by Pierre Martins
Pitting one against the other…
With almost two full seasons under the belt in 250 Superkarts I got an itch to try something else in the way of single seater wings & slicks racing, so when the first opportunity to test drive a Formula GTi at Zwartkops presented itself, I grabbed it with both hands, literally…
But before I get ahead of myself, lemme first tell you about my shenanigans in 250 karts. I got invited to drive a 250 kart at the ’05 Kyalami round of the local 250 Superkart Championship. Back then I thought ‘Why the hell not, I would probably clean up’.
You see, I’m a bike racer by heart. In my little world Moto GP is the real pinnacle of racing and guys like Rossi, Melandri and Stoner are the true heroes. Bike racers risk life and limb at a level that car racers will never comprehend strapped up in their cosy race seats and roll cages.
Be that as it may, my bike-racers-are-better-than-car-racers arrogance got brought down to earth literally and figuratively when I first drove a 250 kart.
No cage, no belts!
Things happen very, very fast in a 250 kart. Acceleration is absolutely freaking unbelievable. It will do zero to 100km/h in less than 3 seconds and the top speed is around 260km/h, but with such a narrow power-band this little thing will throw your head back and keep it there all the way down the straight.
The driving technique is also different to cars. You finish your braking, gear down quickly, zing, zing, zing and then its back on the power hard and way before the apex.
With a two-stroke there is no engine braking and no feathering the throttle through sweepers. You will starve the motor from oil and it will seize. There is only one way to drive a 250 kart - flat-out and on the edge. That makes learning to drive a superkart fairly difficult. If you go slower, nothing works like it should. The engine falls out of the power-band, the tyres drop below operating temperatures and you lose down-force.
And the brakes, oh man, the brakes are out of this world. Remember what I said about the kart throwing your head back under acceleration? Well, hit the brakes and its hello whiplash! And then there are the G-forces in the corners, my head wanted to fall off all the time.
That was my first drive in a 250 Superkart. To be honest, the thing scared the living shit outta me. It was one of those moments in life when you realize you are in fact useless at something you thought you’d be good at. And to rub salt into my wounded ego, my wife had a good laugh when I walked in that evening with a stiff neck, sore shoulders & fore arms and bruised ribs. “What? All that from a puny little go-kart? Hee-hee-hee…”
Nevertheless, I got hooked on these mental little modified shopping trolleys, bought one and started learning to drive all over again, spent a year learning the ropes and for 2007 I built a neat little kart with all the latest trick bits and pieces and managed to stick myself on the podium more often than not.
I guess what I’m saying is if you’re an ex bike racer and you want thrills on four wheels, you need to get your ass into a 250 kart. After all, that’s what 500 GP champs Eddy Lawson and Wayne Rainy did when they retired from the pinnacle of bike racing.
The Formula GTi:
I’ve been watching these things with mixed feelings for a few years now. It’s a well-established race formula in South Africa, single seaters with 1800 VW engines stroked to 2-litres with Hewland crash boxes on slicks and wings.
They look like old-school miniature F1 cars. The top runners in F/GTi post similar lap times to 250 karts, so they aint slow. Fast F/GTi guys are posting times in the 1’05” around Zwartkops on ultra hard compound Silverstone tyres. I reckon they could be quicker on softer compounds, but as the rules stood at the time of this test, they’d have to make the hard Silverstones work.
By the way, you need a mega budget if you wanna run a tin-top car in similar lap times, so before you spend your bucks, think what single seaters can do for you.
So there I was, being strapped into a Formula GTi for the first time. Funny enough, the F/GTi cockpit felt more cramped than a 250 kart. Fired the sucker up and cruised out of pit lane, knowing full-well that I was breaking the first cardinal rule – Incorrect driving position. I could hardly reach the steering wheel and the excess belts were rolled up and cable tied in such a way they got wedged under my helmet, restricting head movement and preventing me from looking through the corners. By turn two I knew it was a bad idea, so I thought ‘lemme just try to get a feel for the car’, but I didn’t enjoy that at all. You didn’t need a stopwatch to time me, a calendar would’ve sufficed…
There’s a private joke in the local Formula GTi fraternity – ‘Once a car’s been to Cape Town it comes back as a bag of bolts’. I can believe that. This car was a Swift ’92 that came up from Cape Town in desperate need of TLC and proper setup. My Superkart has neat stunning looks and goes like stink. This F/GTi offered nothing of the sort.
For the second session we re-set wheel alignment and cut the cable ties on the rolled up belts. I felt better in the car, but the steering wheel was still too far ahead, forcing me to drive straight-arm like, nineteen sixty Jimmy Clark style. But this time round I could actually get a feel for the car…
In a 250 kart you have a high revving two-stroke buzz-box engine under your right armpit. Fire up the F/GTi and you feel the VW engine behind your back. The F/GTi revs to 7000rpm against 13000rpm of my Rotax twin, but the lazy lump of the F/GTi has far more torque than any 250cc two-stroke will ever give you.
Torque is what you need to pull weight out of corners, but although this particular F/GTi offered some punch with a strong-ish engine, it wasn’t anywhere close to the violent kick you get from a well-tuned 250 kart. Nevertheless, the F/GTi has more usable power than the narrow power-band of the 250cc two-stroke.
After a few more laps around Zwartkops in the F/GTi, fighting vague handling, bump steer in a straight line of all things, a sticking throttle and spongy brakes that saw me locking the right rear and pitching the car sideways into the hairpin and table top, I have to say I didn’t really enjoy the ride. I remember going up to the table top thinking – ‘Hell, I would like to have a go in a properly set-up F/GTi…’
It would be unfair to compare a well set-up 250 kart and a poorly set-up F/GTi. I would love to test a good F/GTi. There should actually not be that big a difference in handling dynamics between the two. Come to think of it, the Formula GTi I tested felt like a big Superkart in more ways than one.
Anyway, the time has come for me to move on from 250 Superkarts and I reckon I could have fun racing Formula GTi, so watch this space…