January 13, 2020 / 3:39 PM / 7 days ago

F1 engineer sees electric kart as a fairer start

LONDON (Reuters) - When Rob Smedley left the Williams Formula One team in 2018, he had time to consider how he might give something back and help ensure the Lewis Hamiltons of the future get started at grassroots level.

The experienced engineer felt that motorsport, increasingly skewed towards those with money, was in dire need of ‘democratisation’.

His answer, perhaps surprisingly for such a lifelong ‘petrolhead’, is electric; an entry-level kart aimed at youngsters who might otherwise find the cost of competing too much of a barrier.

“I’ve spent years in Formula One and now I want to use those connections and networks to actually accelerate things and to make good on this vision,” Smedley told Reuters after the launch of his ‘Electroheads Motorsport’.

Britain’s six-times world champion Hamilton, who comes from a racially mixed and under-privileged background, has repeatedly criticised his sport’s financial unfairness and lack of diversity.

Smedley, who was Brazilian Felipe Massa’s race engineer at Ferrari from 2006-2013 before becoming Williams head of vehicle performance, agrees with the Mercedes driver.

“When you look at the disparity in talent levels (in Formula One), you say ‘how do you not have 20 drivers who are all at Lewis Hamilton’s level?,’” said the Briton.

“Well, the reason is because the system allows a different level of talent to come through and that’s facilitated right down at grassroots.”

The only rookie debuting in Formula One this season is Nicholas Latifi, the son of a wealthy Canadian businessman, at Williams.

Smedley’s electric karts will be prepared by a team of F1 performance engineers and offer shared data and equal performance in the Bambino and Cadet categories.

The batteries will be no bigger or heavier than petrol engine equivalents, which has been a problem in the past, and able to run all day.

ECONOMIC BARRIERS

The cost of an engine in regular karting can run to tens of thousands of pounds, with some parents re-mortgaging their houses.

“The barrier to entry is absolutely phenomenal,” said Smedley, whose new venture is part of a fledgling media motorsport group led by experienced F1 marketers.

“It just means people can’t do it. It’s exactly the problem that Lewis Hamilton framed.

“By opening up the demographic and lowering the socio-economic barriers, we’re going to have a greater tranche of boys and girls to pick from where we can eventually start... to fix the system all the way to Formula One.”

Smedley, who is also a consultant to Formula One, sees his kart as a good fit in a sport with a sustainability charter aiming for a net zero carbon footprint by 2030.

“To have an effect on worldwide grassroots motorsport and eventually that filter up to F1... it must be global and we have a strategy and a vision to do that,” he said.

There could also be a future link up with the governing FIA, where Massa is president of the international karting committee.

“I know that the CIK-FIA want to find a route into the electrification of karting and we want to be part of that,” said Smedley. “But we’d only do that through meritocracy. I don’t expect favours from anyone.”

David Richards, head of the Motorsport UK national governing body, expected the initiative to be well received.

“We just think it suits the junior level, the cadet level,” he told Reuters.

Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Christian Radnedge

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