From Mini to Junior: a crucial transition in modern karting

Columns: Focus
In a long conversation with Mariano De Faveri, we delved into the details of one of the key transitions for today’s drivers: moving from Minikart to Junior classes. This discussion revealed a broad picture, which we explored further using the exclusive telemetry of the Official Kalì Kart Team. (fm)

In modern karting, there is a lot of talk about Minikart, rightly or wrongly, because lowering the age for entering the FIA motorsport feeder series to 15 years has inevitably had significant impacts on the karting foundation. However, since this is a sport whose professional level – at least if we mean a high level of resources and technicians involved, as it is hard to talk about professional athletes at 12/13 years old – involves kids in a phase of physical and mental development, considering the high performance of the karts and the numerous implications this entails, understanding the dynamics of that specific moment can help us make very interesting assessments about karting in general.

The regulations
First, let's remember the rules governing the transition from Minikart to Junior classes. Here, we will primarily discuss the FIA International classes and include the new promotional OKN-J class, which can and is playing a game-changing role, at least in Italy: in OKN-J, the transition happens at 11 years old, aligning with the single-make classes where Junior categories allow racing at 11 years old. For international FIA categories, the age remains 12 years.

A change...of weight
The first major change when talking about Junior classes is weight: it goes from 110 kg (kart + driver) in Mini Gr.3 to 140 kg in OKJ, considering that most drivers at that age have not yet completed – perhaps have just started – their physical development, while the minimum weight of a driver with racing gear must be, by regulation, 35 kg. «In some cases, ballast can exceed 25 kg, which is mainly placed on the seat, stiffening it and changing its functioning» De Faveri explained. «The setup problems that arise for us technicians are numerous; one simply comes from the seat which, given the still-childlike body, is often small and cannot accommodate all the ballast, so it has to be distributed in other parts of the chassis. There is also the pedal adjustment to allow kids still about 1.35m tall to reach the brake and accelerator, often requiring a bigger diameter steering wheel to make driving easier.»
 
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Decline in preformance: there’s always a reason
It's not just the increase in performance that unsettles the kids, who are already used to quite fast karts coming from a Mini where the performance is considerable for their very young age. «In most cases» says De Faveri «they no longer find themselves competing for victory or fighting for a top position, given the experience of the drivers already in the category. A winning driver, constantly among the top, suddenly finds themselves in the middle of the pack or worse, at the back. Referring to what was said earlier about weight, an important distinction must be made: the body weight of a driver who has developed earlier requires less ballast. Think of the body difference between a twelve-year-old 1.65/1.70m tall weighing 55/60 kg and a peer 1.40m tall weighing 38/40 kg. This ballast disparity results in a significant difference in the kart’s behavior, with completely different inertia, not to mention that in case of an accident, a kart with 25 kg of additional weight becomes more dangerous. Weight and experience thus play a fundamental role in achieving performance.»

Practice makes perfect
In addition to the discussion on physical prowess, there is also the matter of kart training. Due to their young age and the fact that track days remain the best possible training for this sport, the number of test days influences race performance. «When there’s little practice, drivers tend to grip the steering wheel more than necessary or clamp their knees to the fuel tank – De Faveri points out – leading to a loss of clarity. Another advantage of many test days is the naturalness of driving, and here I’ll use a simple example. When we drive our personal car, which we know very well, we operate all controls automatically without looking at what we are doing, leaving our mind free to think about other things. Imagine instead when you rent a car: it always takes a while to figure out where the controls are and how to operate them, focusing your attention on them rather than on driving. It’s a bit the same in karting: if you don’t drive often, you lose the automatisms and the mind stays occupied with driving, making it harder to think about other things like water or exhaust temperature, or checking partials on the display to see if we’ve improved or worsened in that specific sector. A driver must consider many other things during a race, not just driving the kart, and this can make a difference when talking about tenths. You might be naturally talented, but if you don’t practice enough, you’ll always be a bit behind your competitors who practice every week.» In fact, there is no better training ground than the track: «I can assure you that even the super top drivers, the adults, the KZ ones, when they go without driving for a long period, they need to get back into the kart and are not as performant as those who have driven continuously between races. Modern karting is like this, but then again, so are most sports: if you don’t do it every day, you lose something. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong; I just take it as a fact.» concludes De Faveri.
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Pure Performance
The Kalì Kart Team shared with us some (indicative) telemetry data from the Franciacorta track to give an idea of what performance in terms of speed and deceleration is encountered when transitioning categories: an OKJ, at the end of the long straight of the track that hosted the last OKJ World Championship, varies between 126 and 128 km/h while the Minis, at the same point, reach between 106 and 108 km/h, both at 14,000 rpm as they are both electronically limited. The OKJ records a lap time of about 48.5 seconds, while the Minis are around 53.5 seconds (possibly half a second less in qualifying). Speaking of deceleration, an OKJ slows from 128 km/h to about 65 km/h over approximately 60 meters upon entering the first corner. The Mini, on the other hand, goes from 108 to 70 km/h (yes, faster in cornering than the OKJ, obviously due to the lower weight) over 50 meters.

The Driver’s Perspective
Cristian Blandino, born in 2011 (turning 13 in October) and a multi-winning driver in Mini Gr.3, first in his Sicily then at the national level in both the Italian Championship and WSK, recently debuted in OK-N Junior, a national category serving as the first contact with the FIA category. He shared his first impressions once he got into a Junior kart, confirming that for very young and developing drivers, there are many challenges to face: “Several things change, but especially the braking, because arriving much faster, you have to learn to use the brake well while also making the kart flow.” Even in the heat of battle, it’s not the same, Cristian explained. “In Mini battles, you could afford to make small mistakes and then recover thanks to the slipstream, while in OK you have to be more decisive. For me, another big challenge initially was completing my first race as I am a very slender and small-statured driver, and with 24 kg of lead, the kart becomes really heavy, especially with a rubbered track. Clearly, though, if I had to choose between Mini and Junior, I’d definitely say OKJ because I really like the higher speed and great acceleration.”

Created by: cggiuliano - 12/06/24

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