|by FastCompany||23 December 2016|
EURO KART PATH THE RIGHT ONE FOR ARMSTRONG
When Marcus Armstrong lines up to compete in his first full season of top level single-seater car racing in Europe next year the 16-year-old from Christchurch will be in a unique position for a driver from this side of the world; not only will be know many of his fellow competitors by name, he will also have raced against - and in a lot of cases soundly beaten - them in karts in Europe where for the past two years he has been a works driver for top team Tony Kart.
With a course now set for a move to cars Ross MacKay sat down with Armstrong and asked him about his time in karts.
Above: Kiwi karter Marcus Armstrong contesting this years' CIK-FIA World KZ Championship meeting in Sweden (pic - Fast Company/Davide Pastanella, Wafeproject Ltd)
Q) First up Marcus a quick stat check please. You're 16-years-of-age, were born and raised in Christchurch but for the past two years you've been racing karts in Europe. Correct?
A) That's right. For the past two years I have been based in Oxford in the UK and been a professional kart driver for Tony Kart, one of the top kart teams in the world. I've spent the majority of my time in England and commuted to races all over Europe but also spent a month or more at a time living and working at the Tony Kart factory in Italy.
Q) You've just come in third in motorsport news website Motorsport.com's list of 'The top ten most exciting karting talents of 2016.' That’s quite some call out. Looking back over the past two years, what - for you - were the highlights
A) For me the big highlight would have to have been winning a round of the European KF championship in Sweden in 2015. On the Saturday I flipped the kart into the barriers in a heat so I had to start the Pre-Final from something like 23rd. Then half way through that it rained when we were all on slicks but I managed to come through from 18th to fifth which set me up for the Final which I won.
In 2016? Obviously we didn’t get the results we were looking for in KZ this year but, yes, there were a couple of highlights. The best for me was probably La Conca (Rnd 3 of the WSK Super Master Series in March) where we were really quick. The Winter Cup meeting at the start of the season also stands out in that though I stalled on the formation lap of the Final and had to start last I set the fastest race lap and made up 22 places in 34 laps to finish 13th. It was like watching Verstappen in Brazil because it just seemed so easy to overtake and that doesn't happen very often. So, yes, that was a cool weekend.
Q) You certainly were busy, competing in - let’s see - the WSK Master Series, the CIK-FIA European KZ Championships, the CIK-FIA World KZ Championship and the German Championship plus the various standalone meetings like the Winter Cup?
A) Yes, we did 14 or 15 meetings all up across Europe. Though there are different series and only one 'World Championship' meeting, you are pretty much competing against the same people at every meetings.
Q) You must have learned a hundred and one things in your two years on the Tony Kart team. If I asked you to come up with just one - key - thing what would that be?
A) That karting is a mental game...
Q) You had some top-shelf teammates in Nicklas Nielsen in KF in 2015 and Marco Ardigo in KZ this year. What did you learn from them?
A) In my first year at Tony Kart in KF I was really close friends with Nicklas who is a really good guy. At the time, I think, he was 18 or 19-years-old. He was super quick and, by way of example, because we shared data I learned a lot from him in terms of technique.
Then this year my teammate was Marco Ardigo who is a three-time world champion and who is in his early 30s. I was often quicker than Marco - in terms of a single lap - but he was so...perfect….everywhere else. He was just so experienced he could do a lap like everyone else, then when he wanted to, he could just pull out two tenths of a second in a race.
Q) So was he holding back something, or was that part of a strategy he has developed do you think?
A) I'm not sure whether it was just brutal physical strength or whatever. What I do know is that, compared with Nicklas, it was mostly the mental side of things that I learned from being teammates with Marco, the way he handled situations, that sort of thing.
Q) Thinking more about the team itself now, how did Tony Kart approach major events?
A) The big surprise for me, I guess, is that they didn’t do as much testing as you might imagine and I would have liked, especially in KZ. They did a lot of work at the factory on the dyno before they went to a race meeting but the actual time at the track is limited.
Q) What about an example from - say - a round of the European championship. Did you just fly in and jump in a kart with your name on it and go out and learn the track? Or did you have a schedule and stuff to work through?
A) The team would arrive with - say - four chassis and (this is the day before qualifying, usually Thursday) we would literally do eight minutes in one then jump in the next one to find out which is the best and nail down the two (per driver) we wanted for the race weekend.
Q) Tony Kart owner Roberto Robazzi still goes to all the races and has a very much hands-on role doesn’t he?
A) Absolutely. He loves the KZ class and he will - literally - be the one working alongside you on a race weekend. He is as dedicated as the drivers and having him there, as you would imagine, is a massive benefit.
Q) In terms of the nitty gritty, when you have four different chassis to test is there a big difference from one to another? Or is it more subtle?
A) It really depends on the circuit. Some are identical, some are radically different, depending on factors like track grip.
Q) And what about the format or a race weekend? Are they all the same. Or do they differ depending on series?
A) It depends on whether it is a WSK or CIK round. All I know is that any final at a CIK-FIA meeting is brutally long especially when it is at a track like La Conca which is really tiring. Kerpen in Germany is probably the most physical track because it is unbelievably grippy and it also has a lot of chicanes.
Q) On a more technical bent now Marcus, talk us through the use of data analysis at the top level in karting these days. Did you spend a lot of time on it, like the car guys do?
A) At the beginning in KF I analysed what I was doing a lot but there's a point, I think, where it can mess with your head. One area Tony Kart was big on was the use of tyre temperature sensors and I found these a lot of use because it was so easy to overdrive - and ruin - the Vega White tyre we were running in KZ. They were like the Pirellis in F1, where the best drivers can manage the tyre and do their fastest lap at the end of the race. By using the temperature sensors we were able to analyse the temperature of the tyre throughout a run which was important because the main problem in KZ was looking after the tyre. For instance, I could always bring something out in qualifying but it is easier said than done looking after a tyre in a race because it is so easy to slide a kart."
Q) Better wrap this up Marcus, two - key - final questions. The first one is, what is your favourite kart track now that, obviously, you have raced at a few?
A) La Conca in Italy because the kerbs are low and on the Vega White the grip is absolutely unbelievable.
Q) And finally, why karts in Europe and not the more conventional NZ route of karts to Formula Ford, TRS etc? It was your own decision, wasn't it? And certainly a big call from a 13-year-old (when you made it). But the interest in you at the moment from car teams in Europe certainly suggests it has paid off , doesn’t it?
A) I definitely had to push to get to do karts in Europe, for no better reason than it's a long way from home and initially anyway my Dad didn't want me to go. He fancied the idea of doing cars, but I thought it would be more beneficial to stay with karts. We had done a good job when we went up to do two races with the Kosmic team the year before and that led to being invited back the following season by Tony Kart. I think a lot of people will judge my career path without seeing karting at the highest level and to be fair I think you have to see it (at that level) to understand. You just have to ask a guy like Daniel Bray and he will say the same thing. When you see all the factory teams at a meeting it is just mega!
Q) Your success on the world stage also reflects well on the sport of karting here, doesn’t it?
A) I definitely had some good teachers. Guys like Matt Hamilton for example. A lot of what stood me in good stead in Europe I learned from Matt as we travelled around and raced here and when I did my first meetings overseas.
Q) As you move from karts to cars what is your advice to kids who now see you as a role model?
A) Learn the tricks of the trade in karts first and don’t get into cars too early. Then when you do, make sure you have the right teachers, something I'm working through now."