Push starting in the OK: an athletic feat

Columns: Close Up
The return to the direct drive solution in the OK classes, which are beginning to see well-deserved success after some initial difficulties, brings back the need for drivers to learn to push start on their own (pm)

The last OK class World Championship brought a non-problem to everyone’s attention that certainly needs to be faced: starting back up if the kart turns off. We all still have Joe Turney’s accident in the forefront of our minds, when he tried to restart after colliding with Gabriel Gomez. Turney tried to restart his kart by pushing it but, in that moment of great excitement, he went right into the trajectory of other racers and got hit by a kart arriving from behind. 20 years ago, during the era of the 100, this kind of situation would not have occurred because drivers were used to restarts during races, so push starting was an integral part of knowing how to drive a go-kart. Today, this habit has been lost and push starting a kart has become an “extra thing” that many drivers, even those who participate in the World Championship, as we have seen, don’t know how to do correctly.
Learning to push start
20 years ago, the large majority of drivers of the 100 knew how to restart on their own. Starting up with the 100 was a complex manoeuvre, a sort of ritual dance that the driver needed to be capable of doing even at the lower-level categories of the 100. This athletic feat required lifting the kart from the rear bumper, pushing it until the right speed was reached, lowering it to the ground while continuing to push it, and then hopping into the seat at just the right moment, keeping your balance with one foot on the seat and the other on the accelerator. Lifting the kart was necessary, as it served to overcome the engine’s resistance to making its first rotations. Watching the best drivers carry out this athletic feat was pure karting poetry but the not-so-skilled ones were painful to watch. Seeing a professional push start a kart was a source of frustration for the ones who lost and a source of inspiration for the ones who aspired to victory. The most rational thing was to jump on the side where the engine was, so as to reach the accelerator pedal right away. Some incomprehensibly jumped from the left though. The fact is that no team would have recruited a driver that wasn’t capable of push-starting because, back then, comebacks were possible. On weekdays young drivers were often seen on the track training to push start, but even the most experienced ones rehearsed the manoeuvre so as to never be unprepared for any eventuality. With the advent of the OK, however, no one seems interested in learning the art of push starting on their own anymore and the experts tell me that young drivers don’t want to do it. There are multiple reasons. The first and most important is that with performance and passing difficulty being clearly levelled out due to a series of factors including the famous removable bumper, drivers that spin out are no longer interested in restarting. This point of view is completely flawed in the author’s opinion because races, since forever, finish under the checkered flag. Additionally, in races over multiple heats, removing penalties is always important and/or collecting points in competitions where there are multiple races, which can make the difference between winning and coming in second. Anyone who’s been around long enough surely remembers how Jos Verstappen, after colliding with Giancarlo Fisichella, pushed himself back up off the barrier using the force of his neck and arms, and then jumped up and restarted without hesitation.
The human factor
Karting has changed and that’s no mystery to anyone. The budget for racing is ever-increasing and the successors of those willing to spend tens of thousands of Euros on a race aren’t happy to have to push a kart. That’s the mechanic’s job. The drivers want to focus only on driving (and maybe occasionally adjust a few screws on the carburettor without particular success). The problem is that relationships between drivers and their mechanics aren’t what they used to be. Many young drivers nowadays aren’t willing to take orders or accept advice. The driver coach, a figure dominating mostly in recent years, is almost always a “yes man” who is more interested in money than in bringing up a champion. The difference between a bored offshoot of a wealthy family and a cannibal hungry for victory like Max Verstappen is that, if he had raced in the OK, Max would have been obligated by Jos to undergo exhausting sessions on how to restart, which is exactly what your dear editor was forced to do byhis father when he moved into to the 100 National. Willingness and training are the two fundamental ingredients to restarts. Restarting isn’t just about looking for an impossible comeback, it’s about not giving up, keeping your nerves of steel, and showing character in the midst of adversity. The accident at Franciacorta points the spotlight back onto an important element of kart competition, in hopes of seeing young drivers on the tracks training to make restarts.
The technical factor
Was it easier to restart with the 100 or with the OKs? The 100 had a smaller displacement and was much lighter. With the engine already warmed up, all you had to do was lift the kart from the back and push it for a couple of meters to overcome the initial resistance of the compression, then jump in and restart it. As mentioned, it was a questionof tenths of a second from the instant when the push ended, to when you gave it gas – without flooding it, and with the right progression. The OK is heavier and it has a rear bumper that doesn’t lend itself to push starting. It has a huge fairing on the steering column that makes it difficult to jump in and find the right driving position without getting tangled up, but it has the decompression valve that eliminates the annoyance of having to lift the rear wheels to limit engine compression for the first rotations. The moment to hop in and give it gas is when the decompression valve closes. With the right training, it isn’t difficult to restart but it requires the strength, experience and quick reflexes that any ambitious driver needs to have. Technical problems can be overcome when whoever is putting the money in – not the federation, not the kart makers, but the daddy-sponsors of young aspiring Maxes – start understanding that their offshoots letting others push them means losing races, grid positions or points on their first spin out. When the men with the briefcases ask for it, and we need to hope they do, we might even see the disappearance of the rear bumper, which has proven to be just a useless bauble that makes restarting a kart and lifting it in general difficult, without having served the purpose for which it was conceived in the first place, which was to avoid wheel-to-wheel contact. Another great improvement would be to make the fairing, especially the one on the steering column, less bulky so as to facilitate the driver’s movements. It’s also worth mentioning the age-old question of the centrifugal clutch in the Junior class, where there are really very few drivers who would be capable of push starting an 80-plus kilogram kart on their own. The centrifugal clutch and the external starter would help drivers and mechanics a lot. In its golden era, the 100 Junior used these exact solutions and don’t even try to tell me that the Horstman-type disc clutch levels outvalues between drivers, otherwise I’ll tattle on you to Fernando (Alonso), Sebastian (Vettel) & Co!
 

Created by: fmarangon2 - 07/11/23

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