With the 2022 F1000 season ending in early October, this year’s first round at Silverstone on April 29 will mark almost a six month off-season for 130R Performance supported driver Rob Welham. With on track testing over the winter carrying significant financial costs as well as the English winter to contend with, Rob has found that getting out in a well-prepared kart on a focused test day can be just as valuable in providing both physical and mental preparation for the season ahead.
After winning the championship last year (read the full report here) Welham is keen to defend the number one this season and attempt to become one of the few drivers to achieve back to back F1000 titles, in what is considered one of the UK’s most competitive club-level single seat race series. With such a long period of downtime away from the race track in the off season, the challenge is that Rob feels his first day at the opening round can sometimes be spent re-acclimatising to the forces and physical feelings experienced while driving the bike-engined Jedi race car.
With a month to go until his season gets underway, we therefore arranged for Rob to run a test day at PFI Circuit with former kart team Precision Racing. The aim was to mitigate the long winter downtime out of the cockpit and provide both physical and mental race-specific training in advance of the new race year. Karting is a tool frequently used by drivers at the highest levels of the sport, with Lando Norris, George Russell, and Romain Grosjean all being notable high-profile advocates of testing karts over their off-season as a key component of periodised training schedules.
Before his transition from kart to car racing with an F1000 debut in 2018, Rob had a successful junior career with Widnes-based Precision Racing, and still works as a mechanic for the team’s junior drivers on weekends off from his own racing. Rob’s achievements with the team include 2015 Sodi World Series British champion, 2016 Shenington Kart Club Junior X30 champion, and winner of TKM ‘Britain’s Finest’ at Whilton Mill. In 2017, he won three rounds of the prestigious MSA Super One British Championship Junior TKM class and took rookie of the year crown.
It was therefore natural to reunite Rob with a team environment in which he was comfortable, and instantly able to integrate with for a test day at PFI Circuit structured to specific preparation requirements. Rob even serendipitously ended up running the number 93 on his kart for the test, which was the same race number used back in his junior TKM racing days.
While there is always the option of simulator training, which we use frequently with supported drivers and have covered in a previous feature, sometimes the physical advantages of getting out on track in real life can provide tangible benefits that simply cannot be replicated in the virtual world. This is particularly true of karting, which provides a uniquely visceral experience due to the physical nature of the driver not being belted in, which Rob highlights here:
Because there are no seat belts you are constantly bracing yourself against movement in the corners… it’s therefore great for core stability, and has definitely woken up some key muscles today that it’s difficult to specifically train in the gym.
As well as physical training effects for core stability and the upper body, karting provides a specific test of strength endurance through vibration resistance from the steering wheel, and works some of the brain’s proprioception, equilibrium and balance areas that we’ve previously explained as being key skills for race drivers here. The classic ‘you feel the grip through the seat’ skill is as applicable in a kart as in any other race car (perhaps more so due to being so close to the ground) and another aspect of driving that is very difficult to replicate and train in either a gym or simulator based setting.
The light weight of Rob’s F1000 race car (310kg excluding driver) gives a comparable power to weight ratio and 0-60 performance to a Rotax senior kart, with ‘on the nose’ handling characteristics arising from the cars smaller size than contemporary heavier FIA homologated single seat cars. All this means that although requiring a different driving style, smoothness is rewarded in both vehicles, and the kart is consequently not as different an experience as may be found with some other car comparisons.
The biggest difference in the kart is the lateral movement on corner entry, which you’d obviously never want in the race car. However there’s a lot of crossover in the way you use your senses through the seat to feel the grip and then the resulting throttle application on exit, which it’s good to feel again before getting back out in the F1000 car.
The day took a relatively unstructured format, with early sessions allowing Rob to acclimate to driving a Rotax class kart for the first time. The aim was to then work through some longer runs to simulate consistent lapping over a twenty minute race distance to test both physical stamina and concentration. With a mixed group of other drivers in the senior sessions, Rob found that this provided a good opportunity to practice aspects of rapid decision making and kart placement that you can only really experience in traffic on a busy race track.
On the flip side of having to manage traffic and some unpredictability of novice track users, there were also a group of experienced current kart racers from factory teams preparing for a British championship round at the circuit in a few weeks time. Rob therefore relished the opportunity to latch on to this fast group and circulate with them, which again provided some additional mental variety and motivation within the day’s sessions.
Overall, we aimed for no emphasis on stopwatch or lap times, but as is frequently the case this can be challenging with highly competitive and data-driven race drivers. A compromise was therefore found in that while Rob had lap time visible on his steering wheel display, this was used as a measure of consistency instead of to chase any minute performance gains.
In addition to the physical and mental training benefits, perhaps just as important was that Rob simply had fun in a low pressure, unstructured manner. Another reason why drivers at the elite level will get back in a kart over the off-season is that it simply reminds them of why they love what they do, and as they progress further in the sport provides a tangible link back to potentially simpler, less intense or pressured times spent with friends and family. This can then be a motivational tool when encountering adversity or race weekends during the season where there is a much more pressured environment for the driver to secure results.
To conclude, we’d advise race drivers in almost any discipline of car racing that they stand to benefit from focused time in a kart, whether as a specific coaching tool to facilitate smooth driving and car control; or simply as a means of physical preparation for the unique forces they will experience out on track. Furthermore, the mental benefits of practicing vehicle placement and rapid decision making skills are difficult to replicate in other settings, and something that can make the difference in hitting the ground running once the season begins after a long period of off-season down time.
We would like to extend our thanks to Precision Racing, PFI Circuit, and Sprite Photography for capturing the fantastic images from the day. Check in on our social media during the weekend of April 29 to find out how Rob gets on in the opening round of the F1000 UK season on the Silverstone National circuit.