Karting is the first step into racing for many racing drivers, including those that make it all the way to Formula 1. Karting has become an incredibly popular sport for both professional drivers and amateurs who race as a hobby, but what are the main differences between racing go-karts and F1?
The 6 main differences between Formula 1 and karting are:
- Cars vs karts
- Competition and structure
- Driving Mechanics
- Testing allowance
- Budget levels
- Level of exposure
Karting is considered by many to be the purest form of racing, and many Formula 1 drivers still use karting during the winter in order to keep themselves sharp for the upcoming Formula 1 season. Below, I’ll go through the differences between the two in more detail.
The 6 Main Differences Between Formula 1 & Karting
1. Cars vs Karts
The biggest difference between karting and Formula 1 is of course the cars (or karts) themselves. Formula 1 cars are the pinnacle of motorsport, featuring 1000-horsepower V6 turbo hybrid engines, and they can produce an immense amount of downforce. Karts feature a measly 30 horsepower in comparison, but weighing in at less than 150 kg (330 lbs) with fuel and driver onboard makes them pretty fast.
Formula 1 cars are extremely complex, with complicated computer systems and various setup changes available to the driver on the fly while they’re driving. There is almost no other car that comes close to this level of engineering. Karting on the other hand is the simplest form of racing. It’s just the driver, the chassis and the engine. This means that it’s a fantastic way to learn how a vehicle handles and how setup changes affect things.
Another huge difference between Formula 1 cars and karting is the fact that Formula 1 cars feature huge wings and other components that produce high levels of downforce at high speeds. This allows Formula 1 cars to reach immense cornering speeds.
Wings don’t feature on most karts, but they are designed to take some aerodynamics into account, especially the more modern models. It does give drivers an idea of how high-speed cornering feels compared to normal road cars, but the switch over to high downforce levels makes a huge difference. I’ll talk more about the handling below in the Driving Mechanics section.
Formula 1 also requires a huge team behind the driver just to keep the cars running on track. There are so many components on an F1 car that need to be looked after and prepared in order for things to run properly for 190 miles or so during a race.
Karting on the other hand requires only 1 person to maintain and keep the kart running smoothly on track. As long as they know what to do and they have the time, the driver can even maintain the kart all by themselves. They might have a team behind them that runs the wider operations and maintains the kart, but it’s nothing compared to the size of an F1 team.
Similarities Between The Cars & Karts
Despite the big differences between Formula 1 cars and karts, there are still some similarities. For one, both are single seater vehicles. In karts, the driver is the heaviest component of the vehicle. This teaches drivers how weight distribution and weight transfer works and how it can be used to their benefit.
Shifter karts are closer to Formula 1 cars than your average sprint kart, since they feature a 6-speed sequential gearbox, and they can go much faster than normal karts. These karts can also run on full circuits unlike their slower single-gear counterparts.
Another similarity between karts and F1 cars is that they are both extremely fast and you are essentially sitting on the ground, separated by only a thin layer of metal/carbon fiber. This is what brings karts so close to Formula 1 level in terms of driving feel.
2. Competition And Structure
The level of competition in Formula 1 is intense. The grid consists of the 20 best drivers in the world, who have all proven themselves in various junior level single seater series (and usually karting before that). If any driver underperforms, there are many other drivers lined up and ready to take that Formula 1 seat away from them.
The level of competition in karting varies greatly. At your local circuit, you will likely find an amateur championship. The competition here will most likely be amateurs racing just for the fun of it as a hobby. But you will also find your aspiring racing drivers here as well who are aiming to build their careers.
The Different Levels Of Karting Competition
Depending on where you are in the world, the competition may be tougher or easier based on how seriously karting is taken there. If you are in Europe for example, the competition will be tough, but if you are in Asia, it might be a bit easier as access to motorsport isn’t as common as it is in Europe.
The next step in karting is national level. This is where the competition starts to really ramp up. At national level you will find all the serious contenders in your country. This level can still feature some drivers who race as a hobby, but more likely than not, the drivers are looking to win championships and move into a career as a racing driver.
The top step of competition in karting is international level. Although there are a few international competitions to choose from, they are much more exclusive than the local and national competitions. This creates a sort of bottleneck effect, where the best of the best in karting are all put up against each other.
At this level, you will be traveling between different countries in a series that features hundreds of drivers from different countries with different levels of experience. Winning at this level of competition is definitely a big deal and will give you a huge benefit when it comes to searching for a future drive. The field is extremely close at this level, and you will see multiple drivers separated by less than a tenth of a second.
The competition in karting can be extremely tough. All karts are equal in a given racing series, and the only differences are in chassis and personal setups, which can be tweaked to how the driver prefers their kart to handle. All F1 cars are not equal. This means that karting is more based on driver performance as opposed to the team effort required in Formula 1.
Competition In F1
Formula 1 still has an emphasis on driver skill, but there is a huge focus on the team as a whole and the performance of the car itself. As we all know, if your team can’t provide you with a competitive car, you won’t be competing for wins. This makes the competition even more difficult, as a driver could perform to the best of their abilities and still end up in 18th place.
As we have seen in the past, the competition in Formula 1 can be ruthless. If a driver underperforms, they run the risk of losing their seat to someone else pretty quickly (as we saw with Daniel Ricciardo losing his McLaren seat to Oscar Piastri after the 2022 season). In karting however, performances are not always as important for keeping your seat.
As long as you can pay the team their required budget, they will often keep on backing you. At the same time, being in the best team will not necessarily mean that you can win the Karting World Championship.
Competition is extremely tough in both cases. However, in karting there is a much wider variety of difficulty levels, whereas in Formula 1, you are racing against the best drivers in the world, all of whom have experience in winning races, and there is no room for error.
3. Driving Mechanics
The driving mechanics in F1 and karting are completely different. When drivers step up into single seater racing cars from karting, they have to adjust their driving style to match that of driving a high downforce car.
The biggest challenge will be adapting to the speed difference between the cars. Formula 1 cars are much faster, and therefore they require significantly more focus and faster reaction times in order to keep them on track.
In addition, drivers will now also have to focus on shifting gears, and getting the timing right in order to shift gears at the correct stage or being in the right gear for a specific corner. It does not necessarily come naturally, especially if you are used to only using the brakes, throttle and steering wheel.
Different Driving Styles
In karting, a driver will have developed their own driving style that will match the speed of the kart and how it handles. In F1, they will need to adapt it for higher speeds, harder braking and faster acceleration.
Most karting drivers tend to be very aggressive with their braking, accelerating and steering. This is because that’s often what works in karting. However, in a Formula 1 car, you need much smoother and steadier movements, or the car will become unsettled and nearly impossible to drive.
The Physical Aspect
The physical demands of driving a Formula 1 car also hugely outweigh those of driving a kart. Although driving a kart is no easy task, driving a single seater racing car takes things to a whole new level. Drivers will need to be much stronger physically in order to keep a Formula 1 car under control.
For example, when braking for a corner, a Formula 1 driver needs to apply upwards of 100 kg (220 lbs) of force on the brake pedal in order to get the car slowed down fast enough, whereas in a kart, it only takes around 10 kg of pressure (22 lbs) for the brakes to lock up.
Although karts are extremely agile and can corner quickly, drivers do not experience close to the g-forces that a Formula 1 driver does. Formula 1 drivers can experience up to 5 or 6 G’s when going through fast corners. This means F1 drivers need exceptionally strong core and neck muscles to maintain control of the car at high speeds.
4. Testing Allowance
Testing is important in motorsport. The saying “practice makes perfect” is relevant to any sport, but it is crucial to motorsport. Testing allows you to learn a new circuit, work on your setups, or even adjust your driving style and learn something new.
Luckily in karting, you have ‘unlimited’ testing (limited only by your budget that is). This is ideal because it gives you time to get used to your kart and really get to grips with things before the season starts. You can take your time and learn how your driving style works and try out new driving techniques. You can also work on your kart’s setup and adjust it to however suits your driving style the best.
Limited Testing In F1
However, in Formula 1, there is no unlimited testing. The drivers set foot in their cars for the first time in preseason testing, sometimes just the week before the season starts. And even then, they only get between 3 and 6 days to actually drive their new cars and become used to them.
Key Fact: Given the testing time is shared between the two drivers, in a 3-day testing period a driver only gets about 1.5 days of testing before the first race weekend!
There’s no working on setups and learning circuits beforehand in the physical car outside of this testing period. The only way they can do that is through the team’s simulators. In a way, this does create a more even playing field, but it also means that if it’s your first time in a Formula 1 car, you don’t have much practice time before the first race of the season!
This is why some drivers resorted to driving karts and Formula 3 cars in preparation for the pandemic-stricken 2020 season. Being out of a Formula 1 car for so long meant that they would need to familiarize themselves with the speed and g-forces before the first race weekend, and with the ban of Formula 1 testing, there is no better way to do so than in another single-seater race car.
5. Budget Levels
Budget is a huge part of racing, and given karting is the cheapest form of motorsport, it’s no wonder that it’s also one of the most popular. But all in all, starting from scratch, you will still be looking at a budget of around $11,000. This includes your own kart, safety equipment and tools for your first year and beyond.
In Formula 4, which is the next step out of karting for many drivers, you are looking at around $180,000. This is a huge step up from the $11,000 range you were looking at for karting.
In order for a driver to secure a Formula 1 seat, you will be looking at around $10 million of spending along the way through all the other categories. That is assuming you have performed well enough in the junior categories to catch the attention of a Formula 1 team and gained enough Super Licence points in junior racing categories.
Everything in Formula 1 is expensive. A Formula 1 helmet alone is around $4000-$6000, and they might need 15+ of those for a complete season. The cost of a single Formula 1 helmet would cover a whole season in karting – if you already have a kart, tools and safety gear that is.
6. Level Of Exposure
Finally, the level of exposure is another big difference between karting and Formula 1. Most people know about Formula 1, and they would have heard about Michael Schumacher or Lewis Hamilton. But far fewer people know the names of many karting champions.
Recently there has been a bigger focus on karting, especially at the international level. This is because more and more people realize that Formula 1 drivers start with karting. A lot of people now follow international karting events to see who the potential future Formula 1 stars might be.
At local and national level, drivers might feature in the local newspapers or on some TV channels. However, Formula 1 drivers are likely to feature on every single news station in the world and will be talked about a lot when there’s a race coming up or one has just taken place.
The level of exposure to media grows more and more the higher drivers climb up the motorsport ladder. However, some karting drivers are able to draw a lot of media attention. Being able to handle yourself in the media pen is key as a young driver in any motorsport, but it’s especially important in Formula 1.
There are some big differences between karting and Formula 1. However, karting is the start to almost every Formula 1 driver’s racing career. Some drivers even use karting during the offseason in order to keep sharp for the year ahead. While there are big differences between the two motorsports, there’s no doubt that they both offer up some intense and exciting racing!
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