as they can possibly get to adapt to racing cars before they can even start thinking about reaching Formula 1.

Stepping Into Cars

There are some important differences between karting and single seater race cars that drivers need to grasp. Aside from the obvious differences such as the faster speeds and the need to change gears, drivers also need to adapt to new surroundings and fine-tune their driving style when they step from karts into cars.

Most drivers reach Formula 1 in their early 20s, which gives them a very limited amount of time to get themselves adapted to racing cars and drive well enough to impress a Formula 1 team. Drivers need to get out of karting at the right age to be able to adapt to cars and stand a chance to make it into Formula 1.

KEY POINTS

• Most F1 drivers start racing of some kind before the age of 10

• The most popular choice is karting, before then moving into single seater cars when they’re around 15 years of age

• Prospective F1 drivers can expect to reach the pinnacle of motorsport when they’re about 20 years old

Ages F1 Drivers Started Karting

DriverAge They Started KartingAge At Their First F1 Race
Kevin Magnussen221
Fernando Alonso319
Sebastian Vettel319
Max Verstappen417
Yuki Tsunoda420
Sergio Perez621
Valtteri Bottas624
George Russell721
Lando Norris719
Lewis Hamilton822
Charles Leclerc820
Lance Stroll818
Zhou Guanyu822
Alexander Albon822
Daniel Ricciardo922
Mick Schumacher922
Carlos Sainz1020
Esteban Ocon1020
Pierre Gasly1021
Nicholas Latifi1325

The majority of drivers on the current grid reached Formula 1 in their early 20s. Max Verstappen is the youngest driver to reach Formula 1, while Nicholas Latifi is the oldest driver to reach Formula 1, as well as the oldest to start karting (of the current grid).

70% of the current F1 grid started karting no later than the age of 8

It’s important to note that the age when drivers started karting does not necessarily mean that’s when they started racing. Many drivers spent some years driving karts around race tracks to hone their skills before they started entering official competitions and racing against other drivers.

How Old Is Too Old To Become An F1 Driver?

25 is probably too old to become an F1 driver, purely because most rookies joining the sport are normally around the age of 20. Nicholas Latifi started racing in F1 at the age of 25, but 9 of the current 20 drivers on the grid started racing in Formula 1 at the age of 20 or younger.

One of the most promising “young” talents in the motorsport world is Nyck de Vries who has already won Formula 2 and Formula E, which means that he would technically be ready to enter Formula 1. But the Dutchman would be more than 28 years old should he land a seat in Formula 1, which is considered very old for a rookie.

In terms of karting, Nicholas Latifi started extremely late compared to other Formula 1 drivers. Starting karting at the age of 13, Latifi was extremely late but still made it to Formula 1. His journey looked very different because of the sponsors and the budget that he has to his advantage when making his way through the motorsport ladder.

In terms of starting racing in general, the age of 14 is when it’s too late to try to become a Formula 1 driver as you would be too far behind the rest of the drivers in the same age group in terms of experience. A driver could start their career at 18 and make it to Formula 1 at a later stage, but it’s highly unlikely because of the fact that Formula 1 teams usually look for younger drivers.

The Path To Formula 1

In order to understand when it’s too late to become a Formula 1 driver, it’s important to first understand the path that a driver can take to get into Formula 1. Today, there are several paths that drivers can take to reach the pinnacle of motorsport.

Drivers can take the standard route through the junior motorsport ladder, progressing from Formula 4 through Formula 3 and Formula 2. However, the focus tends to be on younger drivers in these series, which means a driver that starts later has less of a chance of being chosen over their younger peers.

Alternative Routes

Drivers can instead take another avenue such as Formula E (F1 hopeful Nyck de Vries), IndyCar (former F1 driver Juan Pablo Montoya) or even sim racing (2022 F2 driver Cem Bölükbaşı). 

While IndyCar is so far the only one of these three series to yield an F1 driver (the most notable example being Jacques Villeneuve, coming from what was then CART), they are areas where a driver can demonstrate their skills and experience while building up enough Super Licence points to race in Formula 1 (excluding sim racing of course).

As long as a driver is able to showcase their skills and they have connections with a Formula 1 team, there is a chance that they could get signed for a full-time race seat. Not all F2 winners make it to Formula 1, which means that they would need to head to a different series to continue racing.

Other Career Options

While Formula 1 is the ultimate goal for any young racing driver, it’s not the end of the road if they don’t make it. As we’ve seen with many past Formula 1 drivers, and some young drivers who didn’t quite make it to the pinnacle of motorsport, there are plenty of other options for racing drivers.

The path to Formula 1 puts drivers in situations where they develop their skills and experience like nowhere else. From karting all the way up to Formula 2, drivers are put up against the best racing drivers in their age group.

Finding A Race Seat Elsewhere

Drivers who have made it as far as Formula 2 can often find a race seat elsewhere, especially if they have a lot of experience and some good results to back them up. Karting plays an important role in a driver’s experience because they don’t have a lot of time in cars, so having 12 years of karting experience can be worth a lot when it comes to finding a race seat.

From Formula E to IndyCar and even DTM, there are plenty of other options for racing drivers outside of Formula 1. On top of that, there’s always the chance of being drafted into Formula 1 from another series, as long as the driver continues to perform at their best.

KEY POINTS

• 25 is usually considered too old to start F1, unless you have a lot of financial backing

• There are many routes drivers can take to reach Formula 1 

• Even if they don’t make it to the top, aspiring F1 drivers may instead branch out to other motorsport series

Final Thoughts

Formula 1 drivers start karting at an incredibly young age, usually racing competitively when they’re 6-8 years old. Drivers need to start young to build up enough experience and to hone their racing skills. Formula 1 drivers usually reach F1 in their early 20s, with years of experience behind them.