RMCGF and FIA World Championship: are they comparable?

Columns: Focus
It's a recurring topic that deserves a more reasoned analysis than a quick "bar talk," especially considering the direction FIA karting has taken in recent years. (fm)

The end-of-season Rotax racing event, gathering around 400 drivers of practically every age from around the world to compete in 8 different categories on identical karts, has earned a reputation over the years that, today, almost needs no introduction, if we focus on the event itself. However, when discussing the Rotax Max Challenge Grand Finals from a sporting and technical perspective, distinctions and disclaimers have always been made: "The organization is unique, it's a great celebration, but the karts..." Or: "The idea of identical karts is good, but that engine..." or even "It's not a true World Championship." Going into more detail, according to some, those competing in the Rotax Finals wouldn't be "the best drivers in the world"; for that, you need to look elsewhere. Let's briefly analyze and contextualize this statement. Let's examine just three aspects that characterize the two forms of karting under consideration: the go-karts in competition, the requirements for driver participation, and a somewhat subtle but equally significant and likely discriminating aspect: the feelings and mood of those involved in this race.

Firstly, the philosophy of 'equal karts for everyone': as almost everyone knows, at the RMCGF, Rotax itself provides identical engines to all according to regulations (variants of the ROTAX Max 125 from Micro to DD2), while three different manufacturers, always chosen by Rotax, are responsible for providing the chassis, all strictly "brand new." The concept of a level playing field, especially in motorsport, has always been one of the most debated topics—especially when someone tries to determine who is "the fastest" or even "the greatest of all time." Whether it's F1 or MotoGP, how many times have we thought that on Hamilton's Mercedes, many could have won consecutive World Championships, or how great it would be to see Verstappen and Leclerc face off in identical cars one day? So, if we remain in the sporting field (just the challenge between drivers to determine the best), Rotax's formula is not far from that ideal competition that we often see as 'ideal' on many other occasions. The technical development of the OK category, if we want to draw a parallel, is undoubtedly very high, and it is quite obvious why: since it is an 'open' championship with multiple engine manufacturers participating. That said, by constituting the OK (and this is demonstrated by the minimal gaps seen in the races), the FIA sought a category where the driver could make the most difference, equalizing performance, for example, by using rev limiters or a single tire supplier. If we consider that the OK category was born almost 20 years after the release of the Rotax Max, we cannot help but notice that the uniformity of the vehicles as a basis for motorsport competition does not detract from the dignity of the races but rather elevates them from a sporting perspective.

Secondly, those who compete: what leaves the greatest impression on newcomers under the gigantic single tent where all participants in the Rotax finals spend a week together (try to believe) is the convivial atmosphere. All true, agreed, but in our opinion, there is something more to consider beyond the festive atmosphere. That spot under the tent, each of those drivers has earned it by winning. According to the criteria established by the organizer, Rotax literally pays the ticket to the Final (which is not by chance called a "Ticket") to those who got it: by winning the National trophy in which they competed in their own country or in about 15 international races held around the world to select the best drivers so that the competition in the Grand Final is truly among the most deserving drivers and not simply among "those who can afford it." The feeling, still under that tent, is that it doesn't matter much who has the richest dad out there, but who raced faster on the circuit this morning, and the stories are often track stories, karting stories. Money, Formula 1, are all visibly more distant things—and in karting, it's right that it should be so. This doesn't mean that the level of FIA races is not high, as is evident to everyone's eyes, with teenage drivers often having years and years of races behind them (sometimes without a significant victory in a national championship) outside their country of birth, with ultra-professional teams following their exploits on the track from Wednesday morning before the race. The tents, there are many, instead of one, and each team—official or not—experiences the event in its own way, in its own world, with its own goals, which often lie in feeder series categories and not in karting.

Thirdly: ask me if I'm happy. This, as mentioned, is an aspect that we might not grasp at first glance, but that many will be familiar with. The celebration of the Rotax Finals is not only in the driver's parade, the loud music, or the various side events—lasting a week, but happening only once a year, not every Sunday. It's in the eyes of the kids who may have traveled for the first time in their lives so far from home, together with their dad as a mechanic: in the myriad national flags that make these Finals resemble a sort of racing Olympics, in the deep satisfaction of 'having made it' and knowing that this race could be the last one, because they might not afford a season like this anymore and that it will most likely remain the race of their life, an indelible, unforgettable memory even as they experience it. The so-called professionalism is often characterized by a more routine, detached, and ultra-professional spirit, almost unsuitable at times for a group of practitioners as young as the drivers in the OK and OKJ categories since in the FIA world, the 'important' races are those run by 14-year-olds, and at 14, in any field of life, you cannot be a professional even if daddy's money and Instagram profiles might make it seem so. So Max Verstappen is right: if you have talent, you'll get where you need to go (F1), but you also have to be happy to do it, and we can't always say that a very high level of competitiveness and commitment in karting—often at the expense of other aspects of life like education—leads to this.
If we talk about karting and not just a "step towards F4" then, the Rotax Finals and the FIA World Championship are comparable, yes, but not so much in the performance of the karts—though it is there, wait a moment—but because they are international profile competitions and of a high level. The level of drivers is generally high in both competitions, and the vehicles (considering that they race with chassis that are the same as the OK and OKJ categories) are characterized by features such as rev limiters and a single type of tire, to bring out the qualities of the driver more prominently. If we really want to focus on lap times, between the last World Championship in Bahrain in 2016 and this year's RMCGF, the difference between the pole position in the OK and Senior MAX is about 3 seconds (mainly because the OKs are kind of missiles now, if we go to the 2013 KF World Championship, lost by Verstappen on this track by a hair, the difference is reduced to 1 second). This year, but also in the recent editions, the final results in different categories have been characterized by some disciplinary decisions—essentially penalties for the front fairing issue—as further proof that the competition is very, very close, and this, generally, is a highly sought-after element in the racing world—see the expedients that those who govern F1 desperately seek to make the races more competitive. When karting is at the center of everything, when the commitment of thousands—literally—of people is focused on karting, and when the drivers are interested only and exclusively in that race because it's "that" race that makes a difference at least for them, as in the case of the RMCGF, then yes, we can talk about it. In the years following Rotax's initial success, one-brand series after another was born, and thanks to these, karting held its own despite the crisis of a certain professional karting without a compass at least until 2016. But when it found this compass again—whether we like it or not—it pointed it in one direction, that of the pipeline leading to F1, professionalizing itself beyond measure and beyond the economic possibilities of 90% of the world's population. As for the individual "World Championships" of the various single-brand series, you will agree that they are 'light' forms of FIA karting; let's not beat around the bush—with a greater chance for some to perform well compared to FIA or WSK races. Therefore, yes: in our opinion, the Rotax Finals and the FIA World Championship are comparable, in light of the factors examined here.

Created by: fmarangon2 - 17/12/23

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